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….

  • Wolcott’s your doing?


  • Required Name

    >Bush has lost even balding security jock Jonathan Alter

    Someone tell Walcott that Alter has cancer and lost his hair due to Chemo.

  • Required Name

    >More to come….

    Unfortunate if true.

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  • Well, Required, aren’t you the witty wag? You’d think you’d want to put your name there to get credit for your kneeslapper.

  • Alex Kanakis

    I hear a lot about how journalism is no longer the gatekeeper to an informed citizenry. That it is being seriously challenged not only by new technologies, but by the very audience it for so long has let know what it (the gatekeepers) deems important to know. According to the most recent Nieman Report, “The Future Is Here, But Do Traditional News Media Companies See It?,” “[c]itizens everywhere are getting together via the Internet in unprecedented ways to set the agenda for news, to inform each other about hyper-local and global issues, and to create new services in a connected, always-on society. The audience is now an active, important participant in the creation and dissemination of news and information, with or without the help of mainstream news media.“

    The study goes on to point out how this new citizen-media force has come about. ”In the last two years, citizen media has grown from a promise to a legitimate presence in today’s media sphere. Armed with easy-to-use Web publishing tools, always-on connections and increasingly powerful digital and mobile devices, citizen journalists are contributing many varieties of information and news: first-person, grassroots reporting, not-only in text but with photos, audio and video; commentary and analysis; fact-checking and watchdogging; and filtering and editing the ever-growing mass of information online.“

    And Jeff, just from your most recent post alone you seem to think along the same lines. ”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.“

    But I don’t see ”citizens everywhere getting together“ doing all these wonderful things to democratize the assimilation and dissemination of information. And how can you teach those without all the leveling technology to become citizen journos, to get them to participate and be a part of the process? Because the ever-widening technology gap in our country alone, much less the rest of the globe, makes possible not a democratization of info, but a second set of gatekeepers, a high-tech priesthood of the press to replace/augment the low-tech priesthood of the press. I’m sure you’ve seen the statistics, read the various reports and encountered the commentaries explaining these discrepancies much better than I’m doing here.

    Also, my first hand (though limited) experience with this whole ”citizen this“ and ”citizen that“ and hyper-local, grassroots whatever-you-call-it, is that we are going to be dealing not with citizen journalists, but little Citizen Kanes, who have solely self-serving agendas that only pay lip service to helping the community at large. So what I’d like to hear (and I’m trying to do my part in my community) is how we truly democratize information, how we truly allow citizens everywhere to participate. Any suggestions?

  • Gray_

    JJ, good article. I guess you know that it’s more interesting to bloggers than to readers, so it won’t add much to your clickrate. But I like that you’re posting about topics that are important to you.

    OK, but, hey, you know me, I’m your loudmouth critic: Why don’t YOU google more about the background of a topic before posting? Your columns would be much better! And, imho, they would be terrific if you had an editor. No, really, I mean it. Some of your posts read like they’ve been written in anger. I think, a second opinion would help you to get rid of many questionable jokes and wordings. I know editors are of bad repute today (NYT, WaPo), but I think there’s a reason that the job survived through the centuries.

  • Jeff, there’s good reason to ask citizens into the newsroom to help explain how to better understand their areas of expertise. It’s also good for reporters to engage in dialogue about their stories.

    But some of this misses the entire point. Look at the top post here right now, about Craigslist and how Newsday didn’t have a popular ride board. Craiglist is not a news organization that produces journalism. It’s a bulletin board with bells and whistles. It’s a shame that newspapers didn’t manage to hang on to the bulletin boards, but that’s not the same as upending a newsroom.

    Let’s suppose we shut down the Morristown Daily Record (my alma mater) and spend the entire day teaching the reporters have to blog, and editors too. Then the next day we open the newspaper up again and everyone goes back to work. What would they do differently? How would their work change? What would their product be? How would the other departments work with them? Or would the other departments be eliminated and those folks retrained to do something else?

    I don’t think that this is some kind of organic “Let them teach themselves” thing. IN fact, most educational strategies that rely on students to teach themselves fail miserably. Why? Because students are novices, not experts, and you don’t become expert by teaching yourself using the novice knowledge you have.

    Your model runs on this sense that if you just bring everyone together and put them in front of a computer, that suddenly scathing investigations into municipal will pop onto the internet accompanied by citizen dialogue. I think there’s a missing link here.

    I push you on this because I believe you can make this stronger.

  • Ric Locke

    I would add an imperative to your list: plan to make mistakes.

    The blogosphere screws up fairly often. When that happens, commenters and other bloggers point it out (sometimes scathingly), and (as a rule) the original blogger(s) make prominent note of it. That was hard with print, and cost a lot of money — correcting a story as prominently as it was originally presented bumped new stories off the page, and editors rightly considered that more a loss than a gain. Video producers were (are) in an even tougher spot in that respect. But once it’s all in bits at 0.000000000001 cent per, corrections are easy and worthwhile.

    Call it transparent editing.

    And it really ought to work. After all, the existing media are the ones who are out there digging up stuff; the blogosphere as it exists today just parasites off that. The newspapers’ reporters have a lot of interesting things to post if they’re allowed to do it. But the combination of “once-a-day” and “fitting between the bra ads” squeezes all the juice out, and it’s the bloggers who take advantage.

    So the model looks like this: tell the reporters that if they have something interesting, getting it out quickly takes precedence over “editing” and “fact checking” if the reporter also pays attention to the feedback and issues corrections as necessary. In many cases, “how did we get it wrong?” can become a metastory that’s more interesting than the original stuff. It’s a staple of the blogs.

    It would probably be good to add one step: copyediting and what engineers call “air checking” — get the spelling and grammar right, and eliminate the gross, obvious errors before they get out. But you’ll never get all the mistakes; you’ll never even get all the typos and misspellings. Don’t try all that hard. Depend on the feedback. It won’t fail you.

    The role of the editor or producer then becomes that of Chief Feedback Monitor. His job is to keep abreast of the comments on stories, both direct (comments to the “paper”) and indirect (other Internet posters, including blogs and other news organizations), and chivvy reporters to issue corrections as necessary. And there’s the rub in the whole thing. In the present system, the editor or producer is a high-status figure. In the new one he’s basically a collector and collator of responses, a less “important” job than herd-managing, and he’s going to resist the loss of status. That resistance may hold the change off for too long, and we all lose. Who’s going to go out and dig up stuff?


  • Jorge


    Thanks for giving us a second chance to define the new media. I am leaning toward no benefit of the dought for new style news. After all that has come about and come to light in 2005 alone proves that the MSM is not about helping democracy in this country. They just can’t be trusted. I dont need to list the problems,lies and omissions in the media and press that has enabled this administration to attempt to destroy our freedoms. All Blog readers know about them. For me from now on It’s Blog news or no news.

  • Jenny: I agree and I’m not saying that any of this is sufficient or that newspapers will not be overtaken by craigs over various stripes. I’m just trying to suggest next steps that newspapers can do and do now; that’s my mission with this series of posts. Otherwise, yes, I tend to hold a match to the dynamite.

    Ric: Absolutely. We need experimentation and we need failures. I like pilot tests but I also have seen cases of death by a thousand little steps. See the post about fear: I think this all needs to be scary to be right.

  • The Third World has yet to catch up the blogging in the manner as it has become a buzzword in Western countries. Should we forget the saying of Marshal McLuhan that medium is the message. A lot of unedited, biased, subjective matter is spread over the blogsphere. Therefore, net is merely information not knowledge. The role of the editor cannot be undermine. Yes. an editor is subjective but subjectivity and objectivity erodes on each other. One thing objective to you may be subjective to you. The role of gatekeeper in the communication channel shall remain indispensable as it was in the past whether in the print media or electronic one. The need of the hour is to have a holistic view. You are right when you say the print media is a dying one. It has invited its death on account of callousness and ego. The Economist is surviving the onslaught of the blogsphere but the Time has failed grandly and gravely. The participation of people (audience) was always there and shall remain there. Every newspaper and magazine has a ‘Letters to the Editor’ column’. It is the most prestigious and sacred column but unfortunately barring some exceptions the print media has killed the spirit behind this column and has invited its death.

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