April 27, 2005

Snarking the Newspaper

Matt Thompson, one of the creators of Googlezon, says what I've been thinking for several days: Why did Mood of the Newsroom cause such a stir? After all, I, and others, have been writing similar things for a couple of years.

Thompson says:

" it all just feels so twelve years ago. When we start talking around in circles like this, I get impatient about the snail's pace of this alleged revolution. The brashness of youth, I guess. (Emphasis added.)

"The other thing that worries me is that with all the talk of blowing the roof off journalism, I think many of us are still looking for a template. Like, Ooh! Ooh! The inverted pyramid is dead! Let's go find something else to invert!"

And, in the comments, in response to Jay Rosen, he sees an over-emphasis on newspapers at the expense of attention to newer, emerging forms of media. He says:

"I do care very much about the traditional news providers, and I want them to be involved in what's happening. I work for what I'd say is the biggest, most sophisticated newsgathering operation in Fresno County, and I'm horrified by the thought of this poor, beaten-up region losing the best journalism it's got. At the same time, I think we sometimes squander our energy on bringing our newsrooms along for the revolution at the expense of guiding that revolution along." (Emphasis added.)

Thompson is right is this sense: This is not about newspapers. It is about journalism - about informing and engaging, about entertaining and enlightening our neighbors, and about enabling them to participate in the coverage of and conversation about their own communities.

I hope newspapers can do all those things, that they can be the platform the supports or the umbrella that shelters these activities, but if they can not or choose not to do those things, then they deserve whatever fate befalls them. This is not about newspapers; it's about us.

Here's a reply I posted in the comments at Thompson's site, Snarkmarket:

Matt ...

As the current object of Jay's fawning, I thought I'd offer some agreement and some disagreement without, I hope, being fawning myself or defensively newspaperish.

First, I share your sense of wonder at the amount of attention paid to my piece on the newsroom. While I can't claim the prescience of Crichton, I have essentially been writing versions of the newsroom post for 2.5 years. In my first entry I said pretty much what I said the other day: "In an age of increasing public sophistication - and diversification - about media consumption, newspapers, for the most part, continue to produce a bland mixture of agenda and event coverage, he-said-she-said government news and an established array of feature stories focused on predictable characters who no longer elicit sympathy nor surprise from readers." In other words, the journalists were on auto-pilot while the world had moved on.

So why now? What the fuss over this piece and not the others? I think it's the timing, the growing awareness within newsrooms that there are better ways of doing journalism, the ascendancy of bloggers and, of course, the normal build of critical mass, meaning the eventual pile-on to an idea. It's become, sadly, fashionable to talk about the death of newspapers.

I also think there's a personal, more human reason. Most mainstream journalists, even those graying Boomers, want to do good work, to be relevant, to be engaged and excited by their jobs. I called bullshit on one obstacle to those goals - their own attitudes - and perhaps that ignited a flicker of realization that they can control their own destiny, that change is possible but it is up to them. That can be empowering.

We disagree about my focus on newspapers. Because newspapers (and the wires) remain, despite their readership erosion and economic cutbacks, the principal producers of journalism (55,000 journalists) in this country, my intention is shove them from the rut in which they've wallowed for the last few decades. And in that context, as Jay said, it matters what the journalists in the newsroom and the news executives at their conventions think. My role - and I see it as a small one made large in bloggo-landia for a day or two - is to encourage a new form of thinking. That is why I try to write directly to those folks. I am from their world and I can speak their language (although I like to think I am at least bilingual).

The young citizen journalist you wrote about, Matt, isn't in that world and your question about how we can "keep *her* around" and transfer (or inject) her passion into the next crop of journalists is an excellent one. Mainstream news (print or broadcast and even web) tends to drive out the most creative and the most passionate. How do we prevent that and devote the intellect and energy of these people to creation of new forms of substantive journalism?

Part of the answer lays in the current conversation that folks like you and Jay and I are enabling. Yes, it's late, but change always begins at the edges. The middle is the last to move and few institutions are more middle of the road, and deliberately so, than news organizations. Encouraging and enabling people to envision change in the first step.

I also believe, though, as you seem to, that it is not necessary to save newspapers or further enshrine newsrooms in order to save the principles journalism. Perhaps collectives of independent journalists will form. Perhaps, as Phil Meyer has said, non-profit institutions will underwrite some types of journalism. I would prefer newspapers survive, not in place of these other forms of journalism, but as a complement to them. [Read: Reading the Vanishing Newspaper: A Guide.]

Finally, a personal note. I was appropriately embarrassed by Jay's "what it took to get here" comment, but, hey, he's passionate and effusive and that's where those characteristics lead. Love ya, Jay. But he was right in benchmarking my own evolution in from a hard-core newsroom editor to a wide-eyed geek entranced by what my colleagues were doing with the early web (prototype Electric Examiner, strike newspaper, Salon) to an ex-journalists working on a start-up to the returning prodigal journalistic son I am today. It is my journey and it is not dissimilar to many journalists of my time.



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Posted by Tim Porter at April 27, 2005 09:28 AM

At the risk of blowing my own horn or my employer's, Matt should know that not all newspapers are thinking this way. Lawrence.com probably is leading the way at the moment, but we're moving along in this direction (I spent the past two mornings editing video for two planned Web presentations) and we're not alone.

Matt's right: Just as the railroads lost market share because they failed to realize that they had moved from the railroad business to the transportation business, we will unless we move from the newspaper business to the journalism business ... and the journalism business must be platform-neutral.

Posted by: Lex on April 27, 2005 11:32 AM

I've been writing about strategic companies and visionaries for newspapers, trade pubs and my own newsletters for, gosh, almost 41 years. And I've learned a few things.

1. Less than 5% of the population thinks strategically about business and technology. Even fewer are futurists and visionaries. We're mostly doers and users.
2. We hate change. Anyone who's managed a transition from a monthly to a semi-monthly or weekly frequency knows how difficult it can be. People complain, quit, sue. The easiest way to implement change is to fire the staff and start over.
3. The reason startups take markets from incumbents is that they start with clean slate. Yahoo, Google and eBay started with clean slates, as did Craig's list and monster.com. That's why MSM didn't start those companies and would destroy them if they bought them. So will and outsider change the media before the MSM can move? Well, with blogging, the change has begun, and newspapers have had nothing to do with it.
4. Customers have just as much trouble with change as staff. Readers and advertisers are habitual people. Think about what happens when you drop a comic or another feature. Firestorm.
5. Ideas are a dime a dozen, but ideas aren't strategies nor visions. They're just ideas. Everybody understands the McDonald's big idea, but how many have executed the idea as successfully as McDonalds. Or the USA Today idea or The Wall Street Journal or wsj.com ideas? It's all about execution. And execution is as difficult as coming up with a vision, strategy, tactics and the successful implementation of change. Lots of people write about publishing. How many have created new businesses, publications, media?

So, where am I going with this. Not totally sure. But it seems that for a variety of reasons, MSM will exist as is for a long time. It will face new players that will take market share and complement current modalities, just as PET, MRI and CT scanners compete with and complement each other and old fashioned X-rays in imaging and the Internet complements and competes with MSM.

The hardest job for MSM is to restructure to survive in the new environment, not to be the new media. And that's what this discussion is about.

Posted by: Donald E. L. Johnson on April 27, 2005 12:45 PM

Thanks for the thoughtful response, Tim. Make no mistake, I'm totally down with your Mood of the Newsroom post. I stand by what I said -- I'm sure it had quite the effect on its audience. And I'm happy you write First Draft. Lord knows I'd like to point a few people to it, except they're still not ready to hear it. I spent a year talking with the journorati about this stuff, so I can't help but respect anybody who's been doing it for years (or in Jay's case, decades). I come not to bury the newspaper, but to praise Jarah (my vaunted citizen journalist).

What I want is to be able to point the most ardent newsprint fetishist to an example of new journalism and fascinate her with not just the possibilities, but the awesome realities of what already exists in the young media. I mean actual works of journalism being put together in smart, efficient ways that just beat the pants off anything else out there, like my citizen journalist's site does.

We need a constant drumbeat of the best of online journalism that doesn't consist solely of our traditional news organizations slowly trying to make their way into the new world. While BlufftonToday, the efforts of the VC Star, and any of a thousand Flash movies hint towards what can be done, I think efforts like FresnoFamous represent what is being done by CJs who draw no distinction between the old models and the new. That's what I hope to see more of on PressThink and elsewhere, and that's what I hope might ultimately pull a few of those old-timers along for the ride.

Keep speaking to the Ol' 55K, Tim, and I will too.

Posted by: Matt on April 27, 2005 10:48 PM

"Mainstream news (print or broadcast and even web) tends to drive out the most creative and the most passionate. How do we prevent that and devote the intellect and energy of these people to creation of new forms of substantive journalism?"

All my life I've butted heads with stoggy,"We've always done it this way," losers. Mainstream news DOES drive out the best and the brightest and they will continue to do so because they are incapable of risk taking. Fortunately, those of us who are driven out will prevail. We need them less than they need us. Creativity trumps inertia every day.

Posted by: Becky on April 28, 2005 05:22 AM
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