March 12, 2007

News, Improved. The State of the News Media, Not.

Depending on how you see it, I ...

A) ... couldn't have picked a worse time to write a book about how newspapers can use focused, strategic learning to reinvent themselves - because according to the State of the News Media 2007 report released today they are withering away at a steadily increasing rate.

Or ...

B) ... couldn't have picked a better time to write a book about how newspapers can use focused, strategic learning to reinvent themselves - because now more than ever they need good guidance in finding their way forward.

I'll leave it to Dickens to state the obvious about those conflicting points of view - and to others to wonder if doing a book these days has much value beyond intellectual exercise - today seemed like a good opportunity to let you, the remnant readers of First Draft, know the book is finished, and in fact due out in a couple of weeks.

Called News, Improved, How America's Newsrooms are Learning to Change, it presents the lessons my partner, former Oregonian editor Michele McLellan, and I learned in working with 17 newsrooms during the four-year Tomorrow's Workforce project.

Here's the short version: Leadership plus Goals plus Training equals Innovation and Change and Constructive Culture. Much work required. (Read the rest here or here.)

We focused, as much as possible, on what newspapers are doing that works, and tried to draw from those successes techniques any news organization could use for reinvention, change or improvement. We shied away, as much as possible, from beating the dead horse of newspaper arrogance and defensiveness that kept the industry at a standstill while the emerging world of digital media marched onward.

Our purview was editorial, not financial. But I believe the concepts of product and professional development we urge newsrooms to adopt at readily adaptable to the business sides of news operations.

News, Improved by itself will not solve any newspaper's problem. It is a fishing pole, not a fish - a tool that provides a proven starting point for organizational change. We watched newspapers such as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Hamilton Spectator, the Bakersfield Californian and the Bloomington Herald Times remake themselves under bold leadership, focused thinking and investment in teaching their journalists new skills.

Will these papers and progressive news organizations survive what the Project for Excellence Journalism in its report today called the epochal "transformation facing journalism"? I don't know. But I do know that these news organizations, by focusing on strategic organizational change, have the best chance of any of coming up with new news products - and new business models to support them - that embrace the principles of traditional journalism but are packaged and published in ways more appropriate to the digital age.

The warning bell for the news industry has rung loudly for several years. (In fact, part of my absence from First Draft was due to a reluctance to continue ringing that same bell over and over.) State of the News Media 2007 says the industry's now awake, finally on the alert, but afraid and not sure what to do.

Tom Rosenstiel of PEJ says "defensiveness about the Internet has given way to abject fear. And journalists now see the Internet as a possible salvation and not this horrible threat to their standards. They are experimenting wildly, but no formula has emerged and maybe even less of an idea of how to pay for it."

But many news organizations are acting - and doing so boldly. State of the News Media mentions the robust web operations of the Times and the Post. And, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's recent radical newsroom organization is strong bet on a different future. Look for dozens of copycats in the offing.

Back to my original questions - is the best of times to write a book on newspaper change? Or the worst?

The best my friends, the best. Because newspapers are changing, voluntarily or under duress (or both). And good editors are looking to move their newsrooms forward even if the future is uncertain. Leadership. Goals. Training. These things work. They give a news organizations a chance to control its own fate.

And, that's my takeaway from the State of the News Media report - it's time to take control of our own fates.

(See you more often in coming days.)

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Posted by Tim Porter at March 12, 2007 04:28 PM

Tim, welcome back. Your voice has been missed.

Posted by: John Robinson on March 13, 2007 01:00 PM


It's been a long time. It's good to have you back in the conversation.

Posted by: Tim Windsor on March 13, 2007 01:30 PM

Hoo-ray! I'm glad you're back!

Posted by: acline on March 13, 2007 01:57 PM

Alright, Tim Porter is back. Great news. Just in time too.

Don't do that again, though.

Posted by: Jay Rosen on March 20, 2007 08:22 PM
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