September 26, 2005

Building the Journalism of the Future, Intentionally

It's getting harder and harder to find a silver lining in the cloud of bad news that is enveloping the newspaper industry. But I'm going to try.

My mantra that practicing quality journalism will help newspapers find a path to a sustainable future rings hollowly in light of the New York Times' announcement that will trim 4 percent of its workforce, including 45 positions in the newsroom.

I need to rewrite first post I made on this blog nearly three years ago, which I somewhat hubristically entitled the Quality Manifesto. Then I wrote:

"Newspapers are not the victims of homicide but of suicide. They are not dying at the hands of demographic changes or emergent technologies. They are killing themselves with clichéd writing, formulaic stories, hackneyed photographs and adherence to a self-destructive, journalistic form that emphasizes breadth of news coverage over depth."

This is all still true, at least on the hundreds of ordinary newspapers in regional and smaller markets that invest almost nothing in training, readership studies or product development. Since that post, though, the media world has marched incessantly and increasingly rapidly forward, stretching even further the gap between news consumption patterns, overall media use and the one-size-fits-all news delivery approach of most newspapers.

The cuts in newsroom staffing arise directly from a bottom line weakened by declining circulation and advertising revenue, trends that will not only continue but are likely to accelerate, forcing publicly owned news companies to slash further to produce the level of double-digit returns investors have grown accustomed to.

Here's Phil Meyer, explaining on the online-news listserv, where this sort of market harvesting he foresaw in his book "The Vanishing Newspaper" will lead (my emphasis):

"… both the market cap and the resale value of newspaper companies will fall as ad revenues decline. Investors can look at the future and see that milking the assets has finite returns. There is a bottom down there, and when it becomes visible, the shakeout will be apocalyptic. Journalism and print will survive, but new players will be leading us out of the ashes. That's the hopeful message for today's students. Watch out for (and become) the new guys." [Read: Reading the Vanishing Newspaper: A Guide.]

Meyer's hopeful caveat for the journalists of tomorrow can be applied as well to the journalists of today - those who still have jobs. Steve Yelvington, also writing on the online-news list, says journalists need to take control of their own future - at least the part they control: The content of their newspapers. He says (my emphasis):

"What we can do is try to find the causes that we can actively address. One of those causes, I think, is the quality and especially the nature of the products we offer.

"This is not a simple matter of staffing levels or profit margins. It is that the newspapers we print and the websites we build are out of sync with the needs of the communities we serve. There are a lot of dimensions to this problem -- demographic changes, social fragmentation, disengagement from local life, etc.

"To address these changes, we need journalists to apply their critical listening skills to an open and frank conversation with the so-called business side. The fingers need to be holding pens and taking notes, not pointing."

The editors, the reporters, everyone in the newsroom, control what's printed in their newspapers and broadcast on their web sites. When readers and viewers say they want no more of that type of journalism, the blame falls not on the public or on the suits in the boardroom, but squarely on the newsroom. Modern society is undergoing its greatest shift ever in communication capacity and newspaper newsrooms still operate with the same hierarchies, same beat structures and same news values as they did at the turn of the last century. I wrote earlier this year:

"…I am sorry, my friends in the newsroom, much of the rest is your fault. The journalism, the leadership, the mandate to reflect and engage your community, the necessity to make tough, but creative decisions in the face of conflict, as all industries must do from time to time - those are all your responsibilities and you have abdicated them." [Read: The Mood of the Newsroom.]

(If you haven't yet read Bob Cauthorn's perceptive distinction between product and platform, do so.)

I would not want to be working at the San Francisco Chronicle or Philadelphia Inquirer or San Jose Mercury News right now, but if I were I would approach the post-layoff-buyout world journalists at those newspapers find themselves in by asking their editors these questions:

If someone gave you 500 journalists (or 400 or 300) and the $XX millions in annual dollars (anywhere from $20-40 million) needed to run the newsroom and said: Make any kind of news operation you want. Would you make the same newspaper? Would you create the same beats, departments, production and decision-making processes? Would you hire the same people? Would you design the paper and its web site in the same formats?

Of course not! But I'm not yet sure newspapers have the leadership to overcome the inertia, the culture and the tradition that keep them from changing and invent a new future for themselves.

At a conference last week at Harvard, during a discussion about how reporters could get more complex stories in the paper, an editor from a large Eastern newspaper that has made significant newsroom cuts answered:

The reality for mainstream journalists is that there is "less opportunity to do the long pieces, the in-depth pieces. … We are short of people and money and time. … I can't give reporters two months to work on a story. I tell them to juggle it. … We are dictated by the business side of the industry."

The person who made this remark is a committed, passionate journalist and a smart editor, but she is completely wrong.

The proper response during a retrenchment is to venture forth and find focus, not to seek shelter in diffusion. Newspapers need to abandon the dangerous position that because they have fewer journalists they will do less of everything - resulting in thin, watery journalism across the board. Instead, they must do more of less - jettisoning some types of coverage, eliminating duplication of effort with the wires (do you need your own writer at Wimbledon, your own movie critics in regional markets?) and developing depth and expertise in a narrower range of topics chosen intentionally to connect with the local community.

In order to preserve the principles of journalism, we must change its practices and form. We must create journalism we can sell. We must commit journalism by any means necessary. [Read: Journalism by Every Means Necessary.]

The future of news belongs to those who build it. Journalists are not excluded from this process - although they have been acting like they are. Were I to rewrite the Quality Manifesto, I could call it the Innovation Manifesto or the Reinvention Manifesto (or the Phoenix Manifesto in honor of Phil Meyer's up from the ashes metaphor). More likely, though, I'd title it Intentional Journalism.

Intentional journalism departs from the passive "news happens" school of journalism. (Hey, too much crime in the paper? We can't help it - news happens!) About a year ago, I wrote:

"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?" [Read: Intentional Journalism.]

In answer to that question, I once proffered the idea of the 10 Percent Solution - change the whole newsroom in a decade by devoting 10 percent of budget and staff annually to reinvention. [Read: ASNE Convention: Six Things that Should be on the Agenda.] That idea was too conservative. Most newspapers don't have a decade to squander on change.

The question every newspaper editor in this country should be prepared to answer on Jan. 1, 2006, is:

What do we have to do to reinvent this news operation this year?
The answers - different in each community - should form from a zero-based appraisal of resource allocation focused on connecting the newspaper more deeply to community: How are we going to spend our editorial budget? How are we going use our reporters? What is working (do more of that)? What isn't (less of that?) In short, why do we do what we do?

This process will require brutally honest self-appraisal, engagement in difficult conversations, and focus on reader and product that are missing in most newsrooms. It also will likely result in forcing some people out of the news business who should have left long ago in order to bring in folks who believe the principles of journalism can be practiced in new ways to capture the attention of a fluid and changing audience.

Phil Meyer is right. Journalism and print will survive, but it will be different. The degree of difference is unknown, but the ominous news of the last week signals opportunity for those journalists who want to build their own, intentional future.

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Posted by Tim Porter at September 26, 2005 07:01 PM

As usual Tim, interesting post. I have been giving it some thought too, and just posted an open letter at to David Carr, who like both of us loves newspapers. But I think it is time to start looking forward. It is time to face the reality; newspapers will lose their preeminence, but that does not mean good journalism can't prevail. But it will only happen if folks like Carr, you and I and thousands of other folks, start to develop a multi-faceted vision for the future. Newsrooms maybe a vital part of that vision, but I am afraid they will not be a catalyst for it. That is already happening in other domains. Journalists, in trying to save their profession by hanging on to the past, are letting the best parts of that profession fad away.

Posted by: Leonard Witt on September 26, 2005 08:54 PM

Speaking from the perspective of someone who's newsroom will shed 52 newsies in the next month, I can only offer solace in the knowledge that there will always be a demand for local news.

What we seem unable to focus on is the very simple question of how that demand will be satisfied, in the light of changing technologies and the inability of newspaper chains to profitably "cover" local news like they have in the past.

It could be that in a time of shrinking news staff , it would make more sense for newspapers to empower citizen volunteers who post local news online, and to put journalists to work helping local people find those posts.

Posted by: tom mangan on September 27, 2005 08:25 AM

Very interesting post, Tim. I have been reading your posts regularly but this is the first time I leave a comment. I completely agree with you that newspapers should do less but do it better. There is no use competing with the wires because they can get the news out much quicker and have a world-wide network. But that's ok, as I see it they are collecting the raw material. Newspapers should use this and add their own value.

I was thinking about how newspapers can finally be woken up to the urgent need to change and maybe this will help: they will all be Kodaks, from being leading players to completely losing out on the next digital phase.

Posted by: Sandra Plas on September 27, 2005 02:31 PM

I run a local news weblog/community. Where I live, almost all the local papers in my region are owned by a single chain. The idea was one that would certainly get the MBA stamp of approval -- roll up the local papers, offer businesses one-stop-shopping for regional advertising, cut costs by consolidating backoffice functions.

My question: Why didn't it work? There's been so much media consolidation, but none of the newly consolidated companies seem to be making money. Not just in newspapers, either; where I live a lot of chain radio stations have been ignominiously unplugged and replaced with new formats. Local TV news doesn't look so chipper, either.

Rollups work in other industries. Why has it failed so miserably in the media industry? Maybe it wasn't possible to consolidate without making things bland and generic. Or maybe there's simply a shift away from these media towards the net or simply away from all media. I really don't know -- I just know it isn't working. It's sad, I love newspapers. But at least for local media, I wonder if I've simply lived through a blip where local news was viable as a commercial enterprise.

Posted by: Lisa Williams on September 27, 2005 04:48 PM

Good show, Tim
Well said...great writing.

Posted by: d rabin on September 27, 2005 05:08 PM

As in most journalistic endeavors, the key is in the quality of the questions. We consistently have asked the wrong questions.
For instance, the question, as you aptly point out, is not will there be a printed product. Instead the question is who will be first to turn common equations on their head?
Instead of asking how other media can support the print product, ask how much print product is necessary to sustain a news product focused on delivering through the web, cellphones, iPods and satellite radio?
Instead of asking whether there is a place for quality journalism, ask how much commodity (information) do people require of us in order to sustain the craft (journalism)?
Instead of asking who is to blame for our situation (chances are they're wearing a tie), ask who has already invented the future (chances are they didn't)?

Posted by: Dan Suwyn on September 30, 2005 10:41 AM
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