Hacks must get with the program
Monday August 8, 2005
When I quit my decade-long job as a digital executive in an analogue empire, I explained to my boss (one of the CondÃ© Nast Newhouses) that I did not want to be the change agent in newspapers … because I was not confident they could change.
Yet change they must. For as many a dark-cloud think-piece declares these days, mainstream news is under assault by scandals, declining credibility, shrinking audience, disappearing advertising dollars, exploding online competition … and those darned bloggers.
So newsrooms are at last getting serious about plugging into the internet. Last week, the New York Times announced it is merging its print and online news operations. In their staff announcement, executives said this ends a separation that “allowed our digital operation to flourish, to experiment”, so now they can “raise digital journalism to the next level” – and, one hopes, so they can electrify old journalism as well. At the same time, CBS News has decreed that all its 1,500 journalists will now feed the internet. Take it from me: that’s easier announced than accomplished.
So what should newsrooms do in a world where the public expects news anytime, anywhere – and also demands to set the agenda for reporting? Damned if I know; that’s why I quit my job. But that has not stopped me from blogging my not-so-humble suggestions:
* Burn the business cards. News people can no longer think of themselves as “print” or “online”. That separation – which was helpful in online’s infancy – now leads to power struggles that strangle development. More important, it allows print journalists to hide behind paper, acting as if serving the public in other media is not their job. Wrong.
* Join the conversation. We in big media have owned the printing press for centuries. Now, thanks to the internet, the people own their press. They are speaking. It is our turn to listen – and link – to them.
* Return to newsgathering. Journalists want to make news; that is why they obsess about scoops and exclusives and waste effort putting their stamp on the commodity news everyone already knows. Why else would we send 15,000 journalists to political conventions where nothing happens? The only way for newsrooms to grow is to learn the lesson of 7/7 – that witnesses can record and report – and be open to the news that communities create. We should aggregate all the news that’s fit to repeat.
* Share. If we believe that more information is good for the news industry and for an informed democracy, then we must find ways to encourage growth outside the newsroom. We should share promotion by linking to citizen journalists, share content by making our stories available as feeds, share expertise by training bloggers (as the BBC plans to do), and even share revenue in open ad networks.
* Throw out the clock. Newsrooms have to learn to tell what they know when they know it, not just when the edition is done. I ran up against newspaper editors who often refused to supply midday updates on the internet because “nothing’s happening today”. One wonders how they could then fill their pages that night.
* Rewrite the paychecks. Editors should be compensated on total audience and audience satisfaction across all media. Yes, the new media produce lower profits than the old, but wishing that not to be true won’t make it false. There is no growth in old media.
* Blog. No, blogging is not the cure for all ills, but it is an apt metaphor for how newsrooms should operate. Reporters should put what they know into a blogging tool when they know it, and editors can publish that anytime. They should link to other resources who know more than they do, or to wire stories that already report the basics. They should ask readers what they want to know before they report a story, and rely on readers to improve and correct stories after they are written. They should share notes and transcripts. They should reveal their process and prejudices to fulfil the open-source era’s highest ethic – transparency. And they should shed their haughty, institutional persona and regain a human voice, facing the public they serve eye-to-eye.
Change in news is inevitable. The question is: will that change come from the old media guys or the new, from within the newsroom or from without? I’ll say something that bloggers allegedly don’t often admit: I don’t know.
Â· Jeff Jarvis, who blogs at BuzzMachine.com, is now a media consultant. His clients include The New York Times Company at About.com (and not in the paper’s newsroom).
The following correction was printed in the Guardian’s Corrections and clarifications column, Tuesday August 9 2005
The footnote on the following column by Jeff Jarvis, in which he discussed the merger of the print and online news operations at the New York Times, described him as a media consultant whose clients include the New York Times Company. Mr Jarvis would like to make clear that he is a consultant for the New York Times Company’s About.com, and is not advising on the Times’s integration plan.