Posts about newsroom

I smell fear

Reading the agenda of the World Newspaper Congress in the Kremlin — the Kremlin! — in June, I sense foreboding. Some of the sessions:

Should newspapers welcome citizen journalists? … But what are the consequences for quality newspaper journalism? By inviting their public to participate, are newspapers harming their primary function or is citizen journalism a useful means of maintaining relationships with the “free generation?” …

One of the most pressing dilemmas newspapers face today is how to integrate audio, video and interactivity into their news production. Should print journalists be trained on multiple platforms? Or should newspapers join forces with other media companies to provide multimedia news? …

Web portals and news agencies: new threats to newspapers? New media mean new competition for newspapers. News aggregators lead readers to other sources and Internet companies produce original content. News agencies directly access the public though their websites, skipping the newspaper middleman. …

Lessons from the Mohammed cartoon clash… Six panelists will discuss if there are limits for press freedom and how media responsibility can work in a globalized world. …

Media credibility: should newspapers rewrite editorial guidelines?…

Not a club of happy campers, I’d say. That’s all from the forum, which seems focused on the newsroom. The congress — which seems focused on the business side — concentrates, more wisely, on innovation. I like the title of this talk by Carolyn McCall, chief exec of Guardian Newspapers (where — full disclosure — I write and will consult): “How Guardian Newspapers Limited changed everything except our values in just 12 months.” And I’d say some new values are fair game, too. And I’d say the editors should be concentrating on innovation as well.

School’s open

I just spent two days teaching the light tools of new media for the future faculty of CUNY’s Graduate School of Journalism with Will Richardson (whose book is coming out soon), Saul Spicer of CUNY TV, and my son, Jake. It was exhausting, challenging, and fun. The faculty was eager, curious, and tolerant of my learning about teaching while teaching.

Here’s an outline of what we covered. We didn’t concentrate on the tools that allow news sites to add bells and whistles — the usual definition of new media — but, instead, on the tools that allow anyone to report, edit, add to, challenge, and organize news across media. The most important message I wanted to leave with the group — the headline of the PowerPoint overview at the start — was that these tools really are as simple as they look; that’s why so many are using them. The question is how we take advantage of this to expand and improve journalism and journalism education. What was best about all this was the discussion of the new opportunities made possible by these new tools — and no small debate about the dangers, which is where I always find journalists, in the classroom or the newsroom, approaching this phenomenon. A year ago, those fearing danger drowned out those seeing opportunity; today, everywhere, that tide has turned.

I think this sort of session would work well in newsrooms to bring out creative ideas for using these tools to find new ways to gather and share news: Get the bloggers to show everyone how to blog, the podcasters podcasting. Turn the newsroom into a classroom.

: Here’s Will Richardson’s take on the day. I’ll know I’ll have succeeded in corrupting our world when I can also point to 20 faculty blogs with their takes.

The ghosts of newsrooms present and future

When I worked at the New York Daily News, I used to say that the place was ruled by its ghosts: ghosts of the past, whose haunting refrain was, “we do that because we’ve always it it that way,” or, “you can try that, but we tried it once — ’56, I think — and it didn’t work.” That was the authentic voice of many newsrooms.

Last night, Tim Porter linkedas did I — to Debbie Galant’s wonderful essay at Pressthink on what it’s like to be a hyperlocal journalist-blogger-entrepreneur-proprietor-gossip-gadfly. He said hers is an authentic voice of the newsroom and it is: The ghost of newsrooms future.

Tim also quoted from another authentic voice of the newsroom, the voice of newsrooms present: a heartfelt and frustrated — but, I’d argue, ultimately encouraging — email from David Hawkins of the Star-Ledger (I used to work with the paper; didn’t work with Hawkins). It’s an email filled with frustration about trying to get to the future and all the speedbumps, barriers, and bodies that lie in the way. But I find it encouraging because he cares so much and recognizes the need for change — that, alone, is a big deal in newsrooms. Responding to another essay of Tim’s about the mood of the newsroom, Hawkins writes: “But it seems like you are missing a significant group in the nattering nabobs you mention. Namely the 40-50 year-old mid-manager type who isn’t afraid of change, but doesn’t see it happening as a positive process where he works. The frustrated, soon-to-be-middle-aged people who feel powerless to help save their listing ships.” He’s saying that newspapers need to change and that he’s not alone in seeing that. Good news, I call that.

Hawkins complains about frustrations trying to get video content online and I should bear some responsibility for that, having been the online content exec. And if I try to foist off that blame by explaining about resources and staffing and revenue and politics and priorities, I’d only be proving his second complaint about “institutional and corporate mentality” and “fighting over who gets the credit or will be in charge.” I can’t argue, so I won’t.

As I’ve said before, I left my full-time job at a news organization because I am addicted to change and I believe news must change, but I am not confident it can happen from within. So I went out. But that’s me.

My fear is that if Hawkins and his fellow nabobs leave out of frustration or fatal intertia, then the news business will be in trouble. And it is a risk. He wrote to Tim:

I would love to embrace the future if someone would come up with a good plan at my place…..

So I complain after a fashion. I tell the people in charge, when they will listen, and my colleagues, when they aren’t rolling their eyes, that we have to change now. I cite proofs and examples. I admit to not having a lot of answers, but offer up what I’ve got, often focusing on how they could be done with little money and no additional personnel.

I’m all for creative solutions. But I am beginning to think I will have to pursue them elsewhere. And I hate that thought.

I hate that thought, too. This is an authentic voice of the newsroom today, of a love for journalism, and of the need for change and that is incredibly valuable. The question is how we get the present and future to meet.

New News: Deconstructing the newspaper

[Here's another in a very occasional series of posts suggesting how to change newspapers, all tagged and headlined "NewNews." Prior posts addressed the need to inspire an imperative for change and suggested turning the newsroom into a classroom to recast journalists' relationships with the public. In this post, I'll look at what newspapers do not need to be; in a future post, we will look at what they do need to be.]

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. When they were monoplies, newspapers tried to have something for everyone so they would attract the largest possible audience and assure their status as the marketplaces in their markets. But today, that can be terribly inefficient: What is the real cost of maintaining stock tables for the few readers who still use them in print? More on that below.

And newspapers have to take an even more frightening step: They need to start driving readers from print to online. Yes, that means driving readers from a higher-margin product, print, to a lower-margin product, online — but those margins are artificially maintained because advertisers still value print more than readers do (why else is the print audience shrinking while online is growing?). When reality catches up to advertisers, and when buying ads online in a distributed world is made easier — and that will happen — will newspapers be ready? When that day does come, newspapers will even have to consider selling print as a value-added upgrade to online, the reverse of what is done today.

The point of this exercise is to peel away the layers of the onion that a newspaper no longer needs so it can get to the core of what it really is, what it does best, what it must be to survive and prosper. You can pose the question one of two ways: What do we kill to save money, or what do we kill so we can shift resources to more important things? Whichever, you can’t stay the same and certainly can’t develop new features until you cut the fat and flesh. Mind you, I am not saying that all this needs to be killed. But I am saying that this is a necessary exercise to get to the essence of what a newspaper has to be. So I’ll start the bidding; please add your nominations (and disagreements):

BUSINESS

* Stock tables have to go. The Star-Ledger in New Jersey (with whom I used to work) killed most of its stock listings more than four years ago and didn’t suffer at all. In fact, they saved $1 million a year in paper and ink even with added improvements in the business section. It’s shocking — but a telling commentary on the snail-led newspaper business — that only now is another paper, the Chicago Tribune, planning to follow suit, sending people to a toll-free phone service and online for commodity stock prices.

Consider the economics: What is the net profit per subscriber? How many of those subscribers need to cancel their subscriptions before you lose more money than you would if you killed the stock tables? The truth is that you’ll likely lose only a handful of subscribers. But even if you lost hundreds, I have no doubt that the consequent loss of circulation revenue and audience to support your ad rates would be far less than the savings you’ll recognize from killing the tables. That is the essential business calculation of this exercise. Keep those economics in mind when we get to other features. It means that while everyone in the business is trying desperately to maintain circulation, the smart thing to do may be to decrease your unprofitable circulation if it means getting rid of major costs. Heed the cash cow in the coal mine.

* National business news is covered well in other publications, online, and on cable. Can a local paper really compete? I don’t think so, or at least I’ve never seen one do it very well. Do you get rid of it? Probably not. But you can reduce coverage to digests and major news — and if enough papers need such packaging, you can be sure the Associated Press will provide it.

* Local business news is, clearly, part of the franchise. But many markets now have local business weeklies (see American City, with whom I also used to work). I’d examine the coverage of a daily newspaper section vs. the weekly business paper and consider new relationships: Maybe the weekly can provide daily coverage more efficiently and at a low cost if it drives branding and subscriptions for the weekly. If the daily paper doesn’t want to concede the turf, maybe it should create a product to compete head-to-head with the weekly. Much of this depends on how much news is really generated and covered locally — that yields one analysis in L.A. and another in Peoria — and how much ad revenue is attributable to business in print.

Local business news also includes the bread-and-butter lists of promotions and such. I would drive that online, where you can be comprehensive at no cost, where you can publish every damned press release and promotion there is, which you could never do in print. Online does attract business advertising.

* Personal finance is more of a national story than a local one. If you believe you need to provide advice about taxes and mutual funds, you can get it from the wires and syndicates and you can meter how much you buy based on how much ad revenue you generate. If you’re worried about providing the service to readers and don’t get ad revenue, then don’t waste the space and instead just give them links.

Local newspaper business sections are generally unimpressive and so you need to calculate whether — given the current competitive and ad landscape — it is worth investing more to improve them or whether you can provide sufficient service at lower cost.

ENTERTAINMENT

* Critics are luxuries. This is heresy for me, a former critic and creator of a magazine of criticism. But newspapers don’t all need their own movie, TV, and music critics. The movies are no different in Terre Haute than in New York. Lots of local critics are second-rate. And the truth is that the opinions of the audience matter at least as much as theirs. You can syndicate other critics or you can enable your audience to be the critic. If you’re going to continue to employ critics, concentrate on the uniquely local, like local bands, to help serve a different audience. Oh, and if you’re keeping a TV critic to report on new general managers at local TV stations nobody knew anyway, you’re wasting that money.

* TV listings are a goner. They take up lots of newsprint and don’t work well as more channels are squeezed into a tighter space. Lots of people get their information from their TiVos, cable boxes, and online. And TV is going to continue to explode such that time-based guides will become more and more irrelevant. Now every circulation director I know will faint at the notion of getting rid of TV books and pages but I’ll just bet that some paper will try it and find itself no worse off. I’d recommend providing some highlights and call it a day.

* Movie listings are tougher, for they can be comprehensive and they are convenient. Some papers are switching to paid listings only and that makes sense.

* Entertainment listings work best online if they are comprehensive and searchable — and if they are provided by the venues and not at the expense of newsroom resources. I’d look at this as an opportunity to be more of a gathering place for information and less of a printed feed of repetitive listings: Provide a data base that venues can use to enter data. I’d list highlights in the paper to promote fuller listings online.

SPORTS

* Most sports columnists are, according to sports-fan-friends of mine (I’m quick to caution that I’m not one), a waste of ink. Are you better off paying their salaries or syndicating the best?

* National sports coverage is a luxury … for the guy doing the coverage. Do you really need to send your own guy to that golf tournament?

* Sports agate will be the next to go online, after stock tables and TV listings. Sure, keep listing the details for local teams. But send users online for the national stats. Better yet, provide more comprehensive stats for local school teams online than you ever could in print. Change readers habits to expect the fine print online.

Sports presents interesting challenges. Less than half of the audience reads sports and the endemic ad revenue has never been great (tire ads and … tire ads). Yet those those who read sports are ferociously loyal to the subject. So should papers consider creating separate sports products either online or in print? Would there be sufficient audience and revenue? Should papers concentrate more heavily on local sports, down to the very local level? More on that another day.

LIFESTYLE AND FEATURES

* Comics are a killer. Every time a paper changes so much as a hair on Beetle Bailey’s head, the editor’s office is overrun with angry mobs. Yet comics take up a lot of paper with no advertising; they strictly support circulation. Hmmmm. What do you think?

* Syndicated features like bridge and advice columns, similarly, get no ad revenue and have nothing to do with the local mission of a paper. As older readers die off, taking these habits with them, I’d try to kill these features off.

* Food, home, fashion, and travel coverage get low readership but high ad dollars. I’d concentrate on buying the best features from elsewhere rather than spending a lot on dedicated staff and supplement that with local freelance columns and features.

NATIONAL AND INTERNATIONAL NEWS

Now we start striking the bone. News is news. But I’ll be that half the papers that maintain third-rate bureaus in Washington would do better running news from syndicates — AP, Reuters, Washington Post, NY Times, Knight-Tribune — and covering local pols with local news staffs.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: It is absolutely pointless to be the paper that sends the 15,001st journalist to the political conventions, where nothing happens and what does happen can be seen on C-SPAN and the internet. Sending your own people to the conventions and other gang-up stories is fueled by one motivation: ego. Reporters want to be on what they think is the big — read: blanketed — story. And editors want to brag that they sent them. But readers don’t give a damn. See my post below on the value and cost of scoops and exclus. Following the mob to the story that’s already over-covered does not serve journalism. It serves the ego or reporters and their institutions. And it wastes money and space and opportunities to cover more important local stories that really matter to readers’ lives.

LOCAL NEWS

Welcome to the marrow. Local news is what should matter most to a newspaper (with only a few exceptions). And newspapers need to find new ways to gather more local news. I’ll cover that in a subsequent post. But it’s apparent that if you reduce what you’re spending — read: wasting — on some of the areas above, then you can afford to spend more on the news that matters in your market, the news only you can provide, the one kind of news that makes you indispensible in any medium.

But not all local news is worth the effort. I have long argued, without much company, that one of the greatest wastes of newspapering is editing for prize committees. Writing overlong, show-off series that are aimed at winning Pulitzers and lesser awards is often done for institutional ego over actual service. Tracking meth across the globe sounds cool on a prize application but I’ll bet you that most readers don’t give a damn. If, instead, you took those resources to get rid of a crooked mayor or reform property taxes, you’d be performing a far greater journalistic service. It may not get you awards, but it will get you readers.

And I’d look hard at your local columnists and ask whether they are as informative and entertaining as local bloggers. They used to provide some humanity and voice in otherwise gray, dull papers. Maybe your readers can help do that now. More on that in a later post.

The challenge in local news will be to get more and more local. But that, too, I will cover in a subsequent post.

At the end of this, I believe, the essence of a newspaper is local news with some other services and distractions. It is important for newspapers to boil themselves down to their essence and figure out how to do better at providing that unique and valuable service. That’s when you can start reconstructing what a newspaper — on paper or not — can be and should be today.

: LATER: Jenny D in the comments reminds me that I forgot

* Editorials and editorial columnists. Does a paper really need an editorial board and columnists just to produce opinions when, as the blogosphere amply demonstrates every day, there is no shortage of opinions out there. If you want a true op-ed, perhaps the goal should be to better capture the opinions of the public.

: In the comments, Nellie laments each one of the proposals above and asks the crucial question:

Hundreds, sometimes thousands, of angry and sometimes heartbroken phone calls come to the receptionist every time one of these dubious “improvements” is implemented.

Each represents a reader who blames the local paper for wrenching away a part of their lives they’ve come to depend on.

Paring away the parts of the product that people care about leaves what?

And there’s the real question, isn’t it: What is the role of a newspaper in a community and in readers’ lives. If it is still expected to be all things to all people in a nichey world, I’m afraid the business will not work. That’s why newspapers need to figure out their essence.

: LATER: Editor & Publisher covers this post.

The Wapping of the newsroom

The Observer looks back on Rupert Murdoch’s Wapping revolution — when he moved his papers off Fleet Street and away from antiquated rules and methods and unions as well — 20 years ago this month. That revolution changed the backshop of journalism in Britain: typesetting, production, distribution.

I wonder what it will take to bring a revolution to the front end of journalism: to the newsroom. I’ve argued that Katrina may have been the explosion news needed, though I suspect it was temporary change. Wapping was a permanent move.

Hear Andrew Neil, who was editor of the Sunday Times, a Murdoch paper, during Wapping:

‘Before Wapping,’ I explained recently to a group of young journalists, ‘if any of you had done this’ – I pressed a letter at random on the computer keyboard – ‘the print workers would immediately have walked off the job and the paper wouldn’t come out.’ …

Wapping changed all that. In the process it saved the British newspaper industry. If Fleet Street had staggered to the end of the last century with pre-Wapping, absurdly high labour costs, world-beating low productivity, antediluvian technology and the industrial relations of the madhouse, then probably only a handful of papers would have survived – concentrated in Rupert Murdoch’s News International and Lord Rothermere’s Associated.

There would certainly have been no colour printing, no multi-section Sunday newspapers, no rise of the big Saturday editions, no new sections during the week, no Independent (which slipped out unscathed during the Wapping dispute while we were locked in mortal combat), no newspaper websites, and a lot less of the diversity and dynamism that makes the British newspaper market the most exciting and competitive in the world. The idea of launching an all-colour, Berliner-size Observer would never have crossed anybody’s mind because the very idea would have been beyond the pale….

At one stage, a union official hurled a box of matches across the table at us, shouting: ‘Why don’t you just burn the place down? Don’t you understand? We’re never going to go there!’ If we’d taken his advice, not just Wapping but the British newspaper business would have gone down in flames.

Of course, the conditions are different, but the stakes are the same: survival into the future.

Manifesto for the future

If I were the publisher of one of America’s lumbering and suffering major newspapers (which I certainly will never be), I’d go hire Greensboro News & Record Editor John Robinson but not let him into the newsroom for a month so the staff can go to his blog and read pieces like this and fret about the future under an editor who embraces change.

New News: The newsroom as classroom

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….

You’re either for me or…

Dan Froomkin and Michael Powell (not that one) of the Washington Post (and the .com) continue the discussion about the kerfuffle over Froomkin’s column and its title over at Jay Rosen’s Pressthink. What they’re getting to now is a dissection of the most dangerous assumption being made — most surprisingly in the Washington Post newsroom — that if you criticize someone in power on one side, you must be on the other side, if the White House complains about you, then you must be liberal. Or to put it more simply: You’re either for them or against them.

When I was a columnist at the San Francisco Examiner, I covered supervisor-then-mayor Dianne Feinstein. I praised her work in the terrible aftermath of the Milk-Moscone murders and Jonestown, when the city needed calm leadership and she provided it. But when I later criticized her over various issues I can’t even remember, she lashed out and I heard from the paper’s publisher, often, how the mayor’s husband was complaining about me. Of course, the publisher should have told Mrs. Mayor’s Mr. to shove it up his rotunda. But instead, my life there got progressively more difficult. I quit, perhaps foolishly (though I then came to conquer Gotham and the rest is my story).

But the thing was, I was not Feinstein’s enemy. Like any of her constituents, I agreed with some of the things she did and disagreed with others and said so. But she thought I could be only a friend or an enemy, not an observer, not a citizen, not just a person with mixed opinions about her. I have learned to expect that from politicians — not to mention TV stars and business heads.

I do not expect that of news people, especially not the newsroom that most covers the most powerful. Surely they should be more sophisticated about this.

Yet we’re going to see this get worse because the journalists are actually less sophisticated about this whole notion of expression opinion. They have been trained to assume that if you have opinions, you are a partisan when perhaps you’re merely a questioner or even just a citizen.