Posts about newspapers

Manifesto for the future

If I were the publisher of one of America’s lumbering and suffering major newspapers (which I certainly will never be), I’d go hire Greensboro News & Record Editor John Robinson but not let him into the newsroom for a month so the staff can go to his blog and read pieces like this and fret about the future under an editor who embraces change.

The Digg society

Here’s a good exploration of the complementary species that make up the Digg ecosystem [via my son’s dugg links]. It shows how news organizations need to look at themselves — as ecosystems, rather than as manufactured products.

There are five groups of people who make what it is.

There are the readers: an educated guess would be that probably ten to twenty percent of those ever click ‘digg’, they are mostly just there for the end product of the digg machine: an array of interesting news and links often presented before the other news sources.

There are the diggers: some percentage of the readers, probably ten to twenty percent. They bother to vote for the stories on, which changes the numbers next to the stories and enables stories to get to another queue – the diggnation podcast.

Then there are the hardcore diggers – people who sit in the queue of submitted stories and watch for breaking news that should make its way up to the front page, or report stories as being spam or irrelevant.

An even smaller subset of users are the submitters: people who post fresh stories. It’s difficult to post a fresh story to digg at this point, it’s a competition for who can submit it first.

Finally there are the news publishers themselves, often bloggers who want to get readership for their content.

What’s really interesting about these groups is that each of them is required for the system to function, they all came together relatively quickly, and each of them have different and complementary rewards for what they do.

If a newspaper truly handed control of itself over to its community — Digg-like or Craig-like — then a similar society could emerge: reporters, on staff and off; contributors; creators; alerters; readers-now-kn0wn-as-editors…..

Nobody here but us chickens

Scott Anderson, a newspaper online exec at Tribune Co., writes an honest, sad, and true post at his blog, Online News Squared, about community and newspapers. Quoted in entirety:

A little compare and contrast about the NYC transit strike gets us quickly to the heart of a serious problem that faces newspaper.coms.

Visit here, our friend Mr. Newmark’s storied List. Feel your clicking finger go tingly as you navigate through page after page after page of people offering rides or looking for rides into and out of New York.

Now, visit here, the Ride Share board on, (part of Mama Tribune’s happy family). Feel how it’s about as lonely and forlorn as a subway platform during the strike.


Yet another crisis and Craigslist commands the community. Newspaper.coms command . . . Well, not the community.

Squared isn’t at all picking on his colleagues at Newsday; in fact, he’s very proud that they put the rideshare board into play. It’s just frustrating that even when we TRY, we more often than not find we are absolutely losing what may be one of the most important parts of the business as it more and more moves online — the ability to connect people to one another and to activate conversations. To not just be the deliverer of news and information with glitzy bells and whistles and more related content than you could shake a latte stirrer at, but the catalyst of connection.

How is it that a decade deep into the online news business that isn’t our franchise? Are we only about news, not about the people who consume the news? How come Craig organically can touch lives on so many personal levels — and Craig’s users can touch each other’s lives on so many levels? Connecting buyers and sellers. Connecting employers and employees. Connecting single men and women and combinations thereof. Connecting old friends. Connecting people who need a ride.

Nobody should know its community better than a A community, to connect within itself, should need to turn to nobody but a A decade in, we’ve mastered only the disconnect.

And I think the reason is clear and simple: It’s about control. My first law of media and life: Give the people control and they will use it. Don’t, and you will lose them.

Craig created a tool and stood back and, as I now quote him in every PowerPoint to which I subject people, followed one simple rule: “Get out of the way.” He handed over control.

Newspapers are allergic to that idea; they have defined themselves by their control: They report, they confirm, they edit, they package, they product, they distribute. We read. Oh, they’re trying to hand over more control. I was proud at Advance that, thanks to the insistence of our boss, we created forums where everyone had their say. But truth be told, that may have been ahead of other newspaper companies but that wasn’t saying much. The people couldn’t create their own forums, package their own news, use the site to congregate and conspire.

It’s a hard lesson to learn and I still learn it every day. I was working with some folks on a project and we had a light-bulb-over-the-head moment about handing over control. I spoke with a journalist I respect the other day about media today and we had to remind ourselves that the people package news now and don’t wait for us to.

The truth is that newspapapers have to recognize is that the people already have control. What can they do about that?

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.

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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.

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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.

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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….

New news: The fear factor

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….