Posts about newnews

How to improve newspaper sites

The Bivings Report — the folks who studied what web 2.0 features newspaper sites are and aren’t using — suggests nine ways to improve those sites functionally and it’s a good list. Among the suggestions: use tags, provide RSS, kill registration, link out to and partner with local bloggers.

Talk of the town

I’m sorely disappointed in Columbia Journalism School Dean Nicholas Lemann’s piece in The New Yorker about “journalism without journalists.”

I would have hoped for something more expansive, imaginative, open, creative, generous, constructive, strategic, and hopeful from the head of one of America’s leading journalism schools — from, indeed, the man hired to bring that school into the future — and from a leading light of American reporting.

Instead, Lemann pits professional journalist v. blogger — as if any more ink need be spilled on that putative battleground — and sets up his easy strawmen to tear them down.

His strawman king: that bloggers believe they will replace journalists. I don’t know a single blogger who says that with a straight face. But that is what professional journalists — fewer and fewer of them, actually — think they hear bloggers say and so they snipe back with very straight and sometimes red faces: ‘Yeah, you and who else?’

His next strawman is that some blogging is not journalism or is bad journalism and thus all blogging is not journalism because it is not performed by journalists. He points to some quaint examples of human speech in blogs — more on those in a moment — and dismisses it because it is not institutional and profound. Well, I can point to lots of allegedly professional journalism — somebody paid for it — in lots of newspapers — like the wee daily near me — and on lots of TV and radio stations in this country that is folksy, chatty, uninformative, badly written, and often utter crap. Does that mean that all professional journalism is crap? Of course not. It’s a lazy argument. And while I’m at it, dare I say that I can dig out lots of Talk of the Town pieces and letters from correspondents over the years in The New Yorker that did little or nothing to inform the nation and were written in a once-anonymous, faux folksiness that tried to simulate the humanity and real life you hear in the excerpts Lemann mocks.

The strawman he presents at the start of his essay is that bloggers think they are all inventing something new and that they are really just descendants of the pamphleteers who spread their words with opinion and agenda at the time of America’s founding, long before modern institutional journalism was invented. Stipulated. Says Lemann:

They were the bloggers and citizen journalists of their day, and their influence was far greater (though their audiences were far smaller) than what anybody on the Internet has yet achieved.

I don’t know a blogger who does not agree with that — at least writer-by-writer, if not regarding the medium as a whole. Bloggers proudly point to the pamphleteers as parents. They don’t say they are new against the history of conversation and publication, information and advocacy. Bloggers say they are new when set against the current conceit of institutional journalism that it is objective and dispassionate and is the steward of truth and trust — a kind of journalism that Lemann himself concedes is relatively new. Says Lemann:

In fact, what the prophets of Internet journalism believe themselves to be fighting against–journalism in the hands of an enthroned few, who speak in a voice of phony, unearned authority to the passive masses–is, as a historical phenomenon, mainly a straw man.

But he is a strawman of your making.

The next strawman is me: I am held up as an example of unrestrained blog snarkiness and for that he found quite the juicy tossed tomato, a snitfit I had in 2003 when The New York Times’ John Markoff trotted out his own strawman (one I’d thought to be extinct by now) about blogs being the next CB radio. Markoff also said that he didn’t need a blog because The Times is a blog. I fisked that interview with Markoff and looking back — this came out two weeks after the first Bloggercon — I have to say I still enjoy it. Lemann didn’t even quote my nastiest line: “You know, institutions worry about letting reporters blog without editing but they don’t worry about letting a jackass like this out without a leash.” Opinionated, blunt voices scare big-J Journalists. But we don’t always yell. Only when provoked.

And finally, if there’s any hay left, there’s Lemann’s belief that journalism’s standards were set by the professionals. I’d say they are still being set by the public who have always decided every day whom to believe and whom to trust — only now, we get to hear their decision process.

So Lemann continues to paint this as a fight: bloggers v. journalists. He continues to try to define journalists as the professionals, to define the act by the person who performs it (and, implicitly, the training he has) rather than by the act itself. He continues to try to limit journalism to journalists, wanting in his last line for reporters (note, he didn’t say reporting) to move to citizens’ journalism.

I so wish I had seen him instead imagine the possibilities for news when journalists and bloggers join to work together in a network made possible by the internet. I wish he had seen journalism expanded way past the walls of newsrooms and j-schools to gather and share more information for an informed society. I wish he had used his lofty perch to see beyond the horizon to a new future for journalism and the students he — and I — are teaching now.

But no. Pity.


Too many journalists

The accepted wisdom in the news biz is that you can never have too many journalists and that the ad and circ crunch hitting papers will hurt papers by reducing newsroom staff. I’ve been questioning that wisdom here.

But sitting on another darned panel yesterday, Chrystia Freeland, ME of the FT in the US, said it better than I have. We were singing two-party harmony as I wondered why every newspaper needs a movie critic when the movies aren’t local and she questioned the need for the Miami Herald to have its own Moscow bureau — back in the heyday when she was reporting there herself — to get that apparently unique Miami view of the USSR.

Then she said that news is “an industry with a lot of oversupply that is now exposed.” I liked that hard economic talk about the business. It reminds us that we are an industry and need to reexamine our business assumptions like every other industry.

So maybe the problem with journalism today isn’t that there are too few reporters and and editors but too many. I’ve talked before about the foolishness of sending 15,000 reporters to the political conventions, about papers sending TV critics to junkets or golf writers to tournaments. Inside the newsroom, too, there are overwrought processes. Meanwhile, of course, revenue is sinking and staff will follow.

But rather than treating this as an endless retrenchment, the ballsy editor would take this bull by the horns and undertake an aggressive reinvestment strategy. Why not cut that staff today? Find your essence — hint: it’s local, local, local. Streamline now to put out a better focused and better print product.

Then make a deal with the owners to take the saved labor expenses and invest them immediately in digital interaction. I don’t mean moving old copy editors over to online and teaching them HTML to join the spare staffs there. I mean hiring new people with new specialties: people to get out into the communities and recruit and help support citizens to join in networked reporting at a local, local, local level.

And then shame the publisher into doing likewise with a sales staff that has spent a generation maintaining ever-dwindling lists of advertisers and not really selling n ew business, since there isn’t any. Trim there, too. And there, too, don’t take an old classified sales guy and try to train him in online. Invest in technology and marketing to create your local Googles: extremely efficient and thus inexpensive self-service advertising for new classes of advertisers who could not afford your marketwide print or online products. Maybe recruit citizens to help sell you on commission. And build distributed at networks across citizens’ sites. More on the biz guys later.

I come back to Freeland’s very clear statement: We are in oversupply. It’s time — past time — to face that and act on it.

Who’s in charge here?

A followup to the post about the Dow Jones task force, below….

I had an email exchange with an editor I respect about the merging of print and online newsrooms and operations that tends to follow such task forces. There’s a vital issue many are dancing around:

Who’s in charge of the future? The print guys or the online guys?

At many media companies, online was started as a separate division and for good reason. If it had begun as part of the print newsroom, the editors there would have tried to mold the internet into the image of print, and the business people would have sold the internet as a valueless add-on to print. Some are still trying. At my last employer, we started separately for good reason. But today, if the entire company doesn’t become digital, it’s dead. That’s why news companies are merging newsrooms.

So who should be in charge? In many of the efforts to merge or reorganize news companies, the print people ended up in charge. They have more ballast and political clout. They are the 2,000-pound canaries. Now I don’t mean to diminish their experience, of course. But the experience of the online people is being diminished and shouldn’t be. They have worked to invent new products with new opportunities and understand this new world, but again and again, I’ve seen them shoved aside or exiled as threats. That is a big mistake.

The ballsy news company will not only give precedence to the internet but also to the people who know the internet. I’m afraid I’m not seeing that happen.

: LATER: Michael Urlocker has some advice on disruption and task forces for Dow Jones.

: Roy Greenslade chimes in.

: Matt Terenzio says:

Newspapers are more religion than business to many of their producers. We need a left turn and it’s nearly impossible to get them to budge a few degrees.

One more thing.

It is my opinion that it would be much easier and faster to get the online folks up to speed on traditional journalism and print business practices than it would be to get the print folks to understand the web.

Networked journalism

I think a better term for what I’ve been calling “citizen journalism” might be “networked journalism.”

“Networked journalism” takes into account the collaborative nature of journalism now: professionals and amateurs working together to get the real story, linking to each other across brands and old boundaries to share facts, questions, answers, ideas, perspectives. It recognizes the complex relationships that will make news. And it focuses on the process more than the product.

I carry some of the blame for pushing “citizens’ media” and “citizen journalism” as terms to describe the phenomenon we are witnessing in this new era of news. Many of us were never satisfied with the terms, and for good reason. They imply that the actor defines the act and that’s not true in a time when anyone can make journalism. This also divides journalism into distinct camps, which only prolongs a problem of professional journalism — its separation from its public (as Jay Rosen points out). In addition, many professional journalists have objected that these terms imply that they are not acting as citizens themselves — and, indeed, I believe that the more that journalists behave like citizens, the stronger their journalism will be.

In networked journalism, the public can get involved in a story before it is reported, contributing facts, questions, and suggestions. The journalists can rely on the public to help report the story; we’ll see more and more of that, I trust. The journalists can and should link to other work on the same story, to source material, and perhaps blog posts from the sources (see: Mark Cuban). After the story is published — online, in print, wherever — the public can continue to contribute corrections, questions, facts, and perspective … not to mention promotion via links. I hope this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as journalists realize that they are less the manufacturers of news than the moderators of conversations that get to the news.

This came to me on the drive back from Media Giraffe with Jay Rosen: the mobile master class. Somewhere in midConnecticut, we were talking about how journalism can, should, and will work when we can all join in and it hit me like a lightning bolt: this isn’t about citizens or amateurs vs. professionals. We’re all in this together. Journalism is a collaborative venture. Journalism is a network.

: LATER: Terry Heaton points us to earlier thinking in this vein. Just to be clear: I’m by no means trying to claim any provenance in this, only indicating a shift in my own thinking.

: LATER STILL: Chris Nolan adds in email:

Stand-alone journalism depends on an audience of people who understand that connection. The web is a flexible medium so readers come and go quickly. So there’s a contradiction: The newsroom has left the building but no one site can really stand alone and prosper by demanding that readers come to it. The business challenge is to make that flexibility part of how we do business if we’re going to grow and keep readers, Smart guys like WashPo’s Jim Brady and Yahoo’s Neil Budde know this; that’s why they’re not demanding exclusivity. That’s also why Spot-on’s pushing the syndication part of our business ahead of everything else. We want to go to our readers wherever they are, rather than wait for them to come to us.

Julian Sanchez of Reason said in email that he’s using “distributed journalism” and I agree with that. I use it, too, in certain company. Only problem is, when I say that in front of newspaper folks, they think trucks.