Posts about newnews

Four optimists, one cock-eyed

Here are my full notes for my talk at the University of Texas International Symposium on Online Journalism about why I am an optimist about journalism and news. I never stick to the script (in fact, I usually work off outlines) but I wanted to get my thoughts composed and so I wrote out my spiel. Full text with Keynote slides here.

I’ll do you a big favor and skip to the end. Here, I argue, is where things can come out:

And so the result is more journalism:
More people gathering and sharing news and information.
More coverage deeper into our communities.
Better journalism if we see ourselves as educators and enablers who make that happen.
More sunshine on government.
More journalistic enterprises.
More people supported in them (though perhaps without car services and expense accounts).
A more sustainable industry.
More independence (don’t even get me started about the folly of regulating media ownership).
In the end, if we think like inventors, innovators, and cockeyed optimists, we end up with….
More reporting.

: Responding to my initial call for help with the talk, one of the leading lights of newspapers — oh, if only we had a thousand points of light like this — John Robinson, editdor of the News & Record, offered three reasons why he’s an optimist about news:

1. The reporters are better…. The professionals are smarter and quicker, and more fluid and more diverse than any in the 30+ years I’ve been in the business. They are innovative and open to change. We’re in good hands. The widespread entry of non-pros is a splendid development, bring new eyes to old and new topics. When I was editorial page editor, it was a daunting challenge to write on complicated issues day after day, knowing that there were dozens of people in the community who knew the topic better than I. Now they have access to a megaphone to inform those of us who care. How can that be anything be a valuable complement to democracy?

2. The tools are better. You are reading me here. I can read voices as diverse as Jarvis, whom I’ve never met but corresponded with, to Gate City, whom I know and have spoken with. I can watch video from The Troublemaker or create my own. When newspapers can move into the world of radio and television with audio and video — and radio, television and “citizens” can do that and enter the world of the written word — how can that not be good for news? All it takes is a compelling story.

3. The stories are better. Well, perhaps not better, but with so many more people reporting and such simple and advanced tools, there are more to be told. I have 50 reporters on the streets. Add in countless bloggers, news aggregators and YouTubers, and more light is shining brightly in dark places. More watchdogs are unleashed. The stories are out there in abundance. All you have to do is talk to someone or record it yourself. The hunger for news is insatiable, but the stories must be compelling. It is the boring stuff that no one wants. (We continue to address that challenge.) There’s always going to be a place for storytellers. We all just need to go to where the audience is.

I love newspapers. I love the way they feel. I love their mobility. I love their serendipity. I love the seriousness of their journalists. But that’s just my morning habit. Now I love the ability to read English writers from around the world. I love watching video, whether it is news or it is the latest from Jib-Jab. I love writing here, at 7:54 p.m. while OSU and Georgetown are playing ball. I love talking to people who visit here, but hate the chore of deleting spam.

Cock-eyed optimist about the future of news? Oh, hell, yes. It’s a wonderful time to be a journalist. If you can’t serve the public and contribute to the health of the democracy in this environment, you might as well go back to typewriters, hot type and daguerreotype.

Most eloquent.

: Now here are Steve Baker’s reasons to want to be a journalist today:

1) In stable industries, most people have to mount the hierarchy, step by step, hat in hand. When journalism was “healthy,” people in their 20s often weren’t allowed to cover big stories (unless bullets were flying) or to express their voice. That hierarchy is crumbling, which means loads of opportunities for the young, especially because…

2) Young journalists are more likely to master new techniques for gathering and spreading the news.

3) You don’t have to worry nearly as much about getting clips. When I started, it was a really big deal to get published. It was the difference between handing a prospective boss a sheath of articles or a pile of typewritten pages. And, because of the rigid hierarchy, if you were lucky enough to get clips in your early 20s, most of them were dull-as-dishwater one-column reports on school board meetings. Now anyone can publish, podcast, etc. That makes a huge difference.

4) The reporting field is leveled. In the old days, powerful reporters had good sources inside government and industry. Others had second- and third-tier sources, or none at all. Now there’s all kinds of information available for those with the nose to find it. Sources still matter. But there’s plenty of other interesting stuff circulating that lends itself to analysis, and even breaking news.

5) The world’s more interesting, and news is more important and relevant to our lives than ever.

6) Take a course in statistics.

(The last one is a plug for Steve’s book on mathematics.)

: And then (via Robert Niles) there’s this speech by the outgoing head of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, Tacoma News-Tribune Editor Dave Zeeck, showing just why we need antidotes of optimism like those above. This is what American newspaper editors say to each other. This is the state of headupassism still alive in too many quarters

I’m told the blogosphere is going to eat our lunch. Well, the blogosphere, for the most part, spends its infinitely expanding gas talking about what we – newspapers – write, not what some blogger reported. If newspapers disappeared tomorrow it would be like pulling the fuel rods from a nuclear reactor: the lights would go out and the blogosphere wouldn’t produce a single BTU of intellectual heat.

It’s the same with the Internet in general. When someone tells me they get their news from the Internet, I want to say: “Oh yeah? So, tell me again, how many reporters does Yahoo have at City Hall? How many correspondents from Google are risking their lives in Iraq?

People working for dot.coms go to jail for stock fraud or backdating options, not for disclosing important truths and protecting their confidential source?

News on the Internet – news from real communities, new about real governments and real wars – comes from flesh-and-blood reporters. And they’re dispatched from our newsrooms, not the soulless zero-gravity of the Internet. . . .

The challenges we face are great. But the talents, the standards and the creativity of the people in our newsrooms – and of America’s editors – can surmount any challenge.

I believe we’re like post-war Vietnam.

I believe our best days are still ahead.

He loves the smell of napalm and newsprint in the morning. Time for the reeducation camp.

: LATER: Add another optimist. Here’s John Siegenthaler, aged 80, saying that the best is yet to come.

: The Newspaper Association of America is trying its best to be optimistic. They just bragged that, according to Nielsen and as reported by Reuters, “The number of unique visitors per month to U.S. newspaper Web sites rose 15 percent to 57.3 million, or a third of all Internet users, in the second half of 2006…” And they just came out with new ads arguing that newspapers are multimedia.

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Sweetheart, get me rewrite… in Bangalore

Roy Greenslade reports that a New Zealand newspaper company, APN News & Media, is outsourcing 70 sub-editing and design jobs. I’ve been wondering for years why Gannett, say, isn’t doing this: at least its national, business, sports, and entertainment page editing can be outsourced. Oh, I know, you’ll say that people elsewhere don’t understand these markets. But the truth is that most editors I know moved into their markets and had to learn them anyway. So why not have a gigantic national copy desk (boy, would that be a fun room) and a huge national design and production desk? For that matter, why not outsource editing to the Associated Press? When I was Sunday editor of the New York Daily News, I tried hard to get Tribune Media to take over every bit of work in producing our TV listings pages, for a starter; this would have freed up headcount to do more productive things (like reporting). I’ve been arguing for sometime that the process of finding efficiencies and reorganizing newsrooms around what really matters is healthy, necessary, and long overdue. It’s about boiling a newspaper down to its essence, its true value. And what is that value? Reporting.

Relearning

Even small papers in Britain understand that the key to the future is training. At Trinity Mirror:

And a training programme to improve journalists’ multimedia skills and give them the chance to contribute content ideas has also been launched. This includes a series of week-long video journalism courses and a series of one-day multimedia workshops, which will be attended by more than 70 journalists in the North West region before being rolled out across the division.

In the Telegraph newsroom

One morning last week, I went to the Telegraph‘s offices hard by Victoria station to see the brand new newsroom they love to brag about. More than a year ago, as they were planning the move and the future of the paper in the digital age, Edward Roussel, who was about to join the paper to edit Telegraph.co.uk, and a colleague visited me in New York. Now I got to visit him and see the end result.

It’s a beautiful facility, still shiny, neat, and clean. It won’t stay like that. Newsrooms never do.

They set the conference table — every newsroom has a big one for its big meetings — in the middle of the room. So now the news meetings are open and anyone can come and hover and listen. The same is true at the Guardian; I sat in on one of their meetings last year as people came by to talk about the news and the paper. This is not something I’ve ever experienced in the papers I’ve worked at in America; openness there was defined as enclosing that big conference table in soundproof glass.

Radiating out from the table are rows of desks: editors of various stripes in the first circle, reporters in the next. And the desks stretch out far in either direction. They were rearranging some desks already. Roussel said the Sunday paper was moving closer to the center and the action. In the UK, Sunday papers are more separate operations. At the Guardian, the Sunday paper, the Observer, has its own staff in its own offices across the street. When I became Sunday editor of the New York Daily News, the last pretense of having a separate staff disappeared. Peter Wilby in the British Journalism Review speculates that the fate of the Telegraph’s Sunday paper may be similar:

The future direction of the paper is unclear and, if daily journalists are to work round the clock in the Telegraph’s digital universe, without distinction between print, podcast or pdf, it is hard to see why Sunday print should be deemed a separate category.

With the Guardian also moving to a web-first, web-preeminent, 7/24, omnimedia world, one has to wonder about the fate of all Britain’s Sunday papers. I’m especially struck by the double-whammy of thick and juicy Saturday papers (ours in the US are so thin and dry) followed by separate but equally ripe Sunday papers. As long as the ad revenue and circulation are there, they’ll continue to be plump and published. But one has to wonder whether the best way to produce them is with separate staffs. I’m a foreigner, though, and don’t understand the subtleties of this newspaper biorhythm in the UK.

Back to the newsroom: On a wall overseeing the action, they project their web site, other web sites and shows, and a round-robin of statistics like those they put in the paper: most-emailed, most-read, their stats versus those of competitors…. They are very stats conscious at the Telegraph, also handing out lists of these lists before meetings. They will insist that they don’t edit the paper this way; no journalist in an organization is quite ready to hand over the pencil to the Digg mob. But they clearly are very conscious of what is clicking and they do adjust accordingly. It is one way they listen.

Upstairs, on the opposite wall, the CEO looks down on his domain. The sales staff also looks down on the cost center. And it’s up there that they hide the conference rooms to try to make them inconvenient, to discourage too many meetings (the curse of any paper).

As they prepared to operate in new space in new ways, the Telegraph ran 14 weeks of training for staff, a week at a time, getting them to make new media but, more importantly, getting them to think about the different ways stories could be presented. The staffers were given stories and had to work out how they’d cover them across any and all media, then they went out to make the stories. It sounds as if the goal was less to teach the tools and more to open up judgment over news and presentation. I’ll be talking with the editor who ran the training to hear more soon.

After breakfast, I sat with Shane Richmond, the paper’s premier blogger (at least in our world) and communities editor. He has been with the paper for some years, always on the digital side. I asked him how much of a difference the new newsroom is making in the culture of the place. Digital, he explained, started early at the Telegraph but was initially a marketing product. It became editorial but was still on separate floors, different classes. Now they are together and he sees a big difference in how the staff is working together across media.

* * *

Of course, there have been bigger changes organizationally than architecturally at the Telegraph. This is about people and how they work more than where they work, I’ll argue; it’s about the product more than the property. And Peter Wilby in the British Journalism Review tells the story of the organizational upheaval at the paper. I have talked often about the need to explode newsrooms. Well, in more than one sense of the word, the Telegraph has dynamited its own. One can see this as turmoil; that is the way it has been painted in the media press (including the Guardian where, remember, I write and consult). But one could also see this as the master plan, the fuse that leads to that dynamite. Wilby writes:

The incumbent editors of the Daily and Sunday Telegraph have gone. So have their successors (one of them never more than a mere “acting editor”). Every senior management figure has been replaced. The entire marketing department left, along with the top 16 people in advertising. On the daily, the deputy editor, an assistant editor, the comment editor, the foreign editor, the managing editor, the City editor (and his deputy), the picture editor, the features editor and even the editor’s long-serving secretary have all departed, after resignations or sackings. The staff leader-writing team has been disbanded. The Washington bureau chief, the Washington correspondent, the New York correspondent and the Paris correspondent have been axed. . . .

Almost nobody who works or has worked for the company would deny the need for change. The Telegraph group, after all, is famed not just for the Conservatism of its politics, but for the conservatism of its working habits. When Max Hastings took over as editor of The Daily Telegraph in 1986, he found the average age of the arts critics was 72. Book-keeping was still done on paper, in longhand. . . .

The effect, extraordinary as it may seem, is perhaps intended. Erratic and capricious management can work if each apparently whimsical decision is announced with complete confidence, with no apology for or even acknowledgement of any previous decision. It is important, in particular, to put nothing on paper, to ignore requests for information or elucidation, and to ensure that no individual manager admits personal responsibility for any particular course of action. Opponents are left in confusion, their morale undermined. If MacLennan and his cohorts are trying to organise a revolution, their tactics, including provoking a journalists’ strike over the complete lack of negotiation or consultation, begin to make sense. There was, moreover, a distinct whiff of a Kulturkampf. The old oak tables and panels were removed from the boardroom in favour of glass and chrome, and the wine stocks sold. Plans to celebrate The Daily Telegraph’s 150th anniversary were cancelled. Journalists began to hear talk, wafting down from management floors, of how they were like a “country club” – effete, over-privileged, backward-looking. Does one detect here a hint of class war, as the suburban, lower middle-class Mail types took on the country house toffs of the Telegraph? . . .

With the cuts safely completed, and the papers ready for the move to Victoria, the management finally showed its hand. The new editor of The Daily Telegraph would be Will Lewis, aged 37. . . .

So is Lewis, in effect, just another management man? Will he even edit the Telegraph in the normal sense of the term, given that an able and powerful deputy, Ian MacGregor (also from the Associated stable), has just joined? Management would probably reply (I have to speculate, because repeated requests for an interview with MacLennan were ignored) that, in the multimedia world, an editor in the traditional sense has no meaning.

Yes, it’s about more than desks. See also my next post about other newsrooms, below.

The new news(room)

The debate about how to organize newsrooms continues throughout the industry. The Telegraph is bringing together the digital and print staffs (see my post and video above). The Washington Post has them apart. The New York Times and the Guardian are both getting ready to move into new newsrooms and we’ll see how they operate. I know other editors who are debating now how to rebuild their newsrooms — organizationally, operationally, and physically — to bridge the future. And a smart editor I know said all this doesn’t matter so much because the demands of the news and its products will drive the rest.

I’m not sure what the answer is. But I do think that the challenge is primarily cultural: How do you stop journalists from being limited by their medium, from that getting in the way of serving, interacting with, and enabling the public to find out and share what it needs to know. How do you empower the journalists to get and tell and improve stories using any and all appropriate media, tools, and connections, anytime? That’s why I think the Telegraph’s training is more important than its room (again, see the post below).

As I plan the continuing education program at CUNY, I have been questioning lots of editors and trying to figure out myself how to help break down those barriers of medium, skills, and culture. I think this comes in two phases. The first, as the Telegraph did, is to open up the staff to new possibilities, to show them that they can now chose any medium and make new kinds of news immediately; it’s a new kind of news judgment. The second phase is to improve specific skills (better audio, better video, sharper slideshows).

At the Guardian, I spoke with Dan Chung, a brilliant photographer who is now making video. We talked about how good — how slick, how professional, how orthodox — a newspaper’s video should be. The way he posed the question was: better or more? I say more. Indeed, in some ways, rougher is better: more authentic, closer to the source, more inventive. Online video should not ape broadcast TV, nor podcasts radio, anymore than the text web should have aped print (though, of course, it did).

But, of course, this is about more than just tools. It’s about new connections. Two-way news. Possibilities. Experimentation. Culture. How do you organize a new newsroom around that?

I say if you want to be really radical, the walls to break down are not between digital and print but between the newsroom and the world. Is it more important for journalists to be talking with each other or with the public who knows and wants to know?

I know that sounds like just a cheap, gimmicky line, hardly practical (because it is). But there’s still something there. I have heard a few people say that reporters’ desks should be their cars. I wouldn’t take that literally, either. But I would make it a cultural quest: the more you are out there, physically or virtually, the better you will do your job.

When I was a columnist on the San Francisco Examiner — writing six days a week, 1,500 words a day, forever in search of the few item-crumbs legendary Chronicle columnist Herb Caen dropped between dots — I remember the managing editor giving me the evil eye one day because, from my perch at the head of the newsroom, I was able to see everything that happened and gossip about it. “Damn it, Jarvis,” he scolded, “I pay you to be the town crier, not the office crier.” He was right.

So what does this mean for newsroom design? I’m not sure. An ad agency got lots of press for giving people no desk but only a locker; they were to spend time out of the office with clients or grouped together in teams inside and so they never put out roots at desks. That’s another cheap, gimmicky idea. Again, I don’t think it’s about where the desks are.

Maybe the thing to do is to add lots of empty desks and make those the places where people from the community can come in and work, share, learn and teach. Yes, but who?

Maybe it’s about buying every journalist at T-Mobile account (with a bonus coffee card) and sending them out to work in Starbucks, where they can talk with people they don’t know, most days of the week. And put a little sign on the table: ‘Starbucks Bureau. Please come in.’

You could hold those all-important meetings online and live (some are experimenting with that).

Here’s an idea I tried to push when I was advising Advance on the start of a local all-news network (that got stymied and drastically dulled down by Cablevision): How about setting up the newsroom in a mall, our new town square, and mingling with the people formerly known as the masses?

Gimmicks, all. But the point is that when you’re redesigning newsrooms, you need to redesign habits and brains and job descriptions and skills while moving the furniture — or else you’ll be moving the furniture on the Titanic.

I’ll be talking with another editor at the Telegraph soon about their training program because I think that’s the change that’s going to make the real difference. We’ll see.

: LATER: Thanks to Mark Potts, and relevant to the two posts above and countless below, I just caught up with the full http://“>announcement of impressive updates at the LA Times. Note the trends above and below: web first and training. This is the kind of talk I hope to hear from American papers:

Los Angeles Times Editor James E. O’Shea unveiled a major initiative Wednesday to combine operations of the newspaper and its Internet site — a change he said was crucial to ensuring that The Times remains a premier news outlet.

O’Shea employed dire statistics on declining print advertising revenue to urge The Times’ 940 journalists to throw off a “bunker mentality” and view latimes.com as the paper’s primary vehicle for delivering news.

In his first significant action since becoming editor in mid-November, O’Shea said he would create the position of editor for innovation and launch a crash course for journalists to push ahead the melding of the newspaper and its website.

O’Shea named Business Editor Russ Stanton to the innovation post and said the “Internet 101″ course would teach reporters, editors and photographers to become “savvy multimedia journalists,” able to enhance their writing with audio and video reports. He emphasized the need for speed in reforming an operation that he called “woefully behind” the competition. . . .

The Spring Street committee, named for The Times’ downtown address, produced a scathing report that has been seen by only a few of the newspaper’s top editors and executives.

“As a news organization, we are not Web-savvy,” the seven-page report says. “If anything, we are Web-stupid.” . . .

“We are rarely first” to post news on the Internet, the Spring Street committee found. The committee cited an instance recently when a truck carrying hay caught fire on the Hollywood Freeway, sending up a plume of smoke that alarmed commuters. “We told readers nothing of the incident until the following morning,” the committee said.

A philosophical clash between the website’s top two employees — General Manager Rob Barrett and Joel Sappell, an assistant managing editor at the paper and executive editor of the website — also “hampered the site’s ability to grow,” the report says. Barrett wanted the site to focus on “hyper-local” reports, to deliver Southern California readers information about their communities. Sappell argued for building “communities of affinity” rather than geography. . . .

Barrett said that about 77% of latimes.com viewers came from outside Southern California — an audience that is not attractive to advertisers who want to reach local customers. The site intends to expand local coverage substantially to grab a bigger local audience, Barrett said.

Previous editorial regimes emphasized international coverage and ego over local service. It took the company guy from Chicago to set a better path.

A newspaper resurrection

The world’s oldest still-published newspaper, Sweden’s Post- och Inrikes Tidningar, founded in 1645, is going out of print today. But it’s not dying. It’s moving to the web. Before we read too much into this for the fate of newspapers around the world, note that this was a paper carrying official announcements, bankruptcies, and such. It’s not the Aftonbladet.

In various year-end prognostications, some have been predicting that a major paper will cease publication and shift to the internet this year: see Scott Karp and Wired. Howard Owens disagrees and so do I. It will come, but not yet, for there is still profit to be made in print and sluggish advertisers still aren’t ready to support the new medium — even if that’s where their customers are — and shut-down costs remain high. I think that within, say, five years, we could see a paper make a strategic move entirely online. But if such a shift comes in the meantime, I think it will be the result of bankruptcy, not strategy: Just as some magazines have folded but supposedly lived on online, so will we see this as a last-ditch effort to keep a brand and business alive.

What’s more likely, I think, is that someone will come along and start a new news business online, backed by venture or mogul money, that competes with and perhaps even kills an old-style publication with far lower costs and greater efficiency and — thanks to networked journalism — greater reach of coverage. In short: local Googles. I think we’re focusing too much on the old entities of an industry and not enough on the industry as a whole: The big, old companies failed to own the new world online; they were passed by new ventures. I expect to see new news ventures starting.

[Disclosure: Though I'm involved in a new news venture, Daylife, but I'm not including it in this prognostication; I'm talking about new, local reporting and news-gathering-and-sharing enterprises.]

: See also Lucas Grindley and Owens having a good argument in the comments here.

: See also David Carr sittin’ round the ol’ cracker barrel today reminiscin’ about the good ol’ days when everybody started the day readin’ newspapers.

As I sat at the kitchen table, I marveled at the low price of a newspaper that had once preoccupied the conversation around my dinner table. Then I looked at the four papers on the table and the empty chairs that surrounded them. Before my second cup of coffee, the rest of my household had already started the day in a way that had nothing to do with the paper artifacts in front of me. Maybe I was the greater fool.

Kinda sad, eh?

News innovation

Just catching up with a report, via Editors Weblog, on a meeting of Dutch and Flemish media execs sharing projects on innovation in news. The reports themselves are mostly in Dutch but the summary reveals some interesting work, including:

* An experiment called Farcast using dolled-up mobile phones for reporting, grabbing audio, photos, and text with GPS attached, working through a dedicated server to publish the news. The meetingn presentation says tThe Dutch news agency dispatched 15 units for four months with 25 users who ended up sending in 500 posts. It was up to four hours faster than traditional channels. Obviously, this doesn’t replace those channels — that is, the typed report. But to be able to get instant multimedia reports up without hassle could be very powerful.

* Another hardware experiment with a dolled-up laptop for news-gathering.

* A local networked journalism product called Hasseltlokaal using what they called many-to-many publishing. Has 20 local reporters between 17 and 70 filing 4-5 articles a day. Sounds like a local Netzeitung Readers-Edition.

* Another model of connecting the people formerly known as readers to ask and answer each others’ questions.

* A free youth paper/site called SP!TS. The kids like the name.

* An e-paper gadget.

Not all of it will work. But this is the sort of innovation we need in news.

Chief inventor

I will confess that when I saw a new title for a newspaper exec, I got loaded the snark gun. But then I fired it at myself. The Chicago Tribune has just appointed an associate managing editor for innovation. And I’ve been arguing that innovation is just what newspapers and the news industry need most. The press release said Bill Adee “will help shape editorial Internet initiatives, prepare the newsroom for an increasingly digital future and spearhead the newspaper’s efforts to produce quality journalism online. . . . Adee will oversee a restructured editorial department merging the multi-media staff and the 24-hour continuous news desk and supervise all online news and feature operations.” I wish him success.