July 16, 2005

Traveling: Oaxaca

I'm heading south to Oaxaca, Mexico, 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 or so, 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.

 ASNE Convention: Six Things that Should be on the Agenda: 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).

 New Values for a New Age of Journalism: 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?

 Readership: Survival Lessons for the Future from Minneapolis: 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?

 The Mood of the Newsroom: 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.

 Local News: Who is Going to Write for Citizen Me?: Can grassroots journalism bridge that gap between local information and local news? Is it even necessary to do so? Or is just having the public distribution of the information sufficient to fulfill the need of an informed citizenry?

 Newsweek Flushes Credibility Down the Toilet: When is this self-destructive obsession by the press with "scoops" and "exclusives" going to end? Newsweek is the latest self-inflicted victim of this misplaced priority, which values "sources" over facts and half-truths over transparency - and for what?

 The $34,000 Question: What Will You Give Up to Get More Local?: Change comes with a price. The more radical the shift, the higher the cost. For newspapers, the tariff to a different future must be the sacrifice of sacred cows, damage to some newsroom egos and even the loss of some of today's readers in the hopes of securing more of tomorrow's.

 Oh, Canada: An Innovation Presentation: I spoke yesterday at Canadian Newspaper Association's annual conference, held this year in Ottawa. I pulled together a number of the ideas you've seen on First Draft for a presentation on newsroom innovation.

 Working at Change: How One Newspaper Created a New ‘Compact’ with Readers: As I noted the other day when I wrote about John Robinson’s efforts to make his newspaper in Greensboro more local, change is hard work – and at a newspaper it can be dauntingly so.

 Blogging the Beat: I talked with several reporters who write blogs. Here's what they had to say about the advantages blogging brings to a beat reporter.

 Dawning of the Age of the Journalist: Could it be that as the age of the journalism business wanes under the weight of an obsolete business model and changing audience that potential power of the individual journalist is on the rise? Are we entering the age of the journalist?

 London Bombings: The Unread Newspaper: The first-day story no longer belongs to newspapers - and hasn't for a long time. It isn't even the property of professional journalists any longer.

Posted by Tim Porter at 07:40 AM | Comments (1)

July 13, 2005

Blogging the Beat III

John Robinson, editor of the News-Record in Greensboro, N.C., responds to some questions asked by Ed Cone about a year of blogging by some of the newspaper's reporters.

Cone asks:

I wonder what the N&R bloggers think. Is blogging useful to you? Are you happy to be doing it? What rules do you follow on your blog, and how does it differ from other work you do?

Robinson responds:

In our case, the simple answer is that the rules of journalism we follow in the newspaper -- independence, fairness, accuracy, truth-telling -- apply online as well. The message that I give to our staff bloggers is that they must practice journalism and represent the values of the newspaper. We see the blogs as an extension of our journalism, no more, no less.

I've add my say on this here. [Read: Bloggin the Beat.] So let's give the last word to Andrew Heyward, president of CBS News, who summarizes the networks big move onto the web -- using short video, blogging and other tools -- this way: "We are looking to the future," he said. "This is a place that all journalism has to go."


Posted by Tim Porter at 08:40 AM

July 12, 2005

Blogging the Beat: II

The Wall Street Journal quotes me today (being typically inarticulate) in a story about reporters and blogging. I pointed the Journal reporter to a Michael Bazeley and Matt Marshall of the San Jose Mercury News and their technology news blog, SiliconBeat. (They blogged the Journal story.)

Should reporters blog? Absolutely.
Readers are moving online. We need to follow.

I wrote about this in more depth a couple of weeks ago after a seminar at the National Writers Workshop. Get the Powerpoint from seminar here. [Read: Blogging the Beat.]

Posted by Tim Porter at 08:47 AM | Comments (4)

July 11, 2005

The Times Follows the Audience to the Green Felt Table

The Readership Institute and the Minneapolis Star Tribune told the American Society of Newspaper Editors in April that making big changes to the front page - changes designed to create positive reader experiences - appeared to entice a younger audience.

They showed several hundred assembled editors three versions of the paper's front page - the original; a modified one with some stories made larger, some smaller; and the "experience" version, one in which editors chose A-1 stories from any place on the news budget. (See the Powerpoint slides.) [Read: Survival Lessons for the Future from Minneapolis.]

The "experience" model, of course, was much preferred by new readers (i.e., non-readers) as well as current readers. The centerpiece of that page was a package about poker, two short, pro-con opinion pieces about legalizing Texas Hold 'Em in Minnesota.

After the presentation, one editor from a New York State newspaper asked, does this mean we have to run poker stories on the front page to attract readers? (Culture check: Oppositional and Defensive - beats down new ideas, finds reasons they won't work.)

The convention newspaper also quoted Chris Cobler, editor of the Greeley (Colo.) Tribune, saying, "I'm a bit concerned that we have to find Texas Hold 'em stories 365 days of the year." (Cobler certainly isn't opposed to new ideas; he blogs here.)

What the "experience" front page tells us is simple: Newspapers have to follow their audience. It is a lesson the Star Tribune is learning, and it is one the New York Times has put into practice.

On the front page of today's Times is a highly readable piece about one 26-year-old recent college grad's efforts to make the leap from on-line poker player to big money winner of the World Series of Poker.

The Times has also hired novelist and poker aficionado James McManus to write a weekly column on the game and to report for the web version of the Times on the World Series of Poker.

Smart moves. Poker is huge among college students and others in their 20s and 30s. Spurred by a seeming ubiquitous array of broadcast poker - from ESPN to C-list celebrities - this generation is playing the game online and helping grow a billion-plus dollar industry.

To answer the questions, then, asked by the skeptical editors at the ASNE convention: No, you don't need to run poker stories every day. But, yes, you do need to follow your audience. They are playing poker. You should write about it. They are going online. You should, too.

For local newspapers, the message is to be a part of whatever the people in your community do, to be the journalistic component of that community. Covering poker - or bowling or geocaching or youth lacrosse - connects the newspaper as an institution to the readers as individuals. When newspapers just cover crime and government and politics, as most do, then it is nothing more than one institution talking to another.

Twenty years from now, we might look at a poker column the same way we look at the bridge columns that still persist in some papers: How quaint? Do people still do that? For today, though, poker is a good bet.

Putting poker on A-1 doesn't mean forgoing more serious journalism. The newspaper with the flop and the turn and the river on its front page today is also the one with a reporter in jail for her principles.

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Posted by Tim Porter at 11:48 AM

July 10, 2005

Shark Bites Citizen Journalism

Stick a fork in it. "Citizen Journalism," as the moniker describing John and Jane Q's ability to create their own media, is done. The shark has been jumped.

I was at the gym this afternoon trying to reverse the effects of a late night of Dewars and dancing at the local rock n' roll saloon, done to the tunes of a Stones tribute band (love the wigs, lads!) and all in a celebration of a good pal's 40th birthday, when one of the TV screens hanging above the treadmills filled with the words, in all caps, CITIZEN JOURNALISM. CNN was asking viewers to email in photos and videos of Hurricane Dennis. (Here's a spot on CNN's web site asking for the same thing without the "citizen journalism" phrase.

The CNN hurricane coverage producers clearly read all the stories generated after the London bombings about citizen journalism and it's a must-have component for all big stories henceforth.

(There were almost as many stories about citizen journalism after the bombings as there were stories about potential backlash against Muslims, most inspired by the spate of cell-phone camera photos from the damage subway tubes. Here's the Chicago Tribune, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, USA Today, the Age (Melbourne), the San Francisco Chronicle, etc. I wrote about it, too. [Read: London Bombings: The Unread Newspaper.]

"Citizen journalism" as a concept is still being defined. At its base, though, are the acts of participation in coverage and creation of media. On a higher level, it involves a new definition of news and a realignment of the relationship between reporter and community.

The victims of terrorism in the London underground became reporters when they felt compelled to capture the scene that surrounded them and communicate with those outside of it. No one needed to suggest that they do it. The urgency of the moment and the capability of the technology combined to make it happen. It was an inevitable collision.

What happened in London was reporting. I learn something. I tell it to you. It's also empowering because those bloodied and soot-blackened commuters took control of some of coverage by creating it themselves. As I said the other day: Terrorism made them victims; technology made them reporters.

I'm pretty sure what "citizen journalism" is not is CNN soliciting photographs from viewers and then putting a few of them on its web site. It's more like the visual equivalent of the man-on-the-street story. Maybe what CNN is doing should be called "postcard journalism." Am I being too cynical?

"Oh, when the shark bites with his teeth, dear …"

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Posted by Tim Porter at 07:57 PM | Comments (6)

Journalism Weather Report: Cold Front Reaches Cleveland

Journalism, at its core, is an uncomplicated concept: Reporters find things out and tell them to other people. In that sense, then, there are two parts to the journalism: Knowing and Communicating. Engaging in one without the other breaks the equation.

If you know something, but don't communicate it, then you are not committing journalism. The corollary, communicating without knowing, is unfortunately far more common these days. But neither is it journalism. It is simply opining.

The most troubling aspect of the jailing of Judith Miller is that special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald locked her up for simply knowing something (which may or may not be true.)

I don't believe in absolute privilege for journalists - and have said so in the past. Anonymous sources continue to be the bane of journalistic credibility. We need look no further than the Newsweek/Koran fiasco to verify that. I can envision times when a reporter should cooperate with government inquiry - when lives are threatened or national security is at stake, for example. The Miller case, though, is not one of those times. The stakes here are purely political and professional. Moreover, Fitzgerald presumably has found out who in the Bush administration leaked Valerie Plame's secret to Robert Novak - either from Matt Cooper of Time or Novak himself. Jailing Miller, then, is purely punitive. [Read: According to This Reporter: Sources and Accountability and Newsweek Flushes Credibility Down the Toilet.]

I know many disagree with me and this is good. Debate about journalism is healthy, particularly about ethical matters, which are always messy and never neatly compartmentalized, but can be summarized in two words: Be honest. (Thanks Jeff Jarvis.)

What worries me most, though, is the proverbial chilling effect on free and unfettered expression. It is real and it will affect the quality of journalism in your city and your country.

The cold front emanating from the administration and courts in Washington reached Cleveland this week. Doug Clifton, editor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, tells his readers in a column that the paper will not publish two investigative stories based on leaked information for fear of prosecution. He writes:

"As I write this, two stories of profound importance languish in our hands. The public would be well served to know them, but both are based on documents leaked to us by people who would face deep trouble for having leaked them. Publishing the stories would almost certainly lead to a leak investigation and the ultimate choice: talk or go to jail. Because talking isn't an option and jail is too high a price to pay, these two stories will go untold for now." (Emphasis added.)

Clifton also told Editor and Publisher that the decision to freeze the stories indefinitely was based on advice of the newspaper's lawyers. He says:

"They've said, this is a super, super high-risk endeavor, and you would, you know, you'd lose. … The reporters say, 'Well, we're willing to go to jail, and I'm willing to go to jail if it gets laid on me,'" but the newspaper isn't willing to go to jail. That's what the lawyers have told us. So this is a Time Inc. sort of situation."

The negatives of this decision are manifest. The Cleveland community is deprived of important information; and a newspaper is deprived of practicing some of the core elements of journalism, namely its obligation to the truth and its loyalty to the citizenry. It knows, but it is not communicating. The journalistic equation is incomplete.

The financial, readership and cultural troubles of newspapers are deep and tangled enough without adding an incentive to do less investigative or watchdog reporting, the primary type of work that separates quality journalism from the mass of media noise.

A lot has been said about the Miller case. Here is a sampling (all emphasis added):

 Frank Rich on Time magazine's decision. It addresses corporate vs. journalistic mentality:

"At Time, Norman Pearlstine - a member of the board of the Committee to Protect Journalists, no less - described his decision to turn over Matt Cooper's files to the feds as his own, made on the merits and without consulting any higher-ups at Time Warner. That's no doubt the truth, but a corporate mentality needn't be imposed by direct fiat; it's a virus that metastasizes in the bureaucratic bloodstream. I doubt anyone at Time Warner ever orders an editor to promote a schlocky Warner Brothers movie either. (Entertainment Weekly did two covers in one month on "The Matrix Reloaded.") … 'Is this a journalistic company or an entertainment company?' David Halberstam asked after the Pearlstine decision."

 Will Bunch of the Philadelphia Daily News argues that Miller brought it on herself:

"Indeed, cases like these have come and gone since 1735 and Peter Zenger. … And so some time in the near future, another American reporter will be threatened with jail -- this time because he won't reveal a source who exposed corruption, not a source who caused it. … Maybe Judy Miller will be a free woman by then. Maybe she won't. Either way, it's her own fault -- and the result of the choices that she has made over the years.

 Alan Mutter of Newsosaur looks at Time's motivation:

"How could two leading news organizations facing an almost identical set of facts come to such different decisions? Reasonable men and women, of course, may differ. But perhaps Time feels more economically vulnerable than the NYT."

 Steve Lovelady of CJR Daily gets lunar:

"This is a bad moon rising. And one that should send a chill down the spine of anyone who cares about an inquiring press and an informed citizenry."

 Howard Crook, a retired journalist, lingers too long staring in journalism's rear view mirror, but raises an important question:

"How are we to survive as a free society if we have to rely on only the unchallenged bulletins from government? Some out there may think we're ruled by angels, but I've covered enough politicians and government types as a reporter to know better."

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Posted by Tim Porter at 01:38 PM | Comments (1)

July 07, 2005

Where is Judith Miller?

Here. Miller tells the Times:

"They put shackles on my hands and my feet," she said. "They put you in the back of this car. I passed the Capitol and all the office buildings I used to cover. And I thought, 'My God, how did it come to this?' "

Enough said. Sign this.

Posted by Tim Porter at 11:18 AM | Comments (3)

London Bombings: The Unread Newspaper

London subway evacuationThree newspapers lie unopened and unread on my kitchen table.

The fact that I subscribe to the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle tells you much about the trust I place in newspapers as an institution. The fact that I didn't give them more than a fleeting glance this morning speaks just as strongly to their uselessness on a day of major news.

Stories, photos, audio and video reporting on the horrific bombings in London fill the airwaves, top the web sites of news organizations and occupy the attention of the blogosphere. The front page of the Times is dominated by a photo showing a throng of Londoners cheering for the city's successful Olympic bid. How sadly outdated it is today.

My wife is in London on business, an investment conference not far from one of the tube stations that was bombed. She took a cab today, by chance, rather than the subway and is fine. At 3:15 a.m., a call from her mother woke me, to tell me about the attacks. It took me an hour to locate my wife, an hour spent on the phone and on the Internet, finding telephone numbers, reading the BBC and Yahoo and Google news.

The first-day story no longer belongs to newspapers - and hasn't for a long time. It isn't even the property of professional journalists any longer.

Jeff Jarvis and Steve Yelvington, among others, posted the picture you see on this page. It was taken by Adam Stacey, a passenger on the "Northern line, just past Kings Cross" some time after the bombing on that train and uploaded to a moblog (then picked up by the BBC.) Terrorism made Stacey a victim; technology made him a reporter. Jarvis writes:

"We have now reached the point where we could be assured that when a big news event happened, witnesses would be online with accounts of it in a matter of minutes. News was never like that. But now, that's the way it is." (Emphasis added.)

"That's the way it is." Did Jarvis choose the venerable Walter Cronkite's signature sign-off purposely? Even Cronkite would now add: "… and it will never be like that again."

The participatory nature of the news coverage of the London bombings - from photos on the BBC to Flickr, from blogger Norm Geras and to David Carr in London (posting in Samizdata) - erases the line between those affected by the news and those who cover the news.

In a world of digital empowerment and reflexive communication, we are all reporters.

Where does that leave newspapers - the most static of the old media, yet, ironically, the platform with the greatest amount of professional journalistic resources? Still a producer, yes, because these journalists continue to have skills and access that citizen journalists don't, but less a reporter and more of a story-teller (perhaps narrator or emcee is a better choice) and an aggregator.

The media circus needs a ringmaster - and newspapers can fill that role.

What do I want in my Wall Street Journal, New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle when I pick them up from the porch tomorrow? I want the type of reporting that professionals can still do better than citizens, but also pointers to the best of the citizen work:

 Context: The history of terrorism in London and on the European continent.
 Update: What happened to the Madrid subway bombing suspects?
 Local: What are the safety measures on the New York subway system? On BART in the Bay Area? How have they changed since the Madrid bombing? What money is involved?
 Geography: A large, data-rich info-graphic of what happened (which so hard to read on-line).
 People like me: London is filled with American tourists. Tell me their stories.
 Debate: An op-ed page devoted to liberty vs. security.
 Voices: The words and images of those who were there.

What kind of newspaper would you make for tomorrow? We need everything but the news.

UPDATE: Wall Street Journal (online) reports: "As journalists scrambled to cover the London bomb blasts, ordinary citizens went online to share pictures snapped by cameraphones and reports of what they saw."

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Posted by Tim Porter at 10:45 AM | Comments (15)

July 04, 2005

Some Sparkles from the Fourth

 It's the journalism that matters: That's what John Robinson, editor fo the News-Record in Greensboro, a paper that's doing all it can to catch new readers with news forms of journalism, says about on a story in the New York Times yesterday about Greensboro's efforts. Writes Robinson (emphasis added):

"Yes, we're blogging. podcasting and soliciting citizen submissions to reconnect with readers. But the overriding reason we're barging into the form is to extend the ability to break news, spur civic engagement, to help readers, to be a watchdog. Pretty much what we're trying to do in the newspaper."

Robinson then quotes the Elements of Journalsm. Read it. [Read: There's Nothing Left but the Journalism.]

 J-Log offers a media Declaration of Independence. Among its "self-evident" truths:

"That the citizens are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, among these a free and independent press concerned first and foremost with them."

 "Newspapers are cockroaches": That's the lede on the this not going to pay a lot of bills."

(Thanks to Steve Yelvington.)

 Dan Gillmor introduces "honor tags," which can be used to "help readers find content they can trust." Here's the definition for

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Posted by Tim Porter at 07:04 AM

July 02, 2005

Snarking vs. Supporting Change

San Jose Mercury NewsIt's to be expected that readers will initially react negatively when their newspaper makes any kind of substantive change. After all, one of the newspapers' last great appeal is its predictability: Everything is on the same place every day.

What's disheartening - and also telling about the difficulty of change in the newspaper industry - is the catcalls a big change in a newspaper will elicit from other journalists, especially those sitting in the cheap seats of the sidelines (where I, too, sit.)

The San Jose Mercury News, the former Knight Ridder flagship of Silicon Valley whose circulation in recent years has suffered the same descending fate as the Valley's economy, recently did a big remake of its front page (pdf) and main news section. The paper did away with the local section, pushed more local news to the front page and front-loaded the main news section with local.

Susan Goldberg, editor of the Merc, explained the changes in a reader forum (emphasis added):

"We made the change in part to try to differentiate ourselves even more from other news sources by putting the local news you seek in the front of the newspaper. We felt that, in addition to the many locally produced stories on 1a (a typical 1a has 75% locally produced stories) that putting local in the front of the book makes that news more prominent. Plus, it's the kind of news that people can't get other places and responds to a growing sense from our readers that they often know the national and international news headlines by the time they pick up the paper in the morning because they've gotten it off the Internet or TV."

Good thinking. Local news is a differentiator. Wire news is generic.

Those readers who complained said the front section is more confusing (I haven't seen the paper, so it may be) and that the pre-eminence of local news over national and international belittles the importance of the latter two in favor of the former.

CJR Daily, which is not in the newspaper business, but, like me, is in the opining about newspaper business, snarked at the changes (emphasis added):

"What the Merc did was to abolish the whole notion of separate sections for local, national, and world news -- come on, separate sections are something you can get on the Internet -- and collapsed all those stories into one A section, with oomphed-up emphasis on local news. In fact, it's not until about halfway through the section that you even see any mention of newsworthy topics like, oh, President Bush, or the turmoil in Middle East."

John Robinson, on the other hand, who is in business of remaking his own newspaper, the News-Record of Greensboro, N.C., was more sincere and more sanguine:

"The San Jose Mercury News has launched a newspaper redesign that attempts to move the paper into the future. They've come to the realization that most people know the news headlines from around the world by the time the paper is delivered so they put national and international stories in the back of the A section and, instead, focus on local news. Sound familiar? I say good for them."

Snark vs. support. Who do I want to bet on as being instrumental in reinventing newspapers? Here's to you, Mr. Robinson.

Change is hard. Disregarding traditional thinking in favor of new ideas without guarantees of success is hard. Doing journalism differently is hard. The Merc's front page is far from perfect, but it never will be. The news business is - and should be - a messy business. Criticism is necessary, both of the status quo and of efforts at reinvention, but let's be constructive because we must change or we will disappear into irrelevancy.

Tweaking won't cut it. We need big ideas. [Read: Explode the Newsroom.] The Merc should be applauded, then critiqued. Tradition fights change disguised as defensiveness, opposition and safe decision-making. It also emerges as snark.

When the Readership Institute and the Minneapolis Star-Tribune finished their presentation at ASNE in April about their efforts to remake newspaper from a reader's perspective, the first question asked by editor from the audience was: Do we have to run poker stories on the front page? He was referring to a centerpiece in the Star-Tribune's "experience" prototype. (See all the Readership Institute material on the project, including the Powerpoint presentation.) [Read: Readership: Survival Lessons for the Future from Minneapolis.]

The answer, of course, is no - but, we have to do something differently and it has to be big not small.

Saying that international or national news is more important than local news is pressthink. It is thinking from the perspective of the newspaper, using the language of journalism. These are our definitions, our rule, not those of the readers and we can change them any time we want.

Here's an anecdote: I recently spent several days in the newsroom of one of the Tomorrow's Workforce newspapers and witnessed a debate at a meeting of editors about the paper's new page 1 index, which had been expanded to fill a third of the page. One editor, reporting on reader reaction from a focus group, noted that readers like these new "short stories" on A-1?

Short stories? We call them reefers, teases, blurbs, whips, etc., to distinguish them from stories. That's our language, our vocabulary, our presstalk. To readers, though, they are stories, just more of the mix.

We don't need to stop being journalists. But we do need to starting thinking like readers.

UPDATE: Dan Gillmor, who left the Mercury News to found Bayosphere, weighs in: "... I wondered if it was an example of the major media's relentless cost-cutting as opposed to a well-intended effort to serve readers better. It's both, probably."

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Posted by Tim Porter at 08:33 AM | Comments (5)