March 13, 2007

The Real Heroes of Newspapers

Newsroom budget cuts are routine these days (and will remain so for some time). It's also routine for top editors to resign before, or amid, these reductions, throwing their careers on the swords of journalistic quality.

These martyred journalists - Dean Baquet, late of the L.A. Times and now relocated in the N.Y. Times Washington bureau, is the poster child for them - are hailed as heroes by their colleagues (whom they've left behind in the trenches) and some of their peers (who perhaps see a similar fate in store for them).

What hogwash. Journalists are celebrating the wrong heroes.

The real heroes of newspapers are those journalists who stay. The real heroes are the editors (from large papers like Atlanta or small ones like Bloomington) who are reconfiguring their newsrooms. The real heroes are reporters like those in Bakersfield who are shooting video while reporting. The real heroes are photographers like Fred Larson of the San Francisco Chronicle who using a blog to teach his readers how to make extraordinary photos like his.

Quitting is not heroic. Leaving colleagues during a time of change is not heroic. Declaring that the future of journalism can not be as good as its past is not heroic.

Our book, News, Improved, is for the real heroes of newspapers - those working to reinvent them. Eric Newton, the Knight Foundation vice president who underwrites such journalism projects as J-Lab, the Committee of Concerned Journalists and our project, Tomorrow's Workforce, wrote the introduction. It began with these words (emphasis added):

"News, Improved is for journalists who intend to thrive in the 21st Century. It is an exploration of the new world right in front of us, a manual for those ready to stop pining for the past and start growing with the future. The message: Any journalist can learn to join the booming digital world of targeted, convenient, interactive media."

I was thinking about that statement recently - specifically about the opportunity, and hard work, ahead for journalists "who intend to thrive" in the coming decades of continuing media shift. I was in a hotel conference room in Los Angeles at a gathering of 10 top editors and their new media managers. The event was sponsored by the Knight New Media Center and designed to be a get-dirty-and-get-busy session focused on developing strategies for the digital age.

I spoke briefly about our project and the lessons we learned from newspapers that are succeeding at change, about the need for strong leadership, product development and equipping journalists with new sets of skills. I said little that I or others haven't said before. But for the most part they listened. Their faces showed concentration and, among many of them, weariness. They had been at this hard business of change - changing their newsrooms, changing themselves - for a couple of tough days. A couple of editors who seem disengaged stood out. When their colleagues probed, they smirked. When solutions were offered, they objected, citing tired reasons of staffing or funding or definitions of what is or isn't journalism.

This scene came to mind again today when, while doing some catch-up reading, I found Steve Yelvington's post about the same gathering. He wrote (emphasis added):

"The best news may be what I didn't hear: defensiveness. I didn't hear a bunch of talk about protecting the old core. Or any nonsense about cannibalization.

"It's easy to snipe at newspapers for 'too little, too late,' but I think we're actually in a cycle of irrational negativity about their prospects. There is much unharvested opportunity in local markets, and if newspapers can focus their very substantial resources in the right directions, there's a future to be found."

The State of the News Media 2007 report characterized traditional journalists as moving from defensiveness to fear about the digital future of news. Good. Fear is a great motivator. Nobody moves faster than someone fighting for their life.

All the negatives cited in the report are true, especially the eroding print business model and lack of a viable digital replacement. But, as simplistic as this assertion sounds, there will be a future of news. Some of it will resemble the past, much of it won't. How it is shaped, what influence it has, who will work in it, how credible it is, what its principles are and how much money it can make are all still open questions.

Only one certainty exists: That future will belong to those who build it. Walking away isn't the answer. Staying, working the problem, finding solutions, making hard choices, learning to think differently - those are the answers. And the people who do that are the real heroes of journalism.

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Posted by Tim Porter at March 13, 2007 10:40 AM


I posted a list of "new journalism heroes" recently on the Innovation in College Media weblog. here's the link. Stop by and feel free to add to the list. Great to see you're back blogging again. and I'd love to interview you sometime.

Posted by: Bryan Murley on March 13, 2007 10:16 AM

Damn straight! Good to have you back swinging, Tim.

Posted by: Mark Potts on March 13, 2007 11:22 AM

Hmmm. The link got stripped out. Anyway, go to the weblog and search for "new heroes."

Posted by: Bryan Murley on March 13, 2007 12:21 PM

Are you allowed to shout "Testify!" in a comment. Or should I stick with an "Amen to that".

By the way, if you're interested in seeing one way of planning for the future of the journalism The Economist are running Project Red Stripe -

We're looking for ideas at the moment and the best one we've had involves Terraforming the entire planet. Unfortunately we don't have the budget.

Posted by: Tom on March 14, 2007 10:32 AM

Why did you leave newspapering? Didn't see yourself as a hero?

Posted by: Mark on March 14, 2007 02:14 PM

It is so good to see you fired up again. This is about as direct and clear as it gets. Good luck with your new book. I'm already on the list for 4 copies. I have friends you know!

Posted by: deborah Rabin on March 15, 2007 09:31 AM

welcome back, tim. i'll be checking out News, Improved.

as for this post, i would like to say that some of us independents (who have walked away from the current system) are helping shape the future of news as well (if nothing else, by spurring the big companies to use those big piles of resources on local communities...)

me and a small group of others are going to start community training (probably once a month) using our sites - showing people how to get their own information out. exciting stuff.

in any case, good to read ya here again. don't forget about those of us on the fringe. ;)

btw, we picked up a press release about you. before i read closely, i thought you were coming to indy at first. best of luck with the book.


Posted by: kpaul on March 16, 2007 08:19 PM
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