A new newsroom

A new newsroom

: Over recent months, I’ve had many conversations with news executives in various media and various companies about how to adapt the newsroom of yesterday for the realities of today: People want news anytime, anywhere, specific to their interests and needs. People want to gain control over the news and be heard. Newsrooms are hard to change. In that dangerous intersection, I lived until recently.

I chose not to be the change agent in a newsroom and instead to pursue change from without just because that’s the kind of guy I am: difficult. But having had so many of these discussions with so many smart people who are grappling with a strategic imperative to change — and because I just spoke with a roomful of editors and will be in another roomful of them again next week — I decided to try to put my money where my mouth is (well, I guess I did that when I changed careers… and I can tell you how much that damned mouth of mine cost me, to the penny). So I will explore some of the issues and ideas on changing newsrooms here.

I was going to post this yesterday morning, before I sat in that first roomful of editors, but didn’t because I wasn’t quite ready and because I thought to rather hubristic — even for me — to make such suggestions to people who actually run newsrooms. But they are trying to figure out new ways to do their business; it was an impressively open discussion and so, at the end, I pretty much read this post and didn’t find myself hooted out of the room (at least not until after I left). So…

The first part summarizes earlier blatherings of mine (pardon the repetition) to try to frame the strategic imperative for change in the newsroom. And, by the way, I’m always confused about which first-person hat I wear; in this case, I’ll wear my mediaman instead of my blogboy beret (but I’ll switch back). Please join in….

As I see it, there are three imperatives for change in newsrooms:

1. The input: New news gathering: Newsrooms need to redefine news and news gathering. They need to be open to new sources of news, including the reporting of the people they used to view as the audience: yes, even bloggers. To use our parlance today, newsrooms need to think of themselves — again — as aggregators, gathering — and sometimes packaging, sometimes not — the news their communities create.

They also need to waste less effort, talent, and money on commodity news, the news we already know, the news we could write ourselves if we watched CSpan or CNN. If you can link to it, if the audience already knows it, why spend ever-more-precious resources redoing it? Instead, it is better to concentrate on a newsroom’s real value, reporting: journalists’ ability to ask the questions people in power don’t want asked, to be an advocate for the public to power, to get to the bottom of debates, to add perspective, to be local. Journalists aren’t the only ones who can do that, but that is still their primary value.

2. The output: New dissemination on new schedules: We’ve said it a million times: We no longer wait for the news — for the paper to land on the doorstep or for the show to start. Now the news waits for us — when we want it (when it happens or when we are curious), where we want it (online, on mobile, or on yet-uninvented toys), and how we want (just our topics, just what we don’t know).

But I’ve learned just how difficult it is to get newsrooms to shift to serve these needs. They operate on a once-a-day clock with just one number on it: closing time or showtime. So how does that change — if you can’t afford a continuous news desk like The New York Times and The Washington Post have? I’m not sure, but I’ll make a suggestion in a minute.

3. The back-and-forth: Join the conversation: And we’ve said this a million times, too: News is a conversation and that conversation is going on with or without us. We used to think the news was done, baked, finished when and only when we published it. But that’s when the news starts, when the public — who, as Dan Gilmor has repeatedly said, knows more than we do — adds its questions and facts and perspectives. The news doesn’t belong to us; we just gather and disseminate it in a world that abhors middlemen. We need to enable the conversation or get out of the way.

OK, so how to change this? I don’t know. But I’ll throw out a few ideas:

1. Compensation: Editors should be compensated on total audience and audience satisfaction across all media, not just the old one. And they should be compensated for growth in the new media. Yes, the new media produce a lower margin than the old, but wishing that not to be true won’t make it false. There’s no growth in old media. The growth is in new media and those who aren’t growing there will die.

2. Blogging as a metaphor and as a new publishing tool: Of course, you could count on me to find a way to make blogging the cure for all ills. But stick with me for a minute: The way newsrooms operate today, it’s hard to capture and share the news as soon as we know it. It’s also hard to capture the value of a reporter’s voice and perspective. And it’s hard to make news conversational when it’s all fed into a one-way pipe. So imagine if blogging software became the publishing system of the newsroom. Imagine if reporters were told to put everything into that system: They come back from reporting a story and write up the pitch or skedline, as we say, with the essence of the story. That reporter or an editor could with one button publish that to the internet. They could link to the AP story that has more details until the reporter writes the bigger piece, if that’s even necessary. The public could weigh in and ask the reporter questions or share knowledge to improve the story before it is “finished” and published. They could do this even before it is reported, when reporters ask for help. The reporter could post the transcript of her interviews, in case anyone wants to see that. The reporter could post audio interviews, photos, video scenes. The reporter and editors could ask the public to add their photos and stories. And after the story is published — or, as we like to say, posted — the public can still join in and add facts or viewpoints or links. And the reporter and the public can find themselves in a conversation about the story. In short: Anything can be posted and made public anytime.

3. Aggregate: In the old days, completeness was judged by what we wrote. Now it should be judged by what we gather. A town reporter should be reading the blogs and reports of citizens and even competitors and linking to it all — or else he is providing an incomplete service, isn’t he? This can be automated with RSS aggregation. It can be improved with judgments about quality and trust of each source made by the reporters and editors and public, too (you don’t have to link to everything but you should link to the good stuff).

4. Share: If we’re going to rely — yes, rely — on citizen journalists to help us expand — yes, expand — our news coverage even as our revenue dwindles, then we need to share with them: We can share knowledge by training those who want to learn how to get access to information and how to avoid being sued and how to check facts. Not everyone will want or need that training but those who do will become better partners. We should share news, whether that is our headlines or our interviews. We should share promotion (now known as links). We should share trust, helping to identify those reporters whom the public believes. And we should share revenue to support their efforts (which will end up being less expensive than hiring staff we can’t afford).

5. Meet, greet: When I was a reporter on small, local papers, I loved meeting the readers. By the time I hit the big papers, I lost that affinity, perhaps because I became a snot or perhaps because half the folks who bothered to write letters to the papers wrote them in crayon. But blogging reformed me; it has taught me to value the quality of the relationship over the size of the numbers. I suggest that reporters and editors get out and hold MeetUps and talk with the public we serve, not behind focus-group mirrors but over coffee or beer, at eye level.

6. Transparency: We must open the sausage factory to regain trust and respect from the public we serve. Most of us deserve that trust and respect but not as a birthright, only if earned.

7. Any media anytime: Reporters and photographers should carry the tools of multimedia — a voice recorder, a video/still camera, a keyboard — and use them all. They need to be trained. They need to be encouraged. Then they should tell the story however it is best told. If I can record a podcast, anyone can.

8. Burn the business cards: No one in a newsroom should think of himself or herself as “print” or “online.” That has turned news into an us-vs-them battle in the newsroom when it should be joint battle to survive and grow. This is not to say that there aren’t still specialties: a graphic artist knows graphics, an online producer knows RSS. But we’re all in this together.

9. Burn the org chart: The second-biggest issue in all this is control. Everybody wants to control every medium but then nobody will have anything to control because outsiders are running away with the content and the business. I’d play 52-card-pickup with job descriptions and move people — starting with managers — all around the news operation

10. Culture: Now here’s the biggest issue, the elusive newsroom culture that resists change. Well, that’s a crock, of course; it’s just a job, but in the palace to passive-aggression that is the newsroom, resistance to change is made into a religion. But don’t let anyone fool you that such culture is really so rampant in newsrooms; it’s really just an excuse.

Faced with the strategic imperative to change — the moment of restructuring that has come to most American industries and now is coming to news — the smart and sensible will change. The only question is how. But that’s a big question.