Monday, April 27, 2009

Can you imagine if a newspaper tried this?

I love the approach YouTube took to whatever it was doing to its site that made it impossible for me to upload a video to my blog today.

This is the note on the screen explaining why I couldn't do anything.

"We are currently performing site maintenance. Be cool - we'll be back 100% in a bit."

Can you imagine if a traditional news organization tried the same thing? I think it would be blasted by critics. Maybe that'll happen to YouTube. But I doubt it. I think people give the benefit of the doubt to organizations that clearly provide them great service in normal times.

What an empty newsroom can remind us

This video shows the Rocky newsroom in the final hours before the staff goes off the payroll, 60 days after the paper shut down. It's a reminder of why, despite the cuts so many newsrooms have experienced, it's better to be alive and practicing journalism than to have shut your doors.

Friday, April 24, 2009

The front page dilemma: Why newspapers blow it when they act like they’re the first to report a major breaking news story

Based on my reading of four newspapers every morning, I’m concerned editors still think they need to present big stories as if their readers had never heard them before. This approach sends a message - and it’s not a good one. The message is this: We have nothing new to add to what you’ve already heard.

I’ve been stewing over this issue since the morning after the rescue of the American ship captain from Somali pirates, one of the most compelling stories of recent months.

The story appeared in Monday, April 13, papers. But it broke on Sunday, early enough that the good news was included in the Easter sermon at the captain’s Vermont church. Yet you wouldn’t have known that from the papers I read.

Here were the headlines:

Navy Rescues Captain, Killing 3 Pirate Captors – The New York Times

Snipers Kill Pirates, Save Captain – The Wall Street Journal

An ‘Easter surprise’ at sea – USA Today

Navy snipers’ fire frees U.S. Captain – The Denver Post, over a story from the Los Angeles Times

The stories each had essentially the same lede. This from USA Today: “Navy sharpshooters rescued an American ship captain held at gunpoint Sunday in a daring operation that left three pirates dead and ended a five-day standoff about 20 miles off the coast of Somalia.”

The problem: Everybody (OK, almost everybody) already knew what the papers were reporting. The news had rolled through the Web all day Sunday and into the night. It had dominated cable and network news shows. Yet, little in the four papers was new.

Why would a young person who hadn’t yet developed the newspaper habit see value in those headlines? They wouldn’t. The headlines reinforce the impression that newspapers are out of touch, that editors still think they operate in a vacuum where they define what’s news. So, someone might ask, why should I pay attention to newspapers.

I’m struck that we’re still wrestling with a problem that Barney Kilgore seemed to have answered almost 70 years ago when he was managing editor of The Wall Street Journal. On the same day the headlines above were published, a columnist in that paper, Gordon Crovitz, wrote about a new biography of Kilgore and how his thinking could act as a road map for today’s editors.

On the morning after Pearl Harbor, Crovitz pointed out, other newspapers “recounted the facts already known to all the day before through radio." Sound familiar? Not the Journal. It reported: “War with Japan means industrial revolution in the United States.”

We pay lip service, today, to the idea that newspapers need to explain the implications of the news, but when you read our front pages, you have to ask whether we’re living up to our claims. Kilgore’s own former paper didn’t even address the business dimensions of the rescue. The Times handled it best, with a good sidebar on the debate over arming ships’ crews, but, again, a casual reader wouldn’t had a clue that that content was in the paper, based on the front page.

At least 15 highly skilled reporters contributed to these four stories. And that doesn’t take into account the many top-notch editors who must have touched them. Yet there was little difference among them. Where’s the value in that approach? Or that use of resources?

If we don’t take risks and apply imaginative approaches to such a dramatic story, what does that tell us about our future? I’m worried that the answer isn’t one we’d like to hear.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

What journalism schools should be teaching

While it might seem counter-intuitive that more students than ever want to study journalism, given the problems in the news business, I think it’s understandable. The reality, based on their own experience growing up and despite what some traditional practitioners think, is that it’s an incredibly exciting time in the field, with technology creating new opportunities that we could only have dreamed of even a few years ago. But before those of us who love the profession celebrate too much, we should also remember that it’s probably not the only area experiencing a boom, given the huge cohort of students moving into colleges right now.

The New York Times Education Life section Sunday provided a real service by exploring how schools are approaching teaching journalism at a time when the field is “undergoing a sweeping transformation.” Some of what I read encouraged me. But I fear that in many cases we’re still missing the point.

What should journalism schools be teaching?

First, I need to acknowledge that I am a journalism school graduate, with a master’s from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. The most valuable part of that program, in the days of the typewriter, was the summer boot camp. So I was delighted to hear that Columbia now requires a Web boot camp. Both are a way of establishing a common language and understanding before getting to the real work. The danger if schools don’t take this approach is that they’ll spend too much time on things the students either already know or should know, and think they’re providing a journalism education. So when I read about Arizona State teaching students in writing class how “to upload their articles onto the Web” or in the online reporting class how to “subscribe to syndicated news feeds,” I thought, “Give me a break.” Both are so easy and in any event the techniques may change over time, what’s the big deal? That’s not anything to boast about.

When I hired journalists at the Rocky Mountain News, one of the questions I always asked was whether they had ever worked for a “good editor.” If they had, I asked them to tell me about the experience. If they couldn’t answer yes, I worried about them, because they had missed a critical experience in the development of a journalist. And that’s working for somebody who demands a level of rigor and effort that establishes a benchmark, a standard to which one always aspires.

To me, that’s the fundamental role of a journalism school, to put that editor’s voice into the minds of its students. That’s what is going to separate the students from the universe of citizen journalists in this new era. And I say that with no disrespect to what blogger Glenn Reynolds called “An Army of Davids.” I believe he’s right about the benefits of technology empowering the individual. But it doesn’t mean that journalism doesn’t remain something to be valued. If anything, it may be even more valuable going forward. But that’s only going to be the case if we remember what journalism is. And that’s where the schools come in.

It was highly competitive to get an internship at the Rocky, yet too often students came in never having had a professor be really tough or honest with them about the quality of their work. The first obligation of any journalism school is rigor. The second is to instill the value of critical thinking. One of the difficult parts of being a journalist, for some, is that you have to think independently, which means you’ll inevitably have to keep a certain distance from those you cover. This can mean that you’re not accepted or liked, two things many, if not most, people crave. Too often journalists give in to that desire; too often they’re willing to accept what they hear uncritically. They need to be exposed to and taught critical thinking.

So, if we accept that rigor and critical (or independent) thinking are the basis for any program, there are two other values that need to be instilled and encouraged, what Tim Gallagher, my friend and former editor of the Ventura County Star, described as “skepticism (not cynicism) and curiosity.”

We can’t prepare young journalists today for the technology they’ll be using. It changes too fast. It’s just a given that they need to be playful and skilled with technology. But there are many ways to learn that. There are few places for them to be exposed to people who will push their thinking, demand a level of work that they didn’t know they had in them.

We know that good journalism is very hard work. But what the students see on television can make it look easy. It’s a false picture. The journalism schools, by exposing the students to great journalists and by working side-by-side with the students on stories, need to build that foundation of understanding on which they’ll be able to build their careers. The bottom line is that they need to help their students learn to become storytellers. It’s easy to teach people to become recorders of events or repeaters, transferring a message from one source to another. It’s difficult to teach people how to become storytellers. And, yes, of course I mean “all-platform” storytellers.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

How wrong can newspaper critics get?

Michael Wolff and Craig Newmark may be smart, but they sound about as clueless about the newspaper industry as maybe newspaper industry leaders did talking about the Internet oh so many years ago.

Wolff told a New York audience that "“About 18 months from now, 80 percent of newspapers will be gone." Please. Times are bad. Especially for the major metropolitan newspapers people like Wolff concern themselves with. But the reality is that in many small to mid-size markets, newspapers remain healthy, despite the terrible economic downturn. What good does it do the debate to spew such over-the-top, attention-getting predictions? I wouldn't want to run a company burdened with the debt of many of our major newspaper companies, but I'd love to own many small American newspapers that continue to play an important role in the commercial and civic lives of their communities.

Wolff blame Craigslist for the demise of the newspaper industry. That's way too easy. Of course it's true that the Internet has sapped the classified revenue that boosted newspapers for so long. But it's possible to imagine successful newspapers with no classifieds. One smart ad director I know insists that newspapers should separate classifieds from their core business and let them live or die on their own as independent businesses. And that newspapers should build their revenue and expense budgets without taking into account any classified revenue. There are many more reasons than Craigslist that traditional content companies - newspapers, radio, television and magazines - are suffering.

As for Newmark, Craigslist's founder, he also sounds out of touch. He argues that newspapers are struggling because they failed the public's trust.
“They failed on that weapons of mass destruction thing. And they failed on that financial collapse thing,” Newmark said at the event. Again, setting aside whether he's right on both points, does anybody really think that readers judge the Aspen Times or The Denver Post, the Lexington Herald-Leader or the Louisville Courier-Journal, based on those two issues. We know that readers generally care about issues much closer to home, whether newspapers are covering their local communities with commitment. Newspapers have much more complicated relationships with their readers than he gives them credit for. While users may love the ease of use and effectiveness of Craigslist, there is much they love about newspapers, too. Try removing a comic from a newspaper, or dropping a puzzle, and you'll know what I'm saying is true. And neither has anything to do with public service.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Why multi-part series are even more important for newspapers today

Newspaper editors are facing tough choices about how to deploy their shrinking staffs.
But that doesn’t mean they should stop doing multi-part series that might take reporters and editors out of the daily mix for weeks or months.
To the contrary, enterprise journalism in print has even greater value in this hyper-competitive era.
It was discouraging to read the headline on Romenesko Monday about a speech by the editor of the Baltimore Sun, Monty Cook. “The days of the six-part series are gone,” he told an audience at Johns Hopkins University.
He may be right, but if he is, he's also wrong.
Here are 10 reasons why it’s even more important in these challenging times for the newspaper industry to find ways to produce multi-part enterprise stories.
• They build the brand. They help set the identity of a news organization in the minds of readers. Readers remember them; they color how readers feel about a newspaper. This helps greatly when readers are dissatisfied with other coverage. Many of these series are great examples of the watchdog role of a good newspaper and its commitment to public service.
• They’re what an editor can use to raise the standards of a newsroom. The time one takes on a series allows an editor to explore working with new story forms or approaches that can then be applied to daily reporting. They heighten the bar for daily work and the experience they provide makes it easier for the staff to top that bar.
• They give readers something to look forward to with anticipation. These are stories they can get nowhere else. If editors can hook them with a series, they strengthen the bond between reader and newspaper. One way to sell newspapers is to make sure they have something of value nobody else is offering.
• They give editors a way to explore all the different ways of telling stories in different mediums and then translate that experience into daily work. In the old days, it might have been true that if a reader missed a day of a series it was like it never existed. But with the Web, readers who miss a segment, or the entire package, can go online and find the whole thing. The online experience doesn’t have to be duplicative of the print experience. In fact, it shouldn’t be. A series online can include video, slide shows, databases, opportunities for readers to contribute or discuss the topic, etc.
• They give a newspaper a way to establish its authority on critical topics for a community. Editors must decide what stories are the most important for their communities and then establish that there is no other better source of information on those key topics. Series are one way of doing that. They help build the expertise of the staff and the understanding of the community. Newspapers should be known for topics that are critical to their area. Those are going to be different from market to market. But if a newspaper isn’t known for its authoritative coverage on a few key things, then it probably doesn’t matter enough in its community.
• They stretch the range and voice of a news organization. Newspapers must surprise their readers. On occasion, they must take them to journalistic heights that readers never expected to experience. If the drumbeat of coverage in newspapers becomes routine, they come to seem dull. And readers give up on them. Some talk about the need for journalists today to be passionate. But shouldn’t news organizations be passionate about certain stories and take them much further than their readers might have reasonably expected?
• They give the staff a way to grow. They encourage their ambition as journalists and can be a sign that editors will support them if they are willing to demand more from themselves. Multi-part series require extra effort from the journalists producing the content as well as from top editors. If editors want to develop and keep a great staff, they have to build a shared set of values and one of the best ways to do that is to build teams working on a series.
• They’re an ideal vehicle to promote the newspaper and its importance to the community. By the end of the Rocky Mountain News, we had found numerous ways to extend our reach into the community using series. We worked with our commercial TV partner to air at least one story about the series before it ran. We worked with our public broadcasting partner to air a documentary/call-in show after a series ran, using video we had produced for our Web site. We worked with talk radio shows to place our reporters and editors on the air on a daily basis to talk about the series and answer callers’ questions. We hosted a daily chat on our Web site. We built a special Web presentation that could grow over time with follow-up stories and act as a resource for the community as the topic of the series was addressed by government.
• They show the community that the paper has an insistent, caring voice and that it’s willing to go to great lengths to make sure that important issues aren’t ignored. This is part of what I mean about brand identity, but it’s more. A paper should have a personality. That can come from columnists and the way photographs are played and headlines written, among other things. But multi-part series can help establish the personality of the paper because they clearly reflect what the institution thinks is worthy of attention.
• Finally, they don’t have to be lengthy to have the impact or benefits I’ve described. At the Rocky, when it closed, we were running a 150-day countdown series to our 150th birthday. It took 36 column inches every day. Wherever I went during that time, people told me how much they enjoyed it and looked forward to it. Last summer we ran a provocative daily series that most days included a story about 15” long and a photograph. If editors need any proof of the benefits of series, they should just look at the comics. Editors know that nothing seems more important to readers, at least when you drop one they enjoy. And those are pretty darn short every day. But they keep people coming back.

Multi-part series are a way newspapers can set themselves apart. They are proof that newspapers really do offer what they promise: depth and understanding.

These are not easy times for editors. But these may be the best times ever for multi-part series because we have so many ways for readers, some who don’t even look at our print products, to access the stories. And the Web means they’re no longer confined to a local audience. If anything, perhaps editors should be looking to share more series, to give readers in their communities access to the stellar work of newspaper journalists in other communities.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Trying to take the easy way on the web

The latest mantra among newspaper types is that they have to get paid for their Internet content. They remind me of legislators facing a deficit. The knee-jerk response of lawmakers to that dilemma is to raise taxes. Publishers think they should be able to do the same thing to make up for plummeting print revenue. But in their case, they want to charge for something most of them have been offering for free.

The desire is understandable. But it puts the focus on the wrong thing. The problem with the publishers’ approach is that despite the chest-thumping we hear about how newspapers produce all the news content on the Web, there are plenty of other places to find most of what they offer. While some newspapers may be correct that they produce superior online news reports, readers might believe that what they get from other sources is “good enough” and never bother to follow the publishers into their private corral. Let's face it: Much of the basic fodder of news Web sites is commodity content that can be found many places. And note to publishers: Most people already feel like they are paying for Internet content. They pay their service provider, and in some cases more than one. I pay Verizon and Comcast for access to the Web. And the bill isn't insignificant.

Instead of expanding the revenue pie by creating new businesses and services for their communities and readers, the publishers seem to think they’re still in the driver’s seat. But they’re not. The user is. The publishers can try to put themselves back in control by putting the squeeze on their customers or they can change their businesses and invent new services and relationships that bring with them new revenue opportunities. I think the latter is the better route.

Take Denver, a market I know well from my 17 years at the Rocky Mountain News. Even if the state’s largest newspaper, The Denver Post, chose to put most of its content behind a wall and join a pay plan, readers would have many credible options. At 4:30 on a Saturday afternoon, the paper’s home page has two stories with that day’s time stamps on it. But the area has at least four TV station Web sites, one of which can credibly argue that it’s the market leader online. It also has a news radio station, an NPR station, an alternative newspaper and an entertainment Web site that compete in the traditional news sphere. So if the Post goes behind some kind of wall, will its users follow? I don’t think enough will for what they and other metro newspapers offer today.

But if news organizations created Internet content and services that their readers and advertisers valued, new revenue might appear. It’s worth looking at other businesses for lessons. Costco charges a membership fee before customers can take advantage of the great values it offers. Users pay it willingly once they see the benefits. I think newspapers could take a page from Costco's book. But instead of offering a range of benefits to their users, newspapers are still selling subscriptions to their print products rather than membership in an information company that can help people do everything from save money on groceries to pick the best school for their child to report road conditions in real time. How many newspapers have all the e-mail addresses and cell phone numbers for every household they serve? And how many actually ask the owners of those addresses and numbers what they’d like to receive and when?

Finding ways to charge for what they deliver now reflects a limited vision for newspapers. Charging readers for delivering what they want, where they want it and when they want it as members (ie. participants) of a community stands a much better chance of success.

It’s easy to point the finger at Google and ask righteously what that innovative company (whose software I'm using to write this blog) is going to do to rescue them. But it might be worth it for the publishers to listen to what its CEO told them recently. How many of us have sat in front of our computers waiting for a newspaper Web site to load? Would you pay for that level of speed?

It's time to look for ways to build the business, not to build walls around it.