I'm heading south to Oaxaca, Mexico, for about a week, where the food is great, the mezcal is better and DSL is only a dream (at least on my dirt road). Until I return in about a week, read about how I built a house there or wander the stacks of the Best of First Draft: The list is below. Hasta luego, compadres.
The Quality Manifesto: What started it all.
Journalists Overpaid? Nonsense: There are many reasons newsrooms have disconnected from the communities they cover, but overly fat paychecks is not one of them.
No More Whining: He's wrong that penurious publishers are to blame for readership woes.
Eliminating the Bimbo Factor: I practiced journalism, but I knew almost nothing about it - although I thought I did.
Would You Pay a Nickel to Read This?: In the world of online newspapers (and other media), the debate over whether to charge for content (more revenue) or not (more readers) draws well-reasoned and emotional commentary from both sides.
Newspapers Disrupted: "When you realize this newfangled thing is stealing your business, and you aren't sure how to get it back."
How Journalism Went Bad: Reading writer Michael D'Antonio's thoughtful essay on the demise of traditional journalism (print and broadcast) in the L.A. Times reminded me of the Woody Allen line about death: "It's not that I'm afraid to die, I just don't want to be there when it happens."
Time for a Leadership Tuneup: Newspapers are like cars. They are complex machines that require regular maintenance, occasional new parts and a certain amount of high-speed driving to keep the grit and road grime from dulling their engines.
There's Nothing Left but the Journalism: Quality sells. Relevance matters. The real lesson both the newsroom and the boardroom need to learn is that, in the age of the 24-hour scroll, the micro-fragmentation of electronic media, and the constant clamor for a news consumer's attention by everyone from the New York Times to yours truly, all that's left is the journalism.
The Journalism of Complacency: Tim Rutten, who was completely wrong about Daniel Okrent (see my comments here and here), noses about for the roots of journalistic evil and finds it to be money - that is, the relative affluence of reporters and editors, at least those in larger news organizations. He's half-wrong again - but inadvertently landed on a point worth making.
ASNE's Diversity Study: Looking for Answers: Why do America's newspapers remain so white despite 25 years of effort to have them be more reflective of the communities they cover?
Money, Money, Money: The salary gap widens between the boardroom and the newsroom
New Readership Study: Culture Counts: A new study by the Readership Institute - released at the ASNE convention - focuses on attracting younger and more diverse readers to newspapers and on overcoming the internal cultural barriers that inhibit innovation.
Applied Talent: Howell Raines was right about one thing (at least) -- what counts is how much talent is at work, not how much is in the building.
According to This Reporter: Sources and Accountability: Is having no source in a news story better than citing an anonymous one?
Goodness and Tyranny: The desire to do good work and the obstacles of tradition, convention and production connect all newspaper journalists.
News Media vs. Journalism: It's time, once again, to make the distinction between the "news media" and journalism.
Editorial Pages: Pizza vs. Finger Bowls: The nature of editorial pages and how newspapers use them to connect to readers.
He Said, She Said, We Said …: Revelations about the mindset of traditional journalists, the power shift personal publishing technology has brought to media, and a common frustration shared equally by reporters and their subjects.
Apologize? For What?: The Boston Herald, has apologized for publishing a photograph of the young woman shot to death by police during a street disturbance following the Red Sox's victory over the Yankees. That was a mistake.
Explode the Newsroom: Six Ways to Rebuild the System: 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.
The Power of One: Over and over again I hear journalists bemoan the falling numbers in their newsrooms or shrinking size of their news hole. And they are right to do so. They are also right to pursue efforts to link quality journalism to higher profits. But that is not enough. Individual journalists need to take personal responsibility for the quality of their work and get beyond the question someone asked yesterday at a conference on homeland security reporting: What can one person do?
Reading the Vanishing Newspaper, A Guide: Philip Meyer, a University of North Carolina journalism professor, wrote "The Vanishing Newspaper, Saving Journalism in the Information Age," as "an attempt to isolate and describe the factors that made journalism work as a business in the past and that might also make it work with the changing technologies in the present and the future." I read the book and dissected it chapter by chapter.
One of the great benefits of participating in a collaborative event like yesterday's API Media Center webcast on the "vanishing newspaper" is the opportunity to be exposed to the ideas of smart people.
Mary Lou Fulton, the creator of The Northwest Voice, the grassroots journalism venture of the Bakersfield Californian, provided a terrific on-point summary of the tough situation newspapers are in and offered some strategies for morphing their way out of it. Her presentation is on her web site, Open Source Journalism. Here are some points that struck me (with my comments):
The End of 'One Size Fits All': The mass audience that sustained newspapers for decades is gone. News companies that survive will serve niches defined by interests, values, age and, yes, geography (although on either a national or a micro-local scale.)
Embrace "Do It Yourself": Fulton points to the lessons newspapers can learn from Craiglist and eBay. People want control, even over their advertising. Journalism will survive, but it will be more layered, with professional journalists (report for pay) sharing the dais with personal journalists (report for pride or passion or prejudice). The public will decide which they prefer.
Let's Re-Edit Ourselves: This one I really like because Fulton asks the question: If you could reconfigure Page 1 of today's paper for younger people or for the elderly, what would it look like? Bloggers re-edit newspapers through selective filtering. As Fulton says: "We can re-edit ourselves online through personalization and soon in print to present a more relevant, targeted publication."
Finally, Fulton emphasizes the need to invest and innovate in new editorial products and to do so without guarantee of success. Change requires risk. Risk breeds failure as well as success. Newspapers must learn to fail in order to succeed in the future.
The Media Center of the American Press Institute is holding a free webcast Wednesday (March 9) discussing the values of journalism in a post-newspaper world. The discussion opens with presentation by Philip Meyer on his book, "The Vanishing Newspaper, Saving Journalism in the Information Age."
Jeff Jarvis is the moderator of the panel, which besides Meyer includes Mary Lou Fulton of the Bakersfield Californian and Northwest Voice, Stefan Dill of the Santa Fe New Mexican, and yours truly. Several hundred people have registered for the audience. More details and registration here.
(If you truly want to prepare, read my chapter-by-chapter review of Meyer's book.)
Here are the points I'm going to touch on:
What replaces newspapers as the fundamental vehicle for journalism isn't known. As Yogi Berra said: "It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future." What journalists and newspaper companies need to be doing now in preparation for that uncertain future is rethinking the forms of journalism and remaking the structures of their organizations.
Start by asking these questions: What are newspapers good for? How can they be useful to the community? How can they focus on that purpose? In other words, what current baggage must they jettison in order to repurpose themselves? What skills - journalistic, business, leadership - do they need in order to adapt?
The risk-averse cultures of newsrooms must be addressed in order to accomplish change. Newsrooms are defensive (Who me?), oppositional (Won't work!), avoidant (Not my job) and perfectionistic (trees, not forest).
Change will be difficult. The organizations with defensive, risk-averse cultures most similar to newspapers are highly bureaucratic entities like military and government agencies whose value systems reward inaction and discourage independence. Process takes precedent over people. Control trumps creativity. This is a leadership issue that requires bold action, not tinkering.
Explode the newsroom. [Read: Exploding the Newsroom: Six Ways to Rebuild the System for some ideas.] Explode the walls by tearing down the content silos of News, Sports, Business and Features in which all newsrooms operate. Explode the hierarchy that sends ideas downhill, strips rank-and-file editors of responsibility and causes reporters to hide their best ideas from editors for fear having to produce them for the next day. Explode the beat system. Most newspaper stories are about institutions or crime (Count them in your paper. About two-thirds will be official or police or court stories.) Focus on people, not process. Explode the staff. Hire for creativity, aggressiveness, critical thinking and writing ability. Journalism skills can be taught.
Is it too late? Have newspapers reached a tipping point? More and more editors seem to think so. Phil Bronstein of the San Francisco Chronicle was quoted saying this in the Washington Post: "I could argue pretty forcefully that the free model and the non-newsprint model is what we're looking at in the future." And, John Squires, president of Sports Illustrated declared: "Print is dead."
What are important are the principles of journalism, not their form. "The primary purpose of journalism," say Tom Rosenstiel and Bill Kovach in their book, "The Elements of Journalism, "is to provide citizens with the information they need to be free and self-governing."
They also say journalism's "first obligation is to the truth" and its "first loyalty is to its citizens."
These principles hold true in the information age, particularly the latter, but they need to be rethought in non-traditional terms. In other words, loyalty to the citizenry (or obligation to community) once meant, and still does, the responsibility of the press to keep a watchful eye on the scoundrels in power.
Today, though, the concept must be expanded to embrace the power of the community itself to watchdog its own institutions, including the press. It is a shift for the press from being the guardian of the community to being a participant in and enable of community.
Tune in tomorrow. It should be fun.
Apple vs. Bloggers: Good story in today's New York Times about the court fight between Apple Computer and bloggers who are making public things the company prefer were kept secret. At the heart of Apple's argument: Bloggers are not reporters and therefore don't deserve protection under California's shield law. I like the approach of Jack Balkin, a Yale law professor: Define bloggers by function - those who report are reporters. Says Balkin (emphasis added):
"I would be willing to claim that if you look in my blog, what I'm doing is so similar to what Lewis or Krugman or Safire do," he said, referring to Anthony Lewis, Paul Krugman and William Safire, current and former columnists for The Times, that "although it's done more informally and it's about a much narrower area, that I could claim that I was in the functional definition. That's what happens when you start taking a functional approach."
Don't Hire the Hearse Yet: Alan Mutter, of Newsosaur, commenting on a remark by Phil Bronstein, editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, "that the free model and the non-newsprint model is what we're looking at in the future" says news companies can save newspaper if they're willing to radically remake the business model. Writes Alan (emphasis adde):
"Will all due respect to Phil B, we don't have to stop the presses just yet. Newspaper executives can save the industry if they quit trying to preserve, protect and defend the comfy mass media business model that has carried them into the handsome offices, salaries, stock-option plans and retirement accounts they enjoy today. … This is not tinkering. This is radical change that will cost time and money and likely lead in the near term to lower profits and, most likely, lower share prices."
Gonzo vs. Gannon: Frank Rich in the Sunday Times takes on the differences between the salad days of Hunter Thompson and the sad times of Jeff Gannon. Thompson's shining quality, says Rich, was authenticity, a voice as unfiltered by the constrains of mainstream meda as the one today's bloggers proclaim to have. Says Rich (all emphasis added):
"His unruly mix of fact, opinion and masturbatory self-regard may have made him a blogger before there was an Internet, but he was a blogger who had the zeal to leave home and report firsthand and who could write great sentences that made you want to savor what he found out rather than just scroll quickly through screen after screen of minutiae and rant."
Gannon, on the other hand, represents the debasement and emasculation of News (Rich capitalizes it) by both facile broadcasters (he swipes at Jennings and Williams) and a White House bent in bending media to its own purposes, ethics be damned. Rich writes:
Today you can't tell the phonies without a scorecard. Besides the six "journalists" we know to have been paid by the administration or its backers, bloggers were on the campaign payrolls of both a Republican office-seeker (South Dakota's Senator John Thune) and a Democrat (Howard Dean) during last year's campaign. … the Social Security Administration is refusing to comply with Freedom of Information Act requests for information about its use of public relations firms - such as those that funneled taxpayers' money to the likes of Armstrong Williams. Don't expect news organizations dedicated to easy-listening news to get to the bottom of it.
To combat this very real attack on the validity of News, authentic journalists are needed.