December 09, 2004

Intentional Journalism

A high-ranking editor of one the country’s top 20 newspapers recently told a partner of mine that his newspaper’s front page is “often a happy accident.”

In other words, what the half-million readers of this editor’s newspaper see on page one results from an editorial process that is regularly more haphazard than thoughtful, more opportunistic than planned, more luck of the daily draw than drawn from a long-term strategy.

News happens, so we like to say, and thus shapes the newspaper. And, we are good at doing news, at responding, at chasing, at flooding the big story. We structure our newsrooms with a beat system designed to capture news as it flows from institution to institution – from the legislature to the courts to the school board to the city council and on and on.

What we are not good at is adapting this system to our local communities, to customizing the newsgathering process so it reflects the needs, desires and idiosyncrasies of the people who read – or the people we’d like to read – our newspapers. This is why the front pages and local story mixes of most American regional newspapers are so similar – a national story or two, these days an Iraq story, maybe something from the statehouse about the budget and a couple of local stories, at least one of them about government or crime. If you stripped off the nameplates and removed the names of the local institutions from the stories, you’d be hard pressed to distinguish one of these papers from another.

The front pages of these papers are less often a “happy accident” and more typically a sad reflection of a reflexive definition of what tradition has determined to be “news.”

As Jay Rosen once wrote about political reporting: It doesn't have to be that way.

Answer this question: If you were fortunate enough to be given 300 journalists and $20 million a year to pay them and run a newsroom (a ballpark editorial operating budget for a 300,000-circulation paper), what kind of newspaper would you make? Would you create the same beats, the same departments, the same production and decision-making processes? Would you fill the newsroom seats with the same people who are there now? Would you design the paper and its web site in the same formats? I think not. Instead, you might, as most start-up enterprises do, attempt to define a niche and create a product – in this case a journalistic product – to serve it.

The result, based on market study, interaction with potential customers, trial and error and a healthy dose of guts and instinct, would not be a “happy accident.” It would be a newspaper produced with a specific purpose and place in the market. It would be intentional journalism.

Of course, in the real world of newspapers, where risk-averse culture and deeply ingrained fear of change produce oppositional arguments at the slightest whiff of innovation, zero-basing a newsroom is next to impossible. That doesn’t mean, though, that over time a newspaper cannot reinvent itself through ongoing examination of its community, frank evaluation of its content and decisive reallocation of resources to meet the subsequent set of new priorities.

Easier said than done? Yes, but only because newspaper journalists – managers and staffers alike – are handicapped by two chronic conditions:

1. Inertia. Change is a skill and getting good at it requires practice. Journalists are rookies when it comes to change and to professional growth. They have to learn how to learn.

2. Attachment to resources. Nearly all newsroom managers believe change requires more resources – budget or people. This is an excuse that has outlived any usefulness. How many times have you heard an editor say: We don’t have the staff to cover the (fill in the blank) community? Or a reporter say: I don’t have time to cover what’s happening in the classroom because I’m going to meetings every night? These are not resource issues: They are allocation issues. We decide to cover X instead of Y. When I hear an editor of a newspaper in a city that is 40 percent Latino say he doesn’t have the resources to report on the Hispanic community – four in every 10 people! – I see someone who cannot “decide” how to cover that community because doing so requires not covering something else.

Sure, more money and more staff can make an editor’s life easier, and it can increase the chances for doing good work, but we all know it doesn’t guarantee it. I have little patience for journalists who work in newsrooms of 100 people or 300 people or 500 people who says they don’t have enough reporters or photographers to do quality community journalism. As Jim Moroney, publisher of the Dallas Morning News, said after announcing newsroom cutbacks in the wake of that paper’s circulation scandal: "It's ridiculous to say that we can't be a great paper because we've only got 500-something people in our newsroom."

A newspaper that is intentional, and not an accident of any type, demands continual self-appraisal of what’s in the paper and collaborative discussion about how to change the newspaper and the journalists who produce it. How can we wean journalists off their dependence on “more” as the answer to newspapers’ problems? How can we disrupt their inertia and teach them how to change?

Here are five things any newspaper can do to make its journalism more intentional and less accidental. None require more money or more resources. All that’s needed is will:

1. Develop annual newsroom goals: Fewer institutional stories, more Latino faces, more community voices in the paper – whatever they are as long as they are specific, strategic and unique to your own community. Measure progress regularly. Adjust processes or staff as necessary during the year. Hold managers accountable.

2. Develop annual individual goals: I don’t mean annual evaluations that are squeezed into 30 minutes in December after 11 months of silence. I mean personal learning plans for every staffer, from the city desk aide to the executive editor. Here is what you should be able to do a year from now that you can’t do today. Edit tighter, coach better, speak Spanish, write more (or write less), read these five books on leadership and teach their principles to your direct reports. Be creative, be specific, align them with the goals of the newsroom. Reward success visibly. Encourage non-learners to seek a less demanding profession. The newsroom watchword should be: Grow or go.

3. Build learning time into the budget: Newsroom training budgets are important, but even more critical is training time. Allocate it on an FTE basis. Schedule it. Make it as mandatory as meeting deadline.

4. Evaluate: How are we doing? This should be the No. 1 question of the day, every day. What is working? What is not? Are we making progress toward our larger goals? Newsroom leaders must encourage honest self-evaluation by supporting open discussions about quality and direction and discouraging defensive and competitive posturing by managers who feel threatened when their work is debated.

5. Challenge assumptions: Why are we doing this? Change derives from questioning the status quo. Create working groups within the newsroom to challenge basic assumptions of all the newsroom’s systems, from production to beat coverage. Why do we cover education this way? Is this the right amount of police reporting? Do we have enough copy editors – or too many? How will you know if you never ask?

Posted by Tim Porter at December 9, 2004 10:53 AM

Superb, Tim!

Another tip should be that newspaper publishers and corporate executives must be made to realize that declining readership can't be reversed by cost-cutting.

I agree with your overall point is that newspapers already have probably enough resources to reverse the declines. Nevertheless, newspaper corporations that keep laying off reportorial staff are committing an error that's even worse than phyrric -- its deleterious to everything but short-term objectives.

Posted by: Vin Crosbie on December 9, 2004 08:31 PM

Tim, do you ever feel as if you're talking to a wall? Your analysis and prescription are spot on. But I get the sense that the owners, publishers, editors and most reporters go blithely on. To me, it mirrors the Bush administration's unsustainable economic policy. In both cases, this is like watching a train wreck in slow motion. Except these train wrecks could have been avoided.

Posted by: Roger Karraker on December 10, 2004 10:35 AM
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