April 13, 2005

ASNE: A Class of Editors Audits Future 101

The American Society of Newspapers Editors set aside one hour to talk about the future of newspapers during its convention this year. It was an hour of grim forecasts, lofty visions and a series of questions that couldn’t be answered – sort of like the future itself.

One message from the panel of Dan Gillmor, Merrill Brown, Phil Meyer, Kathy Yates, Andrew Nachison and Dale Peskin was unmistakeable: Change what you do or newspapers will disappear into irrelevancy. [Read: ASNE Convention: Six Things that Should be on the Agenda.]

Below are comments from the panel and some asides from me.

Dan Gillmor, founder of Grassroots Media Inc.: He learned when writing about technology at the San Jose Mercury News that his readers “know more than I did and were not a bit shy about telling me. Once I got over the dismay, I realized what a huge opportunity that was.” His column turned into conversation “instead of the lecture mode we used all those years." This is something the newspaper industry must adopt, has to adopt. … It is going to happen whether you do it not; they are doing it around you; they are going to do it to you.”

Gillmor urged newspapers to build on the considerable community relationships they’ve established, connections that, while eroded in recent decades, remain fundamentally strong. “The single most important asset a newspaper has” is a connection to the community and “this is the grandest opportunity in decades” A newspaper “is connected; it is wired into the community. No one is better positioned to (take advantage of) this than you even though you are starting late.

Merrill Brown, former editor of MSNBC.com and author of the report, Abandoning the News: “The axiom about young people returning to newspapers no longer seems provable by data” so “we need to be in the business of product development.” Concentrate on creating target products that take multiple flows of information and “parse them in ways that makes sense for people” that go beyond geography. “

I like this comment from Brown: “Follow the technology.” We “are not really talking in most news org today about how technology is changing our business in a profound way.” [Read: The Abandoned Newspaper.]

Kathy Yates, former COO of Marketwatch.com: “If you try to figure everything out you will be paralyzed” to the point of inaction. Newspapers need to find opportunities first and foremost by just being open to seeing them when they arise.

Even the name of the session – The Future of Newspapers – was limiting. Said Yates: “’Newspaper’” implies that it is limited to putting ink on paper. I was taught before Marketwatch that print was the best, that if it was not ink on paper then it was not real journalism. Marketwatch proved otherwise.”

Phil Meyer, author of “The Vanishing Newspaper, Saving Journalism in the Information Age,”: “Trust is still the most important product” and newspapers have lost their monopoly on it. The economics of newspapers are collapsing: “The model on which we placed our traditional profitability is gone.” [Read: Reading the Vanishing Newspaper: A Guide.]

Andrew Nachison, director of the Media Center, asked Gillmor about blogs and citizen journalism projects: “What is it about the DNA of these individual-powered grassroots projects that is different from the DNA of journalism?

Gillmor’s response: “One is top-down model and the other is bottom up. There has to be a way to combine both and newspapers have to find a way to combine both. … The community knows things and can actually tell each other what they know.”

Yates on the business of journalism: “I’m not sure if the economics of journalism are changing? The economics of newspapers are changing, certainly. Journalism is practiced in a number of different types of media. The business model is as intact as it ever was. It just looks different.

During Q&A after the discussion (it was very much a one-way panel, with time for only a few questions from the audience), Marty Kaiser, editor of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel asked Gillmor what he would do were he editor of a newspaper. Gillmor’s reply: I don’t want the job. He added:

“I like the idea that the average folks, not the priesthood, have something important to say. I want to find a way to combine the best practices and principles (of traditional journalism) with the fervor and talent out there on the edge.”

Brown said he would take the job on this condition: “Give me $5 million annually for training and R&D to move your organization forward.”

The newspaper industry, of course, is notoriously penny-pinching when it comes to investing in its people or in new products. This type of short-term, quarter-to-quarter concern is one of the key reasons it now finds itself outflanked on both the business and editorial sides.

One of the most telling moments of the hour occurred just as the meeting opened when Nachison and Peskin put a slide up of Craig Newmark and asked how many people in the room of several hundred recognized him or his name. Only a smattering of hands rose. A few more hands went up at the mention of Craigslist and its free classifieds.

Nachison reminded the editors that the competition of Craigslist didn’t grow out of a business model, but arose more spontaneously from Newmark’s desire to create a community of trust – the same trust newspapers are struggling to regain.

Newmark “doesn’t seem himself as competition,” said Nachison. “He started to build trust and to build community. He doesn’t see himself as competing against newspapers.”

The message here: In today’s media world the audience – and their money – follows trust and credibility, characteristics that evolve from authenticity, transparency and voice, rarities in our newspapers.

Tags: , ,

Posted by Tim Porter at April 13, 2005 02:18 PM

Personally, I think you should be writing a book or at the very least a column in some
media form. You are such a very very good writer.

Posted by: deborah rabin on April 13, 2005 03:52 PM

Great report. Thanks, Tim. I love the way you don't mince words. Keep the pressure on.

Posted by: Jay Rosen on April 13, 2005 08:15 PM

Those six items ought to be nailed to the wall in 64 pt type for every newspaper publisher and editor in America. I love newspapers and newspapering, but sometimes it seems like the people in charge have an uncanny resemblance to the captain of the Titanic. Smart, experienced, and doomed.

Posted by: Mark Tapscott on April 14, 2005 09:38 AM

"Smart, experienced, and doomed."

And, apparently, unaware or uncaring of the damage incurred by stonewalling their readers. "Trust is still the most important product", and you don't build trust if you run out of the room with your fingers in your ears when someone asks you to take a baby step towards transparency.

Posted by: Anna on April 14, 2005 12:45 PM
Post a comment