On the way home from Mexico, I usually spend a few days in Arlington, Texas, midway between Dallas and Fort Worth, where my mother lives. This trip I arrive at night as thousands of acres of nearby prairie are afire, flames pushed across the dry grassland by 40 mph winds. More than a hundred homes burn, several people die (one elderly woman trapped in her burning mobile home). One country town loses half of its 200 houses. Nothing like this has occurred in decades.
How did the local newspapers - the Dallas Morning News and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram - respond? With an underwhelming sense of ordinariness and one-dimensional thinking that, in context, reflects the deepest editorial problems besetting newspapers.
The Star-Telegram on Wednesday wrote the classic 50-inch, 1,600-word, inverted pyramid story that contained all the news I had seen on TV the night before.
On Thursday, the first chance for the papers to publish reports from daylight tours of the devastation, the coverage was even more ordinary - damage estimates, clichéd ledes ("hell came to town Tuesday"), straight news stories.
What was missing was clear - anything beyond the routine reporting that could have been found in a competent Associated Press story. There was no connection to online coverage (except for a standing, stale "see more" blurb in the Morning News), no side stories about people, no narrative, no highlighted voices from the community, no opportunity to hear from readers and - shockingly to me - no change in either newspapers' front page design. The Morning News, which looks the same each day with its rigid, boxy front page format, apparently didn't think the fires worthy enough to break the design template.
All in all, at a time when newspapers are being called upon from within and without the industry to distinguish themselves journalistically in order to differentiate themselves from the media pack and to provide value to readers (and stockholders), the apparent effort by both North Texas papers was disappointing.
I have taken a lengthy break from the angst-ridden and often overly self-important world of news media. A few days ago, I began preparing to re-enter the fray. I emptied the blog-reader, stacked up clips and started to think about which issues should be addressed if newspaper journalism is to transition from the past to the future with its principles intact.
Newspapers' epigram for the passing year should be: Stayed Alive in 2005. There was plenty of bad news and others have chronicled it well. The takeaway for news managers and the working editors, scribes and shooters must be one of recognition, acceptance and dedication to change - recognition that the old media order is dead, acceptance of a new and still undefined role and dedication to doing whatever it takes to keeping quality journalism intact.
Effort and creativity are required. And that's why I offered the above preamble about the Texas newspapers. They showed little of either despite devoting the working hours of dozens of staffers to the stories.
I began First Draft three years ago "to counter the pervasive belief in many newsrooms that 'good enough' is good enough. … It is not." I still agree with those words. We must do better. We must create a unique role for ourselves. We must provide a reason for the public to care - and that means we must care more about what the public thinks.
To say the future of newspapers is complicated is an understatement. A few will excel in coming years, some will close, others will stop charging, and, unfortunately, others will degrade further into mediocrity as corporate managers trim newsroom budgets and newsroom leaders attempt use their diluted staffs to serve up the same tired formulas of news coverage - mainbar, a few photos, a map (for example).
A more basic redefinition of what a newspaper is, who works for one, what they do and what their collective role in is the community is needed. Stop rearranging the deck chairs. It is the ship that is the issue and a new one is needed.
Aside from the Times, the Journal and USA Today, the road to the future of newspapers lies somewhere down the path of local news. I am tempted to ask "can local news save newspapers?" but I fear many editors will not only say yes, it can, but insist their newspaper is already doing all it can in that area. This question also compels editors with the staff or the space to add even more of the current agenda-driven mix of news. That's like a restaurant review that says: The food's bad, but you get plenty of it.
A better question, one answered less easily, is what should local news be? How should it differ from what we do now? What should newspapers cover? What should the beats be?
This line of inquiry leads to the larger question I've asked news managers many times:
If you could have the staffing and budget of your current newsroom and you were told you could make any kind of news operation you want, what would you do? Would you make the same newspaper? Would you create the same beats, departments, production and decision-making processes? Would you hire the same people? Would you design the paper and its web site in the same formats?
Of course not. So, in the form of a collective resolution, let's ask: How will my newspaper be different on Dec. 31, 2006 than it is on Jan. 1, 2006? What will we change? What will we discard? What will we keep?
The new calendar year will do nothing to erase the external problems plaguing newspapers. In fact, they are likely to increase. We must focus on our response to these challenges. We must do better.