The ghosts of newsrooms present and future

When I worked at the New York Daily News, I used to say that the place was ruled by its ghosts: ghosts of the past, whose haunting refrain was, “we do that because we’ve always it it that way,” or, “you can try that, but we tried it once — ’56, I think — and it didn’t work.” That was the authentic voice of many newsrooms.

Last night, Tim Porter linkedas did I — to Debbie Galant’s wonderful essay at Pressthink on what it’s like to be a hyperlocal journalist-blogger-entrepreneur-proprietor-gossip-gadfly. He said hers is an authentic voice of the newsroom and it is: The ghost of newsrooms future.

Tim also quoted from another authentic voice of the newsroom, the voice of newsrooms present: a heartfelt and frustrated — but, I’d argue, ultimately encouraging — email from David Hawkins of the Star-Ledger (I used to work with the paper; didn’t work with Hawkins). It’s an email filled with frustration about trying to get to the future and all the speedbumps, barriers, and bodies that lie in the way. But I find it encouraging because he cares so much and recognizes the need for change — that, alone, is a big deal in newsrooms. Responding to another essay of Tim’s about the mood of the newsroom, Hawkins writes: “But it seems like you are missing a significant group in the nattering nabobs you mention. Namely the 40-50 year-old mid-manager type who isn’t afraid of change, but doesn’t see it happening as a positive process where he works. The frustrated, soon-to-be-middle-aged people who feel powerless to help save their listing ships.” He’s saying that newspapers need to change and that he’s not alone in seeing that. Good news, I call that.

Hawkins complains about frustrations trying to get video content online and I should bear some responsibility for that, having been the online content exec. And if I try to foist off that blame by explaining about resources and staffing and revenue and politics and priorities, I’d only be proving his second complaint about “institutional and corporate mentality” and “fighting over who gets the credit or will be in charge.” I can’t argue, so I won’t.

As I’ve said before, I left my full-time job at a news organization because I am addicted to change and I believe news must change, but I am not confident it can happen from within. So I went out. But that’s me.

My fear is that if Hawkins and his fellow nabobs leave out of frustration or fatal intertia, then the news business will be in trouble. And it is a risk. He wrote to Tim:

I would love to embrace the future if someone would come up with a good plan at my place…..

So I complain after a fashion. I tell the people in charge, when they will listen, and my colleagues, when they aren’t rolling their eyes, that we have to change now. I cite proofs and examples. I admit to not having a lot of answers, but offer up what I’ve got, often focusing on how they could be done with little money and no additional personnel.

I’m all for creative solutions. But I am beginning to think I will have to pursue them elsewhere. And I hate that thought.

I hate that thought, too. This is an authentic voice of the newsroom today, of a love for journalism, and of the need for change and that is incredibly valuable. The question is how we get the present and future to meet.

  • I don’t see any action that could be taken by a newspaper these days that would get my adult children to subscribe or buy one regularly. They get their news online and via TV and radio.

    When would a young person read a newspaper. Except for inner city commuters people can’t read during the trip to/from work. Over breakfast at home? Who does that anymore – take out Starbucks or the like. After getting home with slippers and a pipe? I think Ward Cleever was the last one to do that.

    The problem is not the organization of the paper, the content, or the design of the newsroom, it’s that they are selling buggy whips.
    Jeff: When you get your CUNY project going why don’t you ask your students about their news sources?

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  • Most of the best people I know left newspapers a long time ago, driven out by the problems Hawkins notes.

  • CK

    I started my newspaper website career back to 10 years ago. Back then, I was told to put our group of newspapers online because it was important, but I still had to do my regular editing job, too.

    It took a year and a half before I could concentrate on just online, but was still operating by myself, taking care of half a dozen websites. I wrote dozens of business plans over the next five years, calling for an online staff and showing how much money we could be making. They all ended up in the trash can. I was so depressed, I went back to the print side for a few years.

    But a couple of years ago, they lured me back. I saw the promise of things like blogging, open-source journalism, we media, and was excited again. Finally, Internet was the main topic of discussion at my company’s strategy sessions. It’s where the promise is.

    Of course, I’m still alone, taking care of all these websites with little help, writing more business plans to no avail. They will talk Internet, but they will not open their wallets, not even a sliver, to fund anything. Mention blogging and they sigh. Talk open-source journalism and they cringe. Tell them they have to be part of the conversation, and they say that’s what letters to the editor are for. Tell them the Internet is a threat, and they agree, which is why they won’t fund it.

    It’s sad. There is so much potential, and so many journalists I work with are excited to contribute online. But there is no investment in infrastructure, so there is no improvement. Local bloggers laugh at us, or curse us for our failings. We could be the best site in town, but no, that would require commitment to something my bosses, deep down, despise. Change is hard.

    We need the journalistic equivalent of 9/11 before they will wake up. Maybe a metro like the SF Chron will go down, with a helping hand from Craigslist. Perhaps that would not only get their attention, but open those deep pockets.

    Until then, I’m just hanging on, fighting the good fight. I don’t know how long that will last. My wife complains every week about how little respect I get despite the 10 years of work and all the projects I’ve done pretty much on my own. She now makes more than me, doing a job that doesn’t even require any college.

    I’d go work somewhere else, but I was born into this business. I’m determined not to die with it.

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