Posts about newsroom

The Wapping of the newsroom

The Observer looks back on Rupert Murdoch’s Wapping revolution — when he moved his papers off Fleet Street and away from antiquated rules and methods and unions as well — 20 years ago this month. That revolution changed the backshop of journalism in Britain: typesetting, production, distribution.

I wonder what it will take to bring a revolution to the front end of journalism: to the newsroom. I’ve argued that Katrina may have been the explosion news needed, though I suspect it was temporary change. Wapping was a permanent move.

Hear Andrew Neil, who was editor of the Sunday Times, a Murdoch paper, during Wapping:

‘Before Wapping,’ I explained recently to a group of young journalists, ‘if any of you had done this’ – I pressed a letter at random on the computer keyboard – ‘the print workers would immediately have walked off the job and the paper wouldn’t come out.’ …

Wapping changed all that. In the process it saved the British newspaper industry. If Fleet Street had staggered to the end of the last century with pre-Wapping, absurdly high labour costs, world-beating low productivity, antediluvian technology and the industrial relations of the madhouse, then probably only a handful of papers would have survived – concentrated in Rupert Murdoch’s News International and Lord Rothermere’s Associated.

There would certainly have been no colour printing, no multi-section Sunday newspapers, no rise of the big Saturday editions, no new sections during the week, no Independent (which slipped out unscathed during the Wapping dispute while we were locked in mortal combat), no newspaper websites, and a lot less of the diversity and dynamism that makes the British newspaper market the most exciting and competitive in the world. The idea of launching an all-colour, Berliner-size Observer would never have crossed anybody’s mind because the very idea would have been beyond the pale….

At one stage, a union official hurled a box of matches across the table at us, shouting: ‘Why don’t you just burn the place down? Don’t you understand? We’re never going to go there!’ If we’d taken his advice, not just Wapping but the British newspaper business would have gone down in flames.

Of course, the conditions are different, but the stakes are the same: survival into the future.

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.

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….

You’re either for me or…

Dan Froomkin and Michael Powell (not that one) of the Washington Post (and the .com) continue the discussion about the kerfuffle over Froomkin’s column and its title over at Jay Rosen’s Pressthink. What they’re getting to now is a dissection of the most dangerous assumption being made — most surprisingly in the Washington Post newsroom — that if you criticize someone in power on one side, you must be on the other side, if the White House complains about you, then you must be liberal. Or to put it more simply: You’re either for them or against them.

When I was a columnist at the San Francisco Examiner, I covered supervisor-then-mayor Dianne Feinstein. I praised her work in the terrible aftermath of the Milk-Moscone murders and Jonestown, when the city needed calm leadership and she provided it. But when I later criticized her over various issues I can’t even remember, she lashed out and I heard from the paper’s publisher, often, how the mayor’s husband was complaining about me. Of course, the publisher should have told Mrs. Mayor’s Mr. to shove it up his rotunda. But instead, my life there got progressively more difficult. I quit, perhaps foolishly (though I then came to conquer Gotham and the rest is my story).

But the thing was, I was not Feinstein’s enemy. Like any of her constituents, I agreed with some of the things she did and disagreed with others and said so. But she thought I could be only a friend or an enemy, not an observer, not a citizen, not just a person with mixed opinions about her. I have learned to expect that from politicians — not to mention TV stars and business heads.

I do not expect that of news people, especially not the newsroom that most covers the most powerful. Surely they should be more sophisticated about this.

Yet we’re going to see this get worse because the journalists are actually less sophisticated about this whole notion of expression opinion. They have been trained to assume that if you have opinions, you are a partisan when perhaps you’re merely a questioner or even just a citizen.

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….