Posts about newsroom

New news: The fear factor

Below, I promised to start making more tangible suggestions for remaking newspapers from papers into places. Here’s a start (they’ll all be tagged ‘newnews’):

The first job is to instill fear in the newsroom. Oh, there’s fear there now. But it is fear of the unknown. What we need is fear of the known: the facts about falling readership and advertising and the reasons behind both and about new competition. Fear alone won’t lead to a strategy, of course. But until there is an imperative to change inspired by that fear, it won’t be possible to move past the complacency and resistance that populate so many newsrooms now. In later posts, we’ll look at means to replace fear with excitement about new opportunities. But first things first.

So before doing any reorganizing, strategizing, or off-siting, the first thing I think a newspaper should do is report about the future of news. Assign your best reporters and editors — the Bejesus Task Force — to get all the prognostications about the future and all the data about the present — about where the audience and dollars are going, about new competition, about new technologies, about best and worst practices, about new definitions of news — and bring it together in a report for the entire staff. Make the assignment clear: Find the most frightening stuff you can. Now is the time to face every devil. Leave none unearthed.

This is for the entire staff. All of this is. If you do this just for management — or just editors, for that matter — it will not work. And it’s not just for the paper. You need to take that task-force report about the future of news and print it in the paper — and online, of course — and ask the people to tell you what to do. Know that you’ll be reaching only the people you reach now. But you’ll set a new tone in the relationship and will, I guarantee, get good ideas. So set up the means to capture those ideas: public forums, online and in person. Meet the readers.

Next, go talk to your former readers and never readers. OK, do some focus groups. But better yet, go out to folks you do not serve and meet them face-to-face, preferably over beer. Give managers and staffers strict instructions to listen, not talk. They may only ask questions, not argue and never lecture. Tell them to get answers to key questions, including how people define news today, where they go to get it, what their frustations are, what they really care about, why they don’t read newspapers, what they hate about papers, whether they trust us, what they know, what they can contribute.

Then you can bring in some prognosticators and bullshit artists (my current job description) to scare you, but judge what they say based on the reporting you’ve just done. Later, you can challenge them, as my editor friend challenged me, to get real. But now, treat them like horror-movie producers and ask them for their scariest stuff.

Now bring in your competitors: bloggers, podcasters, community organizers. Don’t kidnap and torture them. Ask them how and why they do what they do and what they need to do it better. Later, you’ll look for ways to work with them; in fact, that will be a key to any future strategy. But now, just look at all the ways they’re smarter and nimbler than you and how they’re having so much more fun. You need to know what you don’t know. Jay Rosen even suggests giving the staff a test — but he’s a tougher teacher than I will be.

Finally, have an open meeting about the numbers. Go ahead and show how profitable you are today. But show every bad number and every bad trend you don’t want your advertisers, shareholders, analysts, and bosses to see. If you don’t do this, it won’t work. You might as well call in the private equity firm and call it a day.

The idea is to make everyone in the organization understand the strategic imperative for change. If they think they can just sit back and do what they’ve done for years, then they won’t be doing it much longer. If they want to change, they will. The danger is that the smartest staffers will get so scared they will want to quit and blog for a living. That’s why there’s no time to spare getting to the next steps so you can hold onto them and harnass their iimaginations. More on that later….

One newsroom, two newsrooms, or none?

There is a debate in the land of newspapering: Should print and online operate separately or together? Jay Rosen argues today that in the recent kerfuffle at The Washington Post, he sees benefit in separation. And you’d think I’d agree, since I set up separate operations when I was at Advance.net. But I don’t think I do, not anymore.

The commonly held wisdom — or rationalization — among those of us who took separate routes is that we needed to create autonomous operations so that the online staff could do what was appropriate for this new medium (like enabling interactivity) and so that the online brand and bottom line would not be shortchanged in ad deals as merely value added. And I think that was true.

But it is also true today that if newspapers themselves do not change radically to embrace the future, they will become things of the past. So I have argued that newspapers have a choice: Either totally upend newsroom culture and get people to face the strategic imperative of gathering and sharing news in new ways across all platforms … or move most of the staff to online — where the audience is now and revenue growth, if not equivalent revenue, will be — and leave the dinosaurs behind. But if you take the former course, if you take the challenge of exploding the newsroom, then you probably have to give those people control for all the products and hold them accountable for audience growth and satisfaction and for keeping up with all their new competitors, small and smaller. And if they can’t do it, then you get new people who can. Quoth Yelvington once more: “It’s time to change your people, or change your people.”

Jay argues persuasively that in l’affaire Froomkin, the ability of online monarch Jim Brady to make appropriate decisions for the dot-com apart from newsroom king Len Downie is productive:

They’re not equals (780 in one newsroom vs. 65 in the other; fewer than one million subscribers vs. eight million users), but Washington and Arlington have their own spheres. Over the newspaper and reporting beats Len Downie is king. Over the website Jim Brady is sovereign. Over the user’s experience no one has total control. There’s tension because there’s supposed to be tension. It makes for a more dynamic site.

Well, but it also makes for blinders aside the eyes of the newsroom princes. That is why Post political editor John Harris thought he could be so haughty as to publicly scold his online colleagues for not following his rules and for embarrassing him with his White House, even snaring the — what shall I say, unsuspecting? — ombudsman in his crusade.

No, Harris and company do not need to confront the online people. They need to confront the future. They need to confront the fact that more readers read the online product. They need to confront the fact that the economics of news are changing, whether they approve or not.

I once had an argument with an editor of People who wanted a redesign to do what technology at the time — and logic — could not do. He kept stomping his foot: If I want it, it must be so. Make it so! I kept explaining why it could not happen. Round and round it went until finally I snapped, “Jim, damnit, I’m not your enemy, reality is.”

The people in the Post print newsroom acted as if the online newsroom were their enemy. No. Reality is.

: So are The New York Times and USA Today right to combine newsrooms? Only if they blow up the newsrooms in the process and force every journalist at every desk to reinvent not only the product but also the process of news — and reinvent themselves as they do it. An organization chart is not the answer. An attitudectomy is.

When I visited with The Guardian’s management, I found an impressive cultural change already underway: The print folks and online folks together worried that they were behind,that the digital age was well underway and they were still trying to hop on. They didn’t try to alter reality. They wanted to get ahead of it.

That cultural change is what matters, not whether there are one or two newsrooms.

In fact, I’ll argue that there should be no newsroom. Now you may have thought that the reference to no newsrooms in the headline above was another smart-assed prediction of the fall of papers. Not at all. Instead, it’s a suggestion: Just as you should stop thinking of your product as paper, as a thing, so should you stop thinking of your operation as a room.

The old saw in designing space for a business is that you should give the sales department as little space as possible — or no space at all — because, after all, aren’t the sales people supposed to be out there, selling?

So shouldn’t the same be true for newsrooms: Give the reporters no space, have them live out of their laptops, so they are out there reporting? Now go the next step: What if some and soon much of the news doesn’t come from reporters — allowing the reporters to concentrate on what they do best, on their real value, reporting — but from the people we used to call readers? And what if the people help edit too (see: Digg)? What if there is no newsroom? Or rather, what if the newsroom is the community and the community is the newsroom.

OK, I just went to far. It’s what I do now: I push the point to make a point. At a recent breakfast with pr execs, a sage news exec — guess who — defended me at such a moment, saying it’s now my role to push the imperative and it’s still their job to get their jobs done. I was grateful for the defense, particularly from him.

But I also went to lunch last week with a print editor/friend I now like to call Fred Flintstone who challenged me back and said, ok, after resisting the Gospel according to Jetson, he was now ready to sign up and build a new future. But how? How, exactly? It’s fine to talk theory but what’s the reality?

He was right to push back and since I now spend so much time in this space with abstractions that will make fine book chapter titles but not blueprints — but since I also have faced the specific practical challenges of merging newsroom views if not newsrooms — then I need to get more practical: Mouth, meet money.

So I hope to start writing a series of posts with explicit suggestions for news organizations. Take them for what they’re worth. Oh, I’ll argue that there are actually lots of practical suggestions amidst the 9,009 posts that precede this one (yow, that guy can blather!). But I can see how the forest can get lost for the kudzu. So I’ll write some posts that are at least more direct. Starting shortly with suggestions about how to merge those newsrooms… but first, how to scare them….

Saving journalism isn’t about saving jobs

Every time we hear about another cutback in newspapers — and there are plenty of them these days — we automatically hear the notion that journalism jobs must be saved to save journalism. I’m afraid it’s time to challenge that assumption.

Saving journalism isn’t about saving jobs or even newspapers. In fact, the goal shouldn’t be just to save journalism but to grow it, expand it, explode it, taking advantage of all the amazing new means to gather and share news we have today.

Start with the real goals, which are informing society, keeping power in check, improving people’s lives, making connections (right?) and then ask what the best ways are to do that today. After that, you can ask what the role of journalists and newspapers should be.

Maybe we need fewer people in newsrooms and need to take money to hire a lot more people outside newsrooms to gather more news. Maybe we need to put resources into training those people or vetting their work. Maybe we simply need to recognize that news is no longer a monopoly business that can operate at monopoly margins and we need to prioritize where we put our resources. Maybe we need to look at online as a primary source of current news and at newspapers as a source of analysis and perspective and unique reporting. Maybe we can’t support daily newspapers everywhere. Maybe some of those journalists will become independent publishers (see: Debbie Galant at Baristanet) and newspaper companies will run ad networks.

: There’s a great discussion going on in Philadelphia about saving the Daily News and that’s why I’m asking these questions: What does it mean to save it?

It started with Will Bunch writing on the Daily News blog Attytood. Philly blog king Karl Martino picked this up and sent email to folks he knows — bloggers, journalists, educators — suggesting that we get together to help explore this with Bunch. And the Philadelphia Inquirer’s blog prince, Dan Rubin, weighed in just as cutbacks were going on in his newsroom. Bunch’s opener was wonderful. Yes, he starts lamenting the loss of journalists’ jobs — of course; they are his friends and his colleagues and the people who produce his paper — but then he goes on to see the necessity of a different, a bigger future:

As I write this, the Daily News – where even before this fall the newsroom, with its depopulated desks, looked like a neutron bomb had struck, and where management chose to not even replace three staffers who died in 2004 – is nevertheless losing another 25 journalists, or 19 percent of the total….

It’s human nature, I guess, but the first inclination is to blame somebody, and there’s plenty of blame to go around….

But assigning blame won’t save the Philadelphia Daily News. Besides, much of the blame really lies with us, as journalists. We have, for the most part, allowed our product to become humorless and dull. In an era when it seems most people truly will be famous for 15 minutes, newspapers have stubbornly avoided creating personalities…or having a personality, for that matter. In a pathologically obsessive quest for two false goddesses – named Objectivity and Balance – we have completely ceded the great American political debate to talk radio, cable TV and the Internet, where people have learned that politics is actually interesting and even fun when people are allowed to take sides.

We prefer to talk down to the public rather than talk to them. Even at our very best – and there are many, many talented newspaper journalists in America – we are more likely to aim at wooing contest judges than at wooing new readers. And we have a knee-jerk tendency to defend our narrow world of messy ink printed on dead trees, when instead the time is here to redefine who we are and what we do.

We are, and can continue to be, the front-line warriors of information — serving up the most valuable commodity in a media-driven era. But that means we must be the message, not the medium, and so we must adjust to give consumers news in the high-tech ways that they are asking for, not the old-tech way that we are confortable with.

If we don’t change, we will die – and it will be our fault.

It defies all the conventional wisdom, but I believe that the Philadelphia Daily News can be an agent of that change – and not a victim. In fact, in seeking to destroy the Daily News in a death of a thousand cuts, our corporate masters in San Jose have, unintentionally, liberated us – because having nothing left to lose is another term for freedom.

Because with a staff that is now too small to cover every news story, we can learn how to cover just the stories that truly matter to people, and cover the heck out of them….

Hence, the “norg.” “Norg” because we need to lose our old identity with one dying medium, newspapers, and stress our most valuable commodity, the one that we truly own, and that is news…without the paper. Thus, we must now be news organizations, or “norgs.” …

Everybody up off your feet and give Bunch a standing O. That is exactly the kind of attitude and imagination and determination that will, indeed, save journalism.

This is what the Online News Association meeting should have been about. This is what journalism school must be about.

This isn’t about circling wagons defensively anymore. Nor is it about cutbacks. Nor denial. Nor resenting the new guys. This is about invention.

: Meanwhile the shock therapy goes on.

A major stockholder wants Knight Ridder to put itself up for sale.

Goldman Sachs says it’s a crappy year for newspapers:

I’s official: 2005 will be the newspaper industry’s worst year since the last ad industry recession. And things aren’t looking much better for next year either, according to a top Wall Street firm’s report on newspaper publishing. “Sadly, 2005 is shaping up as the industry’s worst year from a revenue growth perspective since the recession impacted 2001-2002 period,” says the report from Goldman Sachs, adding a warning that meaningful growth in 2006 is “very unlikely.”

The Wall Street Journal says the failing newspaper industry will see consolidation (free link):

Along with steel, autos and airlines, daily newspapers would seem to be yet another mature U.S. industry that is prime for consolidation. Analysts are increasingly pessimistic about the prospects for growth as advertising revenue continues to move online. Stocks of many newspaper companies now trade near multiyear lows….

Newspapers still dominate local news and advertising in many markets. That could attract a company such as Yahoo, which has moved increasingly into original content and would like to develop its local reach. Meanwhile, Google Inc. has expressed interest in entering the classified-ad market, where newspapers have deep relationships and continue to play a dominant role. Knight Ridder is part-owner of CareerBuilder Inc., the online classified Web site that competes with Monster.com….

But Knight Ridder’s larger papers are the ones buyers are most likely to balk at. These papers, like those at many newspaper companies, are dragging down the company. Big-city papers have taken it on the chin as urban advertisers and readers have defected to the Internet. Knight Ridder has distressed papers in Philadelphia, Miami and San Jose, Calif. Circulation in those markets is falling, and big advertisers such as department stores are consolidating.

Lately, some of the most successful newspaper companies have stayed in the newspaper business by getting out of it. Washington Post Co. and E.W. Scripps Co., for instance, have both diversified into other industries….

If I owned a newspaper, I’d sell it, wouldn’t you? If I were Yahoo, would I buy it? Maybe only Yahoo and Google could consolidate the advertising marketplace to make big media work still.

I’m not going to complain about media consolidation when all this happens (though I know plenty of others will). What we’re seeing, I’ll say again, is just the dinosaurs huddling against the cold of the internet ice age. The poor, old, lumbering beasts have to stick together.

For the growth isn’t going to be on the big side. The growth is going to be on the small side, in new, ad hoc networks of content, promotion, advertising, and trust…. networks that could spring out of the one that is swarming around Bunch’s post, networks that care about news.

The goal is to save daily news, whether or not you save the Daily News.

Even older than me

Don’t know whether this is a new survey but Carnegie says the average age of a newspaper reader is 55 and one cable news channels average age just plummeted to 59. It used too be, it was just the trees that died.

Who’s doing it right? Recommendations, please…

I’m talking with a bunch of folks from newspaper newsrooms in San Antonio and Houston early next week about blogs and changing newsrooms. One of the things they want, of course, is examples of the best of breed. Please give me a list of who you think is using blogs well to expand news coverage and in newsrooms and who’s using the internet well to change how news is gathered and distributed. My opening bids:
- Business Week’s Blogspotting.net: The guys who get it.
- Baristanet.com: Hyperlocal made real.
- Dwight Silverman’s Tech Blog: In the conversation.
- The Guardian’s newsblog: Wisely used for breaking news.
- Northwest Voice: Hyperlocal made real.
- PaidContent.org and GigaOm: great media reporting.
- NashvilleIsTalking.com: Gathering the voices of the community.
- Anything Holovaty touches.
- Online News Squared and LostRemote.com: Inside baseball
- Make Blog gathers neat ideas.
- TechCrunch: tackles a “beat” (new companies) well.
What else, please?

Changing news

Today The New York Times announced to its staff that it is combining the print and online newsrooms. I can’t and won’t comment on that specifically because I don’t know much about it and because of this full disclosure: I consult for The New York Times Company. Similarly, I did not comment on the specifics of these issues when I worked at Advance with its 29 newspapers, though I have said that my final reason for moving on what that I did not want to be the change agent in newsrooms. They’re hardly the only ones going through this change: CBS News says that all 1,500 employees of its employees now work for the online service. Even TV Guide is grappling with fundamental change; see my post on milking the cash cow here. A few weeks ago, I also wrote about changing the newsroom.

The essential truth of all this is that a fundamental change in media is driving fundamental change in the market, which should be driving fundamental change in news products, which must cause fundamental change in newsrooms.

That is what we are witnessing now. I often hear people say that big-media executives don’t get it, that they don’t get the imperative for change. Well, they’re getting it. They have no choice.

Each organization will debate — until the cash cows come home — about who should drive that change.

Each organization and each executive will debate — until retirement — about the form that change should take.

Each of us will debate — until somebody goes out of business — whether they are successful.

But make no mistake: Change is inevitable.