March 30, 2006

If Newspapers Are to Rise Again

The article belows appears in the Spring 2006 of Nieman Reports. I wrote it in January before the Knight Ridder sale/resale and announcements by several newspapers that are either cutting days of publication or moving more traditional print content, such as stocks, online.

If Newspapers Are to Rise Again
'Reinvent or die. It's that simple.'

By Tim Porter

Newspapers are in big trouble, the biggest since television began eroding their audience 60 years ago. There is no need for an umpteenth recitation of the demographic, economic and technological trifecta that has endangered newspapering as a vehicle for journalism - which, of course, is why we care about the fate of newspapers: They pay the freight for the type of journalism we have considered a necessity in a democratic society.

There is, however, a need to repeat an unpleasant truth most newspaper journalists, particularly newsroom managers, don't like to hear: They are as responsible for the decline in readership and relevance of newspapers as any of the other bugaboos cited routinely as contributing causes - the Internet, pesky bloggers, disinterested youth and that Craig guy from San Francisco.

Why is that? Because risk-averse newsrooms have spent several decades with their collective heads in the ink barrel, ignoring the changing society around them, refusing to embrace new technologies and defensively adhering to both a rigid internal hierarchy and an inflexible definition of "news" that produces a stenographic form of journalism, one that has stood still, frozen by homage to tradition, while the world has moved on.

But, there is good news. Amid the carnage of smaller newsroom budgets, buyouts, layoffs and seemingly endless prognostications of doom, opportunity lives. In fact, newspapers have never been presented with an opportunity this large - or with such an urgent reason to take it. Opportunity is not just knocking; it is kicking down the front door to the newsroom and yelling: Reinvention!

Newspapers now have the chance - albeit forced upon them - to discard decades of rote practices and processes. They have the chance to build new forms of journalism that operate on traditional principles of fairness, stewardship and vigilance but are not bound by tired definitions of what is "news," how it should be presented and who should be given the tools to do so. Reinvent or die. It's that simple. And the death will be slow and painful, a continuing slide into mediocrity and irrelevance, as tighter budgets reduce staff and the public opts for newer, more compelling sources of information.

The Route to Reinvention

Reinvention must begin at the core, the nucleus, the thing all the 1,450 or so daily American newspapers that are not The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal or USA Today must excel at: Coverage of local news.

Local is the franchise for newspapers. Local reporting, local photography, local commentary, local information, local interaction with the community. Yahoo and Google spew out routine national and international news by the screen full. The bleat of the blogosphere and the wail of cable TV heads provide the nation with punditry in spades. Myspace, Flickr and other social network sites built the virtual communities the Internet promised in its nascency. The one-time mass media has been thin-sliced and cross-diced into me-media, an RSS feed for every person, an opinion expressed for every viewpoint offered, everyone a publisher.

All that's left is the journalism. Local journalism. That is the niche, the slice, newspapers can and must own.

I can hear the protests now. Editors are pointing to the numerous local stories in their papers, to the enterprise projects and to the staffing that, while no doubt reduced, is devoted primarily to local news. Fair enough, but let's look more closely. True, most newspapers produce hundreds (at least) of column inches of local copy every week, but what is all that ink and all those pixels being used for? In most regional and smaller newspapers, two-thirds to three-quarters of all local, non-sports stories are about institutions (government), crime (courts and cops) and reports (more institutions.) Count them in your paper. And, as the papers get smaller, these stories become increasingly eye-glazing, devolving into either recitations of agendas or, worse, poorly executed attempts to mimic the more difficult forms of journalism (narrative, analysis, columns) practiced with excellence by only the best papers.

If newspapers were a restaurant, their motto might be: C'mon In. The Food Ain't Great, But You Get Plenty of It.

Sadly, this tired, institutionally-focused news formula makes it nearly impossible to provide readers with the one thing the Readership Institute at Northwestern University finds resonates most with the public - an experience. They want journalism that makes them feel smarter or makes them feel safer or makes them shudder, shake, shimmy or otherwise twinge with emotion. You won't find these characteristics in the halls of government where journalists spend so much time.

Don't misunderstand. Journalists must cover government and journalists must cover crime - but politicians and bureaucrats and cops and criminals aren't the audience; the electorate, the taxpayers, the victims and all the other ordinary people these institutions were formed to serve are the audience. The current beat structure and the reigning newsroom value system produces and rewards news reported from the point of view of the government instead of from the perspective of the governed - and that makes for bland reading.

It doesn't have to be this way. We can change the practices and processes of journalism and still keep its principles intact. Here's how.

1. Start with a question: If you could rebuild your newsroom from scratch, with the same full-time equivalent of employees and budget numbers, and with the only requirement that you must make a print and an electronic product, what would you change? Would you hire the same people? Create the same beats? Keep the same print and Web designs? Implement the same workflow? Of course you wouldn't. So why do you continue on as you do?

Asking and answering this question - honestly - compels a confrontation with assumptions about staffing, resource allocation and news judgment, and leads to conversations about editorial goals, readership strategy and producing a newspaper that is unique to its community instead of one that reflects a generic industry template. In short, it provides a reply to the perennial question: Where do we want to go?

2. Put the bodies in the right places - where the priorities are, where the mission-critical reporting, photography and editing must be done. Is having a staff movie critic essential to your mission? If not, use the job for something else. Foreign and Washington correspondents? Aren't you already paying for the Times, the Post, the Associated Press and Reuters? Out-of-town sports? Do readers really care about the byline? Hundreds of column inches for TV grids, entertainment listings and stocks? Put them online.

After realigning resources behind true, community-oriented priorities, and after some difficult conversations, you've picked up news hole, able-bodied journalists and production time that can be used for other things - local content, niche editorial packages, interaction with the community around you. This is called product development.

3. Determine the skills your newsroom needs to meet your new goals. Do reporters need to learn how to use digital tools - photography, video, audio? Do copy editors need to learn how to write? Do managers need to learn to collaborate? Yes, it's training, but training with purpose. It's focused, it's goal oriented and it's measurable. This is called resource development.

4. Kill the defensive, authoritarian newsroom culture. Break down the hierarchy. Dismantle the content silos. Don't manage, enable. Newsrooms are filled with creative people whose talents and ambitions are shackled by a plethora of inhibiting rules. Reward effort. Fail. Learn. And repeat. Free the newsroom 55,000! This is called fun.

5. Get a persona. I won't use the word "brand" because it makes journalists blanch, so let's use "identity." We all have one and the paper must have one, too, something for which it is known, a signature type of work that reflects a zeal to excel, to be the absolute best at something that separates it from the rest of the media horde. Great writing. Great investigations. Great columns. Great reader participation. Great simplicity. Objectivity is not a personality.

6. To borrow a phrase from Hodding Carter, don't cover the community, be the community. A while back, Carter, former head of the Knight Foundation, spoke about his early newspaper days at the Greenville (Miss.) Delta Democrat-Times. His words are better than mine: "We practiced journalism with zeal and, occasionally, foolhardy abandon. We took up the implicit demands - the implicit responsibility inherent in the First Amendment - and let people know our editorial mind when most of them would have happily been spared that opportunity. We covered our region, warts and all. And we participated in the life and civic causes of our town - Greenville, Mississippi - with avocational fervor. We saw ourselves as citizens as well as journalists. We saw ourselves not simply as a mirror reflecting what was happening in the community, or as its critics, but as indivisible from it, a piece of the community's fabric."

Never has the passion Carter displayed toward journalism's role in building community been more important for newspapers. Because technology has given the people, in the words of PRESSthink blogger Jay Rosen, "formerly known as the audience" the power to publish, they are talking back and engaging in conversations, with each other, with news sources and with the press. Newspapers can join this conversation and help gather communities of local interest or stand mute and be left behind.

7. Finally, big ideas rule. It's too late for tinkering. There's no time to rearrange the deck chairs once again; the keel for a new boat must be laid. Media have exploded. We need to explode the newsroom.

This is a time of great transition in journalism. The tectonics of technology, demographics and economics are disrupting the ground on which newspaper journalism stood for half a century. Survival requires nimbleness, resoluteness and an unwavering sense of the possible. This is called leadership. Newspapers that acquire those skills will prosper - and so will their journalism.

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Posted by Tim Porter at March 30, 2006 06:51 AM

>>> Because technology has given the people, in the words of PRESSthink blogger Jay Rosen, "formerly known as the audience" the power to publish <<<

Not that he needs yet another namecheck, but isn't that Dan Gillmor's line?

Posted by: Tim Windsor on March 30, 2006 08:47 AM

Before we abandon all we do now, we need to think about things we did in the old days that worked.

A co-worker the other day described how at a small town paper in New England it was his job to corral a stable of stringers -- he had to go out into communities and find people with the bare minimum of skills for basic journalism and talk them into becoming regular contributors to the paper.

The difference today is that is that people in towns identify themselves by interest, not geography, so the trick is to go out into local virtual communities, find those people and put them to work.

That requires us to know how to find these virtual communities. How many of us even know where to look? How many of us would know a potential virtual correspondent if we met one? What would we say to convince these people to help us out, considering that we'd be able to pay them squat?

In any community, leaders emerge voluntarily and often work for free. I imagine it being a pretty hard sell, trying to convince people to work essentially for free to help out a for-profit company, but I can't imagine it being insurmountable.

With the Web we truly can zone by interest rather than geography but we have to find the people who share the interest and get them involved in reporting their stories.

The question is, how do we do that while keeping our very profitably printing business in business?

Posted by: Tom Mangan on March 31, 2006 06:59 AM
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