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….