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….

  • Marina Architect

    Discrete barriers don’t exist as you suggest between bloggers and feature or wire journalists.

    It’s all about transparency. Transparency is the content. Conversation derives its value from transparency. Make newsrooms transparent. Bring us into the newsroom. That’s the excitement: being there and sensing the immediacy of the moment rather than the dry paid for method.

  • yes, a future chapter….

  • How about this business plan for newspaper publishers:

    Open your doors to the public and give guided tours of the living fossils and artifacts that inhabit the office. Basically turn them into museums with little gift shops.

    I can envision one exhibit in particular. Behind a glass-enclosed case is a jurassic editor dictating a story to his secretary or perhaps typing with two fingers.

    The placard will awe visiting school children,

    “Can you believe that this old man who doesn’t even know how to right-click once powerfully shaped public opinion?”

  • My next chapter is turning the newsroom into a classroom.

  • Eric F.

    Here in Winnipeg, MB, Canada, our major daily, the Winnipeg Free Press, is undergoing some major (but not really) retooling, likely in response to surveys and focus groups that ask people where they get their news, but not why.

    According to the Free Press, they have very high per capita readership compared to other major Canadian cities, but it’s obvious that they’re worried about losing dead-tree readers.

    The results? A new “humor” columnist whose picture has been front-page above the fold three times in the last month. A new website, Winnipeg Free Press Live, that’s actually only “free” for two weeks. After that only subscribers can use it. The only difference between the dead-tree and live versions that I can see are that readers can submit Readerpix (the paper decides which ones get used) and there is a “Breaking News” section that consists of AP and CP wire stories.

    I can get all of these features and read any number of actually funny writers online more easily, and for free, every day of the week. I look to my local paper for something else, but they aren’t asking the questions that would lead them there.

    There’s fear there, and their response is transparently obvious, but obviously not true transparency.

  • Jeff, this makes a good blog post, but it’s pretty vague in terms of implementation. How about a task force of two representatives from news, ad sales, circ, etc. to create a taskforce? Then someone needs to give them topics. If this is truly an ostrich-like business, then you need to outline the process with more detail. Who on the inside would be able to create a template for such a report? Does this entire project you’re suggesting require hiring a consultant, or could a paper do it alone?

    I also wonder about the fear factor. What you want to create is the kind of fear that high-tech companies feel about getting a product to work before the competition, or something like that. It’s not the same as the chilling fear now felt by middle-managers at GM. That’s a kind of malaise that won’t lead to a retooled newspaper. Creating the fear you want is far more complex than a doom and gloom report about the misery of the news busienss.

    I think one of your smartest ideas is to interview former customers. I would suggest that the circ department come up with a list of people who have dropped their subscriptions over the last year. Then have a someone develop an interview protocol, and call each one you can to find exactly why they dropped the paper…and more. That data may actually be the most useful. (Our school district, which is in the middle of a place where parents routinely exercise choice in terms of switching districts, using charter schools, or private schools, calls every family that leaves the schools to find out why. The information is quite revealing.)

    As a blogger reading this post, I’m cheering and thinking how great it is. If I were a newspaper boss, I’d be less swayed. Maybe you’re saving the details….

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  • Louis

    Here’s a revolutionary (albeit 100 year old) idea: make your comics page worth reading! It used to be people would buy a paper A because their favorite comic strip could not be found in paper B. But paper B had another strip they liked, so they would buy both. In these days of one paper towns, this isn’t a feasible business plan, and so the comics page has been diluted into Grandma targeted pap.
    Did you know Dick Tracy used to kill people? Some strips, like L’il Abner, contained adult themes and situations. And some decent titillation to boot! In recent decades, Calvin threatened violence against his elementary school.
    Today we have Fred Bassett barking at a squirrel.

  • I’m not sure about Jay Rosen’s quiz idea. Most journalists don’t know how the paper is printed, let alone how the web works. You won’t change the organisation by turning writers into tech heads. Why do they need to understand the delivery mechanism anyway?

    It’s not the technology and the associated jargon they have to grasp. It’s the notion of interactivity and customisation they don’t understand. it’s always been one-way traffic to them. They can’t understand the idea that the reader can now shape what they receive.

    Finally from my perspective, the complacency among journos that Jeff complains about is merely a reflection of the half-hearted attitude of their managers to the web. It’s the ‘boiling frog syndrome’. Circulations and readership may be in decline, but the profit margins are still too juicy to give up. So they send out the message that online is peripheral and not the way to advance your career.

  • I’d go with the comic strip suggestion. I used to buy papers just for the funnies. And I’d serialize other content that newspapers of long ago did, like books for example. Instead of just reviewing hot titles, I’d gain permission to reprint a section of them each week. Some of what newspapers have been doing for centuries to bring readers in works. I’d also stop giving away free music CD’s and promo movie DVD’s. I buy the paper only for the songs or the clips that interest me and light a fire with the newspaper.

    What Thomas Crampton of the IHT is trying to do – print the highlights of interesting blog conversations in the newspaper – is a good idea because it’s combining online with print, both of which are going to be with us for a long time to come.

    I wouldn’t spend time and money compiling a report designed only to terrify the newsroom into facing grim reality and cause everyone to run around like rats to protect their position and their turf. It’s better if people pull together so I’d do the report thing, but it would come in two parts: the first part detailing the grim reality and the second featuring a detailed plan for what to do about it having invited everyone involved to contribute some useful suggestions. I don’t think they need to be terrified first into doing that. Newsmen know what’s happening. Some even know what needs to be done. So I’d let them speak their minds and listen to their suggestions. I’d write it up into a workable plan specifically detailing how to improve news. Then I’d make sure the plan was followed, rather than just talked about. And I’d have no tolerance for internal politicking since it wastes time and has nothing to do with what customers want.

  • While I agree with many of the points you’ve made, Jeff, I do think we’re underestimating some of the leaders behind some of the papers we read. I’ve heard first-hand accounts of “kidnappings” and countless tales of hours spent struggling to comprehend – and meet – the “strategic imperative for change.” These folks know they can’t just sit back and do what they’ve done for years – they’re no dummies. It’s more a question of fear: not that they’ll lose their smartest staffers to the blogosphere, but that they’ll never truly get a grip on what their audience expects demands from them now and in the future.

  • I don’t think they care much about their audience.

  • There’s a bit of arcane newspaper history worth knowing about, and it has everything to do with the Arkansas Democrat Gazette.

  • It is with a mixture of great sorrow and joy that our generation will finally witness the demise of Newspaper. Extracting excessive joy from your heart in watching old media suffering is schadenfreude. My grandfather read the same newspaper and a mediocre one at that – The Mobile Press Register – each and ever day of his 84 year life.

    That paper was used to discipline the hound dogs and the children, to start fires in the fireplace, to wrap packages for emergencies or wrap the Waterford for the moves. Discarded … the homeless of Mobile’s slummish downtown blanketed themselves with it on park benches; or made hobo fires in trash cans in back alleyways.

    I found an old Mobile Press Register clipping today in my roll-top desk. My grandfather was in the paper – posing with the mayor while still a young man – all dapper and smiles – his hair still dark. The paper was brown with age.

    Somehow there are times when my laptop just doesn’t cut it.

  • Bruce from Alta California

    Here is a novel idea. How about reporting real news and links to sources so we can fact check?

    I stopped taking newspapers in the 70’s as they just regurgitated the pap spewed out by governement/corporations/elite.

    It has only been in the last few years that I have enjoyed getting real news from weblogs. Are blogs reporting fact or fiction? That principle also applies to newspapers. Its mostly a reporter’s opinion, the web just gives space for everyone to espouse their own opinion. The reality of blogs is that they provide links to sources, something you won’t find in newspapers.

    The one advantage that newspapers have over blogs is that newspapers can report local news. But then it is just a matter of time, hopefully, until local blogs crop up.

    The distinct advantage of blogs over newsprint is that blogs are interactive and one can review not only the information, but the reaction to the information.

  • Li

    People who really want to know what’s happening have always gotten their news from the most immediate and accurate medium available to them at the time, whether it be the town crier, smoke signals, Harpers Weekly, or the morning edition of the Washington Post. Printed newspapers are simply not the most immediate source for news any longer.

  • Lyon

    As long as there’s a restaurant to drink morning coffee in, newspapers will have a place.

  • Bruno

    It seems to me that fear is already well-present in newsrooms. Panic actually. What else is the Washington Post – WPNI dispute about? Lots of ink and virtual ink has been used to speculate on the political differences, on the WP newsroom allegedly trying to please the White House and therefore wanting to “fence off” Dan Froomkin’s too liberal column and so on. But seen from a distance (I’m in Europe) this seems to me to be about fear. The audience of WPNI is ten times bigger than that of WP, it’s global, it’s diverse, but the operation has ten times fewer people than the newspaper. Forget revenues for a second, and focus about the trend: that’s what the people in the newsroom see: fewer people, more reach, faster growth (or, in the case of many newspapers, the ONLY growth): those guys up there at the website are becoming a serious threat. There is no need to instill fear: it’s already there, and spreading fast. What do we do about it? How do you change people in newsrooms? Looking forward to your next posts.

  • chico haas

    Mr. Jarvis runs a Japanese automobile plant. It’s not surprising he predicts the demise of the American auto industry. Regardless, we’ll drive both.

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  • Jeff (and the rest of the comment writers) – excellent points and good ideas. However, we should always be very careful when encouraging “fear.” Way too many senior managers/CEOs still think the Attila the Hun management model is the right way to go. Yes, deal with reality, but don’t push the fear button too hard – that’s directly connected to the panic response. And, “fight or flight” is never a good way to design a strategy or motivate the people who must implement it.

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  • I love it: the perfect 2005 Christmas presents for newsrooms: “Scare the bejesus out of them.” Seriously, I agree with Mary that a little fear goes a long way. Most fear is paralyzing to most people. By all means, lay out the facts — the cat’s out of the bag that there’s a BIG problem — and then proceed to solutions.

    Jeff’s beginning notion to “bring in your competitors: bloggers, podcasters, community organizers” is key, and really without choice. All these worlds are developing around newspapers and newspaper people. I’m encouraged by some ferment in mixing blog/community content, beginnings at least. In Austin, the American Statesman is partnering with Pluck — — to do community blogging. You know how My Yahoo essentially colonized much RSS; that’s a useful model for newspapers too.


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