Posts about newnews

Too many journalists

The accepted wisdom in the news biz is that you can never have too many journalists and that the ad and circ crunch hitting papers will hurt papers by reducing newsroom staff. I’ve been questioning that wisdom here.

But sitting on another darned panel yesterday, Chrystia Freeland, ME of the FT in the US, said it better than I have. We were singing two-party harmony as I wondered why every newspaper needs a movie critic when the movies aren’t local and she questioned the need for the Miami Herald to have its own Moscow bureau — back in the heyday when she was reporting there herself — to get that apparently unique Miami view of the USSR.

Then she said that news is “an industry with a lot of oversupply that is now exposed.” I liked that hard economic talk about the business. It reminds us that we are an industry and need to reexamine our business assumptions like every other industry.

So maybe the problem with journalism today isn’t that there are too few reporters and and editors but too many. I’ve talked before about the foolishness of sending 15,000 reporters to the political conventions, about papers sending TV critics to junkets or golf writers to tournaments. Inside the newsroom, too, there are overwrought processes. Meanwhile, of course, revenue is sinking and staff will follow.

But rather than treating this as an endless retrenchment, the ballsy editor would take this bull by the horns and undertake an aggressive reinvestment strategy. Why not cut that staff today? Find your essence — hint: it’s local, local, local. Streamline now to put out a better focused and better print product.

Then make a deal with the owners to take the saved labor expenses and invest them immediately in digital interaction. I don’t mean moving old copy editors over to online and teaching them HTML to join the spare staffs there. I mean hiring new people with new specialties: people to get out into the communities and recruit and help support citizens to join in networked reporting at a local, local, local level.

And then shame the publisher into doing likewise with a sales staff that has spent a generation maintaining ever-dwindling lists of advertisers and not really selling n ew business, since there isn’t any. Trim there, too. And there, too, don’t take an old classified sales guy and try to train him in online. Invest in technology and marketing to create your local Googles: extremely efficient and thus inexpensive self-service advertising for new classes of advertisers who could not afford your marketwide print or online products. Maybe recruit citizens to help sell you on commission. And build distributed at networks across citizens’ sites. More on the biz guys later.

I come back to Freeland’s very clear statement: We are in oversupply. It’s time — past time — to face that and act on it.

Who’s in charge here?

A followup to the post about the Dow Jones task force, below….

I had an email exchange with an editor I respect about the merging of print and online newsrooms and operations that tends to follow such task forces. There’s a vital issue many are dancing around:

Who’s in charge of the future? The print guys or the online guys?

At many media companies, online was started as a separate division and for good reason. If it had begun as part of the print newsroom, the editors there would have tried to mold the internet into the image of print, and the business people would have sold the internet as a valueless add-on to print. Some are still trying. At my last employer, we started separately for good reason. But today, if the entire company doesn’t become digital, it’s dead. That’s why news companies are merging newsrooms.

So who should be in charge? In many of the efforts to merge or reorganize news companies, the print people ended up in charge. They have more ballast and political clout. They are the 2,000-pound canaries. Now I don’t mean to diminish their experience, of course. But the experience of the online people is being diminished and shouldn’t be. They have worked to invent new products with new opportunities and understand this new world, but again and again, I’ve seen them shoved aside or exiled as threats. That is a big mistake.

The ballsy news company will not only give precedence to the internet but also to the people who know the internet. I’m afraid I’m not seeing that happen.

: LATER: Michael Urlocker has some advice on disruption and task forces for Dow Jones.

: Roy Greenslade chimes in.

: Matt Terenzio says:

Newspapers are more religion than business to many of their producers. We need a left turn and it’s nearly impossible to get them to budge a few degrees.

One more thing.

It is my opinion that it would be much easier and faster to get the online folks up to speed on traditional journalism and print business practices than it would be to get the print folks to understand the web.

Networked journalism

I think a better term for what I’ve been calling “citizen journalism” might be “networked journalism.”

“Networked journalism” takes into account the collaborative nature of journalism now: professionals and amateurs working together to get the real story, linking to each other across brands and old boundaries to share facts, questions, answers, ideas, perspectives. It recognizes the complex relationships that will make news. And it focuses on the process more than the product.

I carry some of the blame for pushing “citizens’ media” and “citizen journalism” as terms to describe the phenomenon we are witnessing in this new era of news. Many of us were never satisfied with the terms, and for good reason. They imply that the actor defines the act and that’s not true in a time when anyone can make journalism. This also divides journalism into distinct camps, which only prolongs a problem of professional journalism — its separation from its public (as Jay Rosen points out). In addition, many professional journalists have objected that these terms imply that they are not acting as citizens themselves — and, indeed, I believe that the more that journalists behave like citizens, the stronger their journalism will be.

In networked journalism, the public can get involved in a story before it is reported, contributing facts, questions, and suggestions. The journalists can rely on the public to help report the story; we’ll see more and more of that, I trust. The journalists can and should link to other work on the same story, to source material, and perhaps blog posts from the sources (see: Mark Cuban). After the story is published — online, in print, wherever — the public can continue to contribute corrections, questions, facts, and perspective … not to mention promotion via links. I hope this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as journalists realize that they are less the manufacturers of news than the moderators of conversations that get to the news.

This came to me on the drive back from Media Giraffe with Jay Rosen: the mobile master class. Somewhere in midConnecticut, we were talking about how journalism can, should, and will work when we can all join in and it hit me like a lightning bolt: this isn’t about citizens or amateurs vs. professionals. We’re all in this together. Journalism is a collaborative venture. Journalism is a network.

: LATER: Terry Heaton points us to earlier thinking in this vein. Just to be clear: I’m by no means trying to claim any provenance in this, only indicating a shift in my own thinking.

: LATER STILL: Chris Nolan adds in email:

Stand-alone journalism depends on an audience of people who understand that connection. The web is a flexible medium so readers come and go quickly. So there’s a contradiction: The newsroom has left the building but no one site can really stand alone and prosper by demanding that readers come to it. The business challenge is to make that flexibility part of how we do business if we’re going to grow and keep readers, Smart guys like WashPo’s Jim Brady and Yahoo’s Neil Budde know this; that’s why they’re not demanding exclusivity. That’s also why Spot-on’s pushing the syndication part of our business ahead of everything else. We want to go to our readers wherever they are, rather than wait for them to come to us.

Julian Sanchez of Reason said in email that he’s using “distributed journalism” and I agree with that. I use it, too, in certain company. Only problem is, when I say that in front of newspaper folks, they think trucks.

See: I’m not antipaper

In London, two former execs from the Swedish Metro free paper started a daily freebie targeted at finance, and the Guardian reports that City AM will be distributing more copies than the paid circulation of the Financial Times by year end. The niche freebie strategy makes some sense. In New York, you could tackle the financial markets with geographic ease and advertisers will follow. A free sports daily would get audience; not sure about the advertising. There already are free entertainment weeklies; they used to be called alternative papers. I could see lifestyle weeklies with food, home, parenting, and other content and endemic ads. Unlike City AM, whose only digital outlet is a podcast, I’d have online, audio, and mobile components for each. And so, voila, you’ve created the custom newspaper company: take the sections you want, in the medium you want with lower physical costs and greater advertising efficiency and greater advertising revenue since the guys with the money still put more money into print. Of course, there’s no circulation revenue and, yes, these are smaller and liter and won’t support big newsrooms. But hey, don’t blame me. Blame the Swedes.

: UPDATE: Thanks to a commenter, I corrected the first sentence above; they’re not now but predict they will beat FT paid circ.

Spitting on the bonfire

I’m at a session on Newspaper Next, an American Press Institute project to try to bring innovation to newspapers. They’re working with Clay Christensen, change guru, and started projects with various newspapers about such things as getting ads from smaller businesses; creating a one-stop resource for mothers; developing an organizational structure for innovation; increasing readership; getting broader audiences, and this: “rethink online effort to meet key information and community engagement needs for wider range of users, including nonconsumers of news.” I thought that last one might just be about citizens’ media. But, no, it’s more about “audiences.”

We’re not an audience, damnit. I think this project needs to learn how to collaborate with the people formerly known as the audience. When they launched, I was cranky about it. They’re trying to reshape newspapers but I think they should be more aggressive and imagine the world after newspapers and figure out how to get news there. They need to get out there and work with the nonnewspaper people

The project took a survey of 500 newspapers managers found that 28 percent thought their companies saw the trends and had answers; the rest didn’t. “So it’s clear that the industry has no idea what to do next,” says Steve Gray, leader of the project, who’s speaking here.

We’re getting the Christensen disruptive innovation spiel. I hate to think that there could be anyone left in the newspaper industry who isn’t aware that they’re quite disrupted. I’m eager to see innovation and experimentation that is not afraid to disrupt itself.

Now he’s starting to list the disrupters taking on newspapers, starting with free print dailies, then Craigslist. Oh, those are only the easy disrupters. Sit down and start listing how the internet disrupts the newspaper business and you’ll fill a page very fast. Start here: How about your readers writing as disruption?

Will innovation happen within the industry this way? Having been in too many task forces inside and outside news companies, I am dubious.

See, instead, how Murdoch is innovating: He’s buying MySpace. Viacom buys iFilm. Even Yahoo and Google buy the guys inventing the next things.

I said to Gray that the project seems to be trying to move a big, old barge five degrees when we need to blow up the barge and pick up the pieces and build new boats. He shifted the metaphor and said he’s trying to big, old cows to move a bit.

I don’t think that’s enough. In fact, I think that making small steps — hey, least we’re doing something, you say — is false comfort. It is dangerous.

Driving readers online

The Guardian just announced that it will publish stories online before it publishes them in print. Now on the one hand, that may not seem like a big deal. Quality papers like The New York Times and the Washington Post have long had good continuous news desks that feed the online maw with the latest (and too many other papers do not bother). And some papers, like The Times and the Wall Street Journal, put up their complete papers soon after they close late at night. [See my full disclosures here.]

But I think the Guardian’s move of releasing newspaper stories before they release the newspaper is a very big deal that it will end up transforming the business. A few reasons:

First, this aggressively drives readers from print to online. It is one matter to put content online after it is in print, to allow people to find it there eventually, or to give them the bulletins everyone else has so you can remain competitive. It is quite another matter to give advantage to online, to let the public know that stories will appear there first. I believe this is a crucial strategic change for the news business. It says that we know the future is online and so we will serve readers there at least as well — and when possible better — than we serve them in print, no matter that the current margins and revenue of print still beat the hell out of those online. The future is online, and so it is vital that we get ahead of the audience and draw them there, to our own places and brands, before they decide to go elsewhere. Rusbridger has talked about the green blob newspapers are stuck in, between the old, declining, but still rich medium of print and the new, more popular, but still less profitable medium of online. This, I believe, is an aggressive effort to jump over the blob.

Second, I think this will radically change the culture and operation of newsrooms — and even the very essence of the news story. I asked Rusbridger via email what the reaction of the newsroom was to his decision. He replied right after the big news of the killing of Zarkawi:

It’s a recognition of reality. As we talked about it in the morning conference today: I asked the doubters “does anyone believe we shouldn’t publish anything about Zarkawi until tomorrow morning (the news had just broken) in order to suit the newspaper publishing schedule or for fear of cannabalising our own readers”. No one said yes. Of course, it’s also about competition — if we denied readers information on the grounds we were still fixated on newspaper deadlines they would turn elsewhere.

Reaction in the newsroom is largely very positive. Ninety-five per cent of foreign correspondents are fully enthusiastic. Some staff worried by logistics and how you keep quality control. A few are asking (not unreasonably) about cannabilisation and revenue. In the end you have to ask: what’s the bigger risk: doing it, or not doing it.? Lots of reassurance a) we’re not going to get into the running news game and b) all copy will go through same editing process as before.

On the Guardian’s media podcast this week, one of the paper’s journalists worried that this might turn them into broadcast (read: cable news) reporters. It’s a legitimate concern. But I think the Guardian, in particular, can avoid that because it has largely ceded the business of breaking news — that is, the commodified news anyone can give you — to others by concentrating on perspective, writing, and original reporting.

Still, I think this can change what a news story is. Imagine a reporter putting an edited story online in the afternoon and then hearing more questions and facts from online readers. So the reporter updates for print; putting it online improves the story. And after it is in print, more information comes from readers, so the online version is improved again, perhaps even by trusted readers. This needn’t be the never-ending story, the bottomless edition. But neither does it need to be news on a stone tablet.

Yet it changes more than just the story. Another smart editor I know said recently that newspapers have to involve readers in the news but not necessarily the news process. At an Aspen Institute thing a year ago, a former network news executive said that readers should judge us by our product, not our process. No, for many reasons, the process becomes the product. The public can now question our work and contribute to it and by opening that process, we improve the news. So throwing out the newsroom clock with one time on it — deadline time — is a very big change, indeed.

And so this potentially changes the role of the reporter and editor as orchestrators of that process. See, once again, Gruner + Jahr chief Bernd Kundrun on the role of the journalist as moderator.

Warning: Metaphoric madness ensues:

Newspapers have long thought of themselves as bakeries: They gather the raw materials, measure them carefully, mix them up, let them rise, cut and shape them, bake them to a golden crisp, slather some cherry goo on top, and then put them on the shelf, waiting for someone to buy them. News was a product. No more.

So what’s the better metaphor? Try a garden: Anyone can plant seeds in it (reporters’ ideas, editors’ curiosities, the public’s questions) and many can tend to them (insert fertilizer gag here). When the fruit is ripe, it’s plucked and published; the farmers live by the garden’s schedule. And if you keep tending the garden, it continues to bloom. News is a process.

Metaphoric madness ends.

The Guardian’s change is also a tactical business move. I asked Rusbridger what the commercial side thought of the change, since they’re the ones selling the more expensive ads in print. He replied, “So far commercial side utterly on board. They see this as next logical step and appreciate the balance of risks (see above).” Having spoken with many folks on both the editorial and commercial sides of The Guardian, I see that willingness to make the next step and take the risk; it’s in their culture.

I also asked what impact their American expansion plans had ton this decision. He replied: “Certainly in our minds as we made this switch. Can you imagine east coast Americans logging onto Guardian Unlimited this morning and finding nothing on Zarkawi? Why would we want to drive them elsewhere?”

That, after all, is the key to online. It lets you serve a much larger but still focused public (once newspapers themselves focus). Guardian Newspapers Limited chief Carolyn McCall recently said that the company’s ambition is global and its focus clear:

“Our ambition is to be the leading global liberal voice…. There’s a real market for liberal journalism in America, given that there seems to be a large group of people that are very attracted by our coverage on the web, and part of that is because they cannot really get that kind of voice from their own media for a variety of reasons.

The opportunity is for the Guardian to reflect what the world is saying about America but also to bring [blogging website] Comment is Free into America so that you can get an engaged discussion on things that interest America in an intellectual and intelligent way.”

The UK’s quality national papers are approaching their strategies in very different ways. The Times of London is now publishing a print edition in New York (complete with ads for refrigerators in pounds; more on that later). The Telegraph, antimatter to the Guardian’s matter, announced that it will delay putting stories online to try to drive readers back to the dinosaur editions. [[UPDATE: See correction to this above.]]

Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee writes about the Times’ and Guardian’s American ambitions, making vague reference to plans to publish new Guardian editions in the U.S. as well:

But newsstand sales aren’t really the point here. The Times has three million or so American unique visitors (out of a global total of 8.8 million) to its website each month. Waving around a physical copy makes that presence more tangible – and arguably ad-friendly. It is a reinforcement of presence and intent.

The Guardian, meanwhile, has 13 million unique visitors on tap, some 6.4 million of them American. That’s as solid a haul as most big city US papers, such as the Los Angeles Times, can claim. It puts the British Guardian (and Observer) Unlimited well up among the top 50 most-visited American news sites, with an advertising revenue stream already showing concomitant signs of surge. There’s commercial ambition in this mix, too.

See, too, Peter Cole in The Independent on British colonial ambition stirred up in the media world. The British national papers, with their unique voices and perspectives, stand a strong chance at gathering audience and influence around the world.

It all comes back to that apparently simple decision to put newspaper stories online before the paper is printed. It is a brave move and a big deal.

: LATER: Here‘s the Guardian’s “readers’ editor” on the shift.

Break my heart

David Carr’s column in today’s Times carries a conversation that does, indeed, occur often in the dusty halls of old journalism and this is precisely why they stay dusty and old:

A year ago, I was talking on the phone to the editor of a major newspaper for a column I was working on. With business concluded, we had The Conversation, the one about the large boulder that seems to be tumbling through the newspaper business. “How old are you?” he asked. Forty-nine, I told him. “Me too. Do you think we outrun this thing?”

If you have to say that, then you’ve already been overrun. How sad it is that people younger than me in this business act like such old fogeys, resistant not only to change but to opportunites. It’s as if they’re afraid of a ittle excitement in their careers; might be too much for the ol’ tickers.

I also chuckled at this line, also indicative of the kinds of things you’ll hear in newsrooms still:

Over time, the leadership at The Inquirer was pushed hard for cuts and greater profits by Anthony Ridder, chief executive of the papers — even though the paper had earned hundreds of millions of dollars after being purchased from Walter H. Annenberg in 1969.

Even though they’d earned lots of profits. Arent’ those enough profits, boss? Can’t we quit with the profits already?

It’s about growth, folks: growth in profits … and also growth in the news and what we can do with it … and even about growth in careers, which should be energized by all these dazzling new possibilities.

BBC: the open-source network

This week’s Media Guardian column is an open letter to Mark Thompson, head of the BCC, arguing that the beeb shouldn’t think as a competitor to big media but as a laboratory for innovation. (Here it is without registration required.) Excerpt:

The BBC can become the grand laboratory of media. For because of those licence fees, you are in a better position than any organisation anywhere to think generously, to share knowledge and audience – and thus revenue and support – with your media confreres. More important, you can afford to make mistakes. You can try to figure out how to let the people pass around your shows, how to distribute information and entertainment to new devices, and how to gather and share content from the public in new ways, and you can stumble along the way without risking shareholder revolts. The problem is, of course, that you are now facing a revolt of media moguls, instead. So you need to demonstrate that Auntie comes in peace, that you will involve them in your Creative Future, understanding their needs and sharing your answers. For the truth is that the news and media industries desperately need reinvention, they need to benefit from your experimentation and innovation, so long as you are open with your lessons.

Right after that went up, a BBC friend pointed me to wonderful thinking from Azeem Azhar two years ago proposing details of how to manage an open-source BBC with a BBC Public License (see his own site as well). Excerpt:

The internet, then, is where re-invention of the public service principle can begin.

Under the BPL, the BBC’s internet content, for example, would be available for third parties to access and syndicate. A non-commercial user, such as a charity Web site, could put up a BBC news feed free.

Under the BPL, the BBC’s software code would be freely available. Development for certain types of projects would be done publicly, using an open source framework.