April 03, 2005

ASNE Convention: Six Things that Should be on the Agenda

The American Society of Newspaper Editors convenes next week in its usual location (Washington, D.C.) with its usual line-up of predictable political keynoters (Bush, Rice) and its usual array of panels devoted to the industry's ongoing crises (declining readership, stagnant diversity, confused ethics, eroding credibility).

The death of newspapering as a viable economic and social medium is increasingly being foretold even by its practitioners. What do the gatekeepers of the journalism's largest platform offer at their annual convention in the face of this bleak future? Bromides, blinders and an oddly self-abusing submission to speeches from politicians who disdain, abuse and manipulate the very press these editors are charged with preserving. (The latter, of course, is a sad reminder of the newspaper industry's desire to claim a seat at the establishment table - a primary reason for its widening separation from the communities it is charged with both reporting on and protecting from the excesses of society's ruling institutions, public and private.)

ASNE does set aside one hour during the three-day convention to a discussion of the future of newspapers, but beyond those 60 minutes there seems to be no recognition of the core ailments of modern American print journalism and how they might be addressed.

The newspaper industry needs big ideas. ASNE is responding with incremental responses. Here are some topics that should be on this convention's agenda:

 The 10 Percent Solution. Devote at least 10 percent of the newsroom budget each year to new product and staff development, with the goal of removing and restructuring the traditional, limiting newsroom content silos and re-populating it with people who have the cross-disciplinary skills to commit journalism in a post-print age. You can't change your newspaper over night, but you can in a decade - 10 percent at a time. Think skunkworks.

 Don't Tinker, Explode. Big rewards come from big bets. The most innovative work (don't confuse this with the best journalism) in the industry today involves bold moves by newspapers into new territory - tabloids, non-English spin-offs, citizen journalism, blogs. Adding a new columnist or rearranging type-faces isn't enough. Those papers that survive the chaotic days ahead will have learned how to adapt quickly and exploit current emerging markets. This is a learnable skill. Teach risk. [Read: Exploding the Newsroom: Six Ways to Rebuild the System.]

 Leadership in Uncertain Times: Change Must Come from the Top. ASNE members are journalists who became managers without learning how to lead. Leadership development is critical in an industry that must morph from defensive, production-oriented activities to constructive, collaborative innovation in order to compete. Arming newspaper editors with change management, communication, goal-setting, prioritization and other leadership skills is the most urgent training need in our newsrooms.

 Boring Begone!: Most newspapers are filled from front to back with generic copy, must of it ripped from the wires, the rest written by reporters cover institutional events in stenographic fashion. Stop it. Report horizontally for readers instead of vertically for editors. Scrap the pyramid. Explain, explain and explain - then do it some more. Never be incremental. Track readership daily. Use the web for this. Murder your darlings if no one is reading them. If it's important enough to cover, it's important enough to make interesting. Five contextual, graphical, illustrated, layered stories are better than 10 or 15 mediocre reports. If something is important enough to write about, it is important enough to have an opinion about. Give it. Get responses. Give those, too. (This requires leadership; see above.)

 Don't Cover the Community, Be the Community. Learn to enable journalism by citizens. Empower readers with the publishing tools. Aggregate their work and their voices. Celebrate them. Get engaged. Lead civic discourse. Be on the side of the people, not the establishment. Dig, dig, dig - into the backgrounds of public officials, civic and corporate institutions and the flow of money. This is a differentiating capability of newspapers. [Read: Don't Reflect the Community, Be the Community.]

 Hire Do-ers, Learners and Critical Thinkers First, Then the J-School Grads. Journalism isn't rocket science and a journalism degree doesn't mean its holder will do work that is interesting, compelling, exciting, innovative or even up to the basic standards of reporting and editing. Some do, but many more don't. What qualities does a newspaper-based news organization need in its employees in order to change and succeed today? Here's my list: Personal drive and accountability, collaborative communication skills, the ability to learn new things with minimal direction, literacy in several media, a sense of adventure and risk and competitive instincts. Let's get that those people and then teach them the journalism skills.

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Posted by Tim Porter at April 3, 2005 07:20 PM

Another thoughtful post, much appreciated Tim.

By the way, you might find this story of interest:

What should we make of blogging? Is it simply the latest internet fad, a truly democratic tool for change or, as some have suggested, a vehicle for mob rule?
David Reid finds blogs are rocking the boat both East and West

Posted by: Jozef Imrich on April 4, 2005 06:39 AM

Given all that is starting to happen in newspapers, it's astonishing that the future of the beast rates only an hour. Every time I get encouraged by a newspaper that seems to be getting it -- and there appear to be a few out there -- I come across something like this.

This goes beyond the conservatism you've often noted. The "official" industry seems to more and more resemble a deer caught in the headlights and unsure of which why to leap.

Posted by: Mark Hamilton on April 4, 2005 11:47 PM
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