December 23, 2004

Rethinking the News Factory (Again)

Doug Fisher, who teaches journalism in South Carolina and blogs at Commonsense Journalism, responds to one of my plaints about the dearth of newsroom innovation with a strong argument that because newspapering remains a manufacturing industry there are "severe financial disincentives" for publishers to retool the news factory into a more flexible model.

Doug is spot on in noting that separating a publisher from his or her money can be harder than finding fresh news at a presidential press conference, and he is equally correct in pointing out that newspapers have millions invested in legacy printing and distribution systems that are more inflexible than a copy desk chief on deadline, but I think he overlooks a couple of points.

First, it may be wishful thinking to suggest, as Doug does, that innovation will arrive at newspapers when full depreciation is realized on hefty capital investments made in the '80s and '90s. There are many people more knowledgeable about this end of the business than I, but this story, from April 2003, suggests that newspaper companies continue to make large-scale investments in printing and distribution facilities. Here's a snip:

"Among capital projects completed or announced (in recent years): $72 million at The Indianapolis Star; $125 million at the Omaha World-Herald; $85 million for The Courier-Journal in Louisville, Ky.; $199 million at The Kansas City Star; $90 million at the Dayton Daily News; $52 million at The Des Moines Register; $170 million at the Detroit Free Press and The Detroit News; $115 million at the Chicago Sun-Times; $50 million for the Daily Herald in suburban Chicago; $38 million at The Buffalo News; $82 million at The Honolulu Advertiser.

"All of which, despite the fears generated by the Internet in the late '90s, represents a vote of confidence in print and paper." (Emphasis added.)

And why wouldn't newspaper companies continue to pour hundreds of millions into these systems? The ROI has, and continues to be, substantial. In the same story, venerable (and ubiquitous) newspaper industry analyst John Morton points out that in 2002, a sorry year for advertising, newspaper companies still "managed to bring in average operating profits of 22%."

Newspaper publishers, and stockholders, remain expectant of such returns even though the long-term forecast for the print circulation base and advertising revenue is grim.

In the current issue of Columbia Journalism Review, Philip Meyer, a University of North Carolina journalism professor and longtime proponent of the theory that quality journalism can produce healthy - if not astronomic - financial returns, posits that the problem is mindset, both on the part of the journalists who think more money from the publisher will cure what ails them and on the part of the publisher who blindly pours millions into a business model that has been fatally undermined by economic, social and technological changes. Meyer writes in his article "Saving Journalism" (Emphasis added.):

"Newspaper old-timers like me tend to blame the business side. All that is required to restore journalism to its golden age, we are tempted to say, is for the greedy investors and their bean counters to retire from the scene and allow themselves to be replaced by people more like the philosopher-king publishers of yore. Great journalism would draw great audiences again.

"But those guys aren't coming back. Their business model has been irreversibly undermined by new technology. The only way to save journalism is to develop a new model that finds profit in truth, vigilance, and social responsibility. …

"As monopolists or near-monopolists, the publishers of the last century enjoyed abnormally high profit margins: 20 percent to 40 percent. Newspaper companies might believe that those abnormal margins are their birthright, but they're not. High-quality journalism is still economically feasible, but it will never again be as profitable. The real problem is adjusting to profit levels that are normal for competitive markets."

The mechanical nature of newspapering, and the production demands it compels, also infects the priorities of the newsroom. In February 2003, in another piece about Meyer, I wrote:

"The technology transfer of the last two decades that brought the backshop into the newsroom created an assembly-line environment on news and production desks that emphasizes speed over quality, and the development of secondary news products such as zoned editions means these news-hole beasts must be fed, resulting in demand for breadth (quantity) over depth (quality)." [Read: Shutting Down the News Factory.]

In other words, news managers, sometimes driven by advertising initiatives, make staffing and budget allocation choices that result in poor quality journalism. More stories are usually seen as better than fewer, even if most of the stories are mediocre reports on institutional events. Fewer editors are often seen as better than more because it means more writers on the hoof, even if stories get less attention and reporters receive no feedback.

Journalists cannot make legacy publishing systems the culprit for these conditions. This system is of their own making.

Nor can journalists blame publishers for the continued adherence to this regimented newsroom system. Publisher don't really care who covers what as long as the end product makes money. Editors must ask themselves: If I were to configure this newsroom from scratch, would I put it together the same way? This is a hard question and requires serious choices, but if editors are not asking it of themselves then they are not leading the paper along an intentional path; they are, insteadc, merely presiding over its accidental direction. [Read: Intentional Journalism.]

The pressroom and the mailroom don't affect newsroom decisions about coverage priorities, story forms, reader involvement, transparency of editorial process, creation of platform-agnostic content and what type of person is hired. Those calls are made by the journalists. Yes, the news factory mindset colors those decisions, but freeing themselves - deliberately and with intended consequences in mind - is the very challenge that confounds most newspaper journalists. The battle must be fought - and won - in the minds of the journalists before it can be taken to the pocketbooks of the publishers.

To pull from Philip Meyer one more time, in this case from the Quality Project, he believes that "a newspaper's main product is neither news nor information but influence." This is absolutely correct. The value of a newspaper is its relevance to the community it covers and until the editors and reporters in the newsrooms examine their own work through the eyes of that community then all the publisher's millions spent on hardware will be good money tossed after poor journalism.

Posted by Tim Porter at 10:33 AM | Comments (3)

December 22, 2004

Newspapers: Indistinct Equals Extinct

As RSS migrates (slowly, it seems) from the laptops of the few to the screens of the many, it begs answers for how to define it in everyday language and for what affect it will have the media it so handily delivers. One answer to the first question leads directly to further consideration of the second.

In a short piece about RSS the other day, Business Week proffered the description, "Your Online Paperboy." I like that because the anticipation I feel each morning when I open up Bloglines and see the updates from the 50 or so feeds I've chosen replicates the feeling I have each morning when I walk out onto the deck and to pick up what the old-media paperboy (in reality, paper-adult) has delivered, a San Francisco Chronicle, a New York Times and a Wall Street Journal.

I, a Boomer journalist who has cut my teeth on so many forms of media that they are now worn to blunt nubbins, will likely always "take" a newspaper, but my successors won't and that should be a critical concern for newspapers.

How, then, if newspapers intend to not only survive financially but also maintain their relevance as a community institution, will they service readers who can assemble from thousands of information sources a unique publication that will be delivered by that online paperboy to their computer or cell phone?

Simon Waldman, the digital publishing boss for Guardian Newspapers, frames the issue this way (in response to a comment by Jay Rosen):

"We're moving from a world where for reasons of time, effort and general sanity we have relied on a relatively small number of sources to tell us what's happening in the world and to find out information that's of interest to us. As Jay says, our information consumption is more like a sightseeing tour: visiting as many or as few places as we have time for. And, if we don't go there, we simply don't know what we're missing.

"The means of consuming media: ie visiting websites, dictates what we actually consume. Now, this is much more promiscuous, wide ranging and possibly global than most of us have ever been in print…but I sense it is simply the start.

"We are moving to a world where - from a single interface - we can keep tabs on many, many, many more sources of all different types of information (as long as we can understand the set up proceedure). … What we're seeing is the creation of personalised information hypermarkets. And as with the creation of any hypermarket, we are all struggling for shelf space. (All emphasis added.)"

This view of the news media world differs profoundly from the insular perspective from which most newspapers regard their communities. Traditional journalists identify their competitors as other media entities (TV, magazines, Internet) or societal conditions (lack of time, two-job households) and fail to consider at any length the greater dangers posed to their standing by behavioral shifts driven by technology. As Waldman points out, "the real change is about what happens at the receiving end, not the distribution end."

In Mark Glaser's excellent article today in Online Journalism Review, Jay Rosen (again) responds to Glaser's request for list of top five most influential media events or people in 2004 with this (as No. 4):

"Dan Gillmor because he published "We the Media," which means that journalists have no excuse for failing to grasp what is happening with technology, the Net, the press and the public."

A year and a half ago, Gillmor wrote in the Columbia Journalism Review that "interactive technology … is not a threat. It is an opportunity." I echoed that sentiment in August when I wrote that "when fragmentation is commonplace, focus is a differentiator" and newspapers have an opportunity to distinguish themselves with quality journalism that is unique to each community.

Returning to Waldman, he concludes his post with this:

"In a world of a million feeds: there has never been a greater need for distinctive, intelligent reporting, comment and analysis that can stand up even when shorn of its traditional context and design. Indistinct products die in hypermarkets." (Emphasis added.)

In other words, what type of journalism can a newspaper produce that has enough depth, or even just interest or everyday utility, that people will read it regardless of platform?

There is a singular answer to that question for each newspaper and it lies in the nature of the community it serves. Yesterday, I wrote:

"The time is past for newspapers to be all things to all people. That formula is broken. Communities are too diverse and resources too limited to cover everything."

Yet, as much as newspapers fail to grasp the basic significance of the web, they also disregard the importance of a unique, community-focused product and continue to fill their columns with generic stories either generated by wire services or, even worse, written in wire-service mimicry by staff reporters.

Today, for example, the San Francisco Chronicle devoted a reporter's day and about 15 inches on its Business section cover to a story about the sale of Slate to the Washington Post. Should the Chron publish a story about the sale? Of course. Should the paper assign a reporter to write it? Of course not. What, beside one quote from someone at UC-Berkeley, does a staff-written story about the sale of magazine located in one Washington to a newspaper located in another Washington add in terms of value to readers in San Francisco? Nothing.

Regional newspapers like the Chronicle devote tremendous resources to duplicating routine coverage provided by the wires and other syndicated news services largely as a matter of newsroom ego. But what these papers gain in self-puffery, they lose in distinctive local identity. And, ultimately, in the days to come, that uniqueness will be all they have to offer. It's time to bury ego and resurrect local.

Posted by Tim Porter at 09:58 AM | Comments (1)

December 21, 2004

Learn from the Bloggers, My Children

Since the earliest days of the new media revolution, Steve Outing has translated its meaning for old media, first for Editor and Publisher magazine and later for the Poynter Institute, where he works as a senior editor, writer and cat herder for the E-Media Tidbits column.

Steve's latest piece for Poynter tells mainstream journalists what they could learn from bloggers. He offers a comprehensive curriculum - transparency, personality and connection to the public among the topics - and draws on alpha bloggers Glenn Reynolds and Jeff Jarvis, who say smart things like this:

"The news isn't done when we print it," (Jarvis) says. "That's when the public can add questions, corrections, perspective. That will improve news. And it also will change our relationship with the public."

Steve promises a second part of the column. Until then, and with thanks to Steve for the inspiration, here's my list of 10 things traditional journalists, particularly those who work for newspapers, could learn from bloggers:

1. Get personal. Steve mentions this under the heading "personality journalism." I prefer the term "personal journalism." For a good example in a mainstream newspaper, read Macarena Hernandez's powerfully, moving portrait of her trans-border family, One Family, Two Homelands, in the San Antonio Express-News. If you don't tear up, then you never had a grandmother.

2. Explain why you do things. Throw out the black box of news decision-making and let the public in on how and why we do things. After the San Francisco Chronicle, for example, published excerpts from the grand jury testimony of baseball stars Barry Bonds and Jason Giambi, the paper's editor, Phil Bronstein, addressed concerns about the appropriateness of making public secret proceedings. He defended the paper's right to print the testimony but also acknowledged that the Chronicle does not "have a corner on wisdom." Bronstein encouraged continued debate on the story, saying "it's that debate, held openly, that gives our lives vibrancy in a free society."

3. Focus. Good blogs have distinct personalities and themes. The time is past for newspapers to be all things to all people. That formula is broken. Communities are too diverse and resources too limited to cover everything. The result is deepening mediocrity and increasing reliance on institutional reporting - go to a meeting and write a story. This is stenography, not journalism. Imagine taking all the resources your newspaper has and rebuilding the paper from scratch. Would it be the same? I doubt it. What kind of newspaper would you make if your journalism was intentional and not accidental?

4. Print the truth, not just the facts. The L.A. Times' excellent series on a dysfunctional local hospital shows how powerful a point-of-view can be when it is based on sound reporting.

5. Don't just report, teach. Make stories learning opportunities for readers. Become a resource and not just a product. Summarize the running story, point to stories in other publications, list your archived stories so occasional readers can go deeper, link out on the web.

6. Get local, very local. Find ways, either in print or online, to get the chicken dinner and real people news published. Yes, institutions matter, but people matter more.

7. Give readers access to source material. When the San Francisco Chronicle editorial board interviewed mayoral candidates, it broadcast a video of the entire two-hour interview. Viewers not only gained more time with the candidate in order to form their own opinions, they were given insight into the journalistic process and techniques. When a reporter does an interview, the bulk of the conversation usually stays in the notebook. Why not run the full interview online? The same applies to transcripts of court or civil proceedings, court documents such as arrest sheets and lawsuits, and supporting documents from other stories, such as campaign contributions, for example. Remember, show don't tell.

8. Add multiple RSS feeds to your web site. Many papers already do this - Tom Biro has a list here - but most don't. Let readers get your stories their way, not yours.

9. Add email addresses to your stories. (Is it really necessary to say this in 2004?) Let your readers talk to you. So many editors say they don't know what readers want. To them I say: How will you ever know unless you ask every day? No one should have to point this out this late in the game.

10. Finally, adapt. Blogs aren't static. Most newspapers are. Learn to change in response to the flow of news or market conditions. Use news media tools, which are more flexible than print, to implement rapid change. The Spokesman Review in Spokane, Wash., for example, adds new blogs all the time.

 Steve Outing What Mainstream Journalists Can Learn From Bloggers

Posted by Tim Porter at 08:42 AM | Comments (1)

December 20, 2004

Security & Liberty: Did We Do All We Could?

For the the Institute for Justice and Journalism's fellowship conference on covering homeland security and civil liberties, I did an analysis of the newspaper coverage of those issues. A few people have asked for copies of my presenation. The text of the preso and the slides are linked below.

The study, as noted in the text, was non-scientifice and greatly subjective, but still, I think, correctly reflects the poor job American newspapers have done in reporting and explaining the impact of these on their local communities.

Here are summary and closing paragraphs from the text:

"The vast majority of stories are short, off the news, told from an institutional or bureaucratic perspective, and soporific in their “fairness.” The exceptions are, for the most part, found in the largest papers, but only 2.5 percent of the newspapers in the United States have circulations of more than 250,000, meaning that the millions of other newspaper readers rely on routine wire stories or condensed versions of Times or Post or Tribune stories to learn about national security issues. Stories about how these issues affect the local communities of mid-sized and smaller papers are all but nonexistent. Even readers of the 38 newspapers with more than 250,000 circulation are more likely to see stories that are reactive and routine rather than enterprising and exceptional. ...

"Our challenge – on these beats and throughout our news organizations – is to not just report more and write more about security and liberty, but to use our pages and our air time to champion our values as journalists, to challenge efforts to redefine those values as un-American, to confront those who would limit full expression of these values in trade for greater security and a less informed community, and to rebut our detractors with work that never leaves us unsatisfied when we’re asked: Did we do all we could?"

 Covering Liberty & Security Powerpoint (1.5mgs)
 Covering Liberty & Security Word document (84k)

Posted by Tim Porter at 09:52 AM | Comments (1)

December 16, 2004

'Tis the Season … to Keep Hammering

If you're in the newspaper business - either as an owner or a journalist - this seems like the season to be depressed, not joyful. The halls of newspapers journalism are decked in recent days with a spate of doomsday prognostications.

First comes Larry Pryor, executive editor of the Online Journalism Review, decrying, justifiably, the lack of new media risk-taking by news organization, most notably newspapers. Pryor writes (emphasis added):

"If they continue down this road, newspaper publishers will cede the communications business to Net-native publishers. They will miss the coming revolution in broadband and wireless digital technologies. They will not be part of exciting extensions of their core business, such as the creation of virtual communities, virtual malls and auction houses or partnerships in distance learning projects.

"It's a sad sight -- watching newspapers stand by as digital technology explodes, capital shifts to new media ventures and the world awakens to this powerful tool for communication and trade."

Next arrives a Wall Street Journal story about newspaper revenue projections in which an advertising executive, in describing the unappealing environment news columns hold for advertisers, labels reading the newspaper as "more like homework." Ouch.

Finally, a Miami Herald story about declining newspaper circulation says what many have thought but few have uttered: "Now many in the industry say they've come to realize it's not the content that's the problem, it's the form of the newspaper itself."

Actually, I would add the content is also a problem, but recognizing that the form - the rigid container approach to delivering news and advertising - does not offer the flexibility necessary to meet the needs and wants of today's consumers is a big step. This is the elephant at the party.

To web journalists, like Larry Pryor, it's a no-brainer that in order to reinvent themselves newspapers must follow the advice offered by a journalism professor in the Miami Herald story - newspapers "have to first see themselves as companies that process information. Then they have to figure out the distribution of that information.'' But easy adoption of innovation and formation of a new institutional identity doesn't come easily for old-line publishers who don't see immediate financial returns off the web or for tradition-bound editors who can't fathom why a reader might prefer a charticle to an article.

The other day, when I wrote about the need for newspapers to engage in intentional, not accidental journalism, Roger Karraker asked in the comments:

"Tim, do you ever feel as if you're talking to a wall? Your analysis and prescription are spot on. But I get the sense that the owners, publishers, editors and most reporters go blithely on. … This is like watching a train wreck in slow motion."

If you'll allow me, for a moment, a digression into introspection, I can tell you that Roger's question provoked some serious thinking about why I keep hammering at the wall and why I still continue to believe that newspaper journalism is, at its best, a necessary component in a civil society and why I still try to help newspapers do that type of journalism.

I arrived, as I usually do after such an inner walkabout, at the conclusion that the elements of journalism remain sound even if many practitioners of the craft are confused or even addled. This time, though, my optimism was seasoned with an unsavory hint of sadness, a rising whiff of a future absent of newspapers as a relevant community news medium. As Larry Pryor warned in his OJR article:

"Further stalling will make newspaper reporters and editors, and the brand of journalism they stand for, an endangered species."

In order to survive, newspapers must change their form - form, not standard - of journalism (not to mention their means of advertising delivery), but, as radical as those new forms may seem in most newsrooms, I no longer think that is enough. Many news executives know what to do, but they still don't do it. They are handcuffed by cultures that not only inhibit change, but frequently punish those who champion it. What's needed is a fundamental organizational makeover. The current newsroom structure - segregated departments, hierarchical decision-making processes, platform specific (instead of agnostic) content, and strict producer-consumer division - does not permit change on a large enough scale to break newspapers free from the traditions that bind them.

This brings me back to Roger Karraker's question: Do I ever feel like I'm talking to a wall? In this context, then, as optimistic as I usually am, the answer is yes, Roger, I do because I feel like the message - delivered not just by me, but by so many other lovers of journalism more capable than I - isn't taking hold: Adapt or disappear.

Posted by Tim Porter at 07:39 AM | Comments (2)

December 14, 2004

Dan Gillmor’s Interview in OhMyNews

I’m a little late in reading the interview of Dan Gillmor in OhMyNews, the South Korean citizens journalism publication that he credits as one of the inspirations for his book, We the Media, but the conversation reinforces what I said the other day: Dan’s departure from newspapers should be a wake-up call for the industry.

What Dan demonstrates in the OhMyNews interview is a level of thoughtfulness about the future of journalism and concern for engagement with the community that, while probably not as rare in most newsrooms as mainstream news media critics would suggest, is not commonly expressed by newspaper editors or reporters.

Here, for example, Dan talks about the evolvement of journalism from the model of a lecture to that of a conversation (emphasis added):

“What I've been doing personally on the blog for some time now has been all about that. The only way you can have a conversation is if you listen. That's the first rule of conversation. And I've had a wonderful time listening, even when they attack me (laughter). I typically learn more from those who think I'm wrong than from people who think I'm right. Especially when they tell me why I'm wrong.

”And then once you learn how to listen -- which is something journalists need to do better -- then we can then say that with the tools being created -- things like what OhmyNews is doing -- then we can say "Don't just respond to us but let's all talk together" and "Let's develop ways of taking that publication of a story and broadcast and make that the beginning of something."

The technical ability of people to participate in the creation of media – from video to gaming to news – fundamentally alters expectations citizens have of journalists. They are no longer satisfied to watch information loop endlessly through the traditional closed Mobius strip of newsgathering and reporting. Even though many people will continue to place value on the professionalism of journalistic institutions, these same people want access to the process and to the journalists behind it.

Moreover, news institutions no longer have the physical or financial capacity to fully cover the geographic breadth and demographic complexity of their local communities. This is especially true of newspapers, for which local news and advertising are the core franchises. Even the largest of regional newspapers cannot – or will not – add sufficient staff to keep pace with the sprawling exurbia that now surrounds most every large American city. Small newspapers in growing communities have even more difficulty finding the reporting power to cover the even civic institutions that provide the grist of traditional daily news coverage, much less the more interesting stories of people and issues.

As people become more disconnected from one another, and communities lose the common bond of urban identity, research shows people are hungry for news of the one thing that has always interested them most – other people, what the Readership Institute identified in its original impact study as “community announcements, obituaries, ordinary people.”

Participatory journalism can fill that need. Newspapers don’t need holders of J-school master’s degrees to cover county fairs or PTA fund-raisers. Let the readers provide their own news about these sorts of events. Some newspapers, such as the Bakersfield Californian, through its reader-written, dual platform section, The Northwest Voice, are doing just that. Just seven months old, Northwest Voice already has hundreds of reader contributors and is generating new revenue for the paper. "In a typical edition of Northwest Voice, 40 to 50 percent of our advertisers are new or were infrequent (newspaper) advertisers,” the paper’s publisher, Mary Lou Fulton, told the Washington Post.

It is this combination – of professional reporting and writing and of the eagerness of citizens to participate in the creation of their own news – that can make participatory journalism so powerful.

Here is how Dan Gillmor describes the potency of that mixture (emphasis added):

“I also want to bring … the understanding that professional journalists have actually learned a few things over the years -- things that actually work and we shouldn't just throw out those things that work as we go into this new era of citizen journalism. We should apply the best lessons from professional journalism -- which is not to say replicate it -- but to combine the best of the old with that wonderful energy and excitement out there in the grassroots. I think that would be wonderful if I could pull that off.”

Dan’s leap from security to innovation underscores a characteristic that he has and that newspapers need most – a willingness to try something new, to take a risk on an unproven idea. And that is their biggest loss.

Posted by Tim Porter at 10:02 AM

December 11, 2004

Killer Reporting on 'Killer King'

During a conversation yesterday with Michelle Levander about the health-care reporting project she is putting together for California journalists, she urged me to read the L.A. Times' series about the medical incompetence and financial mismanagement at Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center in Los Angeles.

What an incredible piece of journalism. The stories of deadly patient abuse, endemic worker fraud and haughty institutional arrogance, all woven into a pastiche of inflammatory and intimidating racial politics, demonstrate the capacity newspapers hold to serve their communities when journalists are allowed to follow their passions.

I agree with Marc Cooper, who writes in his blog and in his column for L.A. Weekly, that the Times reporters -- Tracy Weber, Charles Ornstein and Mitchell Landsberg -- abandoned what Jay Rosen calls the contraption of objectivity and pursued the series with emotion at full throttle and all journalistic talents in gear. Writes Marc (all emphasis added):

"It’s painfully obvious that the reporters on this series — and apparently the editors — have very strong opinions about Killer King; they clearly think the place sucks. And the stories they have published deliciously reek with those salty perspectives, as they damn well should. ...

"The beautiful aspect of the Times’ series is that every pointed assertion, every contemptuous observation made by the writers, is fully supported by the hard-as-rock bed of facts and figures on which the narrative rests. The L.A. Times team has written a searing, unflinching and unequivocal indictment of a morally criminal operation bereft of any apologies or doubts.

"Wonderfully absent from this reporting is the boilerplate Yes/But "blazing straddle" mealy-mouthed newspaperese that lamely tries to inject "balance" into what is, in reality, a very skewed (and, in this case, screwed up) situation. In other words, by going over the line, by eschewing the routine approach of equaling out every negative assertion with some positive quote from someone else, by rudely shredding the rule book on forced objectivity, the Times has given us — in the King/Drew story — not a biased or unfair view, but instead an infinitely more honest one. The reporters investigated. They found horror. They vividly reported it. Full stop."

I'll admit that when I read the Times' stories I didn't notice the absence of the "on the other hand" construction. I was engrossed by the depth of the reporting and the running narrative. That says to me that I, and most other readers, regularly skip over such boilerplate as just so much non-journalistic fill. The King/Drew series is exactly the type of journalism newspapers are meant to do -- not providing a stenographic display of facts, but bringing that data to life by telling the truth about those facts, truth reported and written and edited and photographed by engaged, impassioned journalists who give the newspaper a clear, recognizable voice as an advocate for community well-being and the good of its citizens.

Read the Times series here.

Posted by Tim Porter at 08:50 AM

December 10, 2004

Another One Gone …

Dan Gillmor’s announcement that he is leaving the San Jose Mercury News for a news citizens journalism venture (hey, Dan, I’m looking for work!) is yet another indication of how newspapers cannot retain their most adventurous, risk-taking people.

Dan says he is “leaving one of the best gigs in journalism” not with any ill will toward the newspaper – “the Merc has been incredibly good to me” – but because the “something powerful is happening” in grassroots journalism and he has the opportunity to pursue it elsewhere.

“I hate the idea of leaving,” says Dan. “But I'd hate not trying this even more.”

Dan’s departure is more than a loss for the Mercury; it is a metaphor for the newspaper industry, which has:

 Managed to preside over the decline of its original delivery vehicle, paper.
 Failed to take full advantage of its electronic replacement, losing an increasing number of classifieds to eBay, Craigslist, Monster and elsewhere while still, with a few exceptions, wielding a shovel to build online sites that mimic the printed parent.
 Not recognized – to the point of vocal disdain in many cases – the emerging technical ability and unleashed desire of all citizens to publish their own news, a direct threat to the core competency of the newspaper: local news.

As anyone who reads me regularly knows, I remain a strong proponent of newspapers and newspaper journalists. We, as a society, need their capacity for independent reporting and collective identity, but as institutions they are failing us because of their inability to change with the times. They are also failing the innovators who work for them, driving them out through inaction to other ventures.

In addition to Dan, here are a few other people who have left daily newspapers for different forms of journalism or communications:

 David Talbot, founder of Salon (and Salon editors Scott Rosenberg and Gary Kamiya; San Francisco Examiner. (Scott Rosenberg comments here about his leap out of newspapering.)
 Mark Potts, founder of Backfence, a grassroots media startup; Washington Post, Chicago Tribune.
 Jeff Jarvis, author of BuzzMachine; San Francisco Examiner, New York Daily News.
 Larry Kramer, founding CEO of CBS Marketwatch; Washington Post, San Francisco Examiner.
 Eric Newton, director of journalism initiatives, Knight Foundation; Oakland Tribune.
 Jim Romenesko, author of Romenesko; St. Paul Pioneer Press.
 Don George, global travel editor, Lonely Planet; San Francisco Examiner.
 Eric Best, managing director, Morgan Stanley; San Francisco Examiner.
 Barbara French, founder of Reputation and SF; San Francisco Examiner.

No doubt you could add dozens more names to the list. And, of course, there are the thousands of other former editors and reporters, such as Rachel Elson or Sally Lehrman or MaryAnn Hogan, who remain in journalism but have left newspapers for online or freelancing or teaching. If I could start a newspaper from scratch – a media companythese are the first people I’d call. If I ran a newspaper, these are the last people I’d want to lose.

Posted by Tim Porter at 09:58 AM | Comments (1)

December 09, 2004

Intentional Journalism

A high-ranking editor of one the country’s top 20 newspapers recently told a partner of mine that his newspaper’s front page is “often a happy accident.”

In other words, what the half-million readers of this editor’s newspaper see on page one results from an editorial process that is regularly more haphazard than thoughtful, more opportunistic than planned, more luck of the daily draw than drawn from a long-term strategy.

News happens, so we like to say, and thus shapes the newspaper. And, we are good at doing news, at responding, at chasing, at flooding the big story. We structure our newsrooms with a beat system designed to capture news as it flows from institution to institution – from the legislature to the courts to the school board to the city council and on and on.

What we are not good at is adapting this system to our local communities, to customizing the newsgathering process so it reflects the needs, desires and idiosyncrasies of the people who read – or the people we’d like to read – our newspapers. This is why the front pages and local story mixes of most American regional newspapers are so similar – a national story or two, these days an Iraq story, maybe something from the statehouse about the budget and a couple of local stories, at least one of them about government or crime. If you stripped off the nameplates and removed the names of the local institutions from the stories, you’d be hard pressed to distinguish one of these papers from another.

The front pages of these papers are less often a “happy accident” and more typically a sad reflection of a reflexive definition of what tradition has determined to be “news.”

As Jay Rosen once wrote about political reporting: It doesn't have to be that way.

Answer this question: If you were fortunate enough to be given 300 journalists and $20 million a year to pay them and run a newsroom (a ballpark editorial operating budget for a 300,000-circulation paper), what kind of newspaper would you make? Would you create the same beats, the same departments, the same production and decision-making processes? Would you fill the newsroom seats with the same people who are there now? Would you design the paper and its web site in the same formats? I think not. Instead, you might, as most start-up enterprises do, attempt to define a niche and create a product – in this case a journalistic product – to serve it.

The result, based on market study, interaction with potential customers, trial and error and a healthy dose of guts and instinct, would not be a “happy accident.” It would be a newspaper produced with a specific purpose and place in the market. It would be intentional journalism.

Of course, in the real world of newspapers, where risk-averse culture and deeply ingrained fear of change produce oppositional arguments at the slightest whiff of innovation, zero-basing a newsroom is next to impossible. That doesn’t mean, though, that over time a newspaper cannot reinvent itself through ongoing examination of its community, frank evaluation of its content and decisive reallocation of resources to meet the subsequent set of new priorities.

Easier said than done? Yes, but only because newspaper journalists – managers and staffers alike – are handicapped by two chronic conditions:

1. Inertia. Change is a skill and getting good at it requires practice. Journalists are rookies when it comes to change and to professional growth. They have to learn how to learn.

2. Attachment to resources. Nearly all newsroom managers believe change requires more resources – budget or people. This is an excuse that has outlived any usefulness. How many times have you heard an editor say: We don’t have the staff to cover the (fill in the blank) community? Or a reporter say: I don’t have time to cover what’s happening in the classroom because I’m going to meetings every night? These are not resource issues: They are allocation issues. We decide to cover X instead of Y. When I hear an editor of a newspaper in a city that is 40 percent Latino say he doesn’t have the resources to report on the Hispanic community – four in every 10 people! – I see someone who cannot “decide” how to cover that community because doing so requires not covering something else.

Sure, more money and more staff can make an editor’s life easier, and it can increase the chances for doing good work, but we all know it doesn’t guarantee it. I have little patience for journalists who work in newsrooms of 100 people or 300 people or 500 people who says they don’t have enough reporters or photographers to do quality community journalism. As Jim Moroney, publisher of the Dallas Morning News, said after announcing newsroom cutbacks in the wake of that paper’s circulation scandal: "It's ridiculous to say that we can't be a great paper because we've only got 500-something people in our newsroom."

A newspaper that is intentional, and not an accident of any type, demands continual self-appraisal of what’s in the paper and collaborative discussion about how to change the newspaper and the journalists who produce it. How can we wean journalists off their dependence on “more” as the answer to newspapers’ problems? How can we disrupt their inertia and teach them how to change?

Here are five things any newspaper can do to make its journalism more intentional and less accidental. None require more money or more resources. All that’s needed is will:

1. Develop annual newsroom goals: Fewer institutional stories, more Latino faces, more community voices in the paper – whatever they are as long as they are specific, strategic and unique to your own community. Measure progress regularly. Adjust processes or staff as necessary during the year. Hold managers accountable.

2. Develop annual individual goals: I don’t mean annual evaluations that are squeezed into 30 minutes in December after 11 months of silence. I mean personal learning plans for every staffer, from the city desk aide to the executive editor. Here is what you should be able to do a year from now that you can’t do today. Edit tighter, coach better, speak Spanish, write more (or write less), read these five books on leadership and teach their principles to your direct reports. Be creative, be specific, align them with the goals of the newsroom. Reward success visibly. Encourage non-learners to seek a less demanding profession. The newsroom watchword should be: Grow or go.

3. Build learning time into the budget: Newsroom training budgets are important, but even more critical is training time. Allocate it on an FTE basis. Schedule it. Make it as mandatory as meeting deadline.

4. Evaluate: How are we doing? This should be the No. 1 question of the day, every day. What is working? What is not? Are we making progress toward our larger goals? Newsroom leaders must encourage honest self-evaluation by supporting open discussions about quality and direction and discouraging defensive and competitive posturing by managers who feel threatened when their work is debated.

5. Challenge assumptions: Why are we doing this? Change derives from questioning the status quo. Create working groups within the newsroom to challenge basic assumptions of all the newsroom’s systems, from production to beat coverage. Why do we cover education this way? Is this the right amount of police reporting? Do we have enough copy editors – or too many? How will you know if you never ask?

Posted by Tim Porter at 10:53 AM | Comments (2)

December 04, 2004

Roy Aarons

More than once recently I have learned of the death of a friend or colleague through the Internet. The other day, sitting in a hotel room in Minneapolis, I found out Roy Aarons had died.

Roy was many things -- one of the founders of the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education as well as the the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association -- and I defer any eulogizing to those who knew him much better than I, such as my good friend Mary Ann Hogan, but one quality of Roy's was immediately obvious to anyone who met him, no matter how briefly: His passion for journalism.

As Mary Ann wrote:

Roy didn’t so much enter rooms as he did fill them up. He didn’t so much work with reporters as he did tame skeptics, anoint learners and recruit fellow seekers. His truest gift, among the many, was his endless belief in the Possible.

Oh, how badly journalism needs that belief these days.

Posted by Tim Porter at 08:25 AM

For the Record ...

I have been so busy lately that not only have I not been posting, but I have been entertaining the radical thought that maybe I should get a "job" so I could work less. Laments aside, here are a few things missed recently:

 Don't Pander to Teens: Susan Mernit points to this Editor and Publisher piece by Lee Kravitz of Parade Magazine about how to connect with younger readers. Among his good advice: Respect their far-from-monolithic culture; celebrate good kids and their achievements but not too much, and not exclusively; truly give voice to young people; don't fear controversy.

 Pegasus News: A new company trying to make a business out of hyper-local news, starting with a beta in Dallas.

 Journalism 2.0: This, as defined by Pegasus, is a way of doing journalism that embraces "a conversational method of reporting that engages the end user in the process, as opposed to the traditional monologue." Jay Rosens refers to it in his commentary on Mark Glaser's guest piece on Pressthink, "The Media Company I Want to Work For."

 Some Great, Traditional Reporting: San Francisco Chronicle reporters took readerrs inside the Major League Baseball steriod-use investigation with the inside dope on the grand jury testimony of sluggers Jason Giambi and Barry Bonds. The stories by reporters Lance Williams and Mark Fainaru-Wada show these guys up for the meathead millionaires they really are. Watch now as the court and lawyers go after the reporters for their sources. Earlier stories triggered pressure for disclosure from prosecutors.

 Media Law: Robert J. Ambrogi, a lawyer and a journalist from Massachusetts has started this blog dedicated to freedom of the press.

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

December 01, 2004

Journalists for Open Government

The Coalition of Journalists for Open Government has launched a web site that compiles news about First Amendment and access issues affecting a free press, as well as resources and other tools for journalists.

The group is headed by Pete Weitzel, founder of the Florida First Amendment Coalition. Use the web site. Stay informed. The First Amendment is under attack as never before. Listen to the words of Associated Press President Tom Curley, one of the founders of Journalists for Open Goverment:

"The story of public life in this country – the story we in the news business show and tell every day – is always, one way or another, about power and the important values and interests that drive its use.

"National security is one such value. Public safety is another. Fair trials are another. Personal privacy is yet another.

"And freedom to find out and report what’s happening is certainly another. ...

"News is our business. We are the watchers. Open government is the personal interest and constitutional right of every citizen. But we of the fourth estate have by far the greatest means and incentive to speak and fight for it."

(And, don't forget to bookmark Behind the Homefront, the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press project that tracks stories about press access.

Posted by Tim Porter at 05:29 AM | Comments (1)