I'm traveling today and tomorrow, but here's a few things that caught me eye recently.
Diamonds in the rough: Alan Mutter finds opportunity for newspapers amid the media chaos of today (all emphasis added by me):
"People in the newspaper business today have an unprecedented opportunity to overhaul an 18th Century, Rip Van Winkle-like institution that suddenly woke with a start to find itself smack dab in the middle of the Internet Age."
No reader is an island: Scott Rosenberg writes about how the Internet enables readers to compare their own authority against the traditional authorities of news media, i.e., newspapers:
"Until recently, each reader who saw the holes in the occasional story he knew well was, in essence, an island; and most of those readers rested in some confidence that, even though that occasional story was problematic, the rest of the paper was, really, pretty good. Only now, the Net -- and in particular the explosion of blogs, with their outpouring of expertise in so many fields -- has connected those islands, bringing into view entire continents of inadequate, hole-ridden coverage. The lawyer blogs are poking holes in the legal coverage, while the tech blogs are poking holes in the tech coverage, the librarian blogs are poking holes in the library coverage -- and the political blogs, of course, are ripping apart the political coverage in a grand tug of war from the left and the right. Within a very short time we've gone from seeing the newspaper as a product that occasionally fails to live up to its own standards to viewing it as one that has a structural inability to get most things right."
Media meltdown: Chris Anderson rounds up the decline of traditional media, music to radio to newspapers.
Matt Thompson, one of the creators of Googlezon, says what I've been thinking for several days: Why did Mood of the Newsroom cause such a stir? After all, I, and others, have been writing similar things for a couple of years.
" … it all just feels so twelve years ago. When we start talking around in circles like this, I get impatient about the snail's pace of this alleged revolution. The brashness of youth, I guess. (Emphasis added.)
"The other thing that worries me is that with all the talk of blowing the roof off journalism, I think many of us are still looking for a template. Like, Ooh! Ooh! The inverted pyramid is dead! Let's go find something else to invert!"
And, in the comments, in response to Jay Rosen, he sees an over-emphasis on newspapers at the expense of attention to newer, emerging forms of media. He says:
"I do care very much about the traditional news providers, and I want them to be involved in what's happening. I work for what I'd say is the biggest, most sophisticated newsgathering operation in Fresno County, and I'm horrified by the thought of this poor, beaten-up region losing the best journalism it's got. At the same time, I think we sometimes squander our energy on bringing our newsrooms along for the revolution at the expense of guiding that revolution along." (Emphasis added.)
Thompson is right is this sense: This is not about newspapers. It is about journalism - about informing and engaging, about entertaining and enlightening our neighbors, and about enabling them to participate in the coverage of and conversation about their own communities.
I hope newspapers can do all those things, that they can be the platform the supports or the umbrella that shelters these activities, but if they can not or choose not to do those things, then they deserve whatever fate befalls them. This is not about newspapers; it's about us.
Here's a reply I posted in the comments at Thompson's site, Snarkmarket:
As the current object of Jay's fawning, I thought I'd offer some agreement and some disagreement without, I hope, being fawning myself or defensively newspaperish.
First, I share your sense of wonder at the amount of attention paid to my piece on the newsroom. While I can't claim the prescience of Crichton, I have essentially been writing versions of the newsroom post for 2.5 years. In my first entry I said pretty much what I said the other day: "In an age of increasing public sophistication - and diversification - about media consumption, newspapers, for the most part, continue to produce a bland mixture of agenda and event coverage, he-said-she-said government news and an established array of feature stories focused on predictable characters who no longer elicit sympathy nor surprise from readers." In other words, the journalists were on auto-pilot while the world had moved on.
So why now? What the fuss over this piece and not the others? I think it's the timing, the growing awareness within newsrooms that there are better ways of doing journalism, the ascendancy of bloggers and, of course, the normal build of critical mass, meaning the eventual pile-on to an idea. It's become, sadly, fashionable to talk about the death of newspapers.
I also think there's a personal, more human reason. Most mainstream journalists, even those graying Boomers, want to do good work, to be relevant, to be engaged and excited by their jobs. I called bullshit on one obstacle to those goals - their own attitudes - and perhaps that ignited a flicker of realization that they can control their own destiny, that change is possible but it is up to them. That can be empowering.
We disagree about my focus on newspapers. Because newspapers (and the wires) remain, despite their readership erosion and economic cutbacks, the principal producers of journalism (55,000 journalists) in this country, my intention is shove them from the rut in which they've wallowed for the last few decades. And in that context, as Jay said, it matters what the journalists in the newsroom and the news executives at their conventions think. My role - and I see it as a small one made large in bloggo-landia for a day or two - is to encourage a new form of thinking. That is why I try to write directly to those folks. I am from their world and I can speak their language (although I like to think I am at least bilingual).
The young citizen journalist you wrote about, Matt, isn't in that world and your question about how we can "keep *her* around" and transfer (or inject) her passion into the next crop of journalists is an excellent one. Mainstream news (print or broadcast and even web) tends to drive out the most creative and the most passionate. How do we prevent that and devote the intellect and energy of these people to creation of new forms of substantive journalism?
Part of the answer lays in the current conversation that folks like you and Jay and I are enabling. Yes, it's late, but change always begins at the edges. The middle is the last to move and few institutions are more middle of the road, and deliberately so, than news organizations. Encouraging and enabling people to envision change in the first step.
I also believe, though, as you seem to, that it is not necessary to save newspapers or further enshrine newsrooms in order to save the principles journalism. Perhaps collectives of independent journalists will form. Perhaps, as Phil Meyer has said, non-profit institutions will underwrite some types of journalism. I would prefer newspapers survive, not in place of these other forms of journalism, but as a complement to them. [Read: Reading the Vanishing Newspaper: A Guide.]
Finally, a personal note. I was appropriately embarrassed by Jay's "what it took to get here" comment, but, hey, he's passionate and effusive and that's where those characteristics lead. Love ya, Jay. But he was right in benchmarking my own evolution in from a hard-core newsroom editor to a wide-eyed geek entranced by what my colleagues were doing with the early web (prototype Electric Examiner, strike newspaper, Salon) to an ex-journalists working on a start-up to the returning prodigal journalistic son I am today. It is my journey and it is not dissimilar to many journalists of my time.
There are a couple of reasons for the quarter hour of fame this post is enjoying before it gets buried in a fresh torrent of RSS feeds. First, of course, is the pushing power of Jay Rosen and Jeff Jarvis, both of whom were not linked to the post but also were kind enough to say some nice things about it. The second, though - and I say this with all the humility Jay Rosen can lay on me because I have learned, more than once in my career, that arrogance kills the message and destroys any hope of communication - is that the piece touched a newsroom nerve that has lay dormant for too long.
When I wrote in my first post - on Dec. 04, 2002 - that newspapers "continue to produce a bland mixture of agenda and event coverage, he-said-she-said government news and an established array of feature stories focused on predictable characters who no longer elicit sympathy nor surprise from readers" I wasn't telling most newspaper journalists anything they didn't already know. [Read: The Quality Manifesto.]
And when I wrote three days ago that it the journalists bear as much responsibility as the newspaper owners for the industry's underwhelming, to say the least, response in the last decade to the transformation of the world of media, I wasn't telling those journalists anything they didn't already know.
"I've run into each of the systemic flaws you detail here, and in a perfect world, maybe I would have quit in disgust years ago. I changed jobs instead, but I remain a newspaper guy. It's a love-hate relationship at best. … I think some individual papers are capable of doing what you prescribe, but I fear that as an industry we lack the talent and vision to pull off such changes in a violent way. These days I'm hopeful that the grassroots movement will be able to sneak in through some back doors and change things in a subtle, insurgent way. Maybe our readers can help us find our way again." (Emphasis added.)
Follow the readers home. That's a good beginning for changing a newsroom.
This email came from an editor on a mid-sized newspaper who didn't want his name used because he thought his comments would be taken defensively in his own newsroom. He writes:
"We have pretty progressive leadership here, from the publisher through the entire executive staff, and I'm sure we're not the only paper in this position - contrary to some of the perception among media critics - the biggest impediment to innovation isn't newspaper leadership in many cases (though there is that, too, and probably it's that way most papers) ... it's the staff, both newsroom and advertising." (Emphasis added.)
And here is John Robinson, editor of the Greensboro News-Record, writing on his blog, practicing the change he preaches:
"As an industry, we don't lack the talent or vision to redirect the ship, as one letter writer suggests. We lack the will. The data is clear; the status quo is not an option. What are we waiting for? The changes in store should be embraced if we can reach new audiences with our journalism. No one is suggesting we abandon our core principles. Truth telling remains the key. And everything I read challenges us to make that principle stronger." (Emphasis added.)
It's important for me to note, though, that my criticism is not directed so much at individuals as it is at the collective newsroom and its entrenched institutional culture, which makes it easy, as Ryan pointed out "to get sucked into nostalgia for the fat days."
What heartens me when I hear that something I wrote drew some reaction, and maybe raised the discomfort level in the industry a few degrees, is that awareness and conversation are the first components of change.
As I said a few paragraphs earlier most journalists know in their guts what's wrong with their newspapers: Content so sterile and unimaginative that if you ask staff members, as I do in every newspaper I visit, whether they read their own paper the answer too often is "no." As John Robinson so forcefully stated above, what's lacking is the will to change.
Read the letter from Daniel Conover. Hear his plea for leadership, his desire to do good work and his willingness to do what takes to keep the journalism alive in a post-newspaper age. Is it just me, can my idealism still be this strong that I want to do all I can to give the William Conover the future of news he deserves? Don't you want to, too?
Bravo. I got my first job as a reporter in 1974; eventually moved to the news desk; started plotting to replace Atex with Macs in 1990; got involved in the startup of a primitive online edition in 1993; and left journalism in 1996 to work at a large software company. Today, I design user interfaces for a living, and wild horses couldn't drag me back to a print newsroom, for all the reasons you describe.
I read two papers a day in print and more online, but my college-age kids don't, and probably never will. Mass media are fragmenting into something else. The creative destruction is only beginning.
At the place I work now...
-- All organizational structures are temporary, and are replaced the moment they outlive their usefulness. All org charts are instantly out of date. Most people don't care what their job title du jour is. The only thing that's permanent is change.
-- The power of a good idea, supported by data, is greater than the power of hierarchy or tradition. If your idea is powerful enough, you can launch a virtual startup within the company.
-- The culture is studiously egaliatarian. Except during growing pains, everyone has a private office. Everyone's office is the same size. Everyone has the same furniture. Almost no doors lock. There are no reserved parking spaces.
-- There is no time clock. There is no dress code. No one cares how you work, as long as you get the job done and do it well. If you're working on a complicated project and need quiet, you can telecommute for the day.
-- Meetings are for making hard decisions. If you're making an easy decision, or just reporting status, use email.
-- Hiring is a science. Every job is analyzed for the technical and interpersonal skills it requires, and candidates undergo a grueling day of interviews designed to test them for each of those skills. Managers are expected to hire people who are better and smarter than they are. No one is indispensable. People are encouraged to move around within the company, so that they learn more about everything it does. There is a career path for individual contributors who aren't interested in managing people. There are no sinecures and no pigeonholes. Poor performers are given opportunities to improve. If they don't, they are gone.
-- Every employee is responsible for contributing to the bottom line -- and for knowing how their work contributes to it, and for not doing work that doesn't contribute to it.
If the newspaper industry had been like this, I wouldn't have left.
What prevents the newspaper industry from being like this, except the dead hand of tradition? People made it. People can change it.
"People made it. People can change it." So succinct, but so perfectly dead on. Newspapers are what we made them, so let's remake them.
In the last 18 months I've interviewed several hundred journalists - reporters, photographers, copy editors, executive editors, designers, graphic artists. I've been in newspaper newsrooms of more than 500 people and in newsrooms of less than 50. It has been an immersion course in the mood of the press - and much of it hasn't been pretty.
The amount of anger and hostility, of distrust and suspicion, of inertia and ennui that pollutes the journalistic environment in these newsrooms at first surprised me. Now, when I first step into another newspaper I only wonder how long it will take to surface.
Initially, before the realization grew within me that the negativism was not sporadic but pervasive, I tempered my perception of it with the desires I heard from so many journalists to do good work, to chase on still after the dreams that drew them into reporting or photography - speaking truth to power, afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted, and, of course, the byline.
After a time, though, I came to see that many of these journalists, and not just those swimming in my end of the generational pool, used these nostalgic desires as substitutes for the actual passion and energy necessary to achieve their journalistic dreams in today's new world of news media. In other words, their notion of "doing good work" meant doing journalism the way it was done "before," a temporal concept loosely bound in the wrappings of time before cable, before Internet, before loss of authority, a time in which "the paper" was "the news."
As much as I want to sympathize with those yearnings - I am, after all, of that time - and as much as I want still to preserve the best of journalism - speaking, afflicting and comforting remain principle elements of the craft - I view this inability to let go of a past that is, if not dead, on life support as poisonous to journalism. It is a venom whose toxicity, fed by the same sort of outwardly-directed anger and suspicion that floods the waning days of all diminishing industries, weakens all hope these reporters and editors and photographers have of imagining a future in which journalism survives but its form is vastly different.
More simply, professional life isn't turning out quite the way these journalists thought it would - and it makes them mad.
Unfortunately, the working stiffs, these angry ink-stained wretches who once provided the passion and the personality to newspapers, have strapped on the same blinders as their penurious publishers, who persist in milking the highest possible margins from their businesses rather than investing in the technology, ideas, partnerships and people who can reinvent their business and editorial models.
I didn't think, given the scrappy newsrooms from which I sprang, the day would come when I'd say the responsibility for the decline of newspapers as the principal platform for journalism is shared equally by the journalists and the publishers. But that day has come. Shame on you both.
Here is the litany of shame that echoes in newsroom after newsroom:
We don't have the money.
We don't have the time.
We don't have the people.
We have lousy editors.
We have lousy reporters.
We can't communicate.
We don't talk.
We don't listen.
Things were better when …
We had more people.
We didn't zone.
We had more money.
So-and-so was editor.
We did more (name your beat) reporting.
We did less (ditto).
Yes, my friends in the newsroom, there's less money and there are fewer people. That's not really your fault - although it wasn't TV news and the web and shifting demographics alone that drove the readers away. Boring stories, formulaic content and refusal to change with the times are all also culprits.
But, I am sorry, my friends in the newsroom, much of the rest is your fault. The journalism, the leadership, the mandate to reflect and engage your community, the necessity to make tough, but creative decisions in the face of conflict, as all industries must do from time to time - those are all your responsibilities and you have abdicated them.
The obdurance and avoidance endemic in newsrooms rests on a bedrock belief that the "problems" at their newspapers are best solved with more bodies or a return to a more "traditional" form of journalism.
This belief exists in every newsroom I've been in during the last 18 months and while it is certainly understandable - most people prefer a known past, however glorified it may be, to an uncertain future, regardless of the promise it may hold - I believe it is dangerously destructive. It focuses on what was rather than on what could be. It is a virtual "benchmark" against which all is measured, usually unfavorably.
Even younger journalists too young to recall the halcyon days of the press invoke phrases like "staffing situation" and "lack of resources" when explaining certain newsroom condition. They have drunk the newsroom Kool-Aid and ingested the defensive culture.
To quiet the chorus of criticism I hearing warming up backstage, allow me to offer this salving footnote to the above: In these same newsrooms where the nattering nabobs of nostalgia pine for days of yore, there are also forward-thinking reporters and editors and photographers who envision and are working to create a journalistic future built on new story forms, deeper community connections and more truth-telling and watch-dogging. A dilemma facing the industry is whether it can retain these folks long enough to make change happen. It is sad that in so many of my conversations with these younger journalists they tell me of plans to leave newspapers for grad school, magazines or simply travel. As one smart young photographer told me recently: "There is nowhere for me to go here."
Does this sound too harsh or simplistic? I'm not sure any longer. I love journalism (and, I confess, newspapers, too). But if we're going to survive in any meaningful way we need to find creative solutions to our dilemma, ways to ensure the continuance of quality journalism at a time when what has been its principal platform -- the newspaper business -- is gravely threatened. Do I have the answer? No. But I know the solution can only be found by using the windshield and not the rear-view mirror.
The search for answers begins with a question: What if?
What if … we exploded our newsrooms rebuilt them from scratch? (If someone gave you XXX number of journalists and $XX millions - add you own newsroom numbers - and said, here, make any type of news organization you want, would you build the same newspaper you have today?)
What if … we could cover anything we wanted? Would we go to the same meetings, call the cops as much, fill the paper with so many stories about institutions?
What if … we stopped writing about things even journalists don't read? Let's be honest: Many journalists don't read their own newspapers because they find them boring. Why continue feeding that stuff to the public?
What if … every journalist believed in the Power of One? As Washington Post reporter Robert O'Harrow says: "You have one life, one career, you might as well shoot for the stars." Be dogged, follow truth, think big. [Read: The Power of One.]
What if … we stopped worrying about the Web and instead embraced it by writing for it first and the paper second, but digitizing our interviews, by displaying our source material, by inviting readers to contribute, comment and confront?
There are plenty of ideas for change out there and some very smart people pushing them.
Here is Ken Sands of the Spokane newspaper offering good advice about how to use the Web and how to meld mainstream journalism and blogging.
Here is the Atlanta paper using strategic training to focus its staff on watchdog reporting and new ways of telling stories.
Here is the Bakersfield (California) newspaper using the Web to enable readers to report on their own community.
Here is the editor of the Greensboro (North Carolina) newspaper talking to readers daily through his blog.
We are in a time of great transition in journalism. The tectonics of technology, demographics, economics and lifestyle are disrupting the ground on which newspaper journalism stood for half a century. Survival requires nimbleness, openness and a sense of the possible. The intransigent and the angry and the incurably nostalgic will fall into the cracks.
Newspaper journalists may not be able to control the changing economics of their industry, but they are responsible for the manner and the mood in which they respond to those changes.
Al Saracevic, a business section columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, tells Craig Newmark that if Craigslist is going to take the classified ad money that used to flow so freely to the Chronicle and other newspapers, revenue that pays for the journalism the papers produce, then Craig has a responsibility to fill the resulting journalistic hole.
Craig says Al is right.
First Al to Craig:
“You shouldn't take the money and run. If successful community Web sites, such as Craigslist and Yahoo and even Google, are going to take over regional advertising dollars, they also need to give something back to society other than cheap apartment ads and funny, dirty personals. (Not that I don't love 'em.)
“Historically, the money spent on such ads helped subsidize a reporting mechanism that served as society's fourth estate. It was commonly known as a newspaper.
“If the revenue newspapers once subsisted on disappears, he who taketh the lunch money away shall also provide the watchdog function. And complaining about lousy school systems on your blog won't cut it. Nor will running the AP wire on your ‘news’ page.” (Emphasis added.)
Then Craig to Al:
“Al's right about giving back. … I'm trying to figure out how to help, maybe just a little, by encouraging people to preserve and expand what's right about mainstream media while encouraging the new stuff. There's a lot of good people and infrastructure in newsrooms and bureaus, like fact checkers and editors. How do we keep all that, and maybe increase funding for investigative journalism?” (Emphasis added.)
Craig himself cued the music that has him waltzing with the idea of getting into citizen journalism. He said in this interview in January:
“We may do something along the lines of citizen journalism. We don't know what that will be yet.” (Emphasis added.)
A report by Classified Intelligence that came out at year’s end concluded that Craigslist, with its mostly free classifieds (employers pay $75 per category listing) was taking directly or diverting upward of $50 million annually. That can pay for a lot of journalism, even at a place like the Chronicle.
The question here is the one Phil Meyer asks in his book, “The Vanishing Newspaper, Saving Journalism in the Information Age,”: Who, or what economic model, underwrites journalism if newspapers lose (or throw away) the franchise? [Read: Reading the Vanishing Newspaper: A Guide.]
The other day, when the latest circulation projections for U.S. newspapers were released, I speculated that the industry might be reaching a tipping point in its decline - a point of lost readership and revenue beyond which there is no recovery.
Jeff Jarvis sees signs of another tipping point - the ascendancy of citizen journalism to a level of acceptance by the legacy news media. Writes Jeff:
"It's wonderful watching what I think is a global warming in mainstream media toward citizens' media. We may just be at the tipping point."
"I know of the heads of at least three national TV news operations who are eager to incorporate citizens' media; I know of more newspaper editors who are finally siddling up to the concept. I hear less and less of the dismissive jabs from big-time editors about small-time citizen journalists. Blogs are now a regular feature on MSNBC and CNN. Bloggers are getting quoted in newspapers and credited with big stories (Trend, Dan, et al). Newspapers are getting published with citizens' news."(Emphasis added.)
As Jeff points out, the big momentum driver during the week was Rupert Murdoch's I-got-religion-and-you-better-too speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors convention.
Murdoch scolded the editors for their complacency, for "quietly hoping" - as he once did - "that this thing called the digital revolution would just limp along" He continued:
"The peculiar challenge then, is for us digital immigrants … to apply a digital mindset to a new set of challenges. We need to realize that the next generation of people accessing news and information, whether from newspapers or any other source, have a different set of expectations about the kind of news they will get, including when and how they will get it, where they will get it from, and who they will get it from." (Emphasis added.)
And that, Murdoch says, includes enabling community conversation and citizen journalism:
"… our internet site will have to do still more to be competitive. For some, it may have to become the place for conversation. The digital native doesn't send a letter to the editor anymore. She goes online, and starts a blog. We need to be the destination for those bloggers. We need to encourage readers to think of the web as the place to go to engage our reporters and editors in more extended discussions about the way a particular story was reported or researched or presented." (Emphasis added.)
Among the pioneers in integrating blogs into newspapers is Ken Sands, who runs the web operation for the Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash. Ken offered some good advice on the Media Centers' blog for traditional reporters who want to dive into the digital waters of blogging:
Blogs should revolve around topics, not personalities.
The subjects should be specific.
Group blogs can work if the group is small, the subject is specific and the duties are carefully assigned and monitored.
Remember that "our readers know more than we do."
Why should journalists blog? In addition to the arguments about transparency, communication and personality, Sands has one that will appeal to publishers: The "staff-written blogs (on spokesmanreview.com) account for about 12.5 percent of the traffic on the entire site."
Could the most ambitious readership experiment underway at an American newspaper provide clues to construction of a future in which newspapers survive by embracing the values of the very forces that are threatening their distinction?
There is no lack of evidence that the U.S. newspaper industry, beset by seemingly irreversible social, economic, technological and creative forces that are undermining its business model, faces an uncertain future at best. Nor is their a dearth of scholarship, analysis or commentary predicting disastrous days ahead for newspapers unless the business and editorial managers can overcome their own cultural handicaps and create new models for commerce and journalism. [Read: The Abandoned Newspaper and Reading the Vanishing Newspaper: A Guide.]
Threading in between these two mountains of doom (apologies to Frodo and company) is a thin, but I think widening, valley of hope in which lives the promise of new, and reformed, journalistic enterprises whose superstructure contains both the steely principles of good journalism as well as the more ephemeral, but flexible fiber of news media produced for and by the community.
Thus far, the spadework necessary for these combined journalistic ventures has been done, not surprisingly, outside of the defensive realm of traditional journalism platforms, of which newspapers are the most powerful economic and editorial component.
Within newspapers, most change has been more incremental, tweaking the design or adding bits of new content with the intent to pull in the only audience that can save them as a mass vehicle for journalism - the post-Baby Boom generations.
The Minneapolis Star-Tribune, a 378,000-circulation, 370-person newspaper once seen as an innovator in the industry, is attempting to prove that revolution is possible in a business that barely tolerates evolution. (Full disclosure: I have done some research and assessment work at the Star-Tribune with Tomorrow's Workforce.)
Under the direction of new leadership who didn't want to just redesign the Star-Tribune but reinvent it, the newspaper decided to become a laboratory where the Readership Institute could put to the test its latest theory: Newspapers that could create "experiences" could attract younger readers (and retain older ones).
At last year's conference of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, the Readership Institute released its work on reader experiences, citing several broad types of responses from people (young and old) who had positive reactions to newspapers. They said, for example, the newspaper "makes me smarter" or "looks out for my personal and civic interests."
At this year's ASNE conference, the Readership Institute and the Star-Tribune reported on their work during the last year to reinvent the newspaper using the goal of creating three reader experiences aimed at young adults - "gives me something to talk about, looks out for my interests, turned on by surprise and humor.
John Lavine, director of the institute, calls this approach "editing for experience."
In a slide presentation, Lavine layed out how the experiment worked:
A group of Star-Tribune staffers selected one day's front page and a jump. It was a typical day's paper, reflecting both the Star-Tribune's reputation for quality and the broader industry's reliance on a predictable news agenda to fill its pages: A more-than-day-old news lede on President Bush heading to Europe; a big feature on a woman intent on walking all the streets of Minneapolis; another feature on local officials who blog; a legislative proposal to broaden DNA collection from citizens; and a sizable photo promo to an anniversary package on the U.S. Olympic hockey team's victory in 1980. (See photo.)
First, they remade the page using only the stories already on it, but changing their "emphasis, play and approach to enhance" the three chosen reader experiences. As you can see, the hockey package grew, walker story shrunk the DNA story was rewritten with an it-could-happen-to-you lede and the Bush story was downsized to a refer. They called this version the Improved Paper.
Next, "the team selected stories from anywhere in the newspaper or in that day's news budget and remade the page gain. The walker story fell off Page 1, a no-jump centerpiece grew out of debate about local poker laws, the Bush and DNA stories stayed the same, and a story on the insecurity of private data was pulled forward from Business and hotted up with a Paris Hilton photo. They called this version the Experience Paper.
Finally, Lavine and the Star-Tribune showed all three versions of the paper - the Original, the Improved and the Experience - to 340 young adults and asked which they preferred, which they would read and which they would recommend to their peers. (Go to Lavine's slides to see large versions of these pages.)
The results must have been sobering to the room of gathered editors. The group of young adults preferred the Experience edition 2 to 1 over the Original the Improved. Here are some results for the Experience paper:
More likely to catch your attention - 73 percent.
More visually appealing - 71 percent.
More memorable - 63 percent.
Easier for you to get information - 63 percent.
Mention some of the information when talking to friends - 63 percent.
Best story selection - 62 percent.
Seems to look out for your interests - 62 percent.
Significantly, in most of these categories there was little statistical preference between the Original paper and the slightly enchanced version, the Improved paper. In other words, small changes yielded negligible results.
The lesson here is huge: Just shuffling the deck, rearranging the chairs, remixing the stew - insert your own metaphor - is not worth the effort. Newspapers that want to get serious about surviving in the information age - and younger people have no other frame of reference - must discard previous conceptions about news, explode the newsroom structure and listen to the words of Star Tribune editor Gyllenhaal:
"Experiences are ways of converting traditional news judgments from editors' definitions (what's most interesting, what's most important, what you can't believe just happened) to readers' definitions of how they react (what makes readers feel informed, what gives them something to talk about, what tells them the paper is looking out for their interests.)" (Emphasis added.)
Smart stuff. It's what Lavine & Company (and many others outside of the newspaper industry) have been saying at length. But, as Nancy Barnes, a team leader on the Star-Tribune project, says: "It goes against our natural instincts."
Thinking of the reader first means relinquishing control, stepping down from the pulpit of the journalistic priesthood and conversing with the flock instead of lecturing to them.
In their presentation to ASNE, Lavine, Gyllenhaal and Moses offered up eight lessons learned so far in Minneapolis. They should be engraved into the foreheads of every newspaper editor. The lessons:
"Don't be afraid to talk directly to readers." In part, this means using new way of writing headlines - ask questions in them - and allowing the opinions of readers to guide some editorial decisions.
"Bring younger voices to the table to share in decision-making." I love these observations: "40 to 50-year-olds can be dead wrong about 20-somethings" and "Young people aren't monolithic."
"Humor is a huge selling point." Use catchier language and pop icons (Paris Hilton, e.g.) to draw readers into serious issues (data privacy.)
"Different story forms are a big hit." Look at the poker story. It was presented in a pro-con format.
"Be more interactive every day." One platform is not enough. You can't layer information too much. Provide opportunities for readers to participate in the story and the follow-up.
"Look out for their interests." Here's good advice: "Be practical, personal. … Tell conspicuously what action they can take (e.g. if identity is stolen)." Note the word "conspicuously." The Minneapolis team found the paper already did many of these things, but readers weren't aware of them. It's OK to shout: Here it is!
"Not hard to make the paper a little younger." It requires focus (short brainstorming sessions), accountability (requiring editors to look for "talkable stories"), collaboration (cross-discipline teams) and candor ("Is this really interesting?").
"'Interesting' is not optional. 'Informative' is not sufficient. 'Compelling' is mandatory." As I said the other day, Boring Begone! If it's important enough to cover, it's important enough to make interesting. [Read: ASNE Convention: Six Things that Should be on the Agenda.]
I'm going to add a ninth lesson:
Change requires learning. The Star-Tribune now has to convert its daily edition into an Experience Newspaper and to that its staff members must unlearn old habits. Even old dogs can learn to write, edit, design - think! - differently, but to do so teaching, coaching, trying and failing is required.
The Star Tribune has accomplished the first step toward intentional change - knowing what it wants to do. It has a definable goal, something many newspapers don't have. Next it must determine what steps are necessary to achieve that goal. And, then it must give its staff members the skills and tools they need to climb those steps.
This is the ladder of intentional change - knowing what you want, identifying what you need to do in order to get there, and acquiring the necessary skills to do those things. Change requires learning.
This is why, of course, the newspaper industry must invest more, much more, in staff development. The future awaits those who build it.
The American Society of Newspapers Editors set aside one hour to talk about the future of newspapers during its convention this year. It was an hour of grim forecasts, lofty visions and a series of questions that couldn’t be answered – sort of like the future itself.
One message from the panel of Dan Gillmor, Merrill Brown, Phil Meyer, Kathy Yates, Andrew Nachison and Dale Peskin was unmistakeable: Change what you do or newspapers will disappear into irrelevancy. [Read: ASNE Convention: Six Things that Should be on the Agenda.]
Below are comments from the panel and some asides from me.
Dan Gillmor, founder of Grassroots Media Inc.: He learned when writing about technology at the San Jose Mercury News that his readers “know more than I did and were not a bit shy about telling me. Once I got over the dismay, I realized what a huge opportunity that was.” His column turned into conversation “instead of the lecture mode we used all those years." This is something the newspaper industry must adopt, has to adopt. … It is going to happen whether you do it not; they are doing it around you; they are going to do it to you.”
Gillmor urged newspapers to build on the considerable community relationships they’ve established, connections that, while eroded in recent decades, remain fundamentally strong. “The single most important asset a newspaper has” is a connection to the community and “this is the grandest opportunity in decades” A newspaper “is connected; it is wired into the community. No one is better positioned to (take advantage of) this than you even though you are starting late.
Merrill Brown, former editor of MSNBC.com and author of the report, Abandoning the News: “The axiom about young people returning to newspapers no longer seems provable by data” so “we need to be in the business of product development.” Concentrate on creating target products that take multiple flows of information and “parse them in ways that makes sense for people” that go beyond geography. “
I like this comment from Brown: “Follow the technology.” We “are not really talking in most news org today about how technology is changing our business in a profound way.” [Read: The Abandoned Newspaper.]
Kathy Yates, former COO of Marketwatch.com: “If you try to figure everything out you will be paralyzed” to the point of inaction. Newspapers need to find opportunities first and foremost by just being open to seeing them when they arise.
Even the name of the session – The Future of Newspapers – was limiting. Said Yates: “’Newspaper’” implies that it is limited to putting ink on paper. I was taught before Marketwatch that print was the best, that if it was not ink on paper then it was not real journalism. Marketwatch proved otherwise.”
Phil Meyer, author of “The Vanishing Newspaper, Saving Journalism in the Information Age,”: “Trust is still the most important product” and newspapers have lost their monopoly on it. The economics of newspapers are collapsing: “The model on which we placed our traditional profitability is gone.” [Read: Reading the Vanishing Newspaper: A Guide.]
Andrew Nachison, director of the Media Center, asked Gillmor about blogs and citizen journalism projects: “What is it about the DNA of these individual-powered grassroots projects that is different from the DNA of journalism?
Gillmor’s response: “One is top-down model and the other is bottom up. There has to be a way to combine both and newspapers have to find a way to combine both. … The community knows things and can actually tell each other what they know.”
Yates on the business of journalism: “I’m not sure if the economics of journalism are changing? The economics of newspapers are changing, certainly. Journalism is practiced in a number of different types of media. The business model is as intact as it ever was. It just looks different.
During Q&A after the discussion (it was very much a one-way panel, with time for only a few questions from the audience), Marty Kaiser, editor of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel asked Gillmor what he would do were he editor of a newspaper. Gillmor’s reply: I don’t want the job. He added:
“I like the idea that the average folks, not the priesthood, have something important to say. I want to find a way to combine the best practices and principles (of traditional journalism) with the fervor and talent out there on the edge.”
Brown said he would take the job on this condition: “Give me $5 million annually for training and R&D to move your organization forward.”
The newspaper industry, of course, is notoriously penny-pinching when it comes to investing in its people or in new products. This type of short-term, quarter-to-quarter concern is one of the key reasons it now finds itself outflanked on both the business and editorial sides.
One of the most telling moments of the hour occurred just as the meeting opened when Nachison and Peskin put a slide up of Craig Newmark and asked how many people in the room of several hundred recognized him or his name. Only a smattering of hands rose. A few more hands went up at the mention of Craigslist and its free classifieds.
Nachison reminded the editors that the competition of Craigslist didn’t grow out of a business model, but arose more spontaneously from Newmark’s desire to create a community of trust – the same trust newspapers are struggling to regain.
Newmark “doesn’t seem himself as competition,” said Nachison. “He started to build trust and to build community. He doesn’t see himself as competing against newspapers.”
The message here: In today’s media world the audience – and their money – follows trust and credibility, characteristics that evolve from authenticity, transparency and voice, rarities in our newspapers.
The good news from the ASNE's latest report on newsroom diversity is that the number of minority journalists working at America's newspapers is growing. The bad news is that the number of journalists of all colors is shrinking - significantly.
Here's the math: 300 more minority newspaper journalists in 2005 vs. 2004 and 100 fewer reporters, editors and photographers overall, resulting in 13.42 percent minority employment in newspapers, the highest ever.
While it's a good thing that newsrooms are ever-so-incrementally beginning to look more like America itself, it's a shame to say that minorities are earning a larger piece of an ever-so-incrementally shrinking pie.
Since 2001, newspaper newsroom employment has fallen 4 percent - a 1 percent average annual decline that perhaps not-so-coincidentally parallels the annual circulation shrinkage of the newspaper industry.
Another way of looking the annual contraction of the journalistic workforce is by calculating that when the last newspaper finally folds in 2040 - a somewhat sardonic projection made by Phil Meyer in his book, "The Vanishing Newspaper, Saving Journalism in the Information Age - fewer journalists will be spared the axe since so many will have left, voluntarily or not, already. [Read: Reading the Vanishing Newspaper: A Guide.]
Another nugget from the survey: Although the base number of minorities in the newspapers is trending upward, their role in the newsroom hierarchy is not. In the same 2001-2005 period, the percentage of blacks (20 percent), Asians (16 percent) and Hispanics (20 percent) is virtually unchanged.
When ASNE released its study last year, I cited three reasons for the industry's multi-decade struggle to diversify its newsrooms - pipeline (the number of minorities enrolled in journalism education programs), attracting minority graduates to newspapers (a pay issue) and retention (minority turnover has been higher than non-minority turnover, with the lack of career improvement opportunities within newspapers cited as the No. 1 reason for leaving the profession). [Read: ASNE's Diversity Study: Looking for Answers.]
The pipeline seems to be as full as it was the year before. Lee Becker of the University of Georgia says that in 2003 enrollment in the country's journalism and mass communications programs reached "unprecedented" levels, with minorities making up nearly 28 percent of that number.
Moreover, Becker's survey of 2003 journalism-mass communications graduates showed no appreciable hiring difference between whites and non-whites - good news.
The same survey, though, found that a decreasing number of graduates were seeking or finding work in newspapers. Only 63 percent of news-editorial graduates could find a job in their field a year after graduation. That's not much of an incentive to attract the best and the brightest to the field.
Pay, of course, is an even lesser incentive. Becker says the $25,000 annual starting salary for newspapers journalists is the same as it was in 1999.
That leaves retention - which continues to be a problem. ASNE reports that minority retention is 96 percent, but that figure is misleading because it is calculated by measuring the total minority newspaper employment in 2005 (7,267) against the number of minorities who left the business (282).
A different way of looking at is to use the 2001-2005 timeframe employed by ASNE and measure the minority hiring vs. departures in that period. Those numbers are not so positive. In that five-year stretch, newspapers hired 2,560 minorities, but 1,958 left the business - a 76 percent departure rate. That kind of churn makes it difficult to push the number upward.
The white departure rate is even worse. Between 2001-2005, newspapers hired 9,765 white journalists; 12,489 left the profession - a 128 percent departure rate.
Lack of professional development was the No. 1 reason cited in this Knight study by journalists of all types who bailed out of the business.
Newspapers invest about one-third of the money in the professional growth (only 0.7 percent of payroll) of their staffs as do all U.S. industries on average. In an industry whose business and readership model is under grave and growing threat on several fronts, it is going to need more than Starbucks-level salaries and unfulfilled promises of professional development to attract and keep the bright young minds its needs to survive - minds that come wrapped in any color.
Are some of the newsroom's most prized values contributing to journalism's continuing decline in credibility? What should replace these values to better reflect the complexities of modern media yet still embrace the core principles of journalism? What should be the standards of credible journalism in an age when all definitions of news are up for grabs?
The scoop, for example - beating all other perceived competitors to a story - is so highly valued in most news organizations that a story of otherwise middling importance might be elevated to the front page or to the lead of a newscast by its exclusivity. The words "the Daily Bleat has learned" or "Eyewitness News has determined" can trigger a Pavlovian salivation among editors, who respond to the stimulus by awarding the "scoop" prominent placement.
Daniel Okrent, the now lame-duck public editor for the New York Times, dissects the paper's Page 1 play of a March 31 report that Columbia University cleared its professors of charges of anti-Semitism, a report obtained a day before its public release by the Times writer with the promise of not seeking "reaction from other interested parties," presumably those students who leveled the charges initially.
Wafting from the process - and the motivations - that moved the Columbia story from press release to front page is a "slightly fishy smell" that Okrent attributes to the routine propensity of scoop-driven reporters to make deals for exclusivity and result in less-than-fully reported stories or, worse, leaks (he cites the Valerie Plame case) that play the reporters like "Silly Putty."
The scoop mentality, says Okrent, is out-dated in these times of omnipresent news. I like his Darwinian description and dismissal of those who defend the "so-and-so-has learned" mindset:
"Some newspaper people seem to regard beating the competition as the opposable thumb of journalism, an essential characteristic that distinguishes winners from losers. I think it's more like the tailbone, a vestigial remnant from the era when reporters were still swinging from the trees - that distant time when New York had eight daily papers, and newsboys in knickers prowled the streets shouting 'Extra!' whenever their papers had something the other guys didn't."
It's important to distinguish, as Okrent does, between faux scoops like the Columbia story, which is all about a powerful institution controlling the presentation of news, and real investigative work. The former involves deal-cutting; the latter source-making. The former serves only the reporter and the newsmakers; the latter serves the community and can protect the people from the powerful.
The current newsroom value system should be shelved, dropped into the desk drawer with the pica pole, the Royal and the eyeshade. A new set of standards is needed to differentiate journalism from the glut of celebrity, opinion and minute-by-minute media that is often masquerades as journalism in the mind of an unwary public.
Let's demarcate, again, the line between the elements of journalism and the values of the newsroom. Often, as practitioners know, they are quite different, with "real-world" demands and rewards of the newsroom regularly taking precedence over the ideals outlined by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenthal.
What is valued in the day-to-day activities of newsrooms today? How should these values change in order to contribute to credibility and separate journalism from the media pack? Here's my list:
Old Newsroom Value: Competition. The obsession with being first leads to a buffet line of bad journalistic behavior - deal-cutting (Okrent), anonymous sources, lop-sided stories (with follow-ups often receiving lesser play than the original, errors, out-right chicanery and plagiarism.
New Value: Context. Thoroughness serves readers, not sources. Information, with more reporting, becomes education. Transparency trumps anonymity.
Old Value: Speed. A relative of competition, the one-day news cycle of newspapers is the remains of a bygone era when readers waited the arrival of the Daily Blat to learn the news. Speedy reporting, writing and editing have their place for breaking news - on the Internet, not in the paper. Telling complex stories quickly, with few sources and in tight space creates the abundance of mediocre, mid-length institutional reporting that fills more local news pagers.
New Value: Discipline. Today's news today - or even tomorrow - is useless to readers if they can't make sense of it. Break the news tight; go longer, more-layered in the next pass to tell it right. Mid-length he-said, she-said reports provide neither.
Old Value: Individualism. The one-reporter, one-story, one-editor paradigm is inflexible and contributes to the flow of mediocrity. Daily messages about what's important are often mixed; managers pull in opposite directions; good stories go understaffed while lesser ones use up valuable resources.
New Value: Collaboration. Cluster a mix of journalists (word, visual, digital) around the best daily stories. Use editors as hands-on producers, not just traffic cops. Set reporting priorities for the day, the week, the month, the year and allocate teams accordingly.
Old Value: More. Editors place a premium on a high story count from most reporters and want bigger news holes even though they might not have the resources to fill it with quality work. The result: Editing by the numbers and column inch; bland stories and photos needed to fill sections; addiction to routine, institutional events because it guarantees "news."
New Value: Less. Five to 10 well-reported, better written, fully illustrated stories are better than 20 run-of-the-mill reporters. Use the teams to "produce" news packages. Brief the rest. Less leads to depth, context and layering.
Old Value: Words. Newspapers are run primarily by "word" people - former reporters or metro editors. Stories still typically are told in traditional formats. There is no Pulitzer for graphics or for design or for online. In most cases, despite two decades of forced integration between visuals and text, words still rule.
New Value: Layers. Use all the components of modern journalism to tell stories - words, photos, graphics, online. "Long" is a relative term. "Long" compared to what? This requires teamwork (see above) and "producers" not just "editors."
Old Value: Authority. Journalists have access to powerful institutions and officials the public does not. Many journalists confuse this entry into the backrooms of policy for authority or expertise when in fact it is only a day pass granted because the powerful find the news media useful. From authority comes arrogance, and from arrogance disregard for the opinion and, eventually, the goodwill of those journalists are supposed to serve, the members of the community.
New Value: Interaction. Don't cover the community, be the community. Get the reporters and editors out of the building; bring the citizens in. Enable community participation online and in print. [Read: Don't Reflect the Community, Be the Community.]
Old Value: Answers. News stories are supposed to provide answers, to assign reward or blame, to leave no ends lying loosely about. Journalists search for facts to explain complex issues, but facts alone are often not enough to provide readers with understanding.
New Value: Questions. Sometimes there are no answers to difficult and persistent issues like poverty, racism, religious and moral differences or the role of government in private lives. Journalists have the opportunity to explore the questions, air the differences and enable civic debate. Those tactics are more likely to provide "answers" than an array of facts alone.
Old Value: Objectivity. The standard for the last half-century of journalism, objectivity emerged as an antidote to the partisan press but grew to become a cherished recipe for blandness and a form of stenographic story-telling that eschews passion in favor of the emptiness of he-said, she-said, one the one hand, on the other and yet on another constructions.
New Value: Truth-telling. Get the fact, yes, but foremost tell the truth. I'm borrowing from Dan Gillmor to say: Replace objectivity with thoroughness, accuracy, genuine fairness and transparency.
The newsreader today brings me links that portray vividly the two opposing, but connected trends in the newspaper business - the continuing collapse of print readership and the increasing recognition by news organizations that their future is digitally-based and community-powered.
First, Jeff Jarvis links to a story in Editor and Publisher reporting on the gloomy forecasts being made by major investment banks about newspaper circulation, which is expected to begin declining faster than its 1 percent historical average.
Merrill Lynch was succinct: "March ABC Figures likely to be ugly." The biggest forecast loser: The scandal-ridden Tribune Company with a "startling" 8 percent fall in circulation revenue. (At this rate, newspapers won't make to Phil Meyer's predicted end point of 2040.)
A good question to ask: At what point in the decline of an industry or a technology does it reach a tipping point? More specifically, when does newspaper marketplace penetration decline to the point where its business model - congregated eyeballs for advertising - fails?
The good news: Online revenue is rising at a double-digit pace. And, even though Merrill Lynch points out the online revenue "only represents 3-5% of revenues," we are seeing increasing evidence of newspaper companies preparing for the digital future I mentioned above.
The oft-cited investments by the New York Times in About.com and the Gannett, Knight-Ridder and Tribune in Topix.net certainly are indicators of this nascent shift in corporate attention away from print and toward digital.
Even more important, from my perspective, because of the need to traditional news companies to recognize and embrace the power of people to create and participate in their own media, is the spreading adoption of community journalism sites by these legacy news organizations.
When Steve Yelvington of Morris Digital Works announced his company's latest project, Bluffton Today, he called the new community newspaper and citizen-powered web site "a complete inversion of the typical 'online newspaper' model, an Internet-powered interactive community center." And so it is. Bluffton Today offers everyone in the community a free blog, photo gallery, calendar and more - creating content online that will end up in print. The shovel has changed hands.
Today, Steve points out that Bluffton Today is part of a growing list of similar projects. Among them:
YourHub.com - a pending Rocky Mountain News venture where people can "share stories/photos, share opinions, add events, sell something." It's planned for 37 neighborhoods in the Denver area.
Blount County Voice - a community site in Maryville, Tennessee, which Steve says has "a companion weekly newspaper" and is similar to the Bakersfield Californian's Northwest Voice.
Ken Sands, the online publisher for the Spokesman-Review, writes in a post on morph, the Media Center blog, that "the evolution of citizen journalism on mainstream news sites may seem painfully slow, but the experiments to date are making significant - albeit incremental - advances."
Cyberjournalist.net, also part of Media Center, has a lengthy list of citizen-journalism projects, but Sands also highlights examples of incidences where citizens have created "journalistic" content on their own because their local news organizations are not meeting their needs. Here's one: A Madison, Wis., citizen "frustrated with the level of coverage of local school board elections a year ago (and again this year) created his own very simple, very detailed Web site of voter information."
The folks at Pegasus News, a just unwrapped hyper-local news project in Texas, also have a good list. Here's Barista.net, which covers parts of northern New Jersey with personality you won't find in a local newspaper.
The relevance of newspapers, especially local newspapers, will continue to wither in the face of technologies that create micro-publishing - and business - opportunities for anyone with a something to say (or sell) and a broadband connection. [Read: Reading the Vanishing Newspaper: A Guide.]
Newspaper companies can survive, however - and therefore create opportunities for journalism to survive - by embracing change instead of rejecting it.
Clearly, the examples above show an awakening realization by news companies that their communications and commerce model is becoming obsolete. Unfortunately, this awareness remains limited to a select few. The upcoming convention of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, for example, contains only one hour of discussion over three days on the future of newspapers and no time devoted to the idea of citizen journalism.
The convention isn't even offering a wireless connection in its public meeting rooms. An ASNE spokesperson told me most attendees don't bring laptops and there will be a hard-wired "Internet café" for checking email.
An Internet café? How 1998! The whole world has become an Internet café. In a wireless world, this view seems awfully clueless.
Alan Mutter correctly ties together the falling credibility of the mainstream press - cited by Merrill Brown in his must-read Carnegie report, Abandoning the News - with the excessively myopic coverage of Terri Schiavo. He writes:
"The Terri Schiavo case proves once again that our most respected media organizations can't stop being suckered into covering the kinds of trumped-up stories that increasingly dominate the national news agenda. … Once forced onto the public agenda, the concocted stories were treated under the long-standing rules of journalism as legitimate news. Rather than challenge these clearly fabricated stories, the media accepted them on face value because it was easier, cheaper and less politically and economically risky to do so." (Emphasis added.)
Defensive-minded newspapers rationalize mega-coverage of stories like Schiavo and the Scott Peterson murder case by saying they are of pressing public interest, but in fact dispatching reporters to baby sit a dying room or a trial is intellectually less demanding than rooting out news that is unique, relevant and contextual to a local community. Here's how Mutter puts it:
"Strapped for resources, editors and news directors know it is cheaper and easier to cover the Schiavo death watch than to determine how many indigent people died for want of medical care in the 15 years the courts have been tussling over her fate." (Emphasis added.)
Pack journalism is not new. Timothy Crouse identified the phenomena in his 1973 book, "Boys on the Bus," which examined the behavior of the press during the 1972 presidential campaign. He wrote (quoted from a Washington Post story):
"They all fed off the same pool report, the same daily handout, the same speech by the candidate; the whole pack was isolated in the same mobile village. After a while, they began to believe the same rumors, subscribe to the same theories, and write the same stories." (Emphasis added.)
Those two sentences could be applied with equal accuracy to the media mob that nosed its way into the Schiavo trough or bellied up to the Peterson buffet. Crouse wrote aobut the pack before the advent of cable TV and the Internet, media that not only intensified with exponential power the publicity of such cases, but caused mainstream media like newspapers and network news to race to the bottom for audience.
Before Schiavo and Peterson there were plenty of other pack journalism feeding frenzies - some of which I participated in and even directed coverage of, like the disappearance and death of Polly Klaas and the serial murders of Leonard Lake here in California.
Mainstream journalism's internal value system rewards institutions and individuals who excel at covering these types of stories. In the case of Leonard Lake, for example, my ability to drive the story with caffeine-fueled intensity for 15 hours a day partly led to my elevation from the trenches of assignment editing (with, I should add, all my bad habits intact.)
This reinforcement continues. Three of the four newspapers recognized by the Associated Press for spot news coverage in California last year won for their reporting on the Scott Peterson case. I can understand why the Modesto Bee devoted so many resources to the story because it was Peterson's hometown paper. But the others? I say run wire and use your reporters to develop something the separates your paper from the mob.
Riding with the pack means producing generic journalism, the grist that can be found on Yahoo or Google. (Merrill Brown's report found that 44 percent of the 18-to-34-year-olds cited Internet portals as their most frequently used daily news source.)
Newspapers must differentiate to survive - and that means producing journalism that is special and contextual to their home communities, something that cannot be gotten from a wire service or a Web site.
Pack journalism is toxic. It is an addiction to faux news and lazy reporting. But it is also easily corrected because it requires no additional resources, news hole or time - the Holy Trinity of rationalizations for why newspapers don't change. To kick the pack, all that's needed is the will to do it.
[Read: The Abandoned Newspaper.]
Newspaper editors who take the time to read Merrill Brown's new report for the Carnegie Corporation on the changing nature of the news audience should stay away from open windows. It's that depressing.
Not only does the report, using hard data from a Frank N. Magid survey (see a Powerpoint of the conclusions), reconfirm that the ascending generation of 18-to-34-year-olds prefers the Internet and local television to newspapers, it finds that newspapers are failing the worst in areas in which they have tried the hardest to improve: Trust, utility, and educational capacity.
These are the very qualities the Readership Institute urges newspapers to pursue in order to provide readers with "experiences" that deepen their relationship with newspapers. Indeed, when the Magid study asked 18-to-34-year-olds what elements are important to them in choosing a news source, the answers could have com directly from the Readership Institute's study on key newspaper experiences:
Critically important: Being trustworthy; Being up-to-date; Alerting me to damaging or harmful situations.
Very important: Getting news quickly; Getting news when I want it; Making news easy to understand; Having few advertisements; Making me think.
Moderately important: Getting only the news I want; Making me feel smarter; Being entertaining.
Unfortunately, despite more than a decade of involvement with the web, a half-dozen years responding to a call for more credibility and five years of exhortation by the Readership Institute to change their ways, newspapers come in last in all of the above qualities. (See chart, left.) Moreover, says the report, "although ranked as the third most important news source, newspapers have no clear strengths and are the least preferred choice for local, national and international news."
In other words, within crisis lies opportunity. In this case, for newspapers, which still have the largest newsgathering capacity of all traditional news organizations, the opportunity is to remake their newsrooms, re-form their journalism and refocus their efforts on the Web.
The public is increasingly Web-bound - the Magid survey found that "Internet portals … such as Yahoo.com and MSN.com … have emerged in the survey as the most frequently cited daily news source" among 18-to-34-year-olds - and journalists must follow or be left behind.
Newspapers need to reverse the Web-print equation. Start with the 10 percent solution - adding 10 percent more budget and staff each year to multi-media journalism. This is a conservative figure. [Read: ASNE Convention: Six Things that Should be on the Agenda.]
Newspapers need to invest in product development and new forms of journalism. Note the launch of Bluffton Today, premiering first on the web and then in print, powered by citizens and journalists; and, of course, the early success of Northwest Voice, a venture of the Bakersfield Californian. [Read: Learning from Others: Good Advice from Northwest Voice.]
Newspapers need to take off the blinders and recognize, as Brown wrote, that "the future of the U.S. news industry is seriously threatened by the seemingly irrevocable move by young people away from traditional sources of news."
Sadly, change in defensive industries like the newspaper business is glacial. Someone needs to turn up the heat. Rusty Coats, new media director at Mori research, identifies the problem in the Brown report:
"By and large, the major news companies are still turning a blind eye to what is happening because it's challenging and they need to consider radical change. [Change is] way too incremental at this point. Major newspaper companies are embracing the Internet but are still using it as a supplement or as a means to sell print subscriptions and not seeing its unique value. … I wish there was more thought devoted to developing new products. Does a newspaper publishing a youth-oriented web site once a month or once a week really think this will cause fundamental change? The real issue is how are we going to [compete with] Yahoo?" (Emphasis added.)
This type of thinking is not front and center among the top editors of newspapers and therefore doesn't get the attention necessary to convert it from a "some day" idea into a budgeted newspaper-wide priority. As I pointed out yesterday, the American Society of Newspaper Editors' convention, which begins next week, only devotes one hour to the future of newspapers. It should be the entire four days.
Sandra Rowe, editor of the Oregonian in Portland and former president of ASNE, talks to Brown about the concept of a newspaper as a "mother ship" that feeds journalism in multiple formats to its offspring - an "alternative weekly, community papers, the leading regional portal and a network of sites."
Rowe also mentions the need to rethink the traditional beat and content silo systems that force newspapers to narrowly categorize every event and every person. "Arts, business, commerce and education…these areas are no longer discrete and what's most interesting are the places where they intersect," she says. [Dismantling the beat system is one way to explode the newsroom. Read: Explode the Newsroom: Six Ways to Rebuild the System.]
Earlier today, just after I started putting this post together, I heard from Bill Densmore, founder of Clickshare, who was calling to tell me about his new Media Giraffe Project. When I told him I was writing on Merrill Brown's report he asked if I found any optimism in it.
I do, and that's because a real opportunity exists for newspaper journalists who are willing to cast aside their constrictive physical, economic and intellectual traditions and embrace a future, that while uncertain, will most assuredly bear little resemblance to the present.
The goal is to save journalism. What matters are the principles of journalism (the elements), not the form in which it is published.
Let's give Merrill Brown the last word:
"The news industry should recognize the importance of what's going on in places like Bakersfield and work hand-in-hand with bloggers and other independent journalists and citizens to experiment with the formation of new alliances and the development of new products." (Emphasis added.)
Jay Rosen includes Brown's report in his buffet of comments on citizen journalism. He calls the report "truthtelling" and concludes: " … there's an ambiguity in that title (Abandoning the News). Young people are abandoning the news. But so is Big Media if it cannot invent a better connection to a live, twenty-first century public."
For more on how newspapers are committing suicide by failing to build for the future, read the Project for Excellence in Journalism's report on The State of the News Media 2005. It identifies as one of the five major trends this conclusion: "Despite the new demands, there is more evidence than ever that the mainstream media are investing only cautiously in building new audiences."
The American Society of Newspaper Editors convenes next week in its usual location (Washington, D.C.) with its usual line-up of predictable political keynoters (Bush, Rice) and its usual array of panels devoted to the industry's ongoing crises (declining readership, stagnant diversity, confused ethics, eroding credibility).
The death of newspapering as a viable economic and social medium is increasingly being foretold even by its practitioners. What do the gatekeepers of the journalism's largest platform offer at their annual convention in the face of this bleak future? Bromides, blinders and an oddly self-abusing submission to speeches from politicians who disdain, abuse and manipulate the very press these editors are charged with preserving. (The latter, of course, is a sad reminder of the newspaper industry's desire to claim a seat at the establishment table - a primary reason for its widening separation from the communities it is charged with both reporting on and protecting from the excesses of society's ruling institutions, public and private.)
ASNE does set aside one hour during the three-day convention to a discussion of the future of newspapers, but beyond those 60 minutes there seems to be no recognition of the core ailments of modern American print journalism and how they might be addressed.
The newspaper industry needs big ideas. ASNE is responding with incremental responses. Here are some topics that should be on this convention's agenda:
The 10 Percent Solution. Devote at least 10 percent of the newsroom budget each year to new product and staff development, with the goal of removing and restructuring the traditional, limiting newsroom content silos and re-populating it with people who have the cross-disciplinary skills to commit journalism in a post-print age. You can't change your newspaper over night, but you can in a decade - 10 percent at a time. Think skunkworks.
Don't Tinker, Explode. Big rewards come from big bets. The most innovative work (don't confuse this with the best journalism) in the industry today involves bold moves by newspapers into new territory - tabloids, non-English spin-offs, citizen journalism, blogs. Adding a new columnist or rearranging type-faces isn't enough. Those papers that survive the chaotic days ahead will have learned how to adapt quickly and exploit current emerging markets. This is a learnable skill. Teach risk. [Read: Exploding the Newsroom: Six Ways to Rebuild the System.]
Leadership in Uncertain Times: Change Must Come from the Top. ASNE members are journalists who became managers without learning how to lead. Leadership development is critical in an industry that must morph from defensive, production-oriented activities to constructive, collaborative innovation in order to compete. Arming newspaper editors with change management, communication, goal-setting, prioritization and other leadership skills is the most urgent training need in our newsrooms.
Boring Begone!: Most newspapers are filled from front to back with generic copy, must of it ripped from the wires, the rest written by reporters cover institutional events in stenographic fashion. Stop it. Report horizontally for readers instead of vertically for editors. Scrap the pyramid. Explain, explain and explain - then do it some more. Never be incremental. Track readership daily. Use the web for this. Murder your darlings if no one is reading them. If it's important enough to cover, it's important enough to make interesting. Five contextual, graphical, illustrated, layered stories are better than 10 or 15 mediocre reports. If something is important enough to write about, it is important enough to have an opinion about. Give it. Get responses. Give those, too. (This requires leadership; see above.)
Don't Cover the Community, Be the Community. Learn to enable journalism by citizens. Empower readers with the publishing tools. Aggregate their work and their voices. Celebrate them. Get engaged. Lead civic discourse. Be on the side of the people, not the establishment. Dig, dig, dig - into the backgrounds of public officials, civic and corporate institutions and the flow of money. This is a differentiating capability of newspapers. [Read: Don't Reflect the Community, Be the Community.]
Hire Do-ers, Learners and Critical Thinkers First, Then the J-School Grads. Journalism isn't rocket science and a journalism degree doesn't mean its holder will do work that is interesting, compelling, exciting, innovative or even up to the basic standards of reporting and editing. Some do, but many more don't. What qualities does a newspaper-based news organization need in its employees in order to change and succeed today? Here's my list: Personal drive and accountability, collaborative communication skills, the ability to learn new things with minimal direction, literacy in several media, a sense of adventure and risk and competitive instincts. Let's get that those people and then teach them the journalism skills.