Friday, May 29, 2009

My thoughts on 5280's article on the Rocky Mountain News

Kudos to 5280 magazine for investing so much time, effort and resources on the story of the closure of the Rocky Mountain News. For Executive Editor Maximillian Potter to report and write such an in-depth piece and for Editor and Publisher Dan Brogan to publish it is a testament to their commitment to serious journalism. The Rocky was an important institution in Colorado and its loss deserved thoughtful, independent coverage, which is why I agreed to give Potter such extraordinary access to the paper’s newsroom in its final months. It’s also why I’m disappointed in the result.

Potter’s two main points - that Scripps “cast aside yet another journalistic institution like an emptied piggy bank,” and that I put my own “corporate concerns” above journalistic ethics when I decided to hold a column about the possible benefits to Scripps of closure – are flawed, at best. Some of his reporting doesn’t meet the basic standards in which Potter and I were trained at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.

Potter did a fine job describing what he observed. I wish he had done more of that. I had hoped he would show what was being lost with the demise of the Rocky and what it would mean to Colorado. But when he ventured into deeper waters, he – and the magazine – too often stumbled. I’ve already written a blog post about the claim from an anonymous source that the Scripps team hoped that the owner of The Denver Post might die. But it’s worth exploring briefly how an outrageous claim like that gets credibility from the way the magazine treats it. In the body of the story, Potter at least cites a single anonymous source to make his point. But then the magazine pulls the claim out as a major quote in large, bold type and treats it as a statement of fact, without any attribution. What’s a reader to think, other than that it’s true? Does Potter or the magazine’s editor know that to be the case? No, they don’t. The magazine does the same thing with the way it treats the column by former Finance Editor David Milstead I decided to hold for further reporting. In big, bold type, it states: “Milstead reported that if Scripps was unable to find a buyer, thus demonstrating to the IRS that its stake in the paper was ‘wholly worthless,’ it could gain a 2009 tax benefit worth $70 million.” At least in the story, Potter attempted to represent fully my point of view on the column. But by using this statement in headline-like type – without any evidence of further reporting on the subject by Potter – the magazine gives credence to a column based on a single source who had no specific knowledge of the situation in Denver. What if the benefit had been worth $15 million? Or $10? Or 0? Would Potter and the magazine have treated the issue the same way? I doubt it. They, and Milstead, to this day have no idea what the actual number was, if anything. All they had was an 8-year-old public record from Scripps stating a value of approximately $200 million. They didn’t know the likelihood of the sort of sale that would give Scripps the tax benefit and they didn’t know the value of the paper, by which the size of any possible tax benefit would be determined – the two questions I had wanted Milstead to pursue further. Do you know any financial number that hasn’t changed in the past 8 years, let alone 8 months? Yet you wouldn’t know that from the way the magazine treated the column’s claim.

I understand why Potter painted Scripps as the bad guy in Denver. Perhaps that was inevitable. Scripps executives let down a lot of people in doing what they thought was the best thing for their company. But Potter doesn’t do the work to provide a basis for his thesis. Of course it’s true, as he reports, that Scripps invested its free cash flow from newspapers to build HGTV, FOOD and other cable networks. (Investors, including newspaper workers with 401ks, generally appreciate actions like these that build wealth faster than the growth of the S&P 500.) But what Potter doesn’t answer is whether Scripps in its more than 80 years owning the Rocky made any money to speak of at all in Denver after all its investments and losses were taken into account. Nor does he lay out explicitly how much money Scripps invested in Denver, perhaps because the facts might undermine his theory. Journalists at other Scripps papers would have been only too happy to tell him that the money to pay for the networks – and to fund Denver - came from profits at their papers. (And from the company’s TV stations, if we’re going to be honest.) Scripps can be accused of many things, including walking away from Denver when it appeared close to owning the market, but it can’t be said that they took much if any money from the Rocky to build their cable networks or that they didn’t invest in Denver to try to own the market. In the early ‘90s, the company built a state-of-the-art printing plant at a cost approaching $200 million to help win the newspaper war. Then later that decade to help win the war the company traded two of its papers in California to obtain the Boulder Daily Camera, a deal valued somewhere in the neighborhood of $100 million. Then when the JOA went into effect, the company paid $60 million to become an equal partner with Singleton’s MediaNews Group. Then the two companies approved spending $100 million on a new headquarters and $135 million to retrofit a printing plant with next-generation state-of-the-art equipment. (Scripps’ share of those investments would have been half, or $117.5 million.) The owners of the JOA also bought a new state-of-the-art publishing system for their newsrooms at a cost of close to $10 million. And there was more.

The owners – who were 50-50 partners – believed they were building a going concern. Then came the impact of the Web on the classifieds and the overall economic meltdown, and the entire picture changed. While Potter seems to indicate that he shares the opinion of former Rocky sports columnist Dave Krieger that the problem in Denver and at newspaper companies in general is that they’re run by profiteers who don’t care about journalism, he and Krieger don’t deal with the question of whether Denver could any longer support two major daily newspapers. My answer is no. On that question hinges the whole story.

Potter is correct that the JOA was about buying time, and yes, I’m sure Scripps wanted to make money in the meantime. But based on my experience, there was never a belief that the best approach to running Denver would be to wring as much profit as possible from the paper before the well would run dry, as he suggests. Instead, the JOA bought time for both papers and put Scripps in the position where, with the right of first refusal to buy its partner’s interest in the JOA, it could be the last company left standing in Denver. But in the end, it walked away, because its view of the market had changed. If it had wanted to wring as much profit as possible from the paper, as he asserts, it would never have done some of the things it did. Two examples: It expanded the editorial staff from about 210 FTEs (full time equivalent employees) at the start of the JOA to a peak of more than 250, and that total didn’t include the editorial staff of, which totaled more than 25 at launch. And it improved compensation dramatically, studying comparable markets and putting into place a competitive pay plan for non-union managers to bring salaries that had been depressed by the newspaper war to higher levels, and paying its “stars” much more than during the war to attract and retain national-level talent.

Potter asserts that “closing the Rocky, rather than selling it, might very well benefit the company more than was ever publicly disclosed.” This is the big “secret” (my emphasis, not his) of the Milstead column his story reveals. The problem with his thesis is that it doesn’t take into account all the facts. Scripps did try to sell the paper to a viable owner. It was only after a possible deal collapsed that Scripps took the next step and put the paper up for public sale.

As for the Milstead column, I did not say I would be willing to reconsider running the column “when the resolution was announced.” I knew that if published, the column’s assertion of a $70 million benefit to Scripps would be treated as fact, based on the reaction to earlier JOA stories we had done. I knew that it had to be right, and I knew that we didn’t know if it was correct. So I asked for more reporting. That’s a common request, as I told Potter. I would have published it whenever it met our standards. I believed that could have been a matter of days. Potter keeps bringing his story back to the Justice Department and the “perverse tax incentive Milstead highlighted,” even though to this day he doesn’t know whether Scripps was in a position to benefit from that tax incentive, something Milstead didn’t know either. All he knew was that it was possible, under certain circumstances. As Milstead signaled with the first sentence of his proposed column, it was “speculation.” I wanted something more. One lesson of Medill was that one source was not good enough. We always needed two for any subject of significance. As I told Potter, I have great respect for Milstead as a reporter, but that doesn’t mean he gets carte blanche. He had to meet the same standards as every other journalist at the paper. What Potter didn’t mention, is that I told him the only piece I flat-out killed regarding the sale was a business story on why the owners hadn’t pursued bankruptcy rather than a sale, given the decision by the Tribune Co., owner of The Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune, among other properties, to file for Chapter 11 reorganization. I had asked the business staff to use that decision as a news peg to explore why that option wasn’t being pursued to get out from under the burdensome debt load in Denver. The story never rose to the standard it needed to be published so I just said forget it. The topic had gotten stale. The other column that I didn’t publish, a decision that became a public controversy during the sale process, was about the possible role of the Justice Department in Denver by former Rocky Media Critic Jason Salzman. While Potter makes much of the decision not to run the Salzman piece, he never mentions the publication two weeks before of a column by Salzman far more critical of Scripps, a column that I wonder whether many editors would run. Its headline was: “Can we blame Scripps? Yes.” Salzman went on to criticize Scripps at great length for its actions in Denver. I think the context Potter provided for my decision regarding Salzman’s Justice Department column needed to include the earlier criticism of Scripps I agreed to publish. The first was a legitimate opinion column, I thought. But a columnist still needs to get his facts right and Salzman didn’t know what he was talking about regarding the Justice Department, just as Milstead hadn’t done enough homework for his intriguing column on the possible economic benefits of the Rocky’s closure.

Given the ink that’s been spilled on the Salzman controversy, it’s not worth rehashing here at any depth. But Potter says “Rocky staffers” were stunned I hadn’t run the column. Really, all Rocky staffers? Would they also be stunned that I haven’t run columns by other “stars” of the paper, including Gene Amole, perhaps the most venerated writer in the paper’s last half century. That’s what editors do. Edit. As I told Potter, the “hold” button is an editor’s best friend. If in doubt, hold something. That’s the best editing advice I was ever given. The other mantra I repeatedly used at the Rocky is that a good newspaper doesn’t publish everything it produces. It leaves a lot on the cutting room floor. I told our staff that copy never seeing the light of day was a sign of quality.

I understand why Potter might conclude that “none of the heart and hustle Temple and his staff demonstrated did a damn thing to increase the paper’s chance of survival,” but what he should have said was that “none of the heart and hustle Temple and his staff demonstrated could save the paper.” The reason: Because prospective buyers, and there were two, were in part drawn by the identity of the paper, shaped by that heart and hustle. And because if the staff hadn’t shown that hustle, could the end have come much sooner? We don’t know. We do know that it couldn’t save the paper. We don’t know whether it did a “damn thing” to increase the paper’s chances of survival. In my view, it made it a lot harder to kill the Rocky.

As for the personal aspects of the story, I understand that not everybody in a newsroom loves the guy in charge. But Potter spent more than two months with almost total access to me in my dealings with the staff. Yet to support his claim about my alleged “volcanic shouting eruptions” he had to resort to a story from an anonymous security guard and from a single editor who worked with me. I have a voice loud enough to hold newsroom meetings without a microphone, as Potter has seen. I would have expected him to be able to describe any “eruptions” he witnessed. Instead, he takes at face value accusations regarding my conduct without ever asking for my version of events. At Medill, we were taught that we always had to ask the accused for his side of the story. How could you fairly represent something you hadn’t witnessed if you had only heard one side? The guard he writes about screwed up badly and I let him know it. I didn’t need to shout. As for the editor, she’s been a colleague for many years, which says more in my view than any claim about hurt feelings from the way I handled criticism of her performance at a news meeting. The Rocky was a place where we were honest about our work, including our failings. That’s one of the things that made it an exciting place to work. Another example: Potter describes me as a person who could be “rude and crass,” again without ever using a single example he witnessed. Potter begins his piece by citing an editors’ adage, “if your mother tells you she loves you, check it out.” I think he could have done more checking in some cases. For example, Potter asserts that Scripps had offered to keep me employed before I made the decision on Milstead’s column. That’s not true. The first I ever heard that Scripps would have a job for me was at the press conference on the day Scripps announced it was closing the Rocky. I was always part of the possible sale, along with the rest of the newsroom, and it was understood that I would be leaving the company, whether to work for a new owner or to seek a new job. No offer of employment was ever made, nor did I ever seek one. I made clear to the staff long before the closure that I would not be staying with Scripps no matter what happened, not out of anger or any other negative emotion, but because I was ready to move on, if I couldn’t be at the Rocky.

Finally, it’s worth pointing out a few more errors.

Deb Goeken was not the Rocky’s longtime assistant managing editor, as Potter asserts. She was the managing editor for almost a decade.

Kevin Vaughan had been a finalist for the Pulitzer in feature writing. To say he had been nominated is to miss the point. A writer can nominate himself. It’s meaningless to be nominated. Why report it? It’s significant to be a finalist, one of three candidates chosen by a jury for the most prestigious award in journalism.

It wasn’t the “Singleton side of the DNA board” that rejected going forward with a modular advertising plan. It was the new president and CEO of the Denver Newspaper Agency, Harry Whipple, who had a number of concerns, among them that the advertising department would be unable to execute (or sell) a modular advertising plan.

Potter is a good writer. I would invite him back again if I had it to do over again. The price of giving access is you might not always like what you read. But at least there’s the opportunity for people to learn in greater depth why events occurred and what they might mean. But don’t believe everything you read in his piece, except maybe that I have a “youthful face.” Or at least did, before the weeks leading up to the Rocky’s last day.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

"Scripps team" did not hope Dean Singleton might die

While the competition in Denver between the Rocky Mountain News and The Denver Post was rough and tumble, neither side lost its humanity.

That's why I was stunned to read a claim in a 5280 magazine article about the closing of the Rocky that there was was "a 'hope' among the Scripps team" that Dean Singleton, owner of the Post, might die, clearing the way for them to own the last paper standing in Denver. I was at the helm of the Rocky Mountain News for 11 years and never heard any such sentiment expressed. And I spoke with top Scripps executives and board members repeatedly over the years about the situation in Denver.There was a hope among some of the team (count me among them) that Scripps would be the survivor in Denver (some financial types never saw the prize as worth winning). And there was a belief that Scripps control might be possible given the 50-year term of the JOA and the staying power of the company. But to let someone anonymously ascribe such a desire to a team of executives is journalistically irresponsible. It gives a totally false impression of the dynamic. Sure there was sometimes tension between the two sides. And of course Scripps executives knew that Singleton had health problems. It's no secret to those in the newspaper industry. But the main reason some in Scripps could see a possible way to be the survivor in Denver was that Singleton runs a highly leveraged business and it was believed that at some point he might need or want to exit the market. In the end, Scripps decided it didn't want to be in business anymore in Denver. While that may be a decision worthy of criticism, it's flat-out wrong to give the impression that his business partners actually "hoped" he might die.

Friday, May 22, 2009

A move to sharing that makes a lot of sense

Three TV stations in Washington will be pooling news gathering. I think that makes a lot of sense, but I don't see why they restrict themselves to sharing just with other TV stations. I think it would make sense in many markets for the newspaper or newspapers in the city to be part of a video pool arrangement. Newspapers aren't print products anymore. The divide between newspapers, TV stations, radio and magazines is breaking down. While this sharing is being done as an economic measure, it makes sense editorially to free up staff to focus on exclusive stories rather than having people cover the same stories at each station.

Monday, May 18, 2009

What a newspaper can mean to a community

The Downtown Denver Partnership at its annual meeting this month took a moment to honor the Rocky Mountain News, which was involved in the life of the city from the start until Feb. 27 of this year. The words of Tami Door, the partnership's president, shine a light on what a newspaper - and especially its business section - can mean to a community.

New Newsweek sounds interesting - but is there no room for humor?

I really like the way Newsweek Editor Jon Meacham is talking about the focus of the "new" magazine, but wonder whether it's not a tad too serious.

Here's a summary of what he's going to do with the magazine, from his column.

"There will, for the most part, be two kinds of stories in the new NEWSWEEK. The first is the reported narrative—a piece, grounded in original observation and freshly discovered fact, that illuminates the important and the interesting. The second is the argued essay—a piece, grounded in reason and supported by evidence, that makes the case for something."

Frankly, I think that's not a bad description of what newspaper editors should be trying to provide in print. (The Web should be the news service.) But it's important that editors also tout the value of humor, of voice, of personality, of surprise. It's always worth remembering that the single part of a newspaper editors hear most about is the comics.

Wall Street Journal gets it right in editorial on government "bailout" for newspapers

While it may have been predictable that The Wall Street Journal would take this position on a government "bailout" for newspapers, it's still worth reading. The paper's editorial board is correct. The path to success for journalists won't be found by asking for handouts. It will be developed by creative entrepreneurs - and they will emerge - creating new ways of connecting communities and providing them with needed information and news. The mission can still be to inform, inspire and entertain. But in this new world journalists will also be able to connect and help the public participate in the conversation. Journalists will be as much conveners or moderators as they'll be news sources.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Great feature by Scott Simon on NPR other journalists could learn from

Scott Simon produced a great feature today on his morning show. He had different people read the words of two well-known personalities - President Obama and Miss California, Carrie Prejean - regarding their views on gay marriage. When the words were removed from the character who had said them, they seemed to take on different meaning.

Essentially, a guess who said this feature. But what it does is play with a listeners' preconceptions about people, a bit like a blind tasting of wine, where the $8 bottle might beat out the $50 bottle.

Here's what he said about the value of the feature:

"I play this little exercise this week because it may show how people — especially intelligent people — hear what they want to."

Kudos to journalism like this that challenges people's thinking.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

What Google should do to help save newspapers, local reporting

While we seem to be in the “blame Google” period of the history of American newspapers, it would be worthwhile to consider another way of looking at the search giant.

How about working with Google, or having Google make a commitment to work with newspapers? I think the latter approach would help Google and newspapers. Forget trying to punish Google by cutting it off from newspaper links (as if that would matter) or trying to extort more money from Google for newspapers’ content (as if that’s going to solve their problems). Instead, newspapers should partner with Google on a digital training and infrastructure initiative that might put them in a better position to compete on their own and at the same time provide a better news and information system for the American people. (And, of course, the people of the world, too.)

Consider how much the mission statement of Google has in common with how a local newspaper might describe its mission. Here’s what Google says: “Google's mission is to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful.” The mission statement of the typical local newspaper might be: “(Newspaper name’s) mission is to chronicle the life of its community and enable citizens to participate fully in their democracy.”

We hear that Google is apparently talking with papers like The Washington Post and The New York Times. And that makes sense, given their importance and size. But the problem with that is that as great as those papers may be, they are outliers in the world of daily journalism. What’s needed is something to help the 1,400 or so smaller daily publications, as well as the thousands of weeklies, etc. One small example: Last year I was following a state senate primary in New York City for personal reasons and on election night turned to area newspapers for the results. The Daily News and Post were all over the story. The Times wasn’t. Maybe that’s an isolated case, but it points to the nitty gritty work that makes up so much of the bread and butter of daily newspapers that many people are rightly concerned about losing.

What newspapers lack is something Google as an organization has in abundance: technological expertise. While Google says it doesn’t want to become a content producer, we know that local newspapers can’t become technological companies, as much as they might wish they could. They just don’t have the scale or expertise. And they never will. But what about a joint mission to use Google’s technological skills and newspapers’ content expertise to develop new platforms that would give newspapers standardized tools – basically a new operating system – to connect their communities? Newspapers remain a form of craft industry in a digital world where global platforms dominate. There's not a different Facebook or Google for every city. Why should the structure of a news/community site be different in every city? Why not a universal platform, open source, that gives journalists the tools to do their work in a digital world? Then a training academy to give journalists and programmers the opportunity to work together, learn new skills and develop new applications for the platform. Does every news organization really have to figure out how to do election results or charts online and in print, for example? I don’t think so.

It’s time for Google to put its money where its mouth is, to assist directly in the fulfillment of its mission statement, by creating a "Google Academy" for the creation of a new era of journalism. This would be a way for it to make information even more universally accessible and useful, because the producers of that information would have a clue as to how best to operate and could then focus their efforts on the content itself, rather than the structure or the delivery of the content.

I use Google’s blogger software. It’s probably the simplest around. The task for local news organizations is far more complicated. It’s time for Google to step up and work with journalists to develop something similar, and then let the best content flourish. Newspapers need a new structure. The country needs vital local news organizations. Google works best when content is organized in a way that users can easily find what they’re looking for, wherever they are. Those common interests could be the basis for Google to help create a future content world without ever becoming a “content provider.”

We need the best minds of our generation working on how to create the new journalism. Can you imagine how excited young people would be about working with/for local news organizations if they knew that Google was behind them and that their good ideas could end up helping journalists across the globe?

That sounds a lot better to me than the blame game. When will Google get started?

Advice worth reading has an excellent piece on the lack of a magic bullet for newspapers. It seems clear looking from the outside that they're scrambling to find one. Payment for online content is high on the list. As is blaming Google for their problems. But then at the same time they want the Internet giant - or in some cases, government - to come to their rescue. This piece by Mark Potts on what they should be doing instead is worth reading.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

When are newspaper people going to stop whining?

Am I the only one getting sick of hearing newspaper types and former newspaper types wringing their hands over what's happening to newspapers and proclaiming their special role in our society?

Look, I could be perceived as one of the "victims" of the forces that are upending the long and successful run of newspapers. I'm one of the journalists who lost his job in the past few months.

But the idea that newspapers need special treatment or support from the government appals me. If strong local news organizations are really so important to our society, we'll figure out a way to make them successful. We've seen many examples of successful innovation in the past three decades, from CNN and NPR to Bloomberg and USA Today. We'll find a way to make local news organizations successful, too. It's just going to be rough getting there, and there could be a lot of wreckage along the way.

But the idea of freezing things the way they are by having the government protect existing franchises or their descendants is a fool's errand. I've lived under two JOAs and know that government involvement is no panacea.

Instead, let's look to experimentation, recognizing that much of what news organizations try won't work.

But before we ride the high horse of how important newspapers are or have been, let's remember how much of what they do and did really wasn't essential or watchdog journalism. They were part of their community conversation. They still can be. But they're going to have to look different. My belief is that they're going to have to become part of a network, something like a 21st century AP. The local office will be more like an AP bureau, although much bigger. They'll produce local products (print and web and mobile) as well as contribute to a national network. That's got to be the most efficient and least expensive way to enable most news organizations to focus on what can give them a competitive advantage: their knowledge of the local territory and their identity as watchdogs. But if they're going to do that, they're going to have to give up some things they think essential today.

Maybe that's going to require different owners and even different journalists. But if independent reporting is so important to our society, people will find a way to produce it.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Playing For Change: Song Around the World "Stand By Me" a possible model for local news organizations willing to experiment

A lesson in this video for newspapers? I think so.

I may be late to this great video, but if you haven't seen it, you must. What the people at "Playing for Change" have done with the song "Stand by Me" suggests an exciting possibility for newspapers that want to bring a sense of understanding and connection to their readers.

Journalism at its best builds a common sense of humanity among different people. That's one of the reasons I admired the work Melissa Block did this week on NPR's All Thing Considered program from China. How could a parent anywhere else in the world not put him or herself into the shoes of the Chinese mothers and fathers who lost a child in the earthquake last year? Block brought people together with her reporting. It was impossible not to feel a common sense of humanity with complete strangers half way around the world.

Well, if you look at the "Stand by Me" video I think you'll see an example of how local journalists could work together to do something similar, if perhaps not always so profound, without ever traveling. And this approach could involve readers, who could provide their own images and video for the projects.

Take something as simple as going to work in the morning. Or breakfast. If either topic was linked across the country or the world it would make for what I think could be a fascinating experience. And it could exist on every participating newspaper's (or news organization's) Web site.

That would be something I'd look forward to finding on a Web site. And I could see it having applicability in print, too.

Newspapers need to look outside their own businesses for models of what they should be trying today.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Too much hope placed in new Kindle – except maybe for the big national titles

Don’t get me wrong. I’m delighted that Amazon has come out with a new, bigger Kindle that might make for a better reading experience.

But most reports on the new device follow the same path, quoting Sarah Rotman Epps, a media analyst at Forrester Research, saying: "Newspapers are reaching the end of their rope. The e-readers are looking like newspapers' last best hope."

They may be a boon to publications like The New York Times or Washington Post, making it easy for a huge audience to have a positive reading experience with a national title. But when we talk about saving newspapers, aren’t we talking about most of the 1,400 or so other publications?

Let’s say the e-readers really do take off. Why will readers in Denver want to follow The Denver Post’s world or national report, or recipes and MLB roundup for that matter, if they can get a better version from one of the national publications? People might want to pay for the Post’s coverage of Denver and Colorado and its sports teams and people. But will they really want the version of the paper they’re getting today? I don’t think so.

Perhaps the new Kindle will speed up cooperation among newspapers, where instead of ordering a complete publication readers will be able to order sections from different publications. In an era of choice, why wouldn’t readers – whatever newspapers think of it – ask for a more a la carte approach to buying content? I would want The Denver Post’s sports section and its local news/business/commentary section. But forget its A section, which like the A sections of most metro papers is a wire service rehash of what happened yesterday. And while I may want its entertainment section on Friday, is its fitness section really better than something I could order from a magazine on my Kindle? (By the way, I used the Post as my example because that’s the local paper I receive. Not to pick on it. I could use any local paper as the example.)

If the Kindle takes off, it still seems to me that local news organizations are going to have to focus on what they can do best – local reporting.

My reflection on the Kindle’s potential to help the newspaper industry doesn’t even take into account a larger issue: Users are going to want a reader that can launch multimedia from a “newspaper” page, both for stories and for advertising, something that provide a “rich” experience.

Still, a local newspaper getting a share of what people in Denver pay to subscribe to The New York Times or some association of titles is better than the paper getting nothing, which is the case on the Web.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Google didn't change everything

It’s easy to think the shift from a newspaper culture to a “news organization culture” in the Google world is essentially binary. Newspapers used to be this. Now they should be that, the opposite of what they once were.

While that way of thinking is provocative and contains some truth, it’s important not to fall into the trap that nothing journalists did before the Internet applies today.

Take two examples from an excellent blog post by Amber Smith that I found reading Jeff Jarvis’ Buzz Machine blog.

Here’s the first:

Old way of thinking
Editors were in charge, choosing which stories to provide to the readers/audience, based on what the editors thought the readers/audience wanted and needed to know.

New way
Readers are in charge. They read what they want, when they want.

Is it really that simple? I don’t think so. First, let’s drop the word “editors” and just say “journalists.” In this new world, everybody is – or can be – a content creator. I think they should be. But won’t journalists still decide what stories to do? I think they will. That’s how they build a brand, a reason for readers to turn to them. And up till now they didn’t just choose which stories to provide based on what they thought readers wanted or needed to know. They did so based on what they thought were interesting stories that would matter to people (and of course themselves). That quirky and individual sense of what’s worth reporting, writing and photographing remains critical in this new era. My believe is that the Web gives journalists even greater ability to do what they care about. Then they can see whether the readers will come.

Here’s the second example:

Old way of thinking
Editors decided which beats would be covered.

New way

“Beats” are based on niche communities that already exist.

Really? I think a good journalist with an original eye can create interest where little or none existed. I totally agree that we need to tap into niche communities that already exist. But in our tradition the individual journalist can change how we see the world – and that’s something worth celebrating and encouraging.

This isn’t to say I don’t find much of value in Smith’s blog. But let’s be careful not to pretend that the Web has made the new formula simple. The world is still a place of shades of gray, as much as we might wish it could be black and white, right and wrong.

Heartening talk from NY Times president

It's great to see the president of the most important paper in the country say that readers will determine the format of future delivery of news by The New York Times.

Sometimes it's worth standing back and recognizing what a long way we've come.

Here's an excerpt of what Scott Heekin-Canedy, president and general manager of The New York Times, said in a Q&A on the paper's Web site.

"My colleagues and I see The Times not as a newsPAPER but instead as a news provider. Our goal is to offer our consumers news, information and entertainment wherever and whenever they want it and even in some ways they may not have envisioned — in print or online, wired or mobile, in text, graphics, audio, video or even live events...

"What might be the future format? I think the answer is that it will be your choice."

Talk like that is one reason I think megabrands like The Times will still be around and playing a perhaps even bigger role when a lot of other papers have fallen. And maybe it offers one possible solution for local newspapers: Link up with The Times (or CNN or ?) using the same platform to augment the papers' national and international report with strong local coverage.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

A new role for editors - tear down the walls

Newspapers used to be more like utilities. Nobody could compete with their ability to collect and distribute classified advertising. And nobody else had their reach in a geographic area. So other advertisers needed them, too. But the world looks radically different today. Newspapers have to be more entrepreneurial. That’s a difficult shift to make, one that can cause a lot of angst. So what’s the appropriate relationship between editorial and advertising in this new environment?

My bottom line is that revenue is everyone’s problem today. Everyone in a news organization should at least be allowed to propose ways to bring in more money. Even better, people should be encouraged to think of new sources of revenue (and savings) for the health of their organizations - and their ideas to improve the performance of their companies should be welcomed. To me, this requires a much closer relationship among people working producing content, selling advertising, marketing, and providing customer service.

Perhaps the most controversial part of my recent post about lessons for editors from the demise of the Rocky Mountain News was the statement: “Don’t worry about walls, or the separation of church and state. Instead, worry about values, that the entire organization and the community understand what makes you distinctive and worth caring about.”

One critic said my approach resulted in editors allowing newspapers to be destroyed in the name of being “innovators.” Another said, “your suggestion not to worry about walls between marketing and advertising strikes me as a huge mistake. History and Sam Zell tell us there are very, very good reasons for those walls.”

Let me describe more fully what I’m thinking about the role of the editor when it comes to the advertising department. First, I don’t believe it’s healthy for a news organization to be a free-for-all, where advertising reps shop proposals to help their customers with any editor they can find to listen to them. That’s chaos. Nor, of course, do I believe an editorial slant should be promised as an enticement for advertisers. But I do believe it’s critical for the top editor or his/her representative to be at the table when new revenue initiatives are discussed, developed and evaluated. Why do we think American newspapers are so full of advertorial content? One reason for that development, I believe, is that in some places it’s easier for advertising to produce its own “journalism” than find a way to work with editorial. That’s a disaster.

Local news organizations need to have an identity, and it’s one of the roles of an editor to build, maintain and protect that character through the type of journalism and other information services they provide. This doesn’t mean editors need to go on sales calls – although personally I think there are cases where it could be helpful for a client to understand what is being imagined and there’s no better person to explain that than the editor. But it does mean that editors need to be part of the group at their news organization approving new approaches to growing their businesses and signing off on how their work is represented.

There’s no question this can take the editor away from the daily bustle of the newsroom. But think back to when the founders of newspapers were creating these businesses. Those owners cut a wide swath. So should today’s editors. They should be the voice arguing that what's best for the customer is best for the organization, regardless of the institutional hurdles that stand in the way of delivering what people might want.

Newspaper advertising departments used to operate like order takers. It can’t be that way any longer. Local news organizations need to provide services to advertisers and help them build their businesses. The world moves much faster today. If advertising folks aren’t working side by side with journalists, aware of what they’re trying to do and looking for opportunities for their clients in the community, too much is lost. The same holds true for marketing staff. How are newspapers going to develop viral marketing if the marketing people aren’t working with editorial types in real time? And the same holds true for customer service folks? How are newspapers going to deliver new products to people where and when they want them if customer service people aren’t looking for opportunities in real time?

I think newspapers need to think of themselves more like the weeklies of old, where one person did many things over the course of the week. I’m not saying an advertising rep should be writing a story, or a journalist selling an ad. But they should be talking, sharing their understanding of the community, its needs and the possibilities of their work. They’re in this thing together and right now the battle is for survival. That means people need to know what they’re fighting for. But editors can’t tell them if they’re not on the front lines.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Former Editor Tim McGuire should follow his own advice to media critics

Tim McGuire should consider following his own advice to media critics. Point No. 2 in his post on media criticism is good advice for any opinion writer: “Keep the focus of your criticism narrow and manageable. Words like “always” and “never” cheapen most arguments. Those words tend to make you seem silly and painfully uninformed. Allow wiggle room.”

So what does he do in his own piece? He does exactly what he complains bugs him about today’s media critics. He says, “I have found it mighty maddening lately that everybody who talks about newspapers, media and the future of said media is so damned certain about just about everything.”

Really, Tim? “Everybody?” Come on. Taking this approach makes him sound like a thin-skinned journalist flinching at the beating the profession he loves is taking from many in the new rough and tumble environment of the Internet. I can understand why he might think that of Michael Wolff or Jeff Jarvis. But how about David Carr or Howard Kurtz, Jack Shafer or Alan Mutter?

I, too, am one who promotes the value of civil conversation. I started a web site for the E.W. Scripps Co.,, dedicated to that idea in the areas of culture, politics and religion. (By the way, it failed.) And I think McGuire makes some excellent suggestions. But frankly, in the end, I don’t think journalists come off well telling others how to criticize us. There have to be times when a blunt instrument is applied. Sometimes we deserve just that. Take the Los Angeles Times and the Staples arena section. Or the Chicago Tribune and its test-marketing of stories. Or in the case of my former paper, the Rocky Mountain News, when we got lashed from twittering from the funeral of a child. If editors don’t like it, they can fight back. They should. And I did.

Don't get me wrong. I agree in general with McGuire’s remarks applied to critical writing. But doesn’t it strike anybody else as odd that a journalist whose work is protected by the First Amendment is arguing that it would be better if people didn’t use all the space afforded them under the same guarantee of freedoms?

McGuire’s conclusion seems more directed at making the lives of the subjects of criticism easier and more pleasant – who cares? – than in encouraging a robust and incisive dialogue.

“I simply offer the possibility that civil criticism and constructive ideas will make improving the media a more pleasant and a more satisfying intellectual undertaking,” he writes.

For whom? It seems to me that the critics are having a ball. It’s the journalists who aren’t enjoying themselves. How many people, other than them, care?

Friday, May 1, 2009

12 lessons for editors from the demise of the Rocky Mountain News

The staff of the Rocky Mountain News is now officially cut loose. April 28 was the final day on the payroll for all but a couple needed to complete the shutdown of the business. What can other editors learn from my experience at the Rocky?

1. Never lose sight of what’s important, even in the face of horrendous economic conditions. Journalists cannot control what happens to them. But they can control the work they do. It’s easy to lay blame on others - on the Web or cyclical forces. But what’s most important is what you do with your own work. That’s how the Rocky kept producing journalism that mattered right until the end.

2. Don’t wait to do what you think is right. Procrastination and delay are the enemies of success. Too often newsroom managers take too long to address issues with their own staffs that they know need to be addressed. That may have been OK in the good times, but not anymore.

3. Focus feedback. Make sure in providing feedback to concentrate on what’s really important, issues that will move the needle or strengthen the staff’s understanding of the direction you want to lead them and the identity you’re trying to build for the news organization. It can be frustrating to run a newsroom. Little, stupid errors can draw your attention – and your ire. Don’t get sucked into worrying about those things that won’t ultimately move the dial. Talk about them, if you must, but quickly move on. And be clear that you’ve moved on. If you don’t, you’ll send the message to the staff that those are the things they should care about and focus on. Instead, keep their attention on the big issue – the need to change quickly.

4. Everybody in a news organization needs to care about content. If the newsroom is the only part of a news organization that cares about content, the only place in the building with a passion for journalism and a paper’s connection with its community, you’re doomed. A JOA insulates a newsroom from the business side and separates the rest of the operation from the newsroom. That can be a disaster in this era because advertising, marketing, customer service and editorial all need to be in synch if a news organization is going to have a chance of survival.

5. Stop pretending that you “need” to report something although all your customers already know it. And especially stop acting as if you need to report it as if nobody has heard the news, even though you know that’s not the case. In an era of limited resources, newsrooms can’t pretend that they can be successful trying to have something of everything for everybody. They have to decide what it is they offer that’s unique and valuable and focus on that. That’s your job.

6. When you do No. 5, you will run into resistance from some in your newsroom. Listen. It’s critical not to ignore the concerns of your staff. But don’t give an inch if you believe what you’re doing is right and don’t let the argument drag out. It’s one thing for journalists to wish things could be as they were. Everybody can understand that. It’s another to let them act like things can be as they were. If you do, you’re not doing your job.

7. You need to tap into everyone’s desire to do meaningful work. Almost everybody in your newsroom got into this business with the hope of fulfilling some type of higher calling. You need to connect with that desire, feed and encourage it and show how new approaches to reporting the news can do just that. Let some things go, if necessary, so you can do stories that matter, so you can point to real successes that move your organization in the right direction.

8. Build bridges to the rest of the building and to the community, inspire them with the same message of the value of your newsroom’s work. Editors shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that their job is just to manage the newsroom. It’s also to help build a content company where everybody feels connected to the journalism and the community understands and values your mission and role. Invite advertising and marketing in. You want tips from them based on their experience in the community. And you want them to feel close to what you’re doing. Don’t worry about walls, or the separation of church and state. Instead, worry about values, that the entire organization and the community understand what makes you distinctive and worth caring about.

9. If you think you’ve done enough to make your newsroom an all-platform, real-time news organization, think again. We’re coming from such an entrenched culture, oriented toward daily deadlines, that when we do make changes we’re too easily satisfied. We still move too slowly.

10. We need to recognize that the economics of the business have changed for the long term, no matter what happens when the economy comes back. That means, for example, that combining wage rollbacks with furloughs unnecessarily weakens already struggling organizations. Employees are willing to sacrifice to save organizations they believe in. Make them believe and ask them to sacrifice. Just as management needs to lead by example by taking pay cuts and continuing to work, so will staff members keep at their jobs instead of taking time off. But that can’t or won’t happen unless staff have a reason to believe they’re part of a worthwhile cause, one that has a future. The previous pay structure was built on a business that was no longer there. It’s not smart to pretend otherwise.

11. The newsroom can’t be about what a single individual wants or believes. And that includes you. Too often people in newsrooms think it’s about them, and managers allow that to persist. It’s not. Our charge as editors is to preserve the news organization and the jobs it can ultimately support, however many that may be. If you don’t take this approach, you could end up losing the whole thing.

12. Savor every day. If you’ve had to shut down a newspaper or walk through a silenced newsroom, you know what I’m talking about. As difficult as your situation may feel, at least you have the chance to figure out how to make it work. In your darkest hour, never forget that.

Why Tribune isn’t wrong to focus on trimming its editing staff

It’s understandable that there’s much angst among page designers and copy editors about the Tribune’s approach to editing. As has been the case with much that company has done, its communication has been clumsy and muddied the waters. But any newspaper editor facing today’s economic challenges must ask the same question: How do we provide as much original content as possible to maintain our value to readers? One answer is by keeping as many journalists as possible who produce original material and trimming the staff elsewhere. (Of course, there are others, such as using more local outside contributors, paid and unpaid.) The editing process is one part of a newspaper that needs to be examined. And it needs to be simplified if at all possible, with a hierarchy of editing standards, depending on the content. While the value of good copy editing and design is clear, too often the real benefits get lost in newsrooms where editors move commas or adjust for AP style on version after version, instead of focusing on what’s most important: accuracy, fairness and clarity. That shouldn’t just be the emphasis at the end of the day, but right from the start.