October 28, 2005

ASNE to APME: What Happened in Six Months?

I spent a couple of hours yesterday at the APME convention. I spoke on a panel about news on the web (here's my presentation) and listened in on an earlier session about reconstructing newsrooms. It was enough to time learn that much as changed since ASNE met with its head in the sand in April (until Rupert Murdoch yanked it out) and at once some things remain stubbornly the same.

Some notes:

 Sponsored by the future: My panel was sponsored by Yahoo News. Need I say any more about the future of the newspaper industry when part of one of its major conventions is underwritten by an entity whose success is greatly responsible for the demise of newspapers? The competitor-collaborator line is gone.

 Change moves to the forefront of the conversation: I tweaked ASNE for not tackling head-on newspapers' structural problems at its convention in April. [Read: Convention: Six Things that Should be on the Agenda.] APME is not guilty of the same oversight. It ran discussions on new competitors, shrinking newsrooms, new products and convergence. Although change is not yet evident in the newsrooms of most of these news managers, it is clear that reinvention and the web are part of the everyday conversation.

Of course, the newspaper industry's last six months are worse than those of George Bush - newsroom cutbacks on a large scale, the Judith Miller fiasco and the booming popularity of the blogs and other digital vehicles for news, conversation and commerce. There's plenty of impetus for change and I suspect these news executives are feeling as much pressure from the boardroom as from the newsroom to make a makeover happen.

(Yet, somehow in the midst of a forward looking program, APME inserted the presence of former football coach Bill Walsh and player Ronnie Lott - ex SF '49ers - to speak about leadership. Huh? Where's Rupert when we need him again?)

 A catchphrase for the future: Robin Henry, a deputy managing editor for online news at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, who spoke about the terrific job the AJC did utilizing the web for coverage of a courthouse shooting in March, work for which the paper received an APME reward, gave the audience simple, but powerful advice: "Embrace technology."

 Altered values for journalists: The AJC's commitment to converging its newsroom has changed the paper's value system. Henry gave three main reasons: 1. Online training is part of the paper's core professional development program; 2. Online effort is part of the evaluation process for employees; and 3. The paper has adjusted its internal reward system so the front page is not the only measure of success.

 Altered expectations for readers: Tom Mallory, who runs a breaking news team for the San Diego Union-Tribune's online operation, said readers expect instant news. He gets email from readers saying "I see smoke" and or "where was that accident?" and wanting real-time reporting from the paper.

This is a great example of the permeation of 24-hour news loop into the media mindset of the public. People expect news organizations to supply information on demand. For anyone in the daily reporting business - like newspapers - this is a must-have for success in the future. The expectations of readers have, once again, lapped those of the professionals.

 Old culture, old questions: Newsroom-think persists and is evident in questions editors raise during discussions, such as worrying about the paper "scooping" itself by running breaking news on the web or the continued adherence to incumbent newsroom structures as budget cuts reduce the number of journalists on the job. The result is doing "less of more" instead of restructuring the reporting system, jettisoning old definitions of news and doing "more of less" - that is, focusing on fewer topics that might have a higher degree of engagement with readers.

 The need for a major investment in training: After hearing a panel describe a laundry list of new forms for journalism for the future, Chris Peck, editor of the Commercial Appeal, commented: We need "different brains" and different skills in the newsroom to do those things. Where are we going to get them?

The answer, of course, is we have to grow them - through strategic training, through ongoing learning, through the same sort of professional reinvention other industries have sustained. We must retool the news factory. [Read: Rethinking the News Factory (Again).] The newspaper industry, however, is a training Scrooge, investing on average only 0.7 percent of payroll in professional development, only a third the national average. It has underspent its way into a workforce that is under-prepared for cultural change or professional reinvention. All the good talk and assembled panels about change will amount to naught unless news managers put bodies and dollars into training - about technology, about audience, about communication and collaboration, about leadership.

I have said before that the "future belongs to those who invest in it" and now that the newspaper industry appears to have woken up and is talking with some urgency about reinvention, it is time for newspapers to put their wallets and FTE counts where their mouths are. [Read: Journalism by Every Means Necessary.]

 Commodity news - who needs it? Ann Morris, managing editor of the News & Record in Greensboro, N.C., a newspaper plunging headlong toward the future led by John Robinson, brought to life a somewhat somnolent panel on rebuilding newsrooms by challenging the habit of running "commodity news" in newspapers - stocks, TV listings, even routine wire stories. "I'm questioning why we are using precious newspaper to print outdated news," she said.

Moderator Dale Peskin asked members of the audience (about 200 people) to stand if they agreed with Morris. About 10 people did - including Ken Sands, online publisher of the blog-rich Spokesman-Review in Spokane. His rationale: "We can't control the flow of information and our readers know that," meaning that newspapers must find a unique niche in this fluid universe of ever-flowing news.

Robinson, posting in his blog today about Morris, echoes that sentiment: "When we understand that our first priority is to figure out how to help readers find news and information they need, we'll be much further along."

(I'm returning to conference tomorrow for to talk about blogging for reporters at a NewsTrain session. An earlier version of presentation is already online.)

Posted by Tim Porter at October 28, 2005 10:17 AM