January 31, 2006

Sayings: Look to the Past; Blog It; Listen Up; Too Much Media

 "Decades of high profit margins have shielded papers from hard decisions involving unions, printing costs, the rise of online readers and a decaying demographic for their products. Looking for future of the newspaper? Look to the past - when there were no monopolies and the advertising business was harder - papers worked to build audiences, and were amongst the most competitive and cutthroat businesses out there - not above making the story to sell papers and not above having a point of view to keep audiences."

-- Chris Tolles: VP of Sales and Marketing, Topix.net

 "About five years ago, I went to the Herald and I told them, 'I've got this blog and maybe you'd like to run it.' They said, 'It's a what?' But then they had a committee meeting or something and now they want everybody to have a blog. They want the security guard to have a blog."

-- Dave Barry

 "Our consumer-driven society is about a lot of things besides hard news," Decherd says. "Americans spend a tremendous amount of time focused on their lifestyles. We have to listen to our audiences to some extent."

-- Robert Decherd, CEO, Belo Corp.

 Publishers may not control the distribution of content, or even its creation, but they still have brands that people trust. I guess at the end of the day it's all about control. If you don't control the creation or the distribution of the content, what do you control? I may not want journalism delivered in a static print publication. But I also don't want to be awash in a sea of stories. Even in a town hall meeting (or any meeting), you don't accomplish much when everyone talks at once.

-- Scott Karp, Publishing 2.0

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Posted by Tim Porter at 06:25 AM

January 30, 2006

Five Survival Ideas for Newspapers

As I mentioned yesterday [Read: Doing the Numbers for the Future], the current practices and formats of newspapers are not going to attract enough new readers to replace the current readership generation. The great challenge, then, for today's newspaper journalists is overcome this demographic reality and reinvent the newspaper in ways that captures the attention - in print or online - of coming generations.

Mike Smith, head of Northwestern's Media Management Center, who invited me to observe the center's management development program this week, yesterday offered five tenets on which a newspaper could build a survival strategy. They are (with my comments):

 "Newspapers must have a young reader strategy to succeed in the long run. Any one product or offering is likely to reach only part of the market and leave the media company without an offering that appeals an audience that is important to advertisers."

The message here is differentiation. The thorough and continuing fragmentation of mass media - following the divisions in society - demands journalism to be more directed and more focused. I believe for most newspapers that means local news and different products for different layers of its market.

 "Newspapers must become cradle-to-grave information companies. The current newspaper is likely to be insufficient to meet reader and advertiser needs as time goes by.

The message here is that change is constant, that news organizations who learn how to adapt will survive. The era of the static newsroom is dead. The age of the learning newsroom is upon us.

 "The right new products (and technologies) depend(s) on the readers in each market."

The message here is localization, creating unique print and digital news products based on the singular characteristics of the overall market, on the particular needs of the community and on the strengths and weaknesses of the news organization. A generic news template will not work.

 "Any young reader/new product strategy must incorporate an Internet product and should encompass other media based on the consumer's media usage, access and markets. Young people use multiple media - and often at the same time.

The message here is that instead of trying to lure readers to the news, we must take the news to the readers. Newspapers should heed the words of Willie Sutton, the bank robber who upon his capture was asked why he robbed banks. His answer: "Because that's where the money is." We need to go to where the readers - media users - are.

 "Most publications will require a major rethinking. Fix the core product. You need to employ all the resources of the company. But young readers are not just about web sites or new alternative weeklies the newspapers needs to fix the core and cover to cover."

The message here is complete reinvention - of the idea of news, of the newsroom structure, of the relationship between journalists and the community. [Read: The Rise of the Norgs and Building the Journalism of the Future, Intentionally.]

Some newspapers are making considerable investments in that future by creating new products aimed at new generations of readers. Here are a few cited by Smith: 20 Minutes in Paris; Redeye in Chicago; Mi Super Diario in Bolivia; and Brand New Planet in Toronto.

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Posted by Tim Porter at 05:57 AM

January 29, 2006

Doing the Numbers for the Future

I am spending a few days at Northwestern University's Media Management Center observing one of its management development programs in preparation for a newspaper training project.

The program opened yesterday with a presentation by demographer Hazel Reinhardt on the changing American society and the affect of those changes on media use. As we know, the numbers and the trends aren't pretty - continued market fragmentation, aging (and declining) newspaper readership, and general disaffection by younger people with traditional sources of news (and other media).

Reinhardt emphasized the importance of cohort behavior in understanding generational media use - and presumably reinventing formats for journalism: Each generation develops its media habits young, behavior formed by the patterns, events and peer values of its age, and those habits shift only slightly over time. In other words, today's over-55'ers read newspapers at about the same rate (66 percent) today as they did 40 years ago. That means that the newspaper readership patterns of today's Generation Y (18-34-year-olds) - about 37 percent for daily papers and 46 percent for Sunday papers) are not likely change.

The good news is that this ascending generation is heavily online - nearly 8 in 10 are web users - so if we want to produce journalism that reaches this generation it is going to have to be conceived and delivered digitally.

This also means that current newspaper readership might remain stable among Baby Boomers at about 50 to 60 percent, giving papers another decade or so before it loses this audience. Think of this coming decade as a window for reinvention, an opportunity to restructure newsrooms, to rethink how we report, how we deliver and even how we define news, and to develop new economic models that can pay for the journalism.

These models and these new forms of journalism are going to have to reflect the increasing social segmentation in the United States - the clustering of the population in mega-cities (and the concomitant decline of physical community in favor of virtual community), the education and income gap between the society's upper and lower strata (with traditional newspapers advertisers aiming for the former) and the browning of the Southwest and other regional locations as Hispanics move to the top of the population pyramid and into the power structure.

All this means change, adaptation, innovation and creativity - traits newspapers have not displayed well -- which bringsu to the question: How should newspaper management programs - such as this one at Northwestern - confront this challenge? What should the newsroom leaders of today be learning in order to build the newspapers of tomorrow?

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Posted by Tim Porter at 05:53 AM

January 27, 2006

Classifieds Shift Online

The movement of classified ads from print to web continues -- a trend that will without doubt will lead for further newsroom cuts in newspapers.

Two quick examples:

 Auto dealer classified advertising in newspapers is plunging -- down double digits in December. Full story here.

 Borrell forecasts that "online job ads will overtake newspaper help-wanteds by the end of next year. And by 2010, online classifieds will hit $10.6 billion, with newspapers a distant second at $4.8 billion." Story here.

This is the kicker anecdote from the Wall Street Journal story and it says it all about changing attitudes of advertisers toward newspapers as a viable commercial vehicle:

"Eight out of 10 customers that walk into our dealership have already looked at our Web site," says Wes Lutz, who owns Extreme Dodge/Hyundai in Jackson, Mich. Demand from the Internet is so keen that three years ago he designated a new position at his dealership: Internet manager. That person's job is to reply to all Internet inquiries within an hour.

Mr. Lutz still advertises with the local paper, but not nearly as much as he did 10 years ago. "They're just really antiquated," he says. "They're just stuck in time."

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

January 26, 2006

The Power of One (II)

While some journalist organizations are engaging in overwrought rhetoric about the future of quality journalism, some individual journalists are proving that passion, drive and the relentless pursuit of excellence can mean much more than money when it comes to doing good work.

Larry Welborn is such a journalist.

Some time ago, I wrote about Robert O' Harrow, a Washington Post reporter who wrote a book about the collision of national security and privacy (an even more timely subject today). [Read: The Power of One.] Harrow urged his fellow reporters, as I said, to be dogged, follow truth and think big. He said:

"You have one life, one career, you might as well shoot for the stars."

I'm sure Larry Welborn would agree. Welborn, a reporter with the Orange County Register, wrote an eight-part series, Murder by Suicide, recounting his 30-year passion to tell the story of the mysterious 1974 death of a young woman.

Chip Scanlan, the Poynter Institute writing guru, interviewed Welborn. Here's a sample (emphasis added):

Scanlan: What's the most important lesson you've learned from this story?

Welborn: That a good story, well-told, will still capture and hold readers. Even if it is an eight-part serial.

Scanlan: What's your message to other journalists?

Welborn: Never give up on a good story. Never, never, never. Trust your instincts.

While it is right to be concerned about media ownership and the ongoing financial difficulties of newspapers, these issues are going to continue and are for the most part outside the control of the newsrooms. [Read: Get Ready for the 2006 Newsroom Blues.]

Journalists can, however, control what's in the newspaper - even if it's smaller this year than last year. Let's concentrate on that. As I said in my post about Robert O'Harrow: Quality journalism requires passion and persistence. These are characteristics that can't be downsized.

(Read the rest of Chip Scanlan's interview with Welborn. Get inspired.)

UPDATE: By the way, Scanlan has a new blog, The Mechanic and the Muse.

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Posted by Tim Porter at 08:13 AM

January 25, 2006

Citizen Journalism: Making New Mistakes

The above headline comes from Dan Gillmor's explicative eulogy to his citizen journalism venture, Bayosphere. Dan credits them to technologist and web pioneer Esther Dyson - "Always make new mistakes" - and uses them to introduce the lessons he learned from Bayosphere about technology, transparency and collaboration, a schooling he will no doubt use to shape his next project, the Center for Citizen Media at UC-Berkeley. (UPDATE: The center is affiliated with Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet & Society as well as Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism.)

I don't think it's wise to draw any deep conclusions about the future of citizen journalism or grassroots media - and there is a difference -- from Bayosphere's short-lived existence. We are very early into the we-media cycle. The technology is still developing, the user curve is still rising and there hasn't yet emerged a large-scale viable business model based on media creation (vs. selling the tools).

That said, I see three principles from the Bayosphere experience that are key for newspapers and other entities that hope to use citizen journalism as part or all of their business:

 Community can't be forced.
 Focus is foremost.
 Personality is a plus.

Community can't be forced. Dan alluded to this when he said, "Tools matter, but they're no substitute for community building." I would amend this to say, "Tools matter because they allow people to build communities." One reason newspapers are suffering is the erosion of the importance of geographic communities in favor of virtual communities - soccer parents, Unix users, media critics. Newspapers, with their fixed size, expensive printing plants and gasoline-powered, doorstep delivery can't scale to meet the needs of virtual communities, which rise and fall according to interest and may have no geographic component. [Read: Local News: Who is Going to Write for Citizen Me?] Newspapers specialize in covering location, which in the world of virtual real estate hardly matters.

There are many others who have thought more deeply than I about virtual communities (start with Howard Rheingold), but I think it's fair to say (and please correct me if I'm off base) that most successful online communities thrive because their users feed, nuture and police them, not because they were built by an entrepreneur or incumbent media company.

I have been using Flickr as a recent example. The site now contains more than 70 million photos uploaded by users, who sort the images by tags, rate them as favorites, and share them with friends and family. Within this vast digital warehouse, hundreds and hundreds of communities have formed, groups devoted to locations (California), pets (cats) or objects (doors). Flickr provided the tools, invited members of the digital camera revolution and got out of the way.

Can the Flickr experience translate to citizen journalism ventures like Your Hub or Backfence? I'm not so sure. Certainly, in these nascent stages of those sites, fewer people seem interested in the goings-on in Boulder or Bethesda than in posting photos of their vacations in Cancun. Some of that discrepancy arises from the relative ease of uploading a photo compared to writing a report on the local sewer board. (See Tom Grubisich's well-debated content critique of these sites.) One of the differences between "forced community" sites like Your Hub and Flickr is well articulated by Robert Niles, editor of the Online Journalism Review, in a comment on Grubisich's piece:

"With online journalism, the less you structure your grassroots initiative like a workplace newsroom, and the more you structure it like a social community, the more successful your initiative will be."

These geo-centric ventures, which are attempting to replace or supplement newspapers as the providers of local news and information, do fulfill the second prime principle of community journalism: Focus.

Focus is foremost. Bayosphere lacked focus, the same ailment eating away at newspapers. The thin-slicing of media into smaller and smaller segments that technology-enabled individuals can now readily reassemble into me-media forms is killing all forms of mass media. Journalism is general - for all newspapers that are not the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal or USA Today - must become more focused, more topical and more local. Citizen journalism provides newspapers and other organizations with an opportunity to do that, either by topic (sports, tech) or geography (hyperlocal). But, because media has become personal, both traditional and new forms of journalism are going to need more personality in order to compete for the attention of public already over-stimulated by all forms of digital information and punditry.

Personality is a plus. Compare the bland, templated, almost scrapbook quality of a Your Hub site to the idiosyncratic nature of hyper-local sites like Barista.net or Fresno Famous or H2otown that reflect the personality of the people behind them. They have voice and emotion and quirkiness, human qualities that appeal to people and bring the news down to a small-town level (even if Montclair, N.J., or Fresno, Calif., aren't very small-town at all.)

A reporter from the Wall Street Journal called yesterday to talk about Bayosphere and citizen journalism in general. What is it, he asked, how would you define it? I didn't have a concise answer because I think it's still evolving, so I told him what I believe: That the power to publish is now universal and that fact will forever alter our perception of media - and of journalism. With the barrier to entry gone, the separation of "professional" and "citizen" journalist is no longer dependent on access to systems of creation and distribution. The dividing line now consists of communication skills, topical expertise, creativity and innovation - and it will be the public, not the profession, who decides which journalists deserve their attention.

In his post, Dan Gillmor said that "citizen journalism is, in a significant way, about owning your own words." True. It is also about communities telling their own stories. Newspapers must now decide if they want to be a part of those communities.

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Posted by Tim Porter at 10:03 AM | Comments (5)


Scott Anderson at Online News Squared points to two comments from Ford Chairman Bill Ford that hold lessons for newspapers:

"Selling what you have rather than what consumers want doesn't make sense. It used to be that you'd build it and they'd buy it. But that's wrong, that's antiquated. Now it will be that if they will buy it, we will build it."


"If my great-grandfather [Henry Ford, founder of the company] had asked what people wanted, they would have said a faster horse."

The first is about adapting to changes in social (following the market) and the second is about providing leadership (guiding the market).

Posted by Tim Porter at 07:30 AM

January 20, 2006

10 Things You Can Do This Year to Grow

We're almost a month into the new year, but there's still plenty of time for you or your boss to do Ken Sands' 10 Things Editors Should Do In 2006.

Posted by Tim Porter at 08:18 AM

The Content Gap

The need to reinvent local news, to produce a local report weighted in favor of community interest, to write about government institutions from the point of view of the governed and not the governing, becomes even more clear when you examine the gap between the what readers think is important and what journalists think is important.

I've pointed out multiple times that most regional and "local" newspapers are filled with anything but local news [Read: The Sunday Not-So-Funnies and Local News: Who is Going to Write for Citizen Me?] and that most local news in most newspapers focuses on institutions and crime.

Mike Phillips, the former editorial development director for Scripps Newspapers, goes a step further and defines the content gap - the chasm between the interests of the public and of journalist. He left the following comment on my post about newspaper reinvention and on Jeff Jarvis' excellent roadmap for deconstructing a newspaper. Phillips wrote (emphasis added):

"I've just retired from one of the larger media companies, but I spent the last couple of years trying to get 21 newspapers to do much of what you're proposing.

"To those who disagree with you, here's some data to chew on: Only 30-35% of the newshole in American newspapers (all sizes) is local. Some 50-70% is commodity news - usually wire but not always, and always information that is readily available elsewhere for free. From proprietary research that I know well: The subjects that are most important to most Americans are health, kids/schools, family issues, community/local and religion/spirituality. Except for general community/local, less than 2% of newshole is the typical allotment for each of those subjects. And oh, by the way, the high-interest audience for sports is only about 25%.

"Conclusion: The fundamental challenge for newspapers is not print-to-web migration (although that's an important operational strategy). It's filling print and digital news products with relevant content. And that simply isn't happening."

Content is the easiest part of the newspaper business to control. Stories and photographs flow from where the bodies are put. Assign the best and most aggressive reporters to covering government, and your newspaper becomes filled with government news. Make dozens of beat calls to police agencies every week and crime stories fill the news columns. Treat family, community and religion issues as fodder for features or weekly sections written by stringers, and these stories rarely make Page 1.

There is so much these days beyond the control of newspapers - ad shifts, editorial budgets, new media usage. Journalists can't change any of that. But they can control what goes in the paper, where it goes and how much of it there is. That's all newsroom.

Measure the news in your paper. What are the topics? Who are the sources? How are you using your two most precious resources: Staff and news hole? Does the newspaper reflect the community (not just ethnically, but in issues, interests and priorities?) And if not - what are you going to do about it?

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Posted by Tim Porter at 07:06 AM | Comments (1)

January 18, 2006

Reinventing the Newspaper

The other day I argued that the business survival and the editorial relevance of local and regional newspapers will depend on how strongly their managers challenge basic assumptions about what goes in the newspaper, what type of people work on it and how they spend their financial and human resources. I said:

"News managers need to fundamentally rethink how they use their newsroom resources. They're not going to get more of them. Scrap the staff-written national stories. Don't send to non-local-franchise sporting events. Use wires for movie reviews (add local from readers). Redirect these resources to investigations, better writers and stronger designers." [Read: The Sunday Not-So-Funnies.]

Today, Jeff Jarvis goes deeper along the same tack. He deconstructs the newspaper section by section, feature by feature. The nut of it (emphasis added):

"Newspapers waste too much money on ego, habit, and commodity news the public already knows. In an era of shrinking circulation, classified, and retail ad revenue - and in the face of shrinking audience and increasing competition - papers have to find new efficiencies and cut these expenses to concentrate instead on their real value (which, I'll argue, is local reporting).

"Newspapers also have to have the guts to stop trying to produce one-size-fits-all products that serve every possible reader and interest in one edition." Read it all.

Agreed. Local news is the franchise for all papers that are not the Times, the Journal or USA Today. As resources for newsrooms shrink - and that will not stop in the near future -- reinvention of local news must begin with hard questions about resources: Why do we do this? Do readers care if it's staff or wire? What can we do that makes us unique? What works better online?

This is a leadership issue. No one running a newspaper (or a section, or a group of reporters) can say any longer they are not aware of the deep issues eroding their papers' quality and relevance. These people must step up and create change.

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Posted by Tim Porter at 08:00 AM | Comments (1)

Authentic Voice of Journalism

Few professions are as obsessively self-absorbed yet so stubbornly averse to honest self-criticism as the news media. This combination produces plethora of blather about the press, journalism and the future of all things media (to which I confess to contributing.)

This is why authentic voices of journalism ring so true. They emanate from people who care about news, care about community and care about finding - or preserving - the journalistic means to connect them.

Deborah Galant speaks in that kind of voice in her essay on Pressthink about the founding and flourishing of Barista, the hyper-local, blog-powered community news operation she started in Montclair, N.J., where she lives. Galant, a former non-staff columnist for the New York Times, writes about the joy of local journalism, of news writ small but smack-full of personality. To me, her words brought to mind my first newspaper days, which I spent reporting and photographing on a small daily in Carson City, Nev. Journalism was personal then - for me because I brimmed with idealism and intensity (the latter survives), for the community because nothing was too "small" not to be news, and for the newspaper staff because we all lived among the people we wrote about. We heard about what they liked and we heard about what they didn't - often in person, either in the office, at the local saloon or sometimes while getting a hair cut.

Above all, as Galant points out below, this type of journalism is fun. She writes (emphasis added):

"It's a tremendous amount of fun to be the Barista of Bloomfield Ave., or as I sometimes call myself, "the Walter Winchell of Montclair." It's fun to be a professional smart aleck, to be a big fish in a small pond, to cut through the exasperating bureaucratic mumbo jumbo. It's satisfying, when you find yourself standing in a long line in the new $8.6 million parking deck on a Friday night because there are only two pay stations, to be able to whip out your cell phone, take a picture and then post it on the blog - and to have the mayor write in almost immediately with a promise that he'll look into it.

"Power of the press? Maybe. But not power of any press with newspaper covers going back past the Titanic. Not the power of anyone with a special press pass, or access. Just the power of anyone with a cell phone and a computer, who has also taken the time and energy for 20 months to build and nurture a readership - even a sometimes rowdy one."

All reporters have had these feelings (at least I hope they have). But, somehow over the decades, somehow in the march toward bland professionalism (even at the smallest of papers) we drove the fun out of journalism - both for our readers and for ourselves. [Read: Mood of the Newsroom.]

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Posted by Tim Porter at 07:46 AM | Comments (1)

January 14, 2006

Links: Private No, Journalism Yes, Agate No

To Be Private or Not to Be Private: Donald Graham (the Post) and Arthur Sulzberger Jr. (the Times) argue that the pressure by investors on newspaper companies to maintain profit margins at the expense of journalistic quality doesn't mean newspapers would be better off if owned by private companies. Paid Content points to Graham and Sulzberger's comments in the current CJR and highlight writer Douglas McCollam's conclusion:

"So while there is no guarantee that the private ownership of today would recognize the value of journalism, it has already been established that Wall Street does not. Maybe it's time we took our chances."

What Matters: Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian, speaks in India on the future of newspapers and says (in paraphrase) "while almost everything else would change, journalism itself would still matter." Agreed. [Read: There's Nothing Left but the Journalism.] Via: Simon Waldman and Jeff Jarvis.

Goodbye Agate: I'm late on this, but the Chicago Tribune's decision to whack the inches off the daily stock listings is the sign of things to come. Expect more papers to follow as finances force editors to rearrange priorities. I think it's a good move. It's way past the time for a hard look by newsroom managers on how they use the paper's resources, both human and physical. News hole is limited. Don't waste it on something that works better online. (More here.)

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Posted by Tim Porter at 08:49 AM

January 10, 2006

Get Ready for the 2006 Newsroom Blues

Merrill Lynch is forecasting that newspaper revenue in the coming year may not even match last year's. If that proves true, the boardroom hammer will fall once again on the newsroom. More than 2,000 newspaper jobs (not all editorial) were cut in 2005. Expect more in 2006. Merrill Lynch says (via E&P):

"We keep coming back to the same conclusion that newspaper ad revenue growth in 2006 is likely to trail even the paltry estimated 2.4% in 2005."

Advertising slumps are expected to continue in classified (natch), real estate and autos.

The same E&P story looks at potential buyers of Knight Ridder, Gannett among them. Should Gannett buy KR's 32 daily newspapers, those newsrooms should also prepare for more cuts because Gannett pre-tax profits "are estimated at 29% compared with Knight Ridder's 20%." With revenue flat, there's only one way to raise margins -- cut spending.

Posted by Tim Porter at 07:51 AM

January 09, 2006

The Sunday Not-So-Funnies

There are three Sunday newspapers on my kitchen table - the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Marin Independent Journal.

Collectively, they represent the breadth of the current state of American newspapers - the consistent excellence of the national Times, the more sporadic quality and struggle for focus of the large regional Chronicle, and the earnest, but frequently mediocre locality of the small Independent Journal.

Individually, none satisfies my local news needs. The Times has no local. The Chronicle spreads itself so thin across a region of 7 million people that its local impact outside San Francisco is occasional and diluted. The IJ delivers the rote basics of institutional coverage, but without flair, nuance or sophistication.

Together, I paid $7.75 for these three newspapers - the cost of a paperback, two issues of Vanity Fair, a movie matinee or eight iTunes, any of which I would have used more fully than the newspapers. Rarely do I not finish a book or walk out of movie or buy songs I don't want to hear. But, I do toss 90 percent of more of most newspapers onto the recycle heap unread. As a media bundle, newspapers offer the poorest signal-to-noise ratio available.

Like Michael Kinsley, there was a day when I could not have imagined a day without reading a newspaper. Increasingly, though, I see that day coming - even for me. Getting the news online is far easier (my wife's Wall Street Journal is delivered without fail in the parking lot, even in the heaviest rains, despite numerous requests to toss it on the porch), far cheaper and far more timely (my Sunday Chronicle often doesn't arrive until after I've fed and caffeinated myself and gone through the Times.)

I would disregard these inconveniences for my "local" papers - because, truly, the delivery annoyances of newspapering are much the same today as they've always been - if only the newsrooms delivered on their promise of interesting local news. But they don't.

As I said the other day [Read: Big News, Big Coverage, Big Opportunity], for all those papers that Are Not The Times, local news is the franchise, produced both for print and for electronic distribution. It is an area in which each newspaper can create a unique journalistic mix that, at minimum, separates the paper from the glut of available media and, at best, appeals to an audience looking for news that comes with guidance, context, interpretation and the ability for interaction.

Unfortunately, most newspapers fail to meet one or both of the standards needed to create a signature mix - enough local information to draw the attention of a multiplicity of readers or fewer stories that are sophisticated enough, human enough or simply understandable enough to attract readers who already have heard the basic news and need to be enticed further. In short, they either lack quantity, quality or both.

Naturally, most newspaper editors will disagree with what I just said. They will rebut with claims of numerous local stories, enterprise projects and staffing that, while too-often these days reduced, is devoted primarily to local news. Fair enough. Many newspapers produce hundreds if not more of column inches of local copy every week, but what is the subject matter of all this ink and pixels? In most regional and smaller newspapers, two-thirds to three-quarters of all local, non-sports stories are about institutions (government), crime (courts and cops) and reports (more institutions.) Count them in your own paper. And, as the papers get smaller, these stories become increasingly eye-glazing, devolving into either recitations of agendas or, worse, poorly executed attempts to mimic the more difficult forms of journalism (narrative, analysis, columns) practiced with excellence by only the best papers.

The Readership Institute has beat this drum for years, pointing out that the routine grist of daily journalism - crime, government, traditional newswriting - is a turnoff not only for younger readers, but for the newspaper's aging audience as well. [Read: Readership: Survival Lessons for the Future from Minneapolis.]

So why are newspapers not attempting to reinvent local news? (Some are, such as the one led by this man.) Why are newspaper editors who were forced by the boardroom to cut staff in the newsroom simply rearranging the deck chairs? It is not the chairs that are the problem. It is the boat - and that's sinking. A friend of mine who works for a larger newspaper just emerging from a round a job losses read me the "openings" posted by the management - suburban court reporter, assistant suburban bureau chief, planning, etc., etc., etc. These are part of the same beat structure that has existed in newsrooms for decades, a structure that is institutionally oriented, one designed to cover news from the point of view of the government instead of the point of view of the governed and one that is taken for granted as the right way to do newspaper journalism budget year after budget year. This orientation makes it nigh on impossible to provide readers with the one thing the Readership Institute finds resonates most with the public - an experience. They want reading the news to give them an experience - make them smarter, make them feel safer, make them shudder, shake or other twinge with human emotion. You won't find these characteristics in the halls of government.

Don't misunderstand. Journalists must cover government and journalists must cover crime - but officials and bureaucrats and cops and criminals aren't our audience; the public, the victims, the ordinary people are the audience. Why in this time of journalistic crisis are newsroom managers rebuilding shattered newsrooms in the very forms that contribute to their breakdown? Why are they not questioning core assumptions about what is "news" and how should it be presented? Why is their No. 1 priority for 2006, when more than 2,000 newspaper jobs were lost in 2005, not establishing a whole new set of priorities? Why are they not zero-basing their budgets and their thinking and asking: If I could rebuild this newspaper from scratch, what would I change? Would I have the same beats, the same staffing allocations, the same editors? (Answer: Of course not!)

Too harsh? Let's look at this past Sunday's San Francisco Chronicle (disclosure: I have numerous former colleagues working there). The Chronicle, even after several months of painful cuts and buyouts, has 400 journalists on staff. It's front page is a telling display of the paper's priorities about deploying those editors, reporters and photographers: Two staff-written stories about the coming Samuel Alito hearings, a Washington Post story on Tom DeLay, a staff (stringer?) story from Jerusalem on Ariel Sharon, a staff story on the Bush administration's spying on private citizens and a staff progress report on the issues facing the San Francisco mayor.

In essence, the Chronicle had one local story on A-1. One. And that story was about government. The only non-tease art were three mugshots of white men. No stories that reflect regional issues. No stories that depict the everyday lives of everyday people. Nothing that reflects the region's diversity. Nothing fun.

On to the "local" section: Two columns, one about a woman arrested for carrying a gun; another about a sculpture vandalized in a wealthy neighborhood; a spot story about a cop killed in shootout 40 miles south of San Francisco; a feature about a Hurricane Katrina victim returning home. Pretty bland stuff. A final story reported on living in the "flood zone" and "low-lying areas" (although the one of the file cover pictures was a car caught in an upland mudslide, not a flood) and had four paragraphs out of 1,500 words about my county, Marin.

The rest of the eight-page local section contained jumps, a lengthy story on the state budget (labeled "analysis" but in fact a series of quotes from politicians and bureaucrats), another political story from the suburbs and - drum roll, please - four full pages of paid obituaries. Talk about harvesting your readers for revenue!

There is nothing unique, nothing special about this Sunday's edition of the Chronicle. The New York Times has all the same national/international news and more. (In fact, the Chronicle's 16-page A section contained eight stories from the N.Y. Times, the L.A. Times or the Washington Post.) The Marin newspaper, as it should, had much more on the flooding. The Chron was outdone on both ends of the news scale.

Here's my point: Why is the Chronicle (and other similar-sized newspapers) wasting costly staff salaries and yards of newsprint replicating national stories it has already purchased from the Times/Post news services and the wires? Why is it equally wasting costly staff salaries and yards of newsprint writing regional stories better done more local papers?

Answer: Because that's what it's always done, that's what the newsroom value system produces. Traditional newsroom values place a cachet on a bylined national story. Traditional newsroom values compel editors to assign lengthy regional roundups that cast a wide, but thin net. Traditional newsroom values dictate sterile language and chunky design that hides the diamonds in even the most polished pieces of journalistic coal. (Point: The Chron A-1 had six stores, each showing about 3 inches of type - not enough to draw anyone in to the piece regardless of its strengths.)

A newspaper trying to rebuild for the future must discard these values and develop a new set unique to its own condition (resources) and its own community (issues, demographics). From these values will come new priorities, new forms of local news, new beats and new voices in the paper - from those formerly known as the audience. (Thank you, Prof. Rosen). Perhaps there will also come partnerships between the larger regional papers and the smaller local ones and with the online services like Flickr (where flood pictures were plentiful) - shared content, cross promotion, joint online presence and revenue sharing. In a networked world, newspapers continue to stand sadly alone.

Local news is the franchise for most newspapers - in print and online. But offering more local news cooked from the same tired recipes is like opening a restaurant that advertises: Bad food, but a lot of it!

News managers need to fundamentally rethink how they use their newsroom resources. They're not going to get more of them. Scrap the staff-written national stories. Don't send to non-local-franchise sporting events. Use wires for movie reviews (add local from readers). Redirect these resources to investigations, better writers and stronger designers. Develop more resources through editorial entrepreneurship with local writers, bloggers, artists and photographers - aka talented citizens.

There is so much that can be done, so much that is different from what as been done for so long. [Read: Explode the Newsroom: Six Ways to Rebuild the System.] Just because the suburban planning writer took the buyout doesn't mean you have to replace him or her.

Think different. Be different. Give me something different for my $7.75.

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Posted by Tim Porter at 03:32 PM | Comments (9)

January 05, 2006

Deadly Profession

Reporters Without BorderGiven all the woeful reports about the economics of the print and broadcast journalism industries, reporters and photographers have valid concerns about their futures, but being killed on the job is not one of them.

Journalism, for all its problems, is not a deadly profession in the United States as it is in so many other locales in the world.

Reporters Without Reporters has released its annual report on journalists who have been killed, attacked or imprisoned. Among its findings: More journalists have been killed during the Iraq war, 76, than during the 20-year conflict in Vietnam.

The report is a stark reminder of the of the luxury enjoyed by all of us -- professionals and citizens -- to report the news, argue over it and express ourselves as we choose. Even as we differ about the future of news, let's not forget the ongoing struggle abroad and here to preserve the rights of the press and combat those who would stifle it.

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Posted by Tim Porter at 08:19 AM

January 04, 2006

Now for Something Different on A-1

Chronicle Jack Abramoff front pageThe guilty plea of Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff was old news for morning papers, especially here on the West Coast, but it was still a big story. How to entice Page 1 readers with day-old news is an ongoing challenge for newspapers and a hurdle that must be cleared if they are to fashion a new, relevant role in a world of instant headlines.

The San Francisco Chronicle tried this approach: A magazine-style box filled with Abramoff's fedora-topped mug and just the facts - What Happened, The Offense, The Sentence, The Fallout, Quote. Inside, more than a page of text awaited readers who wanted more. Very Law and Order.

I like it. I would have added another category - What it Means - and invited readers to participate online, but it's a good effort and a sign that the sacrosanct rules of how newspapers That Aren't The Times should play Page 1 news are finally changing.

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Posted by Tim Porter at 04:51 PM | Comments (2)

January 03, 2006

Big News, Big Coverage, Big Opportunity

Big spot news stories offer newspapers the opportunity to display the breadth of their reporting and organizing power, to show off the depth advantage these newsrooms still have over other traditional forms of news media as well as emerging vehicles like citizen journalism sites.

How can newspapers use their considerable resources to take advantage of this opportunity?

Big stories drive interest in news - in print, on the air and online. (See this chart from Technorati that shows how major news stories increase the number of blog posts.) This is especially true in local news, where news sources are more limited and newspapers in most communities remain the primary source of news not only for the public but also for other news outlets.

The opportunity to attract audience is huge during big news stories. It is critical at these moments that newspapers, which are having their lunch eaten on so many fronts, exploit their advantage of being able to gather and disseminate information and differentiate themselves, in print and online, from other news sources.

This is why I dinged the Dallas Morning News and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram the other day for their ho-hum coverage of the prairie fires destroying communities in North Texas and Oklahoma. They let an opportunity pass.

Here, in soggy Northern California, the San Francisco Chronicle provided a better, but still imperfect, example of how to, er, "flood the zone" during a big story. When a week of steady rain caused rivers north of the Golden Gate to overflow their banks - as happens nearly every year in some towns - the Chronicle muscled up. It dispatched reporters and photographers in all directions, cleared out pages in the paper for display and generally gave the impression that it was all over the story.

But, because I live near the water and high tides last year pushed the Bay nearly to my front deck (here's my wife standing on what is usually dry land in front of our house), the storm story is personal for me and I was hungry for more. At that, the Chronicle failed to satisfy.

Online, on the Chronicle's very popular web site, SFGate, coverage was limited to little more than what was in the newspapers. There was no landing page containing all the stories. No collection of photos other than current ones. No video. No sound. No contributions from readers. No (as far as I could tell) updated storm story during the day.

I don't get it. Readership of online newspaper sites is growing, the opposite of what's happening to the print product. Yet, even a news-oriented newspaper like the Chronicle fails to take full advantage of the attention provided by this expanding audience during a story that naturally sends more readers to the web.

It should be clear by now to newspapers that their longstanding mix of news, information and advertising is increasingly and irreversibly being unbundled. Peter Rip, a venture cap guy, uses the apt analogy of the newspaper as a mainframe computer and the Internet as the enabler of disruptive businesses (Craigslist, eBay, blogs) that are the new PCs. As these more cost-effective businesses take away the newspaper's advertising content, all it will have left is its journalism. At that it must excel.

Local news remains the franchise. Interest in news rises exponentially as it nears home. Genocide in Darfur is less interesting to most people than a burglary next door. You can argue it should be otherwise, but this is human nature. Self-interest is most people's prime interest - and it has been heightened further in this age of me-media.

Last year I asked: Who is going to write for Citizen Me? [Read: Local News: Who is Going to Write for Citizen Me?] The question is key to the future of newspapers. When floodwaters are lapping at my stoop, I want all available information. I want it fresh, organized and contextual. I also want it raw - the outtakes from the pro shooters that didn't make the paper, the citizen submissions, the voices of the affected.

Why can't my local newspaper bring me all that?

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Posted by Tim Porter at 10:21 AM | Comments (2)

January 01, 2006


I asked you yesterday to dedicate the year ahead to answering this question: How will my newspaper be different on Dec. 31, 2006 than it is on Jan. 1, 2006?

John Robinson was way ahead of me. He already had a plan for continuing innovation at the News-Recond and he lays it out today for readers. Here are two of his goals (emphasis added:

 "... to give you even more news and information that you cannot get elsewhere. We won't neglect national and international news, but the days in which wire services dominate the front page are waning at mid-size newspapers across the country."

 "We will write more stories that impact your lives. The best journalism touches a nerve, either because it reveals an injustice, speaks to your heart or causes you to act."

Two good goals for every local paper: Be unique and make a mark. These values form the core of journalistic value. They give the public a reason to care, not only about the newspaper but also about the community.

These values are critical to the broad-based survival of journalism, of keeping its principles intact as new forms of delivery develop. Robinson address this as well. He writes (emphasis added):

"I don't know what the term "newspaper" will mean 10 years from now, but I'm positive it will be different from what you hold in your hands and read on the computer.

"Through it all, our pledge to you remains unchanged: to be an independent voice in pursuit of the truth; to give you information you need to make smart choices in your life; and to be a trusted place to hear, share and talk about the news."


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Posted by Tim Porter at 07:43 AM | Comments (1)