The language of journalism is changing. The terms that define the components of the craft are in flux. The vocabulary of newspapers is under challenge by both critics of the industry’s rigidity and by evangelists for new forms of journalism. The result: A journalistic Babel where confusion reigns.
I have been in a lot of newsrooms in the last year for Tomorrow’s Workforce, some as large as this one and some as small as this one. All desire to improve their journalism in some way, but, apart from their individual strengths or weaknesses, all struggle with two ingredients critical for change: A common definition for success and the institutional means to arrive at one.
In other words, the editors and reporters working at these newspapers want to change their newspapers, but their vocabulary – words like “story” and “beat” and “reader” – refers to forms and conceptions that, while still valuable, are ridden with journalistic baggage and lack the flexibility to embrace new meanings.
Specifically, faced with questions like “how should we ‘cover’ the city council?” or “what does the education ‘beat’ look like?’ or “what components should a news ‘story’ have?”, newspaper journalists have difficulty imagining non-traditional, even bold answers using these traditional terms.
Moreover, because of the inherently defensive, and therefore risk averse, culture of most newsrooms, editors and reporters are unpracticed and unskilled in having frank, directed conversations about the quality of their work, its measure against an articulated ideal and how they might adjust what they do to meet new standards.
The concept of “news as a conversation” is popular among those, me included, who believe news organizations must remove the walls between the “producers” of news and the “consumers” of news (it’s time for newspapers to think of themselves as “enablers” of news). Before newspapers can have a conversation with the community, they need to learn to have one with themselves.
Roy Peter Clark, the Poynter writing guru, once wrote that “the most valued quality of the language of journalism is clarity, and its most desired effect is to be understood.” He was referring to the words and structure of stories, but I think the sentiment can be applied with equal validity to the language used by journalists to describe what they do.
In order to change, newspapers need clarity. In order to evolve, newsrooms need understandable goals. In order to refocus their talents as well as develop new ones, journalists need a vocabulary that fosters creative thinking.
Because each newspaper should have its own language, an individualized lexicon reflecting the priorities of the newsroom and the needs of the community (which should coincide), I’m going to resist the temptation to offer my down redefinitions. However, there are, I think, a common set of questions journalists should ask to begin this process (and I’d like to hear your view of others I’ve overlooked). Among them:
What is a “story”? What information should it contain? Which is the most important? How long must it be? How can it be presented in a form that is most useful to readers? What elements besides words are essential?
What is a “beat”? How, for example, should “education” be covered? How can we minimize institutional coverage in favor of stories about people and their concerns without abrogating our responsibility to, as one reporter once told me, “keep an eye on these scoundrels?” What skills are needed for good beat coverage? How do we ensure that our reporters have them and our editors permit the reporters to use them?
What is our role as a “watchdog”? How do we move from “gotcha” to context so the community believes we are on their side? How transparent should our reporting be? How much documentation can we provide that so we can not only underwrite our findings but also demystify our process?
What is a “Page 1 story”? What purpose does the front page serve? Should that purpose be the same every day? If it’s for the most “important” stories, then what does “important” mean? Important to whom and for what?
What is a “reader”? Once that meant someone who read the newspaper; now it may be someone who uses the web site or hears about a newspaper story through a blog or is someone who still reads the paper once a week for something quite specific. The question then becomes: Not what do readers “want,” but what do we want readers to “do.” It is moving from providing information to creating experiences.
There are many other questions, of course, some dealing with fundamental issues like the nature of news, the civic role of a newspaper, the shift in reporting from data-provision to truth-telling or the diminishing value of newspapers in the print-online equation. But while I think newspaper journalists should chew on these issues in order to be media literate and self-critical, they are too carbo-rich for daily digestion in the newsroom.
What I am trying to get at here is development of a basic set of standards on which all can agree in any given newsroom. What are the standards for good story-telling, for beat reporting, for Page 1, for engaging the reader? What is the answer to the question: How do we do things around here?
Identification of those standards – and the language that describes them – is a first and critical step to creation of a culture of continual self-assessment and ongoing change within a newsroom. It is the foundation for construction of a cycle of what I call Choose, Learn, Do and Adjust:
Set a goal (more reader-centric education coverage, e.g.), give reporters and editors the tools they need (new story forms or knowledge training, e.g.), put the new work in the paper, then measure the results (remember to define what you mean by success) and begin anew.
Continual change. Ongoing learning. Constant conversation about quality and connection to the community. This cycle requires a comfort-level with ambiguity and ever-shifting vocabulary that enables newspapers to imagine change. The first step toward building that culture is a conversation that begins with the question: “What do we mean by …”
(Cross-posted on morph.)
In the current issue of the Columbia Journalism Review, Evan Cornog, a professor at Columbia's J-school, explores in a thoughtful essay the connection between the decline of cultural commons and the 40-year plunge in newspaper readership.
Cornog cites the usual demons - the dominance of television as the nation's medium of choice; the growing cult of celebrity; fragmentation of the household - but, interestingly, avoids others, such as the attraction of the Internet and the incursions it has made into TV-viewing as well as its magnetic ability to engage users and offer them the very type of experiential activity newspapers are being urged to pursue.
Ultimately, Cornog arrives at this point: That interest in civic life, the grist of newspaper reporting, has waned to the point of near collapse, leaving newspapers not as chroniclers of the community but as curators of a civic museum without patrons. In other words, to paraphrase the title of Cornog's piece: "It's the fault of the readers." He writes:
"… perhaps the problem, and therefore the solution, has broader and deeper roots. Perhaps we should, to an extent, blame the readers. Perhaps the old notions of an engaged and virtuous citizenry, upon which the founding fathers' hopes for the republic were based, are archaic concepts. (Emphasis added.)
Jay Currie takes that paragraph and runs with it in a rebuttal of Cornog's thinking. Writing at Tech Central Station, Currie, who blogs here, fault's Cornog for not mentioning "the elephant in the middle of the room." Currie identifies the beast as:
"In America the news media's politics have remained mired in the '60's fixations of their boomer cohort. The public, meanwhile, has moved on -- not necessarily to a more conservative position; rather to one which is far less tolerant of the official cant which passes for analysis and news coverage in MSM." (Emphasis added.)
This is essentially correct. Even though Currie bolsters his argument with jabs at "political correctness" and the "nanny state," I think his point holds regardless of the political stripe of the reader (or non-reader). It is not only conservatives and moderates who have left newspapers. The citizens of the liberal bastions of San Francisco and Boston are as equally uninterested in the daily paper as their redder counterparts in Dallas or Houston.
Blame the readers? Blame the editors? This is not a zero-sum exercise, but it is the editors (and their staffs) who have the responsibility of making the connection so my sympathies are more with a public trying to find new communities amid the fragments of the old one than with editors who decry a decline in literacy as the cause for their ills.
Currie hits the mark again with his call for newspapers to respond with uncharacteristic innovation and boldness (even the Readership Institute wants revolution, not evolution.). Writes Currie:
" … legacy media seems to believe that luring readers means dumbing down the product. In the CJR article there is considerable discussion of just how far it is possible to go with celebrity journalism before some invisible line is crossed. The editors quoted, more in sorrow than anger, suggest that celebrity journalism is one of the few things that brings in new readers.
"Here's a hint -- hire some writers. You know, people who don't give a damn about Paris Hilton's underwear malfunctions, but really are willing to call Maureen Dowd on dumb ideas and make fun of The Rush's pretensions; people who will fisk Tom Friedman and mock George Will." (Emphasis added.)
Somewhat lost in Cornog's lengthy exploration of civic literacy is a paragraph that mentions a report given at last year's APME convention by Robin Seymour, director of research and readership at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Writes Cornog:
Seymour "revealed the results of her research into the top items of interest for younger, so-called 'light' readers. In order, they are: health/fitness, investigative reports on important issues, the environment, natural disasters/accidents, and education." (Emphasis added.)
To me, those topics sound like opportunities for serious journalism. It seems at least a kernel of interest remains within the coming generations for substantive news. The challenge is to convert that interest into readership. But, and here is the question, readership of what?
The newspaper in its traditional form is fast on its way to becoming a niche product, driven as much by the factors Cornog cites as by the changing economics of advertising. In some recent posts I've argued that focus, quality and distinction of content are more important to news organizations of the future than form of delivery. [Read: The Times Buys Another Container]. I also suggested some raw ideas addressing how newspapers conceive and package themselves. [Read: Explode the Newsroom: Six Ways to Rebuild the System]. Cornog's essay reminded me of an equally important consideration: The leadership newspapers can play in defining, supporting and engaging new communities - communities of interest. Writes Cornog:
"The diminishment of the commons has become a topic for some journalists in recent years. … By covering this ongoing effort to define - or redefine - American citizenship, journalists can move the debate beyond their own profession, heeding (the) admonition that journalists "can't do it alone." Fortunately, journalism does have the power to examine any aspect of society, and can in this way set in motion a debate that may help it put its own house in better order." (Emphasis added.)
Can American newspapers find the vision - and courage - to break stride from current habits and take the initiative to lead this debate? If so, it will be a difficult transition. By nature, newspapers, and all traditional news organizations, are followers. Something happens, they report it - a reactionary role that carries over to the risk-adverse reflexes newspapers exercise when presented with challenges. To morph from a position in which newspapers no longer simply observe their communities but actively participate in them requires a shift of mindset from detachment to involvement.
If interactivity was the keyword of Internet growth of the '90s, then involvement is the media driver of today. Blogging, photo galleries, citizen journalism, political organizing - all are Internet-enabled involvement at work and at play. As I wrote the other day, newspapers do not have to discard the principles of journalism to take advantage of these shifts, they merely need to reinvent how those principles are put into practice. Newspapers can begin by applying this Chinese proverb to how they approach the people they want to reach: "Tell me and I forget. Show me and I remember. Involve me and I understand."
(Thanks to Simon Waldman for pointing out the Jay Currie piece.)
After a road trip, it takes me a while to get caught up on my reading, electronic and other. Here's what caught my eye:
Blogging vs. Journalism: Dig a hole and bury that issue, says Jay Rosen in preparation for the Harvard conference on Blogging, Journalism & Credibility. He proffers five points for discussion, ranging from freedom of the press (redefined) to stand-alone journalism. The money quote:
"I have been an observer and critic of the American press for 19 years. In that stretch there has never been a time so unsettled. More is up for grabs than has ever been up for grabs since I started my watch. … Part of the reason is the extension of "the press" to the people we have traditionally called the public." (Emphasis added.)
"If the bottom-line and entertainment news are the main thing to the conglomerates, what happens to the public-affairs function of journalism in a democracy? As UNC's Phil Meyer has asked, can public institutions or non-profit foundations support the more resource-intensive, social-service, watchdog functions of the press? Will some profit-making new-media model inherit the job?" (Emphasis added.)
"How do we serve a mass of niches instead of the mass audience? How do we afford to do that? How do we assure we do not ghettoize and marginalize those publics?"
"We need to retrain newsrooms in multimedia and interactivity. How should news organizations and colleges do that?" (Emphasis added.)
Reporters as Human Beings: Mitch Ratcliffe points out that fallibility is inevitable and skepticism by the public is a valuable tool in understanding media. He writes:
"Reporters are human, which involves some corruption of heart and mind as well as moments of true courage, honesty and charity."
A Pogo Moment: Alan Mutter holds a mirror up to editors and publishers who blame the public for the falling relevancy of newspapers. He writes:
"Even if it is true that more citizens can name the Three Stooges than the three branches of federal government, it is self-defeating to blame reader apathy for the industry's failure to evolve a product that been begging for an extreme makeover for decades. Remember what Pogo said? 'I have met the enemy and he is us.'" (Emphasis added.)
Most of the stranded and near-drowned victims of this week’s diluvia have gotten their 15 seconds or so of celebrity — thanks to the orgiastic "team coverage" provided by L.A. television (reporting on rainstorms seems to offer the perfect level of intellectual complexity for our local broadcast-news puppies).
But then there was that poor 30-something guy in a drenched leather jacket Monday out on Sunset near Vine whose plight went almost completely unnoticed.
As I sat idle in a bottleneck, my wipers hopelessly sloshing the water back and forth, I could make him out standing in the middle of the eastbound left-turn lane. His aged Toyota had apparently been rear-ended by the gold Lexus behind him. As the snarled traffic honked away, he was furiously yelling and pounding the driver’s window on the Lexus, challenging the driver to get out. A half-minute later, the Lexus door finally opened and a dark-haired woman 10 years his senior and trundled in a brown knit sweater cautiously emerged.
The leather-jacket guy’s rant only escalated, and he suddenly grabbed at the woman’s shoulder. Thinking of the Hollywood Division station only a few blocks away, I grabbed my cell phone and punched in 911. But before I could hit the "send" button, the woman shook off his hand, dropped her right arm way low, and then snapped back with a looping Sunday punch right in the guy’s kisser.
The single, direct hit shut his mouth, buckled his knees and sent him flat out onto the asphalt. As surprised onlookers moved in to sort out the mess and the traffic in front of me once again began to crawl, he lay sprawled, face-up to the indifferent rain.
There's more on the Southland rains in L.A. Weekly.
After meeting last week in Atlanta with a group of smart, committed journalists who gathered to brainstorm about ways to rescue what Carol Nunnelly of NewsTrain calls the "prisoners of the newsroom" - assignment editors and other mid-level managers - I've come to believe the traditional newsroom structure is obsolete and cannot respond to the challenges of changing readership, new journalistic forms and professional stagnation that threaten the relevancy of newspapers.
Most newspaper journalists labor inside a collection of defensively non-collaborative content silos that are overseen by a rigid, top-down hierarchy of managers who may profess desire for change but - because they are products of the very system they hope to change - never learned the leadership, communication or strategic thinking skills necessary to move their newsrooms from Point A to Point B in any substantive or permanent way.
The result is that newsroom leaders are frustrated, working journalists are skeptical of new initiatives and middle managers, those tasked with the day-to-day implementation of change, are caught in a withering crossfire between their bosses, who expect them to be supervisors, coaches, budgeters, evaluators, punishers and editors, and their reporters, who want direction, empathy and protection from the higher-ups so they can go out and commit some journalism.
It's an impossible job. It is also one reflective of the messy clutter of contradictory thinking that is now accepted as management wisdom by most newsroom leaders. Each annual editorial initiative is piled atop the previous year's, resulting in a towering list of unrealized goals and accretive demands on middle managers to do everything right all the time - a classic recipe for risk adverse behavior.
Top editors bemoan incessantly the lackings of their mid-level managers, yet few acknowledge their own guilt in the creation and perpetuation of a system that puts the greatest stress on those who are least prepared, not to mention greatly under-compensated, to handle it.
The strain on the middle is increasing. As newspapers struggle to regain lost relevancy through new content initiatives, new forms of story-telling or new connections with their communities, much of the responsibility for converting these goals into realities falls on the shoulders of mid-level managers.
Change comes from the edges, but if the middle cannot hold - and it is breaking in America's newsrooms under the weight of misdirection and isolation - then stagnation is guaranteed.
It is time to explode the newsroom and remake it in ways that bring flexibility, creativity, awareness of audience and collaboration to the forefront. Philip Meyer takes a swing at this idea in his Columbia Journalism Review essay, "Saving Journalism." Meyer writes:
"If we are to preserve journalism and its social-service functions, maybe we would be wise not to focus too much on traditional media. The death spiral might be irreversible. We should look for ways to keep the spirit and tradition of socially responsible journalism alive until it finds a home in some new media form whose nature we can only guess at today." (Emphasis added.)
How then can we enable our reporters and photographers to, in the words of the irrepressible Jacqui Banaszynski, "commit one true act of journalism a day" and still move our newspapers toward a future in which they remain necessary and relevant to their communities.
Here are six ways to start:
1. Write Fewer Stories, Not More. As I wrote here, "more stories are usually seen as better than fewer, even if most of the stories are mediocre reports on institutional events." My local newspaper, the S.F. Chronicle, publishes 20-plus local news stories a day, the bulk of them about meetings, reports or criminal activity of some sort. Why not take the 20 reporters who produced those 20 stories and concentrate them on the five top stories of the day? Five stories, each deeply reported, well-photographed, layered in forms and platforms, that represent the best of that day's journalism. Quality journalism, not quantity stenography.
2. Go Weekly - Every Day. A critical problem with the daily newspaper is its department store approach to the news -- a little something for everyone, a mass medium. Mass is gone. The future is niche, and newspapers have an opportunity - because of their editorial and distribution capacities - to be a mass of niches (thanks to Jeff Jarvis for the phrase.) Convert the daily paper into a collection of weeklies or semi-weeklies. Keep some space for news, but turn the rest of Monday into a sports day, for example; Thursday is entertainment; Tuesday is local government; Wednesday is food and home; Friday is younger readers. Name your own. Sunday pulls it all together.
3. Structure by Audience, Not Topic. Unbundle the Sports, News, Features and Business departments and reconstitute the newsroom around target audiences. Want younger readers? Don't try to squeeze an iPod story out of a 45-year-old business reporter or a snowboarding story out of desk-bound sportswriter. Instead, devote a department's worth of editors, reporters, photographers, designers and online producers to creating content intended to entice and engage younger readers. Internally, designating one or two staffers in a newsroom of 100 or 300 - where the median age is 41 - to report on youth does not shout priority; devoting a quarter of the staff to such a goal does.
4. Be the Tip of the Iceberg. Reverse the print-online priority equation. Newspapers should be publishing more online than they do in print. Newspapers should be printing content that flows from the web to print, not just the reverse. The virtual newshole, the endless conversation, the involvement of readers, the power of relational advertising - all are advantages of online that print can never match.
5. Lead from the Middle, Not the Top. In every newsroom I've been in for training projects, I hear a clamor from all levels for more interaction with the top editors. Reporters and line editors want direction, want to learn, want leadership from the top. Too often, they don't get it. Why not? The editors spend their days in meetings with other editors, making decisions whose underlying message - which may fit with some strategic goal of the newspaper - is lost on the editorial masses by the time it is translated through multiple layers of sub-editors. This is not communication or leadership. This is a pernicious game of telephone. Solution? Edit more, manage less. Get the editors out of the office and onto the newsroom floor. Sit on the desk. Take the helm and steer the boat from a visible position. Budget meetings, evaluations, circulation reports? Delegate those to an AME. You cannot lead from behind the desk.
6. Be Intentional, Not Accidental. A while ago, I asked these questions: "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?" And I answered with this: "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."
There are principles of journalism that should remain inviolate, but there are no permanent rules about how to put those principles into practice. Nowhere is it written that the current structure of newspapers is the only way to do journalism. In fact, we've arrived where we are more by happenstance than by purpose, often by mimicking a singular innovation that moved the industry in a new direction. The introduction into newspapers of comics, of photography, of color, of editorial pages, even of the notion of objectivity, each broke a rule of its day and eventually enticed others to follow.
The future of newspapers belongs to those bold enough, and skilled enough, to invent their own rules. Who among the traditional newsrooms is going to lead us into tomorrow by being the rule-breaker of today?
(Cross-posted on morph.)
My latest newsletter for Tomorrow's Workforce reports on how the Atlanta Journal-Constitution developed an ambitious training plan that focuses on specific newsroom goals. It is exactly the sort of targeted approach I believe that can transform training from a random series of events that benefit individual journalists into a strategic tool that can improve the quality of journalism throughout the newspaper.
The Journal-Constitution employed a series of working groups whose members reported on their own newsroom to identify training needs and desires, condensed those findings into a report to management and then helped form the dozens of courses and sessions that will be offered this year to AJC staffers.
All the training is built around what paper calls its three "pillars," or core goals for the year: Watchdog reporting; connection to the community; and storytelling in various forms.
There are valuable lessons in the Atlanta model for other newsrooms:
Management must prioritize. Having 15 or 20 annual goals is no better than having none.
Collaboration is key. Managers should work with their best, most energetic journalists to connect with the newsroom and identify its needs.
Training is work. It requires time to develop, time to implement and time to take effect.
Leaders must be teachers. The largest training sessions in Atlanta are run by the managing and deputy managing editors.
Over-communicate. Managers must continually define goals in multiple ways; staffers must continually ask for what they need to perform.
Read the column here on the Tomorrow's Workforce site or just click the below link.
Atlanta’s Three Pillars of Training
By Tim Porter
Imagine an ideal outcome for newsroom training – a firm, ongoing commitment of time, budget, leadership and human resources to professional development that aligns with both the needs of the journalists and the strategies of the enterprise.
In 2005, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s ambitious new staff development program promises to turn that ideal into reality.
The Journal-Constitution used Tomorrow’s Workforce as a launching pad to reinvent an aggressive, but somewhat random training effort into one that would be the envy of most newspapers for its scope, focus and aspiration. This is not about self-congratulation. This is about the good, hard work being done on Marietta Street in downtown Atlanta and the lessons we all can learn from it.
Training is “the way to get a better newsroom and a better newspaper,” Editor Julia Wallace says as she describes her newspaper’s plan, which requires a minimum of 20 hours training during the year for each of the newsroom’s 385 staffers and at least 30 hours for its 100 managers.
The Journal-Constitution placed a high premium on training before it invited Tomorrow’s Workforce into its newsroom in 2004. The paper had a training editor (Sheila Garland), a deputy managing editor writing coach (Shawn McIntosh), a five-figure training budget and thousands of training hours. In 2004, the paper was also into its second year of intensive, off-site two-day seminars for line editors and reporters taught by McIntosh and Managing Editor Hank Klibanoff.
Wallace wanted more. “Ultimately,” she said, “it’s about having good conversations, about how do we move forward, what does forward mean, talking about standards, talking about skill improvement and really working on it.”
Focus, Focus, Focus
If every writer needs an editor, then every training program needs a purpose – and that’s what Tomorrow’s Workforce brought to The Journal-Constitution.
“I think this program has really helped us focus our training,” said Wallace. “We have always been very committed to it. We’ve had a very aggressive training program. What this has done is really elevated it and aligned with our strategic goals more effectively.”
The transition began after Michele McLellan (Tomorrow’s Workforce director), myself and researcher Ranjan Banerji spent three days in the paper’s newsroom, interviewing dozens of staff members and attending news meetings. We also reviewed readership and market research and conducted a survey of the newsroom and a content analysis of the newspaper.
A Focused Training Model The Atlanta Journal-Constitution built its 2005 training program around three “pillars.” Editor Julia Wallace explains: Watchdog reporting: “We believe that is an important responsibility we have. We believe that is an important driver of readership and really want to continue to focus on improving our watchdog journalism.” Community connections: “It ties into our sense that we really need to know our readers and know our market so that we can serve them better. This is particularly true in a big metro like Atlanta where it is pretty different and it’s easy to assume things about the whole market that aren’t necessarily true.” Different story forms: “We need to talk more in depth about what are different ways to tell the story. Sometimes you can tell in a different inverted pyramid. Sometimes you need to do narrative. Sometimes you need to do it as a chart. Sometimes it needs to be five bullets. Sometimes it needs to be a Q&A.”
Later, McLellan returned to Atlanta to meet with a cluster of newsroom leaders, discuss our observations and begin work on a training plan for 2005. Let Wallace pick up the story from there:
“One of the big breakthroughs for us,” she said, “was this great moment where Michele asked all of us to write on a board: What would make this paper better? There were about a dozen of the top leaders in the newsroom there. We all got up and when we got done there was some overlap, but there were like 20, 25 things on the board.
“Michele said, ‘What do you think?’ And we said, ‘Yeah, that’s great, yeah, yeah.’ And she said, ‘Well, you can't do all that.”
“So,” said Wallace, “it forced us into a really good conversation about, OK, what can we do and how do we organize our thoughts around where we’re going and really focus our training to match up. Out of that came these three pillars that our training for this year will be focused on.”
From their initial list of two-dozen or so ideas, the Journal-Constitution’s editors chose three as the pillars of the program: Watchdog reporting; versatility in storytelling and story form; and community connections.
Making it Happen
Training director Garland recruited a committee that would help move those ideas from whiteboard to reality.
Garland, using an e-mail pitch explaining the project, asked for and got some volunteers. Then she “volunteered” some others staff members, rounded up a couple of managers and convened a working group of about a dozen folks she described as having “a lot of energy, some creativity and also a sociability factor within the newsroom.”
Then it was time for lunch – literally. The members of the training committee took their newsroom colleagues out for working meals to answer the question: If you could have any type of training you want, what would it be?
“It was pretty intense the first couple of months as we discussed what kind of learning atmosphere we wanted at the paper,” said Garland. “…We interviewed more than a couple of dozen staffers from across the newsroom about what we had done in the past, what would inspire them to learn more, what had worked.”
City Hall reporter Ty Tagami, a member of the committee, said the reaction of colleagues surprised him.
“I expected some jaded responses,” he said, “but everybody almost to a person was pretty optimistic. People were eager. They seemed hungry for training. I actually tried to get a few people I thought would grumble, tried to get a cross-section. … Journalists, I think, hide their idealism sometimes, but they can’t wait to bring it out.”
The luncheon conversations produced several themes, some predictable, such as a near universal desire for writing and reporting training. Others were more of a departure from the traditional training tableau:
Reporters and editors: “One of the big ideas that came out,” said Tagami, “… is having training as much as possible that involves both the reporters and the editors. Because a lot of us have been off to Poynter or IRE and then you come back and they want the same old thing. The language isn’t there to communicate even.”
Pragmatic vs. pie: “What they wanted was functional writing and reporting,” said Tagami, “not doing long two-month pieces, but doing your two-day and one-day stories a lot better. If people were going to train them, they wanted trainers who are known for turning around good stories on deadline because that’s what most people do. They didn’t want pie in the sky.”
No journalist left behind: To ensure that, as one committee member put it, the managers “reward workhorses as well as racehorses,” the newsroom wanted structure. “People were having a hard time getting to some of the training we had previously,” Tagami said, “so someone floated the idea of having a mandatory curriculum, like a college-based curriculum, with credit hours, making it mandatory and part of your review so everybody knows you’ve got to go to this and your editor has to give you the time.”
Searching for a Common Newsroom Language
The training committee subdivided with the goal of helping Garland form courses and write a training manual. One group, headed by Tagami, focused on watchdog reporting; another, headed by Gwinnett County reporter Mark Davis took on storytelling, a topic that stirs his journalistic passions.
“I firmly believe,” said Davis, “that stories well-told are what sells newspapers, not focus groups.”
Defining a story that is well told, though, is not easy. A reporter’s sparkling diamond may seem like a clunky bituminous chunk to an editor. Davis was tasked with solving the riddle: What are the standards for good storytelling on which all can agree?
For answers, Davis turned to his own newsroom.
“I think a lot of newspapers make the mistake of thinking all the talent is somewhere else,” he said. “They fail to look within their own ranks to find reporters the rest of the staff can emulate.
“We highlighted a select group of colleagues to interview about how to do different stories: profiles, explanatory stories, etc. We asked a standard set of questions: What do you look for? Is there a telling moment in a story that defines the direction of the story? When have you reported enough? When have you not reported enough? Do you know when the story is done?”
What emerged are what Davis called “some bare minimums to which all people can ascribe” as well as techniques and tip sheets for more sophisticated storytelling, all compiled in a common newsroom language and bound for the training manual.
The end product of the inquiries of Tagami, Davis and the rest of the committee, and from Garland’s own efforts to “give voices to other folks in the newsroom” – designers, photographers and, of course, the names on the masthead – is a year-long curriculum of about 40 training opportunities. (See the curriculum here.)
The curriculum includes:
“Core classes … we want everyone to get exposure to,” such as how to background an individual, how to background an institution, story and its forms, telling stories visually – “all those kind of things,” said Garland, “that most 21st century newspapers are doing.”
Four half-day sessions devoted to skills, communication and other issues.
Bus tours to key areas in the newspaper’s circulation area led by community leaders.
Readership. “Who are our readers and what do they want?”
Sessions by visiting trainers such as Jacqui Banaszynski, Knight Chair in Editing at the University of Missouri, who was scheduled to do two-days of storytelling training in January.
Journal-Constitution staff members can earn credit to meet their required 20 hours by either attending a workshop or teaching one. They can enroll online through a browser-based catalog.
In all, 485 newsroom employees will participate in a total of at least 10,700 hours of training in 2005, roughly the equivalent of five FTEs.
"The time and focus is the real resource, not the money," Wallace said.
Later this year, members of the training committee will nominate their own replacements to begin working on the curriculum for 2006. On-line storytelling tops the agenda.
Wallace believes the three pillars – watchdog journalism, story forms and community connection are a strong foundation on which to build.
“I don’t see huge shifts,” she said. “… The pillars may still be intact, but it may be a different approach so that you’d say, yes, let’s focus on watchdog, but let’s really focus in (a particular) area.”
Interestingly, even before anyone in the Journal-Constitution’s newsrooms takes a single class this year, the people involved in putting this program together gleaned insights into communication skills, organizational dynamics, the need for mutual respect, the power of goal-setting and the need for teamwork – characteristics critical to the success of any enterprise.
Garland put it this way: “What I would stress to other newspapers is a team approach to coming up with what you want to learn and aligning your learning strategy with your business goals. It can come from your employees. And, in fact, they’re going to participate on a higher level if they’re involved from the very beginning – and if they can see a difference in the newspaper.”
I'm on the road all week with Tomorrow's Workforce -- a few days at the Raleigh News & Observer and then on to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution -- so posting will be thin.
Not so much a parallel universe, more a universe of soundbites and isolated incidents used inaccurately as examples of the norm, spun press releases and half-baked populist views. Where has the inquiring mind gone? With information at the touch of a button, press releases a click away and personal comment available with the waggle of a mouse is it any wonder I question the "value added" by the journalist. Much of what is written focuses on the personal and sensational or on the politically popular topics of the day. I don't just want to read what is in the minds of politicians now, I want to be stretched to think about the long-term impact of today's decisions. In the housing sector, for example, where do we think our children are going to live? (Emphasis added.)
As digital technology and personal publishing systems combine to give every citizen the opportunity for public journalistic - or artistic - expression, paranoid public entities like the New York City subway system are doing all they can to limit these freedoms.
News organizations should combat any efforts to ban citizen photography of public spaces, bans that allow, as stated in the proposed MTA restrictions in New York, photographs to be taken only by "members of the press holding valid press identification cards issued by the New York City Police Department."
We cannot put law enforcement authorities in the position of deciding who is a journalist. Imagine the negative affect this would have on freelancers or journalists who work for publications that are out of favor with authorities or simply citizens who happen upon news.
This New York Times story, focusing on the rich artistic history of subway photography, quotes a spokesman for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority saying the "new photography rules were devised after extensive talks with the Police Department, which is responsible for patrolling subways and buses."
"Nobody is looking to violate anybody's civil rights or deny anybody's constitutional rights. But when you check with law enforcement agencies, they have uncovered photographs of subway and rail systems from various terrorist organizations. And I don't believe they were going into somebody's scrapbook."
What's next? A ban on sketchbooks and notepads because the scribbler may be outlining a terrorism plot? No photographs of the Golden Gate Bridge or Empire State Building or the Capitol? A no-staring zone in front of Rockefeller Center?
These are not idle fears. Last year, a vacationing Virginian man was arrested for videotaping a Maryland bridge, an activity deemed suspicious by a couple of cops who happened to be passing.
Megalomaniacal corporations like Wal-Mart already dispatch officious toadies to shoo news photographers off their property, declaring, in unabashed arrogance, that any photos of their stores, even if shot from the street, require company permission.
We cannot have freedom of expression - free speech - without freedom of observation. Fears of terrorism and the natural inclination of authority figures like police to, well, exert authority are natural enemies of those freedoms.
Journalists must work to prevent creeping impingements on freedom of observation. A good place to start is with the proposed photo ban on New York's subways.
UPDATE: Dan Gillmor notes on same issue: "When journalists need licenses -- when people need the government's permission to ask the kinds of questions journalists (and concerned citizens) ask every day, the government has new kinds of power."
Take that amount of time to watch this fanciful presentation of one possible news media future -- one without the New York Times and its lesser printed cousins.
Outlandish? Maybe. I expect we'll still have the Times a decade hence, but as media personalization accelerates, and the line between news and commerce blurs further, today's journalists musk ask themselves: What is my role in that disintermediated world? Where do the the principles of journalism fit in? How necessary is the Fourth Estate in civil society when every citizen can create his or her own media?
Tell me and I forget. Show me and I remember. Involve me and I understand.
That sounds like a good beginning for the journalism of the future.
After my post yesterday about the New York Times Company buying half of Metro Boston, the free, commuter-oriented tabloid aimed at younger, non-readers of the Boston Globe (which the Times owns), I got an email suggesting I look up comments Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger made about such quick-read papers last year.
Sulzberger, who also is chairman of the Times Company board of directors, told an audience at Northwestern University's journalism school in February 2004 that the youth and commuter papers like the competing Chicago Red Eye and Red Streak were not for the Times because they don't, as paraphrased in this Editor and Publisher story, don't "fit with its psychographically defined audience."
Sulzberger was blunt in his criticism of these papers, which like the chain of Metro papers, contain shorter stories, bigger graphics and photos and an emphasis on sports and "popular" news. He said:
"I think (youth papers) are condescending, I think they degrade the readership, I think they're talking down to the reader. "They're saying, 'You don't (understand) what we offer ... so we're going to give you this thing that you can get.' And you know something -- bullshit. We don't want to become less than we are to reach an audience whose needs we wouldn't do a good job of meeting."
Clearly, Sulzberger and the rest of the Times board has had a change of heart, at least for the Boston area.
A Win for the Globe
Alan Mutter, a former cross-alley competitor when he worked at the San Francisco Chronicle and I at the San Francisco Examiner who successfully transitioned to mogul-hood and blogs at Reflections of a Newsosaur, totes up the box scores of the Times-Metro deal and concludes that buying into Metro is a good move for the Globe. Here's his reasoning:
"Although the Globe considered starting its own free tab, its management evidently decided the Metro investment was a cheaper, lower-risk, surer-fire way to jab the Hub's paid tab, the Boston Herald. Assuming no federal officials think this alliance is anti-competitive (No hard feelings over the John Kerry endorsement, one hopes), then this is a pretty slick hedge. To the extent the Metro is successful in selling ads, it probably takes more business from the Herald than the Globe. If Metro fails, then the Globe's risk has been limited, it has more of the market to itself and the carcass of the failed venture will prove a powerful disincentive to future potential interlopers. If Metro makes money, then the Globe gets almost half of it." (Emphasis added.)
Mutter also makes a good argument that free-standing free newspapers like Metro, and apparently the new chain of Examiners being launched by Denver billionaire Philip Anschutz, face considerable hurdles on the ad sales side.
Traditional papers like the Globe and the Washington Post, which publishes Express, a free commuter paper, have the advantage of legacy sales operations, auditing circulations and - I think this is the most important - online operations that can complement and extend the paper advertising.
"Print-only publications," says Mutter, meaning operations like Metro, "are hard-pressed to do that, but Internet and other new media technologies can deliver the measurable response that publishers will need and advertisers will want."
UPDATE: The publisher of the Boston Herald, Patrick J. Purcell, agrees with Mutter's take that the Times-Metro deak is a threat to his paper. He says he will try to block the partnership.
I'm guest-blogging for the next few weeks on morph, the API Media Center's blog about change in the news media.
Many thanks to Susan Mernit for inviting me to be part of blogger roster that includes:
Tom Biro (Media Drop): Open media and transparency.
JD Lasica (New Media Musings, DarkNet, Our Media).
Tony Gentile (Buzzhit): The business of blogging and big company activities.
And, of course, Susan (Susan Mernit's Blog): Tech watch, interesting new companies.
If you’re still having difficulty believing that in the future of news, as so aptly phrased by Associated Press boss Tom Curley and so generously thought through by Jay Rosen, “content will be more important than its container,” then consider these two related events:
A little more 10 years ago, in 1993, the New York Times Company bought the Boston Globe for $1.1 billion. The purchase was the largest, single newspaper merger and acquisition in U.S. history.
Yesterday, the Times bought 49 percent of Metro Boston, described in this Times story as a “free daily newspaper aimed primarily at commuters in their 20's and 30's.” The Times paid $16.5 million for its half-share.
In other words, in the interval since the Times bet one-third of its annual revenue on a revered, but stodgy top 10 American newspaper, the U.S. news media landscape has been so irrevocably altered that the company, in order to secure its New England franchise, is investing in the competition -- a 3-and-a-half year old free tabloid launched by a Swedish company that believes the future of newspaper profits lies in giving away the news.
In 1993, when the Internet was just beginning its transformation from a back channel conduit for academic wonks and compiler freaks into a popular global medium, when cable TV was still burning the booster rockets ignited by CNN during Gulf War I, when personal media still meant an output-only Walkman, I’m sure the Boston Globe seemed as a solid a newspaper investment as any, even considering that by then U.S. newspaper industry was deep into a 40-year decline.
Since 1993, the circulation of the Boston Globe has trickled steadily downward, losing more than 50,000 Sunday readers alone (about 1 percent a year) since 1998. By comparison, the free Metro’s claims an (unaudited) circulation of 300,000, most of them, as described in today’s Times story, “younger consumers who might not otherwise read a newspaper.”
Interestingly, the Times story points out that Express, a Metro-style paper launched by the Washington Post in August with a press run of 125,000 copies, has been credited (or blamed, depending on your point of view) for partly causing a drop in Post circulation (along with online readership of the Post.).
It seems disingenuous, then, that Janet Robinson, Times Company CEO, says she is unconcerned about the Boston Metro having a similar negative impact on Globe readership. Clearly, the Times is buying into the Metro because company bottom-liners believe it is affecting the Globe’s appeal in the marketplace and the Times wants a piece of the action.
To return to the point made by Tom Curley and Jay Rosen (and myself – Read: There’s Nothing Left but the Journalism), the future of news media is the content, whether it be strong, in-depth journalism, witless pap or cogent analysis and conversation. The container, the vehicle that moves that content from producer to consumer (and remember, that distinction now is more and more a semantic one), is completely fungible.
Adaptation, flexibility, innovation, intentional decision-making, distinctive content, recognizable point of view – these are the qualities of the news organizations that will flourish in the coming decade. Unfortunately, the bureaucratic, self-preservational culture of most newspaper companies is fallow breeding ground for these characteristics. That is why I continually push leadership change as the starting point for newspaper change.
The New York Times is gazing into its crystal ball and seeing that in order to replace its prime readers, the very Baby Boomers who are now beginning to fill its obit columns, that it must compete on more than one level. Good for them.
UPDATE: As soon as I finished posting, I noticed his link on Romenesko: Local Chain Rolling Out D.C. Tabloid. Journal Newspapers, owned by Philip Anschutz, the Denver billionaire who pulled the San Francisco Examiner off the scrap heap on which it had been tossed by the Hearst Corp., is going to roll out a free daily called (suprise!) the Examiner. Anschutz last month filed for trademark protection on the name Examiner in 69 cities.
Even for a refugee from MSM like myself, the estimate by Peter Zollman that Craigslist is siphoning off $50-65 million a year in potential classified advertising from Bay Area newspapers was shocking.
To put that number in perspective, I'd estimate the San Francisco Chronicle has, after its current cutbacks, about 450 newsroom employees who earn on average about $60,000. That's an annual payroll of $27 million. In other words, the money being lost by the Chronicle, the Mercury, their online operations and other Bay Area newspapers could pay for enough journalists to staff two Chronicle newsrooms.
Since Craigslist only $75 apiece for help-wanted ads, up to hundreds less than what the newspapers charge. The effectiveness, both on a cost and candidate pool basis, of advertising on Craigslist versus the Chronicle is evidenced by the fact that even the Chron buys ads there.
In this ad, the newspaper seeks a promotional copywriter whose duties include:
"Ability to create and edit special advertising sections (advertorials) for the newspaper and its advertisers. The latter is enormous potential source for additional revenue and is very much a part of the San Francisco Chronicle's business strategy." (Emphasis added.)
Apparently, it is also part of the Chronicle's business strategy to advertise in its competitors.
This story on ClickZ quotes from Cauthorn in the report, saying "Bay Area newspaper executives can only blame themselves for losing their leadership position, 'because they took no action and listened instead to the arguments inspired by fear, lack of vision, and short-sighted greed.'"
The report's suggested antidotes (again, from ClickZ story) - free online classifieds, self-service tools for users, anonymous Craigslist-style e-mail aliases, RSS feeds, free photos with ads - are likely to produce as much dyspepsia among the newspaper business executives as suggestions of more participatory and community journalism do among their counterparts in the newsroom.