This is the second in a series about suggestions on how to change newspapers.
After scaring the bejesus out of the newsroom and other departments in a paper, the next step has to pick up the pieces and educate the people there, to take the fear out of the unknown by making it known. I think that the newsroom should start to act like a classroom in three ways.
First, I would train everyone in a newsroom — everyone: reporter, editor, photographer, artist, boss, clerk — on the lite content creation and publishing tools of online. I’m going to be involved with such a session for the faculty at the new Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY next month, showing everyone how to use blogging, podcasting, vlogging, wiki, rss, blog search, and other tools. I hope the lesson learned is as simple as, “is that all there is to this?” (Cue Peggy Lee.) I’ve seen it happen scores of times with publishing folks who are accustomed and resigned to long and complex processes to get their product out. It happened when I showed James Wolcott how to blog (but, of course, not what to say): He tapped out a bon mot and hit the publish button and then was amazed that his post was presented to the world: no senior editors, no copy editors, no production meetings, no delay. He grinned, devilishly.
Once these folks see how easy these tools are to use, it will help them understand why they’re proliferating like Tribbles and what the possibilities are both in the newsroom and in their communities.
And so I would tell newspaper bosses that they should not only allow but encourage — though not necessarily require — people in the newsroom to use these tools, to create and converse and publish and broadcast. Oh, no, I can hear them saying, without copyediting? Yes, without copyediting. You can’t copyedit a podcast but you can always take it down. You can put out a policy that boils down to this: Don’t be a stupid jerk. Oh, and start interacting with your public, who will warn you when you’re being a stupid jerk.
And then great and surprising things can happen. Newsrooms can be and should be creative and curious places and these tools can break out those instincts. I’ve seen that happen, too. I’ve seen still photographers get reenergized professionally and creatively when they can shoot video. I’ve seen reporters freed to publish quickly with links having a ball finding themselves in conversation — for the first time in their careers — with the folks who used to merely read them.
I think you’ll find most of the newsroom embracing these new tools. And in fairness, I think you’ll find many who’ve long wanted to try but they were stopped either by newsroom fear or by online folks, some of whom have started to turn their craft into a priesthood, just like newspapering. But there will be naysayers. Newsrooms are filled with them and in the culture of the place, their caution usually wins the day. I’ve seen that, too: One person can shake her head freetting about all the bad things that could happen if we actually link out to strangers and so it doesn’t happen because no one wants to be responsible. So managers have to ignore the naysayers and pay attention to the creators. This doesn’t mean that you have to love it all; quality matters and you should improve or kill the bad stuff. But you should concentrate on sharing the gems and the excitement.
The print and online folks should not get caught up in the respective niceties and intracies of their crafts. Don’t spend months designing new templates for podcasts, watching the work fall farther down the priority list at every meeting because “there isn’t revenue attached.” Instead, use the tools that exist: Put up blogs and let newsroom folks publish links to their vlogs and podcasts from them and then show them how to track the links to them via Technorati et al. Keep it simple because it is so simple.
Second, I would invite people from the community to come into the newsroom — or go out to them — to teach them whatever they might want to learn from you. I’m not sure what that is. So find out. Ask. Terry Heaton, who has done more to innovate in newsrooms than anyone I know, helped the folks at WKRN-TV in Nashville invite bloggers and vloggers to the station to learn how to shoot better video. It doesn’t much matter what the curriculum is, for the real lesson here is about sharing. We shouldn’t act as if we have the keys to the kingdom. But if people want to learn how to file a FOIA or create a news graphic or select fonts, then let them in on the knowledge.
Third, I would invite people from the community to come to newsrooms — or, again, go to them — to have them teach the journalists. Again, the syllabus doesn’t matter for the real lesson is that journalists want to learn and the community knows much worth teaching. So if financial people say we always mess up stories about P&Ls, then invite them in to teach us. If sports fans think we don’t understand what’s really happening in the local football league, then buy them a beer and listen. If religious leaders think they’re misunderstood, then have them explain their beliefs to us. It’s our job to listen.
If that works, then invite the whole community to come join in. And if that happens, then you’re starting to get to where I think a newspaper should be: Not a repository of knowledge, not a spout for it, but a — pardon the icky poetic imagery — fountain around which people gather to share. Once again, Hugh McLeod said it better than I just did: We need to think as “a point on the map where wonderful people cluster together to do wonderful things.” How do we help people gather to share what they know and need to know? How do we turn newspapers into newsplaces? This, I hope, is a start. More to come….