March 31, 2004

Still Jammed

I'm still traveling (off to New York today), and up against several deadlines. Regular posting should resume next week. Until then, here's the best of First Draft.

Posted by Tim Porter at 09:16 AM

March 18, 2004

Roundup from the Road

I'm traveling (see below), but here are some things that caught my eye while catching up via the Atlanta Hilton's wi-fi ($9.95/day) connection:

 Susan Mernit on paralyzing factors: "… the three words that spell challenge to large media companies … are complacency, bureaucracy, and fear. Complacency that a market lead will endure (cause you want it to). Bureaucracy (curse of all mature companies), Fear (Of change, new blood, people's jobs changing, and so on). This is the cycle of product innovation--and now it is being applied to media.

 Tom Mangan on ethics from the ACES conference: "Obey the inner voice telling you 'we can't put this in the paper.'"

 Bob Stepno on the cross-pollination capabilitities of journalism skills: "I do believe the curiosity and healthy skepticism, fact-finding and storytelling skills, and the values and ethics of 'the type of journalism taught by journalism schools' apply quite well to the online world as well as print and broadcast news."

 Steve Outing on newspaper web design: "The home pages of most news Web sites are too cluttered and suffer from link and content overload." (Thanks, JD.)

 Jay Rosen on blog-watching the L.A.Times: A blogger accuses the Times of liberal bias; the Times takes the challenge and proves him wrong.

Posted by Tim Porter at 07:03 PM

March 17, 2004


I'm on the road for the rest of the week and will post depending on time and hotel broadband. This is a good opportunity for you to catch up on some of the Best of First Draft:

 The Quality Manifesto: What started it all.

 Journalists Overpaid? Nonsense: There are many reasons newsrooms have disconnected from the communities they cover, but overly fat paychecks is not one of them.

 No More Whining: He's wrong that penurious publishers are to blame for readership woes.

 Eliminating the Bimbo Factor: I practiced journalism, but I knew almost nothing about it - although I thought I did.

 Would You Pay a Nickel to Read This?: In the world of online newspapers (and other media), the debate over whether to charge for content (more revenue) or not (more readers) draws well-reasoned and emotional commentary from both sides.

 Newspapers Disrupted: "When you realize this newfangled thing is stealing your business, and you aren't sure how to get it back."

 How Journalism Went Bad: Reading writer Michael D'Antonio's thoughtful essay on the demise of traditional journalism (print and broadcast) in the L.A. Times reminded me of the Woody Allen line about death: "It's not that I'm afraid to die, I just don't want to be there when it happens."

 Time for a Leadership Tuneup: Newspapers are like cars. They are complex machines that require regular maintenance, occasional new parts and a certain amount of high-speed driving to keep the grit and road grime from dulling their engines.

 There's Nothing Left but the Journalism: Quality sells. Relevance matters. The real lesson both the newsroom and the boardroom need to learn is that, in the age of the 24-hour scroll, the micro-fragmentation of electronic media, and the constant clamor for a news consumer's attention by everyone from the New York Times to yours truly, all that's left is the journalism.

 The Journalism of Complacency: Tim Rutten, who was completely wrong about Daniel Okrent (see my comments here and here), noses about for the roots of journalistic evil and finds it to be money - that is, the relative affluence of reporters and editors, at least those in larger news organizations. He's half-wrong again - but inadvertently landed on a point worth making.

Posted by Tim Porter at 07:51 AM

March 16, 2004

Same Sex Reporting

I haven't commented on the decision by the management of the San Francisco Chronicle to prohibit newly-wed reporter Rachel Gordon and photographer Liz Mangelsdorf from reporting further on the same-sex marriage story because I know everybody involved. Tom Mangan has a few things to say, though.

Posted by Tim Porter at 10:23 AM | Comments (3)

Fixing News

Jeff Jarvis, in response to the Project for Excellence in Journalism's excellent report on the dismal state of the news business, offers some on-the-mark advice on how to fix things, including this: "News organizations need to be able to concentrate instead of what makes them uniquely valuable to their audiences."

To me, this point underlies all others when considering how to engage newspaper readers and has been expressed by me and others many times. What a newspaper is not selling is news. It is selling an experience. It is selling an interaction with readers.

A newspaper must be a reflection of its community as well as be a vehicle for a conversation with its community. This means local news, local columnists, local participation by its readers.

Macro-news is not unique. Micro-news, community news, is. And, although there is much talk in the newspaper industry about "chicken dinner" news and local soccer scores, local news is not unimportant news. Instead, it is arguably the most important news. It is also about children's education, the local environment, money for libraries, museums and local theater. It is about the quality of our day-to-day lives.

When newspapers make those issues their top priority, and do so in a way that invites citizens to participate in -- and at times lead -- the process of journalism, each of them will be unique. And that's something readers will pay for.

[ Read: Expectations and Citizen Journalism, Local News: The Public's Journalism, News from the Readership Wars. ]

Posted by Tim Porter at 06:26 AM

Web hosting advice?

I'm suffering through spate of downtime with my hosting company (Valueweb). Do you have any recommendations for a new host?

Posted by Tim Porter at 05:53 AM | Comments (7)

March 15, 2004

The News about News

The Project for Excellence in Journalism's new report on "The State of the News Media," which finds very little good news amid of diagnosis of chronic decline, can be interpreted many ways, depending on your belief in what went wrong and what can be done, if anything, to fix things.

Today, I'm focusing on the last four paragraphs of the 500-plus-page report, which argue for a return to serious, civic-minded journalism as an curative for the creeping distrust in which news organizations are held by the public.

I am not naïve enough to believe that a renewed commitment to quality journalism is enough to reverse the industry's misfortunes, but it's where we have to start.

Here's the ending of the PEJ report:

"It is possible that the public is simply of two minds. It wants a more entertainment-infused, more sensationalized, more interpretative style of news, and the media have given it to them. The public then feels repulsed and derides the messenger for delivering it.

"It is also possible that this declining trust has only a little to do with the press, that these attitudes toward the news media are only a reflection of a declining trust in all institutions.

"Brushing off these issues as a sign of public hypocrisy or general skepticism, however, seems too glib. The public attitudes aside, something is changing in the news media. Faced with declining audiences, many major news institutions have changed their product in a way that costs less to produce while still attracting an audience. The public senses this and says it doesn't like it.

"Blaming the news media for these changes is too easy. Journalism faces more difficult economic circumstances than it once did. Yet the way the news industry responded has helped erode public trust. How long can the profession of journalism endure if people increasingly don't believe it? To reverse the slide in audience and trust will probably take a major change in press behavior, one that will make the news more relevant and customizable and at the same time suggest to the public, as it did briefly after September 11, that the news industry is more concerned with the public good than Americans suspect." (Emphasis added.)

 Project for Excellence in Journalism The State of the News Media 2004
 USA Today This just in: The future of news
 Washington Post: Howard Kurtz In a Deluge of Scandal, An Erosion of Trust
 New York Times Study Finds a Waning Appetite for News

Posted by Tim Porter at 07:23 AM | Comments (1)

March 12, 2004

Age-old Issues, Young Reporters

Commenting on a post on the Mediamorphosis blog about young reporters, a reader wrote: "... turnover at community papers refreshes them. Would you rather have creating spin or lingering deadheads?"

Without debating the binary nature of limiting the choices to creativity and flat-lining, I posted the following comment in disagreement with that statement:

As the author of the Vacaville story, which I wrote for American Journalism Review, I have to disagree with Chris Waddle: Turnover at community newspapers doesn't refresh them. In fact, it does just the opposite: It stagnates them.

As young, promising reporters parade through these papers -- whose readership (under 50,000 circ.) constitutes more than half of all U.S. newspaper readership -- they take what little community knowledge they've gained with them, forcing well-meaning editors like Diane Barney of Vacaville to start over with a new reporter, teaching them about the community, the issues, the people and hoping the raw talent and J-school how-to skills they have can be molded into something that is meaningful for the readers of the paper before that reporter, too, heads off to greener pastures.

When good reporters leave, the readers lose. Yes, stagnant newspapers -- and there are many -- need rejuvenation, as does any organization whether its product is ideas or column inches. But good small newspapers run by vibrant, smart editors don't need more turnover. They need energetic reporters whose reporting skills grow as their community insight grows, resulting in better journalism for the public, which, of course, is the goal.

Imagine if your own business lost its brightest talents after 18 months. Imagine replacing 25 percent or more of your productive employees annually. Now imagine trying to produce quality work and provide leadership in that environment.

Finally, as I pointed out in the AJR story, the end result of all these young reporters trying to move up the pyramid is that the pyramid, being what it is, narrows toward the top and can't accommodate all the people who want to work in the higher echelon newspapers, so they become frustrated and leave the profession, contributing further to one of journalism's most critical problems: It's brain drain.

The solution is twofold:

1. Challenging and engaging better journalists who work at all levels of the profession through ongoing professional development in environments that encourage career-long learning, innovation and communication.

2. Better salaries. You can't spend satisfaction.

Posted by Tim Porter at 11:32 AM

Morph Me an Editor, Please

No one needs an editor. Reporters don’t. Bloggers don’t. Even other editors don’t. But last night I realized why I want an editor.

I was too busy yesterday to keep up with all the intellectual activity at Mediamorphosis, an API Media Center conference underway in San Diego with a lot of smart people talking about, well, media, so last night I went to the conference blog to catch up and in moments was overwhelmed by all the posts, comments and back channel chatter.

I scanned the page, scrolled, scanned again – looking for some kind of summary of the conference and the many conversations taking place. There wasn’t one. It was late and I moved on, thinking I’d get to it this morning.

Then it occurred to me: I wanted a story. I wanted someone to take all the day’s events, filter them, order them and compile them in a format I could scan quickly and then go deeper into if something grabbed my interest.

Isn’t that someone an editor?

In the world of “we media” where every citizen is a publisher, how do we citizen publishers keep up with all the other citizens who are publishing? That’s a role journalists fulfill now, observing others for us.

I’m not saying bloggers themselves should be edited (although feedback from readers is participatory editing) – but I think I’d like someone to edit the blogosphere for me.

Anyone want to start a “we-news” service?

UPDATE: JD Lasica responds that "last year Rusty Foster (founder of Kuro5hin), Matt Haughey (founder of Metafilter and proprietor of the PVR blog) and I were talking about starting a participatory news service, but got sidetracked by other projects." Save me a seat on the rim, JD.

Posted by Tim Porter at 08:15 AM | Comments (2)

March 11, 2004

Blogfire of the Vanity

Columnist James Wolcott, writing in Vanity fair, says "journalism can't and shouldn't be taken over by bloggers, but they can take away some of the toys, and pull down the thrones."

The article is not online, but Jeff Jarvis, whose non-blogging day job as head of makes him responsible for Vanity Fair stories not being online, penitently excerpts much of Wolcott's piece on Buzzmachine. Here's a taste:

"Far from being a refuge for nose-picking narcissists, blogs have speedily matured into the most vivifying, talent-swapping, socializing breakthrough in popular journalism since the burst of coffeehouse periodicals and political pamphleteering in the 18th century, when The Spectator, The Tatler, and sundry other sheets liberated writing from literary patronage. If Adison and Steele, the editors of The Spectator and The Tatler, were alive and holding court at Starbucks, they'd be WiFi-ing into a joint blog...." (Emphasis added.)

Blogs are a journalistic catalyst. How much they will change the profession and its most traditional practitioners -- newspapers -- I can't say. I do know, though, that they will further fuel the one idea newspapers must embrace in order to survive: That journalists and the public are partners with a common goal, a free flow of information. Partners must talk in order to succeed -- that's what makes blogs work: conversation.

There's more over at Jarvis.

Posted by Tim Porter at 07:36 AM | Comments (1)

March 10, 2004

Expectations and Citizen Journalism

Dave Winer posts his notes from a Berkman Center discussion on citizen journalism, politics weblogs, and raises the idea that the news business is contributing to its own decline by aiming coverage at the lowest common public denominator, thereby forcing consumers who want more sophisticated information to look elsewhere -- in this case to fellow citizens through their blogs.

Winer writes:

"In 2004, our expectation for information is much greater than it was just ten years ago. Today we're surprised when information is not available, and expect it to be available shortly. Example: When is Easter this year? That's hard to find (but the info is available on the Web). In a few years we expect it to be easy.

"Our expectation for finding information is going up, as the economics of professional journalism force them to dumb-down coverage and lay off reporters. So the vaccuum is being filled from a variety of sources, including other citizens." (Emphasis added)

News is a commodity. That is now a given. Even local news, which I have long argued is a franchise saver for newspapers, is threatened by continuing attempts to aggregate it online. (See the recent launch of Topix as an example, which, while drawing on newspapers as sources, extends its news feed beyond them to TV, trades and online news producers.)

While newspapers must continue to be in the basic news business (a good question though is how to reshape and scale that basic reporting), and even should become online aggregators themselves to preserve their position as a dominant news source, their sole distinguishing capability from other daily media is the production of quality journalism. Newspapers remain the largest local and regional repositories of trained journalists. They have more people, more gear and, still in most cases, more audience, than any other individual medium.

But without a commitment to excellence -- and that means turning their full attention to their audience, their community, their potential readers -- newspapers will be further relegated to irrelevance by readers who want informed reporting, contextual information and, at times, sophisticated argument.

Citizen journalism, as Winer said, is growing because it is meeting a demand.

Posted by Tim Porter at 09:25 AM

Blair-ly True

I have been waiting for someone to fact check Jayson Blair's book and find the inevitable: That Blair lifted some of it from somewhere.

Sure enough, Carter Nelsen writes in Romenesko's letters:

" ... it took me less than 20 seconds to run across the opening paragraph of Chapter 6, which touches on that summer internship:

'It was the summer of 1997. I was in the glass-walled office of Louisa Williams, the assistant managing editor in charge of recruitment, hiring and interns at The Boston Globe. I was about halfway into the twelve-week internship. Editors had been praising me for being enterprising, intense and coming to work early and staying late, but I could tell that this conversation was not going to be pretty.'

"Which immediately brought to mind the opening paragraphs of a feature story that ran in the Globe on May 22:

"'It was the summer of 1997, and Jayson T. Blair was at the center of a newsroom controversy. Blair, then 21, was sitting in the glass-walled office of assistant managing editor Louisa Williams. The door was closed. Just six weeks into a 12-week summer internship, Blair had already cut a considerable swath through The Boston Globe. In some respects, he was exactly what editors look for in a reporter: nervy, enterprising, prolific, eager to arrive early and stay late.'" (Emphasis added)

Enough said.

Posted by Tim Porter at 08:16 AM | Comments (1)

March 09, 2004

Local News: The Public's Journalism

I've said it here and here and here, that local news is a newspaper's franchise to lose. It is the one distinguishing type of reporting and information that separates Your Local Times from the glut of news served up by Yahoo or Google.

The irony is that the greatest threat to newspapers' struggle for continued relevance may be not the new media companies, but members of the disenfranchised public who cannot find the news they want or need in their local paper so they're, to borrow from Scoop Nisker, going out and making some of their own.

That's what Jim Zellmer of Madison, Wis., is doing -- covering the local school board election online with candidate interviews, schedules and campaign finance reports.

This is participatory journalism, or as J.D. Lasica, Shayne Bowman and Chris Willis called it in a report for New Directions for News, "We Media." Writing for the story for the Online Journalism Review of this upswell of grassroots reporting, Lasica quoted San Jose Mercury News columnist Dan Gillmor:

"It's about readers participating in the editorial process, and it's long overdue. People at the edges of the network are getting a chance to become more involved in traditional journalism by using many of the same tools of the trade. This is tomorrow's journalism, with professionals and gifted amateurs as partners." (Emphasis added).

This is traditional reporting, technology enabled and driven by one man's desire. As Jeff Jarvis said today, pointing to Zellmer's work: "All it takes is one citizen who cares... and a keyboard."

Imagine what a newspaper could do with many reporters and many keyboards if only it could break free of conventions dictating what it should do.

(Thanks to Gillmor and Jarvis).

[ Read: Local, Local, Local ]

Posted by Tim Porter at 06:26 AM

March 08, 2004

Journalists Caught in Haiti's Violence

Good journalism matters. And it matters enough to good journalists that sometimes they die doing it.

Gunmen in Haiti yesterday killed Spanish television photographer Ricardo Ortega and shot South Florida Sun-Sentinel photographer Michael Laughlin. Both were covering a march.

Here's the Sun Sentinel's story on the march and the shootings.

Click below to see a series of photographs of Laughlin before and after he was shot.

UPDATE, Tuesday: Sun-Sentinel interview with Laughlin: "I feel lucky, very lucky."

Photographer caught in a cross fire

Michael Laughlin

South Florida Sun-Sentinel photographer Michael Laughlin, stands behind Haitian SWAT police just he was hit by a bullet from unknown gunmen in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, March 7, 2004. Suspected supporters of exiled Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide sprayed gunfire into a crowd of thousands of jubilant revelers outside the National Palace on Sunday, killing at least six people, including a Spanish journalist, and wounding 18. The wounded included two Haiti police officers and American journalist Michael Laughlin of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel newspaper, who was shot in face and shoulder. Hospital officials said the dead included Spaniard Ricardo Ortega, a correspondent for the Antena 3 Spanish television station. REUTERS/Daniel Morel

Michael Laughlin

U.S. photographer Michael Laughlin of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel (R) takes cover in a courtyard after being hit by a bullet from unknown gunmen, who opened fire into a crowd during a demonstration, in Port-au-Prince, March 7, 2004. Suspected supporters of exiled Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide sprayed gunfire into a crowd of thousands of jubilant revelers outside the National Palace on Sunday, killing at least six people, including a Spanish journalist, and wounding 18. Laughlin was shot in face and shoulder. REUTERS/Daniel Morel

Michael Laughlin

Members of the 43rd Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron from Pope Air Force Base, N.C., stabilize the condition of a civilian reporter with a neck wound at Port-Au-Prince, Haiti on Sunday, Mar. 7th, 2004. The reporter was wounded when violence erupted at a protest where thousands of Haitians were celebrating the flight of ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. (AP Photo/Sgt.Andy Dunaway, U.S. Air Force)

Michael Laughlin

U.S. photojournalist Michael Laughlin of the South Florida Sun Sentinel newspaper sits after being treated for a gunshot wound to the face and shoulder, after he was shot by unknown assailants at a demonstration by groups opposed to former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, in Port-au-Prince, March 7, 2004. Thousands of Haitians shouted 'we want justice' and celebrated the ouster of ex-President Aristide on Sunday under the watchful eyes of local police and battle-ready foreign troops. REUTERS/Eliana Aponte

Posted by Tim Porter at 03:07 PM

Help Wanted: Frontrunner Flogger

Political reporters need a new job description, says Jay Rosen in this piece in the Columbia Journalism Review, one that goes beyond the "conventional, common-sense description of the job."

Rosen quotes ex-Washington Postie Paul Taylor on how political reporting has evolved into a "'master narrative' built around two principal story lines: 'the search for a candidate’s character flaws, and the depiction of the campaign as a horse race.'"

The new job description, says Rosen, needs to account for these non-traditional components of political reporting:

 Establishing the figure of the “frontrunner” and its rituals of scrutiny.
 Previewing the get-elected strategy of candidates and reviewing it as performance.
 Conducting polls, by formulating the questions to be asked, paying for the research, and publicizing the results as news.
 Moderating and sometimes sponsoring candidate debates, which means selecting who belongs in them.
 Creating a class of “authorized knowers” who are repeatedly asked to comment on the campaign.

Rosen's pieces is neither an endorsement nor a criticism of these roles, but rather a call for honesty, for journalists to recognize themselves, as Taylor put it, "players in a political contest in which they also serve as observers, commentators and referees."

This is the right way to think. An unvarnished self-image betters the ability of journalists to understand what they do, and without that recognition there can be no improvement.

For an example of political reporting done by a journalist who abandoned the "master narrative," read Rosen's examination on PressThink of the work reporter Marjie Lundstrom did at the Sacramento Bee, which focused on the public not on the candidates. [ Read: Identified Sources, Usual Suspects ]

 Columbia Journalism Review: Jay Rosen Players

Posted by Tim Porter at 08:48 AM

March 06, 2004

Pulitzer Buzz

Kevin Roderick of LA Observed posts a list of Pulitizer Prize finalists and points to a story in the Washingtonian about the list making the rounds of some newsrooms.

The L.A. Times leads the list -- which is not complete -- in total finalists. The Toledo Blade, the smallest newspaper on the list, is still in the running for its series on atrocities in Vietnam by a special unit of U.S. soldiers.

UPDATE, Monday: Editor and Publisher has what it calls the complete list of finalists.

Posted by Tim Porter at 09:14 AM

March 05, 2004

Identified Sources, Usual Suspects

Campaign Desk sourced the sources quoted in recent political stories and found - to no one's surprise - that anyone who gives good quote draws reporters like buzzards to carrion.

What is interesting is how the sources interviewed by CD view the reporters - as pack hounds seeking what everyone else has, as sound bite collectors in search of a phrase and as journalistic scavenger hunters searching for the pieces that will match a story they've formed before they've even done the reporting.

"Most reporters already know what they want when they call an expert," said Campaign Desk paraphrasing Emmett H. Buell Jr., a political scientist Denison University in Ohio. Said Buell: "They've formed an opinion. They then call up three people who will second that [opinion]. It's pretty mechanical."

Here's another example from the story:

"Charles W. Dunn, who taught political science at Clemson University and now teaches at Grove City College in Pennsylvania … On more than one occasion, he says, he has basically dictated the outline of a story to a hungry reporter on deadline.

"'When you're good at two- or three-word sound bites, they're going to be calling you,' says Dunn, whose specialty is religion in politics." (Emphasis added)

The other day I interviewed a Los Angeles attorney who is widely quoted for her opinions on progressive issues. She explained how she dealt with a reporter from a national newspaper on one story: She gave the reporter background on the story, explained the different sides, gave her names of experts, characterized how forthcoming these sources they might be and told her what articles to read for more information. In other words, said the attorney, "I became her research bank."

In other words, the attorney walked the reporter through the story, blocked out the various points of view and fed her the sources needed to make the story happen. Is it any wonder that so many professionals in law, business, science and other knowledge fields find reporters uniformed and think them intellectually ill-equipped to understand issues critical to those fields.

Campaign Desk reports that one Dante J. Scala, an expert on the New Hampshire primary, was quoted "more than 170 times in the past six months." Scala became so sought after by the news media he said he lacked the time to research the campaign. His research consisted of reading the very papers that were calling him to comment. He said:

"They were calling me to find out what was going on in New Hampshire but I was in my office tied to the phone, and all I knew was what they had written that day. I kept trying to think, can I come up with something from my local knowledge versus what I had just read in the Times or the Post?" (Emphasis added)

Here in California, political reporters call UC-Berkeley political scientist Bruce Cain. Last year, when voters recalled Gov. Gray Davis and replaced him with Arnold Schwarzenegger, Cain's named appear in the San Francisco Chronicle 35 times and in the Sacramento Bee 42 times. In the last two years, the Los Angeles Times published Cain's name 52 times.

Familiarity may not necessarily breed contempt among readers, but it does induce boredom. The combination of familiar sources and reporters looking for either quick quotes or predetermined responses ensures flaccid reporting.

At the core of the problem is the political reporting process, which has become a formulaic shell of actual reporting: It looks like a story, it reads like a story, it's got all the quotes of a story - but in fact it is hollow, devoid of information and insight.

As I said here [ Read: Servant Journalism ] in response to Jeff Jarvis' question - Is political reporting really reporting? - reporters in general and political reporters in particular are facing the wrong direction: Toward the public figures and politicians instead of toward the public and the community.

It's time for them to turn around. There's more to journalism than calling Dante J. Scala or Bruce Cain.

 Campaign Desk Talking Heads

Posted by Tim Porter at 08:51 AM

Digital Age, Analog Thinking

Once again, I’m jammed with work so posting has been light, but if you haven’t yet seen Vin Crosbie’s excellent article in Online Journalism Review about the future of newspapers – printed and electronic – then go read it.

Crosbie says with depth what I’ve said many times more succinctly: Newspapers as a mass medium are dying. The future is in class – and Crosbie argues that technology enables a class to be as small as one person. Here is a highlight:

“The real solution for the industry's future doesn't revolve around simply adding multimedia to generic editions. It instead will require that the newspaper industry:

1. Use new technologies to match the newspaper's existing cornucopia of content to satisfy each individual reader's unique mix of interests
2. Understand that neither newsprint nor the Web nor digital editions nor wireless is the answer, but that the true convergence of all those into a single unitary product not only is necessary but likely within 10 years
3. Focus less on the industry's ability to produce content and more on its unique service of delivering to people a complete package of content -- a change that requires newsrooms and corporations to go beyond traditional definitions of ‘news’ or ‘syndicated sources.’”

Read it all.

Posted by Tim Porter at 07:16 AM | Comments (1)

March 03, 2004

News from the Readership Wars

For the last four years, the Readership Institute at Northwestern University has been churning out good research on ways newspapers can combat readership loss by embracing these eight imperatives:

Service Push service into the "excellence zone"

Editorial & Advertising Content
Improve high-potential content areas
Focus on a particular type of local news
Make the newspaper easier to read & more navigable
Improve advertising content
Promote content more effectively in the newspaper

Build a positive brand that's relevant to readers

Organizational Culture
Develop an adaptive, constructive culture that is attuned to readers

A new survey by the Institute finds that many newspapers are trying to rebuild their newsroom and business operations about those imperatives.

The Institute sent the survey to "publishers of every daily newspaper in the United States," which would be about 1,450 papers, but, sadly, it received only 112 responses. The good news, though, is that at those 112 papers at least some people are thinking about readership at least some of the time - and that would not have happened to such an extent before the Readership Institute was formed.

Some responses that struck me as noteworthy, not only for their intrinsic understanding of today's evolving relationship between news producers and news consumers, but because they also reflect actions taken in environments that for decades have rewarded inaction. They are something ventured. Here is a sampling:

Lessons Learned

 The Daily Times (Farmington, NM): "The most important lesson I have learned is to throw out all my preconceptions as a journalist and listen to our readers."

 The Capital (Annapolis, MD): "We weren't listening to readers enough. Editors thought they had a better handle on what readers wanted when, in truth, we had no clue."

 The Desert Sun (Palm Springs, CA): "We have also learned to be bolder and more daring…In the various enhancements we have made, we have realized that we often need to be bolder than we first thought we could be. We have learned to take more risks."

 The Tribune-Democrat (Johnstown, PA): "I was surprised that our Neighbors section was rated so highly by readers - but it's all local. It's incredibly time consuming to produce, but it was ranked highest in our studies. Instead of it being the ugly stepchild in the newsroom that no one wanted to work on, it suddenly has value."

 Rock Island Argus (IL): "Culture and old school ways of thinking are formidable obstacles."

The survey reported an emphasis on overcoming those "formidable" cultural obstacles, especially those erected by the people with the most to lose - managers. "At the department-head level people resist and often fear change," one small newspaper said in its survey response.

The Readership Institute said efforts at cultural change - something desperately needed in newspapers, where risk adverse, confrontational behavior has stifled innovation and promoted insularity - focused on four areas: "increasing the organization's focus on readership; breaking down 'silos' separating departments; reforming personnel management practices to better support readership goals; and becoming more outward-looking."

Some newspapers, such at the Austin American-Statesman, tied cultural change to professional growth and created "a training program to teach all 236 of the paper's managers and supervisors about constructive management styles and

Others, such as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, reported that "innovation, research and development" is now a "constant" component of a culture "that encourages innovation."

The Readership Institute report is hundreds of pages of long, but you should read at least some of it. Here's why:

First, it is encouraging. It would be easy to dismiss some of the comments as self-serving or naïve (say, in their discovery that readers want local news), but to me it is more constructive to focus on the reality that readership - in other words, survival - is a growing part of the institutional consciousness of many newspapers.

Second, it is informative. Most of the ideas implemented by these 112 newspapers transfer easily to other papers. Perhaps those 1,300-plus publishers who couldn't bother to respond to the Readership Institute's survey might learn a thing or two.

Finally, it provides a benchmark of sorts against which newspaper journalists can measure their attitudes about their profession, their understanding of the communities they cover and their own actions to engage readers.

 Readership Institute Getting Traction on Readership

Posted by Tim Porter at 09:13 AM | Comments (1)