Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Reflections on Day 1 of the UC Berkeley Media Technology Summit at Google headquarters in Silicon Valley

Day 1 of the UC Berkeley Media Technology Summit at Googleplex was intense. Somehow things seem more possible when you're at Google. At Google, you don't feel the drag of history that you feel when working with legacy media companies.

Perhaps the best way to track the sessions is to follow the stream of tweets on You should be able to find some of the presentations at This is an important event, not necessarily because it's the be all and end all of conferences - although many sessions have been terrific - but because it's so important to get technologists and journalists in the same room talking about how we can make sure America is served by real journalism.

Some of what we heard just reinforces what many already know about the Web. That doesn't mean it's not worth hearing again and in new ways.

For example, Michael Franklin, professor of computer science at UC Berkeley, talked about the new interaction patterns and business models of the Web. "Everybody is a producer and a consumer."

(One to one was an important undercurrent of the day.)

Thomas Tague, vice president of Calais Project, Thomson Reuters, reminded of the importance of metadata. Worth checking out

A panel on how consumers will use media in the future indicated that we'll see innovation in a touch panel tablet computer soon, that there will be continuing innovation in the living room (think entertainment), that there will be a greater focus on standards to make devices work together and that the Internet will be metered. (Yes, that means paying for what you use.) But probably the most important or thought-provoking comment came from Bradley Horowitz, a Google vice president, who talked about "attention management," essentially the problem that there's so much media coming at us today that it would be a full time job to manage it. "We need a new class and category of tools that helps with ranking and relevance problems," he said. Basically, his point was that we need to create tools to help people deal with the avalanche of content that is burying them.

Horowitz's advice for old-time media companies: "Make it an exciting time." But he cautioned that excitement is not always safe or easy. But he said, "Get into the game. Experiment and try things." It's good advice. But if people have to be told this, does anybody think they'll respond?

A tool I hadn't heard of to help organize the flood of content: That's what Blair Westlake, corporate vice president for media at Microsoft, said he uses to organize his online reading every day. He also reads The Seattle Times and Wall Street Journal in print every day, plus the Sunday New York Times. He said he reads for two hours each morning. Oh, for more citizens like him...

Great sessions on the culture and social nature of the Web. Few interesting factoids. Online social networks over index for minorities, including gays and lesbians. This means they make up a greater percentage of social network users than their representation in the general population.

What do users do? Read. Which means look at profiles and pictures. That makes up 79% of all activity. Harvard Business School Professor Mikolaj Jan Piskorski called it "lurking." 8% of the time is spent writing. 8% is spent on the network (think unfriending etc.) and 5% private (e-mail.)

One other interesting factoid. Myspace accounts for 10% of all US email traffic.

Another way to break down what people do: 44% of all clicks is looking at profiles and pictures of friends, 44% looking at profiles and pictures of strangers and 12% viewing own profile.

The prof said social networks are "covers." "People can get on the market without looking like they’re on the market," he said. This covers dating and jobs.

We wrapped up with a panel on what news is in the interactive era and a passionate presentation by John Thornton, founder of Texas Tribune, a serious non-profit news project in Austin. Let's just say that all these speakers were hopeful.

In the end, though, what's best about the conference is the chance to talk with people privately or in small groups about what they're doing. Nothing beats networking. And that's a lot of what this summit is about.

FTC seeks comments on future of news media in the Internet age

If there's any doubt about the level of concern about what's happening to news reporting in this country, this press release from the Federal Trade Commission should lift it.

Who would have thought that the FTC would step in and hold workshops on the topic of the future of news media in the Internet age? Things have gotten so bad that the agency charged with "Protecting America's consumers" is stepping in.

Lessons from the Rocky Mountain News - Text and video of speech delivered at UC Berkeley Media Technology Summit at Google in Silicon Valley

The death of the Rocky Mountain News in February rippled around the world. Many want to understand what happened and what we can learn from the loss of Colorado's oldest newspaper.

Today I kicked off the UC Berkeley Media Technology Summit at Googleplex (the company's headquarters) in Silicon Valley.

The following is the text (The link takes you to Scribd, where you can print out the speech. I have also attached it below. I apologize for any inconvenience people have had trying to access my presentation) of my speech. You can also see a video of my presentation (the keynote slides, with my voiceover) at Vimeo. Here is a link to the keynote slides themselves.

The text of the speech contained two errors. One was a typo: The Rocky launched its first Web site on March 1, 1996, not 2006. The second was due to my faulty memory. Colorado has 64 counties, not 65 as I first reported.

Lessons from the Rocky Mountain News

Thank you for inviting me to speak to you today. I hope by sharing what I learned from my experience as editor and publisher of the Rocky Mountain News I can help get this conference off to a good start. Recently, when I asked my former colleagues at the paper for reflections on their experience since its closure, Bernie Lincicome, a fine sports columnist, wrote me back: “I feel like the cadaver being asked by the funeral director, how did you like the flowers?” I’m not sure what that makes this talk. Maybe the funeral director being asked to perform his own autopsy and offer guidance from the other side on how to save the lives of others suffering the same malady.

First, a little history: The Rocky Mountain News was Colorado’s oldest newspaper, founded in 1859 when Denver was little more than a hamlet of log cabins. The paper went on to cover the news in three centuries, from the Civil War to the War on Terror. It became so much a part of the fabric of Colorado that many readers called it “My Rocky,” a term of endearment rare for any newspaper. It was owned for more than 80 years by a deep-pocketed company, E.W. Scripps, that still today is controlled by the founding family.

Scripps started as a newspaper company, but navigated through the advent of radio, TV and cable - starting successful new media businesses each time. In the ‘90s, after going public, Scripps innovated with its free cash flow and hit a home run building lifestyle cable networks, including HGTV and the Food Network, now worth more than $5 billion.

So some pretty smart people were at the top of the company that owned the Rocky Mountain News. Yet none of that was enough for the Rocky to survive in the Internet era. The Rocky published its final edition on Feb. 27 of this year, the first major paper to shut its doors after the economic crash of the fall of 2008.

On the day the closure was announced, Scripps CEO Rich Boehne told the staff assembled in the newsroom: "You are the model of what a great newspaper should be. It's a tragedy for the industry that you disappear." He was talking to a staff that since 2000 had won four Pulitzer Prizes, a total topped by just six other newspapers in that same period. And the staff knew that from a circulation standpoint, when the papers competed head to head on weekdays, the Rocky came out on top.

So, why did the Rocky disappear? Looking back now on that difficult day, the word that stands out in Boehne’s statement is “newspaper.” As one former Scripps executive told me in talking about what has happened to the newspaper industry, words that I think apply to the Rocky, “We had all the advantages and let it slip away. We couldn’t give up the idea that we were newspaper companies.”

Well, Scripps isn’t a newspaper company anymore in what was its biggest market. And today I’m going to walk you through the lessons I think might be taken from its largest paper’s failure. While this is going to be a newspaper-centric talk, I believe you’ll find that the lessons apply broadly across radio, TV, magazines and other media, too.

But before I subject the past to scrutiny, you need to know I don’t exempt myself from criticism. I was the top editorial person for the Rocky’s final 11 years and part of the business leadership team. I bear my own share of responsibility. It’s easy when looking back to see things that might seem obvious to us today, but it was a lot more difficult when we were in the thick of the fight, and most of the revenue growth and almost the total revenue pie came from the main newspaper product. That said, the first lesson I hope people who care about the future of local news take from the Rocky’s experience is this: Being a “great newspaper” isn’t enough in the Internet era. You have to know what business you’re in. We thought we were in the newspaper business. Working on the Web, you need to think of now and forever. At a newspaper, people largely think about tomorrow. Thinking about tomorrow isn’t enough anymore. Consumers today want services when, where and how they want them, and they want to be able to participate, not just receive.

Look, it’s understandable that we thought we were in the newspaper business. In the 1990s, Denver was the site of what was sometimes called America’s last great newspaper war. The Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News had competed for 100 years and each saw the grand prize close at hand. Each wanted to become the only newspaper in town - something we thought of as “owning the Denver market.” We thought winning would guarantee a stable and profitable future. We misunderstood the competitive landscape and put the vast majority of our efforts into the print war.

The problem was we were fighting the last war. We didn’t understand what was happening to the playing field. Media companies used to think they were in control. That they could “own” a market. What we didn’t take into account is that in this new era, consumers were going to be in control.

So that brings me to Lesson #2: Know your competition. If we had spent more time trying to build the depth of our connection with the community using online tools from the very start, perhaps the outcome for the Rocky would have been different. If we have time later, I can give you some examples of what I’m talking about.

The Rocky’s first foray onto the Web came in 1995. The newsroom provided a Cox-owned site called Fastball with Colorado Rockies stories and data. To give you some perspective, that same year Colorado’s leading television station put up a Web site, but all it had was a picture of the station’s building, its address and phone number. No links or news at all. At that time, believe it or not, much of the talk about “new media” at many newspapers was about things like AudioText, where users could call in and select different categories of news. There was also fax on demand. And 900 numbers, for such things as out-of-state lottery numbers or sports scores, horoscopes and even a dating service.

The Rocky had been burned in the new media world before. In 1990, it made what it considered at the time a major play, launching an electronic service called the A LA CARTE EDITION. The paper sent software to a few thousand users, many of whom had 300 baud modems.

You can see from this introduction to our first electronic service that we thought of ourselves as newspaper companies right from the start. We wrote that the goal of the new edition, was “ultimately to strengthen and preserve the printed daily newspaper.”

The service was shut down after about 9 months, but not before scooping the paper on the start of the First Gulf War, reporting 12 hours before the paper landed on most doorsteps that the war had begun. The project was halted, I was told, because “we just couldn't show that it was having any measurable impact on retention of print subscribers and it wasn't producing revenue.”

Right from the start, new offerings were measured by what they did for the core product, not on their own merits. A big mistake.

The Rocky’s first Web site, this is the home page on the very first day, grew out of the newsroom’s night copy desk crew, a few of whom had learned some HTML. It was a bottom up effort. There was no advertising involvement. Under the direction of the senior night editor, a small team built a Web site that went live on March 1, 1996. The Post had put up a site late the previous year so we knew we needed to do it, if only because we couldn’t let them have a leg up on us anywhere.

The launch of the site was a perfect example of how the attention of the paper’s leadership was on print, not on new possibilities. We were wrestling with a decision to pull back print distribution to 13 counties adjacent to Denver, a money-saving move to match the $5 million in savings we believed the Post had achieved by narrowing its printed page. We cut about 30,000 circulation, or 10% of our total, in one day. The Post kept delivering to all 64 Colorado counties.

On the day before the Rocky opened its doors to the world online, the page 2 column by the editor began: “I have never been much good at saying goodbye. But that is my task today for many loyal readers of the Rocky Mountain News.” It wasn’t until the fourth paragraph that he introduced the Web site. He wrote: “Nonetheless, some of our key stories, features and photographs will still be available outside our new service area. This will be possible through our two new electronic ventures.”

One was the World Wide Web site. The other was a wire service we had set up to give our content to smaller Colorado papers to print at the same time as it appeared in the Rocky. There was no promotion of the Web site. Our PR efforts at the time were attempts to control the damage from cutting off 30,000 paying customers.

The message to the newsroom at that time regarding the Web site: “Do not let it interfere with the print edition.” And as managing editor, I made sure that we kept our focus on the print competition.

We knew the Web was a place we needed to be. But we didn’t have a clear strategy. Mission. Or objective. It was a “complement to the paper,” as we said in our initial “About us” page.

Which brings me to Lesson 3: You have to have a strategy and you have to be committed to pursuing it. We perceived the Web site as a newspaper online, as a complement to the paper, not as its own thing. That’s not a strategy.

Senior management’s focus in the 1990s was on keeping the newspaper alive. Again, to be clear, that’s understandable, at least to a point. We were fighting for our lives and the money then lay in print. We didn’t understand the Web or new technology and didn’t have the time to learn much about it. We weren’t a consumer-driven company, except that we knew our priority was to get papers on the porch on time in the morning. Otherwise, we feared our subscribers would switch to our competitor.

Without clear objectives, an organization stumbles from one priority to the next. The 4th lesson: You must know your goal. On the print side, we had a clear objective. But our online objective kept changing. Of course this is partially understandable, because what was possible in the online world was also changing rapidly.

Because the Rocky’s newsroom was unionized, management felt it had to quickly make a decision about where to house the new service. The fear was that union rules governing the newsroom would limit what we could do with the Web and potentially increase operating costs at a time when there was no revenue to speak of associated with it. So the newsroom lost its role on the Web until five years later, after the “war” was over.

Legacy labor/management relations and organizational structures cannot be allowed to dictate how a new operation works. Lesson #5: Keep new ventures free from the rules of the old. Over the years, the company had agreed to conditions it might not have liked but could accept because revenues of the newspaper made them possible. The problem was they would strangle a startup.

It was probably a smart move to get the Web out of the newsroom. It made it possible for the Web staff to carve their own path. But it also separated the newsroom - the paper’s most valuable asset - from its new online product for five years. And that clearly had its downside.

Even without a clear goal or strategy, the Web team - and the company - did go on to do some interesting things.

Scripps partnered with Cox to produce an outdoor recreation site called “Go West,” another short-lived effort because costs so exceeded revenues. The Rocky bought an online real estate service. It built web sites for customers. It became an internet service provider.

But the Web leadership kept changing, which meant new marching orders; there was tension between corporate and local leadership about direction on the Web; and staff turnover was heavy. Indicative of the struggle to find a strategy was how the name of the site kept changing. It started as (A really catchy url.)

We ventured deep into high school sports. This is an early example of a RockyPreps page, incredible detail about girls volleyball. This was the first time we thought Web first, posting results online immediately and then outputting select data to print. It was popular with readers. But advertisers shunned it.

You can see initially there was a strange lack of commercial interest on our part.

Except that we were already aware that our classifieds needed to have a home online.

Then we changed the site’s name to We thought the Web was going to be more about what to do than about news. (The story is that was available but the $50,000 price tag was considered too steep.)

Finally, we chose to go to our newspaper name,, despite how unwieldy it was as a url.

This was an era where we didn’t fully believe in the value of the web. So, like other papers, we created the bundle, selling web space as an add-on for print advertisers.

We generally saw the web as a few advertising boxes we could sell. We didn’t see the value of audience. Scripps bought sophisticated software to run its cable and newspaper Web sites. Although it tried to put the focus on readers, in the end it let technical people develop a culture based on how they wanted technology to work - stable and secure - rather than putting the priority on remaining nimble in a rapidly changing world. We kept trying to build perfect systems, slowing our progress, instead of working iteratively.

And in Denver, we thought we needed to reinvent everything for our market instead of accepting solutions that would work across the company.

What did we discover? That the people running a new business need to be free to do what’s best for that business, regardless of the potential impact on the old. That’s lesson #6. Why couldn’t newspapers have invented something like Yelp? Probably because editors would have gone ballistic over reader reviews with misspelled words and would have felt uneasy with reader contributions being given priority. The Rocky’s Web team producing used the slogan, “Before you go out, go,” that could have led in that direction. But the mission was changed because InsideDenver didn’t sound like a newspaper and didn’t encompass the idea of our all-important classifieds.

A pivotal moment - perhaps the most telling about the paper’s approach to the Web - came on the morning of April 20, 1999 when two students opened fire at Columbine High School. The world was watching.

At that time, we had one content producer whose job was essentially to shovel the newspaper onto the Web. The Web team was on the first floor of our building. The newsroom on the third. After news of the shooting broke, the producer came to the newsroom and asked the city editor for any news he could give him. “I’m not giving you anything for the Web site,” he remembers being told. “They’ll steal it.” They, in this case, was The Denver Post. The culture of the newsroom at this point was still to save any possible scoops for the morning paper to keep the Post a day behind us. The Rocky’s Web team ended up relying on our TV news partner for its reports. Even with that, the traffic numbers that day weren’t matched for two years. Neither the Rocky nor the Post won an Eppy Award for coverage of Columbine. That was taken by the Boulder Daily Camera, which didn’t have anywhere near the resources of the two Denver papers to cover the story. But both papers won Pulitzer Prizes for their print coverage.

Something else happened that day, though, that changed the perspective of the newsroom. We decided to give all our best photographs from the high school to the Associated Press as soon as we had them in our computer system. The result, the Rocky pictures you’ve just seen appeared on front pages around the world the next morning. The staff saw the tangible benefits of sharing in real time. The quality of their work captured the attention of the world and raised the paper’s profile. That day was a turning point for how the newsroom worked with the web, although the results wouldn’t become fully visible until a few years later.

The newspaper industry today talks a lot about the need to get paid for its content online. But in the late ‘90s, Denver was an experiment in essentially free newspapers. By the peak of the newspaper war, more than 400,000 subscribers to the two Denver papers were paying a penny a day for home delivery. The Rocky was bleeding money and the Post was heading the same direction. So the owners called a truce, asking the Justice Department to approve what’s known as a joint operating agreement, which allows newspapers to merge business operations while maintaining separate and independent newsrooms.

The agreement, written in 2000 under the direction of two seasoned newspaper executives - William Burleigh and Dean Singleton - didn’t even mention the Web. Yet another sign that the Web was an afterthought all along. The Web wasn’t perceived as central to the success of the new business. It was believed that savings from combining the business operations of the two papers plus the ability to raise advertising rates would produce very healthy returns for both owners. Instead, what happened was that classified revenues dropped by more than $100 million a year from the start of the JOA to the end, and national and display categories tanked, too.

The JOA is a complicating factor in the Denver story. I’m not going to explore it today, except to say that such agreements lead to economically inappropriate activities that ultimately undermine a business. And that’s part of the explanation of what happened to the Rocky.

The JOA did offer one significant benefit to our Web efforts. It gave the papers enough economic cushion to make them feel comfortable enough to negotiate new flexible contracts with the Newspaper Guild to move the Web editorial team and programmers back into the newsroom - this time at the very center of the room, not in a dark corner on the 1st floor, a symbolic move to try to indicate the site’s importance to our future.

This was critical to the multimedia and database creativity that followed on the Web. And I think it was critical to our growth in traffic, from roughly 600,000 uniques a month in 2001 to 2.2 million a month when the paper was put up for sale.

But again, the focus in Denver when the agreement went into effect in early 2001 and for the next few years was on print. The Web in many ways became even more problematic. The papers had two basically similar Web sites using different content management systems and supported by a third advertising system.

The papers still were competing with each other online, even though the owners each got 50 cents of every dollar earned from the Web sites. Instead of focusing on new media and new ways to serve audiences with niche print, online and mobile products, the owners spent $130 million to upgrade their printing plant (they knew they would achieve savings by doing so) and $100 million to build a new headquarters on a prominent site in downtown Denver. The Web was essentially in limbo for a long time, with the Web leadership on the business side continuing to turn over, making it hard to gain any traction except in the newsroom.

Still, we produced some work of a national, even global caliber.
The online version of this story that won 2 Pulitzer prizes, Final Salute, included
8 slide shows
5 movies in a custom built Flash application
And a separate video trailer that preceded the publication of the print special section.

A related story in our coverage of the war at home was called Wake for an Indian Warrior.

The slide show that was part of the story of the first Sioux to die in Iraq had somewhere in the neighborhood of 2 million page views.

Lesson #7: If you want to compete in a medium, you have to understand it. The newspaper industry didn’t understand the web in the beginning. That’s understandable. But it’s not clear that the newspaper industry understands it today. That’s partly because you need to get the right people into an organization, people who can see and seize new opportunities. We were lucky to be able to hire some really talented people who made the work you’ve just seen possible. The question is why would talented people want to join companies that are held back by their past? I think that’s a real problem for legacy media organizations. Smart, talented people have choices. And it’s hard to imagine the best and brightest in advertising, for example, wanting to join a newspaper online operation when they could be working in a pure play environment.

A good example of our lack of understanding of the Web came in 2005 when Denver took its first big leap online under the JOA. This was the same year YouTube went live. Executives in Denver perceived a need for a vehicle to compete with weekly newspapers, which they thought were taking local ad share. In response, the Rocky launched, a network of more than 40 “citizen-journalism” web sites serving the Denver metropolitan area. All content appeared online first. Most came from readers. The best content of the week - again, almost all from readers - was published in 18 weekly zoned print sections. The first site went live that spring. But guess what? Google couldn’t find it.

The company that built the site was a key contractor for a major newspaper company and worked for other large companies, but it didn’t adequately understand search engine optimization and built the site in such a way that it didn’t show up in Google searches, although Yahoo and MSN did find it. We weren’t smart enough as a company to know that needed to be a basic requirement of the project and didn’t know how to evaluate programming to make sure it was. (I don’t have to tell you that if Google doesn’t find a site, its opportunities are very limited.) Ultimately, it was Scripps employees at Shopzilla who studied the architecture of the site and advised us how to rebuild it so it would show up in Google search rankings. See what I mean about the importance of having people who understand the medium they’re working in?

Another example from that effort. Craigslist had come to Denver four years earlier, but we still couldn’t get the classified advertising leadership to agree to compete with Craigslist by offering free classifieds on these community sites, even private party under a certain dollar amount. The argument went on for almost a year, a year when we sent the message to users that we didn’t understand how they wanted to use the web or that advertising content was valuable to them.

Lesson #8: Measure, measure, measure. While newspaper companies had experts managing circulation accounts to make sure they met the requirements of the Audit Bureau of Circulations, they were less committed to an intense focus on web data. I think newsrooms and entire news organizations have to use data more to guide their allocation of resources. This doesn’t mean local news organizations should stop doing investigative reporting because most web traffic goes to freaky stories about teachers having sex with students, but it does mean that they should use the tools available to them and be honest about what the data tell them.

It took the move into the newsroom of Web journalists for the rest of the newsroom to finally change its attitude. Police officials complained that they were answering questions from one reporter for the Rocky Mountain News (a Web journalist) and then having to do the same thing again later in the day for another (this time a print reporter). That was making it more difficult for our print reporters and finally the traditional newsroom staff took over reporting for the Web and became committed to updating news when it happened.

One of the ways we encouraged that was to count what we were doing and share the results. They saw that breaking news updates were driving usage of the site.

By the end, Scripps’ former Web VP felt we were cooking on all cylinders as a news Web site. But that’s probably too generous a view. I think we had far to go.

Which brings me to Lesson #9: Ask yourself: Without R&D, how are local news companies going to get out on the edge and develop new offerings? Now that newspaper companies are filling the bankruptcy courts, they’re scrambling to find ways to survive on the Web. But their efforts seem mostly about making money off their current offerings. You don’t see them developing Yelp, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, etc. I think they still could develop successful new services. But it would require something they haven’t historically done, research and development. The Rocky looked to other newspapers and news sites to assess how it was doing. We should have been looking more closely at pure-play Web operations.

To conclude, Scripps, the owner of the Rocky, is about 130 years old. It’s survived a lot of change. I wouldn’t count it or other historic titles like Hearst or The New York Times out. But I’m concerned about their future. There’s still too much of a sense of entitlement in the industry. The Associated Press spends too much time making the case that copyright violation is the problem bringing the industry down when the industry should be focused on building new and better products and services. Are companies making the same mistake in this decade that the Rocky made in the ‘90s, not understanding the competition? I think so.

Newspaper companies have to look for ways to answer the needs of the people in their communities. They have to know what business they’re in. We thought we were in the newspaper business. It seems like that’s what too many still think. They’re not. They’re in the news, information, knowledge and connection business.

Which brings me to the final lesson: Know your customers. If newspapers would spend more time trying to understand their customers instead of focused on their own internal issues - such as which newspaper department should get credit for Web revenue - they’re more likely to be successful. That’s a hard switch for traditional manufacturing operations like newspapers to make. But I don’t think I need to explain why it’s essential. The following quote explains the dilemma newspapers found themselves in.

“We were not used to the market telling us how things should be. We were used to telling people what we thought they needed and how they needed it,” is how a Scripps marketing exec put it. That has to change.

So, given my experience at the Rocky, what are some things I think newspapers should do going forward?

Newspapers should think bigger at the same time as they think smaller. They should look for opportunities to scale. They’re still too focused on unique, market by market solutions. in Denver is an example of a site that has something to teach newspapers. I’m not saying it’s a great site or that I necessarily think it’ll succeed. But it’s growing rapidly at least in part because they’ve invited thousands of people to become experts, or examiners, on their sites and because they’ve built the service as a national brand based on local sites. Newspapers can’t think anymore of building or selling one monolithic audience. They need to build many niches and many audiences. But interests align across geographies, so there’s no reason that everything they do need be limited to their “markets.”

Newspapers could end the criticism of an ever-shrinking amount of content if they would partner more with others and invite more people to participate on their sites. (When people say what you often hear, that newspapers seem thinner and thinner, we can’t forget that it also creates a negative impression of what’s happening to their Web sites.) The I-phone APP model is something newspapers should explore. Apple built a platform and lets others use it. Couldn’t newspapers work together and with others to benefit readers and users of their services the same way?

Newspapers have traditionally served a small percentage of the businesses in their communities. Instead of trying to hold on to their piece of the pie, newspapers should be using technology to make the pie bigger, along the lines of the way ebay expanded buying and selling opportunities. Newspapers should find more ways for more local businesses to reach potential customers.

Newspapers should give consumers more control. They’re still thinking too much about themselves and not enough about what the consumer wants.

Newspapers should stop looking longingly in the rear view mirror at 30% margins. It sometimes seems the whole game of the industry leadership is trying to find a way to get back to their old margins. (Because of the competition, by the way, the Rocky never had those kinds of margins.)

And, of course, finally, the most difficult recommendation of all, newspapers should stop making decisions about new business opportunities based on how they’ll affect their legacy business. The main newspaper cannot dictate the shape of the future.

Thank you for listening to the lessons I’ve taken from my experience at the Rocky. I hope this autopsy was useful and that my suggestions help others avoid succumbing to the same fate as the Rocky Mountain News. I’d be happy to take any questions. As a reminder, here are the 10 lessons I’ve discussed today. I’ll keep them up during our conversation.

Lessons from the Rocky Mountain News.

Know what business you’re in.
Know your customers.
Know your competition.
Know your goal.
Have a strategy and be committed to pursuing it.
Measure, measure, measure.
Keep new ventures free from the rules of the old.
Let the people running a new venture do what’s best for their business, regardless of the potential impact on the old.
To compete in a new medium, you have to understand it.
Invest in R&D.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

An unlikely source for an argument for dispassionate, fact-based reporting

Today I was amazed when reading Primo Levi's "The Reawakening" to find perhaps the most powerful argument for dispassionate, fact-based reporting that I've ever read. The Reawakening is the sequel to Levi's book, "Survival in Auschwitz." It tells the amazing story of his liberation from Auschwitz in January 1945 by the Red Army and his unbelievable journey home to Italy.

In an afterword to the book, Levi responds to common questions from readers.

The first question is: "In these books there are no expressions of hate for the Germans, no desire for revenge. Have you forgiven them?

In a long response, Levi says:

"I believe in reason and discussion as supreme instruments of progress, and therefore I repress hatred even within myself: I prefer justice. Precisely for this reason, when describing the tragic world of Auschwitz, I have deliberately assumed the calm, sober language of the witness, neither the lamenting tones of the victim nor the irate voice of someone who seeks revenge. I thought that my account would be all the more credible and useful the more it appeared objective and the less it sounded overly emotional; only in this way does a witness in matters of justice perform his task, which is that of preparing the ground for the judge. The judges are my readers."

I don't know if there's a better description of what journalists should do and their relation to readers than that short passage. Witness. Calm. Sober. Credible. Objective. Those are words that stand out to me.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Dean Krakel's story from Ethiopia

Dean Krakel was featured in my series, "A New Life," about how journalists are reinventing themselves. In that installment, he described his dreams for his rafting trip down the Omo River (above). Today he shares the reality he experienced in Ethiopia.

So there we were, my friend Max, guide Jane Dicey and me, in Addis Ababa with our rafting equipment strung out all over the parking lot of the Pacific Hotel, ready to lock and load and head south to the Bele Bridge for the launch of our rafting adventure on the Omo River.

But we weren’t going anywhere. The Ethiopian government acting in conjunction with EEPCO (Ethiopian Electric Power Corporation) had denied our permit.

No reason given.

It was a crushing blow to Max and me. The Gibe II hydropower dam is nearly complete and another dam, the Gibe III is in the planning stages. Our raft trip was a once in a lifetime opportunity to run one of the last, large free-flowing rivers in Africa; a chance to experience a wilderness few roads penetrate and document a wild land populated with wild people before it was forever changed.

Max and I had invested nearly every dollar we had into the trip along with a boatload of hopes, dreams and expectations. It seemed in those moments we had taken a big gamble and lost.

For the next five days, Max, Jane (below) and I navigated the streets of Addis in a score of blue and white taxis, visiting one government minister after another trying to gain the necessary letter of approval that would free us to move.

Maybe in a few weeks or a few months something could be done to help us. Maybe not.

Our rafting trip had come at a very inopportune time politically, Fassil Yilma at the U.S. embassy told us. Environmentally the issue is very sensitive. Billions of dollars was at stake. The Ethiopian government wants the dams completed. The country needs the power and profit that would be generated.

It was a matter best not pushed, Mr. Yilma said, or the government might push back.

The public relations director for EEPCO talked in big elaborate circles that all came back around to, “No.” Activity around the dam’s construction was dangerous. Our rafting would be a disruption to work and a distraction to the workers. We would not be allowed to portage our equipment around the dam. Could we float the upper river above the dam? we asked. No. Could we put in below the dam and float the lower river? we asked. No.

Doors closed. Phones went unanswered. Police at the Bele Bridge would be instructed to stop us if we decided to try without permission.

I had been asked to make a list of camera equipment so that it could be determined if it was “professional” gear. The unspoken message to me was that if I were truly a journalist and not just a tourist on vacation, any story about the Omo would be considered inappropriate. When a river is being dammed and a downstream culture that has depended upon the water’s seasonal ebb and flow for thousands of years is threatened, there is no such thing as positive publicity. Better to drown the valley silently.

People we told our story to tended to shrug and say, “It’s Africa.”

Not to be entirely stymied, Max and I came up with Plan B. We’d rent a land cruiser, driver and translator, load up camping gear and some of the food we’d have eaten on the raft trip and head overland into southern Ethiopia. In the two places where it connected with a road, the Bele Bridge and the Greek hunting camp of Murle, we would be able to reach the Omo.

Along the way we’d be able to visit the dryland versions of tribes we’d have met on the river, Although we would miss interacting with the more primitive tribes we would have encountered along the river, the Hamer (chief below), Karo, Mursi and Bana people along with a score of others.

Frankly, the prospect of making this trip gave me more jitters than the rafting trip had - and those jitters were considerable. There is little traffic in that part of Ethiopia and distances are vast. Everybody walks. For thousands of cattle, goats, donkeys and people the roads are simply big trails between grazing lands and villages. There would be no cell phone coverage in the remotest parts of where were going, no supermarkets, fast food franchises, no gas stations at convenient intervals.

What if we broke down or rain or rockfall made the roads impassable? What if our paperwork was denied at one of the various checkpoints? What if we stumbled into some minor tribal skirmish or border war? How would we be received by the tribes and how would we deal with the constant press of people that surrounded us every time we stopped the cruiser? What of the bandits rumored to surface along the road at night? Not to mention the animal factor, the lion and cape buffalo, poisonous snakes and insects, the tetse flies and malaria packing mosquitos.

Our driver,Tekle, (above) had been knocking around Ethiopia for twenty years and knew the land and how to get around. Endalk, the translator, better known as Michael (below), had grown up in one of the southern villages and had been down the Omo four times working for rafting expeditions. Michael knew the tribes, their languages and customs. If he didn’t have a personal connection in one of the villages he could at least find someone who knew someone who could help. And most importantly, Michael knew whom to pay and how much to pay for access along the way. Everything in Africa runs on bier notes and nothing happens without dropping a few.

And so for 1400 miles of mostly dirt Ethiopian road we threaded the needle of humanity and animals, weaving and honking and bumping and grinding our way south and back.

Near Turmi, in the village of Dumbar, we sat in a smoky Hamer (dancing below) lodge drinking coffee while visiting in our limited fashion with the village chief, his deputies and assorted relations.They were curious about what kind of vessel we drank coffee from at home if not from gourds. We gave them oranges and apples and watched their faces light up with delight at the taste. In return they killed and roasted a goat and served it to us fresh from the fire under an incredible star spangled African sky.

To reach a wedding in the remote village of Unga Bayno we drove up a dry river bed and then went on foot into the bush, walking into a scene so other worldly it was if we had tumbled down the rabbit hole in Alice’s wonderland.

On the following day we returned. Seated on a cowhide under an arbor of leaves surrounded by a pressing, murmuring crowd of dozens of curious onlookers, Max (below) treated assorted eye problems and injuries with his medical kit. One man, bitten by a cobra, had hacked his own leg off with a machete. Among these people a baby born with a defect will be taken away from the village and left to die. Only the strongest can survive.

At Murle we reached the Omo for the first time at what would have been our rafting trip's takeout. There an old Karo woman showed me how to scare the crocs (cooguru) away from the river bank….after I’d already squatted at the water’s edge and dipped my hands into it.

We spent two nights listening to the sounds of baboons barking and the croaking of colabus monkeys as they swung through the trees near our tent, awakening to so much birdsong it was like being in an aviary.

The air at Murle was thick with the billowing dust of goat and cattle herds being herded to and from the Omo for water by Karo warriors, all packing Kalashnikov and chewing Kat, the local stimulant of choice.

We watched as locals fished for giant catfish with hand lines and were serenaded and pestered by a parade of children who followed us everywhere. I dazzled onlookers with the bluish light of my steri pen as we purified our water. “But the water is already good,” said one young woman. “He is making it better,” replied Michael.

Far into Mago National Park we met the Mursi people and were repulsed by their swirling, in your face, chest poking, arm grabbing aggressiveness and incessant demands for money in exchange for photos. The threat of violence seemed imminent if the proper amount wasn’t forthcoming. By park regulations we were required to travel with an armed guard.

The Mursi are not a people you want to bump into alone or after dark. Chances are you wouldn’t be around come dawn. They war with other tribes, have murdered tourists and used to terrorize the local town of Jinka on market day. When Pasquale Saccuro, leader of the second expedition to descend the Omo, asked me how it’d gone with the Mursi, I told him, “okay.” He replied, “Things can go from being okay to a bullet in a heartbeat with the Mursi.”

Our last contact with the Omo was at Bele Bridge, near the end of our trip. We shook hands with the policeman guarding the bridge with it his Ak-47. Yes, he said, he would have stopped us from floating the river.

Max and I spent the afternoon by the river beneath the bridge, thinking, talking, sitting silently, thinking, trying to put things into context. It’s funny in a way because we began our journey far south where our river trip would have ended and we ended our journey at the Bele Bridge where the river trip would have began. Everything about our trip had not happened as planned or expected.

I went to Africa in search of something, to find some part of myself and answer some of the questions in my life concerning the future in the aftermath of the Rocky Mountain News’ closing, my recent divorce.

Truthfully, sitting under the Bele Bridge beside the Omo I couldn’t even think of the questions I meant to ask or the answers I had hoped to receive.

I felt so overwhelmed and overloaded by the different cultures that we had experienced that the old me had seemed to shrink away in order to make room for other things to fill me up.

Our journey seemed like one long strange dream of voices and songs, dust and goat blood, humming insects, painted faces, suffocating heat, violent rain storms, a thousand shades of jungle green and a thousand shades of desert brown, bright pink elephant flowers in bloom, a million wild sights, sounds, smells and tastes, a kaleidoscope of colors and impressions that fill my mind night and day as if I’ve taken a drug that has forever altered my consciousness and will not shut off even in sleep.

In the three weeks that we were gone I never felt one bad vibe from anyone, not even when we accidentally broke through a roadblock. It was only a brown rope stretched across the road that it would have taken a bat’s radar to see, but still, instead of filling the cruiser full of holes with an automatic weapon the policeman rushed up and stuck his hand through the window to shake hands. No worries. Be happy.

I never heard one curse word, at least none I understood, saw no middle fingers extended even in the worst, most confusing traffic jams or from people in the road that we had to honk at; I saw no anger, no unhappiness, no envy. Mursi excluded. There is no word for please or thank you in Mursi.

People exist on so little, ask for so little, and are so happy with what they have, happy to be alive, happy to have jobs no matter how trivial or unimportant those jobs might seem to us; happy to be here today, now, in the moment.

In a market place I saw a beggar give another beggar a coin, as if to say, hey buddy, I’m bad off too but I have more than you, let me give you a hand. That moment fits in well with my one overriding impression of Ethiopia: an outstretched hand and a big smile.

When you begin a journey you never know how it will come out. That is part of the mystery. Part of the fear. Part of the joy. Max and I started out on one kind of trip and ended up on something else. The outcome is still out there somewhere, like a ghost of Ethiopia that I may continue to chase for the rest of my life.

To reach Dean Krakel:

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Dean Krakel returns safely with a good story from Omo River adventure in Ethiopia

I wrote on Aug. 19 about Dean Krakel, former director of photography for the Rocky Mountain News, going on a rafting adventure down the Omo River in Ethiopia. His story was probably the wildest of any from former Rocky employees.

Well, Dean got back safely to Colorado on Saturday, with a different story than he might have expected, but nonetheless he wrote me that it was a "wonderful trip."

I should have a story from Dean in the next day or two. But here's a quick taste of what he experienced.

"We drove 1400 miles in the land cruiser, over mostly dirt roads. We drove up riverbeds and in some cases walked to find the people. We were able to make it to the Omo River in two places and got to meet the guy with an AK-47 who was waiting for us at the Bele bridge, what would have been our launch point.

"I think i have a good story and did some of my best photo work. My heart cracked open like an egg. I love Ethiopia. So much of that country is like the west must have been, just little wild frontier towns with villages at the edges and even wilder people beyond. Getting an education is huge there. I had so many people approach me about helping them get books, or pens or paper or help with sponsoring them for school, big strapping high school sized kids who are still in primary grades.

"So many impressions. Africa is like being on a drug or being like Alice and tumbling down the rabbit hole. You just see amazing things every minute and for every photo you get you've missed a hundred others."

More to come...

** The photo by Dean Krakel shows a young Karo girl above the Omo.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

News21 an encouraging effort by journalism schools and journalism students

I got the following e-mail from Jody Brannon a couple of weeks ago and just had time to check out the project she directs.

I hope everybody will take a look. This effort is encouraging. Here are some journalism schools and journalism students diving into the future.

The following is the e-mail.

Now in its fourth year, News21 is a network of eight university newsrooms, the last of which concluded its summer reporting Friday. Today we're proud to officially announce the new

New this year:
* Twice as many schools: Arizona State, Maryland, North Carolina and Syracuse joined Berkeley, Columbia, Northwestern and Southern California as newsroom incubators. Each chose its own approach, design and CMS to foster innovation.
* An increase from 44 to 93 fellows, each pushed to present their in-depth reporting projects in innovative ways,
* A broad theme that allowed each school to explore the way America is changing politically, socially, economically, technologically, environmentally, etc.
* 20 RSS pages that slice the content for users and prospective publishers interested in narrower categories, such as religion, employment, poverty or immigration.
* An innovation blog where fellows explain their inventions and approaches; postings to this will continue so please consider adding us to your blog roll.
* A Ning community where the reporting and collaborative process allowed for transparent learning and production.

See the BusinessWire press release here.

I hope you'll explore the site, which is still being polished, follow us on Facebook and Twitter and share the news of our re-launch with your social and professional circles.

Several sites will be updated into the fall. Please visit the site often to enjoy its depth and breadth. We look forward to your feedback.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

A contrarian view of Pew survey showing plummeting trust in accuracy of media

One of the first questions to the panel at the Saving the News meeting in Denver Wednesday night was about the public's lack of trust in journalism.

The question stemmed, at least in part, from the release of the latest survey by The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press showing that the press accuracy rating has hit a two-decade low.

Look, I understand why this is a concern for many. But I also think we should consider the changes in media that have occurred during this period. The more informed people are, in my view, the less they trust or believe the reports they read. And the Web makes it possible for people to be much more informed. People have so many choices for information today that they're in a position to judge mainstream news reports more critically. Is that all bad? I don't think so. Of course this doesn't mean news organizations shouldn't put an emphasis on accuracy. They should. And they should be open to criticism and respond to it. They should be transparent about how they wrestle with the difficult issues they have to deal with. So, yes, there's much that can be done to build public trust. And that work is essential for any individual organization. But at the same time, it might be good that readers are critical of journalists' work and treat it skeptically. Perhaps that will lead them to read more widely and to interact with journalists to pressure them to improve the quality of their work.

Scott Yates, who attended the meeting Wednesday night in Denver, pointed out something important to add to this post.

"You are on to something there, but I think the other part of the answer is that the 'media' has expanded to include crappy bloggers, more screaming blather on cable, etc., so the solid reporters get lumped into a pretty unsavory pile. Hence the number slippage."

Saving the News meeting in Denver shows level of concern among public, reveals new Colorado Public Television in-depth reporting initiative

About 200 people gathered Wednesday night at the Colorado History Museum in Denver for a meeting put on by

The 14 roundtables where citizens could talk about their concerns about what's happening to the media and the future of journalism in Denver seemed to be the most lively aspect of the meeting. They were followed by a general panel and Q&A. (I was one of the five panelists.)

The "news" from the meeting was the announcement from Wick Rowland, president and CEO of Colorado Public Television , KBDI-TV/12, that his station would be creating a web site and television program featuring local "in-depth and investigative reporting."

The service, to be called, Colorado Public News, is being led by Ann Imse, a former reporter at the Rocky Mountain News. Rowland's station is providing 24% of a $2.2 million full-year budget for a staff of 12, according to a flier Imse provided at the meeting. The donation includes air time on the station, a web site, libel insurance, staff for handling underwriting and donations, a media center with offices and administrative services and a 501 (c)(3). An initial donation of $10,000 is financing a prototype web site with a sample package of in-depth stories.

The flier says the group needs $400,000 to get started, $1.7 million for a full year with a full staff.

KDBI has a history of fund-raising, so that might give this initiative a leg up in the competition for dollars to support in-depth reporting in Colorado post the Rocky Mountain News. But raising that kind of money won't be easy.

Among the issues addressed at the meeting were the impact on the community of the loss of the Rocky, the plummeting levels of public trust in the media, how to insure that people and minority groups continue to have a voice, how to support investigative journalism, what alternatives there might be to mainstream media, diversity, "corporate media" as a problem and the possibility of more funding for a "public option" for news. Organizers promised a follow-up session in January.

The session was put on by Free Press and I want my Rocky.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Good luck to CNN trying to get $199 per story

E&P reports that CNN will try to charge $199 per story on its new wire service. Good luck. I was one of the editors who attended CNN's meeting on a potential wire service last year. They're smart folks who seemed like they were flying high compared to their newspaper brethren. But to think that many news organizations would be willing to pay that kind of fee seems wildly deluded. Even if the content is much better than the ordinary stuff we were shown at the Atlanta meeting, I can't see editors paying for it.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Universities take smart step in building, a site dedicated to the best and latest in academic research

Even if newspapers and other traditional news organizations weren't struggling, it would be smart for non-profits and other organizations to do their own thing online. But given their problems, it's encouraging to see sites like emerging.

This is the beginning of a press release announcing the site that I received today.

"Cutting-edge research stories were once staples of nearly every daily newspaper, but as pressure from the internet forced most publishers to reduce the size of their issues and their staff, coverage of science news has dramatically declined.

"Now, 35 leading research universities have joined together to create, a unique, online research news channel dedicated to showcasing the best of American university research."

These universities are doing the right thing. The site is definitely worth checking out. Of course this site could face its own issues, but better to face them than to stand by and see the quality of journalism dedicated to science and research decline. One positive aspect of the future, I believe, is more sites like, where smart people or deep organizations with expertise in a subject take it upon themselves to be the source, rather than waiting for news organizations to fill the gap.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Traditional media and Van Jones

Howard Kurtz is right that traditional media botched its coverage of the Van Jones controversy.

The story is a reminder that it shouldn't matter for news organizations where its news tips come from. Who cares if it's Glenn Beck who's generating heat over the story? There seemed to be two irrefutable facts worthy of coverage, even if nobody else was talking about them. One was that Jones in a public speech this year called Republicans assholes. That's his right. But coming for an executive in the administration of a president who pledged to bring a new tone to Washington, it's at least interesting. And they didn't have to rely on Beck to determine whether it was true. Video of the speech had been posted online. Two, even the possibility that he signed a "truther" petition regarding 9/11 would be worthy of investigation. That's so far out of the mainstream and so outrageous on its face that it should have raised questions about the judgment of Jones and of the administration that appointed him. Again, no need to rely on Beck. The petition either has his signature or it doesn't. If it does, how could that not be news?

Good reporters look for stories wherever they can find them. They don't care about where they might have originated. They care about whether they're true and relevant. How could the story of Van Jones not have been relevant?

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

PULITZERS LOST, WHAT A COST - Cheryl Diaz Meyer, 10th in a series on the impact of thousands of job cuts at America's newspapers

Cheryl Diaz Meyer and David Leeson won the Pulitzer Prize for breaking news photography in 2004 for their coverage of the Iraq war for the Dallas Morning News. Today, Diaz Meyer no longer works at the paper. Neither does Leeson. And it's questionable whether the paper would assign photojournalists to do the same type of courageous work overseas again.

That says a lot about why I'm publishing this series, "Pulitzers Lost, What a Cost." It's an attempt to get at what it means for society, journalism and journalists that so many talented people have been spun out, bought out or shut out of newspaper newsrooms in the past few years.

The Pulitzer board cited Diaz Meyer and Leeson for "their eloquent photographs depicting both the violence and poignancy of the war with Iraq." What happens when eloquence is silenced at major news organizations? Diaz Meyer and Leeson are still working. (You can see her work on her personal web site and read more about her latest project in her comments below.) But there's no question in reading her reflections on the state of the newspaper industry that we're paying a price for what's happening in newsrooms across the country.

1. Name, age, final paper.

Cheryl Diaz Meyer, 41, The Dallas Morning News

2. What work did you win Pulitzer for, when?

I won the Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Photography in 2004 with my colleague David Leeson for our coverage of the Iraq invasion.

3. Why did you leave your newspaper? When?

I was part of a company downsizing in April, 2009.

4. What are you doing now?

I am currently editing a story that I photographed on the native and mystic healing arts of the Philippines, specifically how these beliefs marry with Christianity. The story drew me from one side of the country to the other as I interviewed, photographed and audio-recorded subjects for a photo story, written story and multimedia piece.

Any reflections on life after newspapers?

The problem with the catastrophic condition of the newspaper and magazine industry today is that as journalists leave the business in droves, those who are truly passionate about journalism and care to continue working at their craft are now seeking alternative ways to make a living. Some of the most talented journalists in our industry are biding time, trying to make a living doing commercial work, non-profit work, teaching—the journalism skills they have spent years honing are squandered by an economy that cannot support them. This is a loss to our society; and in the larger sense, it’s a loss to our democracy because ultimately the press acts as our country’s watchdog.

In photojournalism particularly, the conversations turn to “monetizing photographs.” Photojournalists increasingly are creating alliances with their subjects who then finance the work. Some say this is not journalism, but public relations. The question does arise, what happens to the journalism if the subject is paying for it?

The paradigm for freelance photojournalism doesn’t exist anymore and yet all who care deeply about the value of journalism want desperately to redefine it, fix it, make it work again.

5. What do you hope to do going forward? Will you stay in journalism? How?

I am passionate about telling stories through photography and I will continue to do so regardless of how the format changes. I will build on the affiliations I already have with media organizations and seek out other kinds of clients who are interested in storytelling images.

I’ve always viewed journalism as an honorable calling, but now we also have to be entrepreneurs. This skill, and one’s ability to adjust to the new technological environment, will probably distinguish who will come out of this crisis still standing.

6. What has the downsizing of your former newsroom or closing of your former paper meant to the quality of journalism in your community? For example, are there types of stories not being told? You could use your own experience to provide examples here.

The photojournalism at The Dallas Morning News has been renowned as some of the best in the world. For many years, the company leaders saw themselves as competitors with the New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post and other news behemoths. They were aggressive in their coverage, reporting stories that were of international, national and local importance.

Yet after two Pulitzer Prizes for photography in 2004 and 2006, the publisher stated that he would not support the coverage of stories like the Iraq invasion or Hurricane Katrina, for which those Pulitzers were awarded, if they happened today.

So the paper’s readers on the local level, and the web audience nationally and internationally, will not likely see this type of award-winning storytelling—and some of the best photojournalism is not going to happen at The Dallas Morning News because there is no support for it. The good thing is that the company does continue its focus on hard-hitting local stories, and they have not given up on quality journalism. But I sincerely hope that their turn away from national and international news stories is a response to the economic downturn and not a permanent philosophical change in the company’s vision.

In the meanwhile, my fellow Pulitzer Prize winner, David Leeson, took a buyout almost a year ago, and many other acclaimed photojournalists who joined the staff of the DMN over the past 20 years are no longer with the paper. When I began covering wars in 2001, I tapped Leeson for his knowledge of such dangerous assignments. The loss of institutional knowledge caused by the collective departure of so many seasoned journalists is, in the long term, a crisis for our profession.

7. What, if anything, do you think your newspaper should have done differently to prevent the downsizing or closure that cost you your job?

The Dallas Morning News could not and cannot save itself on its own—the changes that need to happen are industry wide. Giving away content for free, as most media organizations do on the web, is an unsustainable business model. But few have the gumption to charge for it. If all media organizations charged for content, it would become the norm. A year ago, airlines announced that checked bags would incur a fee; most fliers balked, but now it is an accepted cost of flying because almost all airline companies charge.

I’m a fan of micropayments for the web. In the Philippines where an average teacher’s salary is $350 per month, even those earning much less will carry a cell phone, if not two. They easily accrue $10 to $20 in texting fees each month, which is considered palatable because they pay incrementally for the usage. Apple successfully uses a similar business model with iTunes.
Viewers will not balk to pay pennies for a story online, especially if there is no free lunch out there.

The Financial Times has been charging a subscription fee for online content since 2002 and is about to add the option of a micropayment system. As most news organizations struggle to find a solution to falling ad revenue, I think they would benefit from a little solidarity.

8. What would you advise young people wanting to pursue a life in journalism today?

Journalism is a calling, and if you truly feel the call, follow your heart. Because although these are painfully challenging times, you will know no other job more fulfilling and adventuresome.

To read previous installments: Deborah Nelson, Andrew Schneider, Kim Komenich, Janet Reeves, Jerry Kammer, Paul Giblin, Tamara Jones, Glenn Frankel and Joe Demma.

Fundamental issue for traditional news organizations - it's a mistake to think of yourself as a newspaper or magazine

There's a fascinating post on Poynter in which Salon CEO Richard Gingras says: 'It Was a Mistake to Think of Ourselves As a Magazine.'

Salon was an Internet pioneer so it can't rightly be put with older news organizations whose identity was based on being a newspaper, TV station, radio station or magazine. But in reaching the conclusion he did, I think Gingras gets at a fundamental issue for any news organization as it tries to find its way in the Internet era. If they can't make the jump to thinking of themselves in Internet terms, it's hard to imagine that they'll be able to carve a future.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

AP right to distribute photo Defense Secretary Gates urged news agency to hold

The question of how to handle photos of the dead - fallen in war or in attacks on our own soil, such as Columbine - is never easy for editors.

But the Associated Press is in a different position from a local newspaper. Its role is to provide its members and customers content that they decide what to do with. As a former editor who used to work with AP, the last thing I wanted the agency to do was hold back on content. Every day pictures streamed into our newsroom that would never see the light of day for a number of reasons, including that they were too graphic without a reason to justify showing the bloodshed. But that was our decision, not the decision of the editors at AP.

Clearly the AP photographer traveling with the troops when Lance Cpl. Joshua Bernard was hit was there under certain ground rules. I don't know what they were, but I'm hoping they were that she was free to use her own judgment about what to distribute. That appears to be the case from the excellent story that went with her photos.

But the most important reason I appreciate AP editors making the decision to distribute the photo as part of a package of photos on Bernard is that it can't be left up to the family of the fallen or the defense secretary what Americans will see of a war the country is engaged in. I have the experience of Columbine to inform my thinking on such matters. I chose to publish a photo of a dead child on the sidewalk outside the school. It was an excruciating decision. The family disagreed with it at the time. But a few years later their view changed. They came to feel that people needed to see the truth and thanked me for having the courage to publish the photo. They encouraged me to have the courage to publish difficult photos in the future.

There's no doubt that the photo AP moved was a difficult photo. But the wire service did the right thing by distributing it.

There are ways to publish troubling photos. One is to prepare newspaper readers for it by not printing it on the front page. Then parents can make the decision whether they want their children to see it.

I can understand why Defense Secretary Gates might go to bat for the family and try to stop distribution of the photo. But I think it would be better for him to show what distinguishes the United States from its enemies, and one of those things is a free press. Such cases are not easy for anyone. The family's grief is profound and immeasurable. I believe the nation shares in it in some small way. Nobody wants to deepen their suffering. On the other hand, the obligation of news organizations is to inform their readers. Part of that job is to show the actual cost of war.

A different way of seeing regional editions by The New York Times and Wall Street Journal - I see it as a possible way to strengthen local journalism

Instead of seeing the possibility of regional editions by The New York Times and Wall Street Journal dealing the final "death blow" to metro dailies, as Rick Edmonds suggests, I think it's possible to see in the strategy a new way to strengthen local journalism.

I'm not saying that the version of metro dailies described in the Richard Perez-Pena story in The Times today makes sense or will have the effect Edmonds fears. Perez-Pena says the Journal is thinking of adding "a parge or two of general-interest news from California, probably once a week, produced by the large staff it already has in the Bay Area." I can't see how that's enough to make a difference to anybody.

But I do think there are possibilities worth exploring in national newspapers working with a regional operation in an online and print partnership. What would happen if visitors to the Journal's Web site from California or the Bay area saw a portion of the site produced by a news team, say affiliated with The San Francisco Chronicle? And, of course, SFGate, would have a window to the Journal as a key source of news on business and the markets. Then the smaller Chronicle team could produce a weekly or couple of days a week newspaper, perhaps distributed with the Journal, with local advertising and inserts. Its principal focus would be digital, delivering news and information to computers and cell phones. The new Chronicle wouldn't need to try to replicate Journal coverage of the nation or the world, or of business. But it would focus on all things California and all things local. I could see an interesting partnership developing, with benefits online and in print. No, the local newspaper wouldn't look like the metro newsroom of old, but it would be focused and it would have a window to the world through its partnership with the Journal's Web site. It could start becoming something new for a new era, starting with being a digital first publication. Of course the same thing could happen in a partnership with The Times. In some ways this might be considered a "franchise" model for the future of local news. Another way to look at it is that the papers would be creating a new, deeper network, or a "networked" model. I see potential worth exploring in partnerships between major national titles and local titles. In some ways, USA Today is best positioned for this approach. First, it's already part of a major newspaper company with papers across the country. Second, it's perceived as the most fair and neutral of the national titles.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Unemployment insurance has been a fiasco for many former Rocky Mountain News staffers

The following is an explanation of the unemployment fiasco experienced by many former Rocky Mountain News staffers. A few have been deemed eligible. Most have been told they're not eligible for a period of time because they received severance after the paper closed on April 27. I post this because I think it's important that people know things are never as simple as they seem. This was written by Melissa Pomponio, former unit chair at the Rocky for the Denver Newspaper Guild. If anybody has further information, please add it in the comments section. Thank you.

Prior to Feb. 28, 2009, the Rocky Mountain News staff reported on the state's thousands of unemployed. On Feb. 29, everything changed and we became a part of the swelling numbers of jobless.

We joined the flood of Coloradans drowning the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment's unemployment division in new cases and questions. We've discovered that the process of filing for and collecting unemployment insurance benefits is as clear as mud. The rules and regulations governing the receipt of benefits is a rather thick missive wrought with finite definitions for words such as "severance" and "separation."

Our arrival on the unemployment scene coincided with the desire to streamline some of the definitions and rules for the receipt of unemployment insurance benefits. House Bill 1076, introduced during the last legislative session, grew from this effort. Among other things, the bill's intention was to merge the definitions associated with money employees received after losing their jobs. Without getting too complicated, prior to HB1076, a determination of severance would diminish the unemployment benefit by the amount of money received. A determination of separation or an other cash payment would generally delay the benefit for the week in which it is received and then restored.

We learned about the bill, and the governor signing it into law just as we were finishing the process of receiving our monetary settlement. As employees covered by a collective bargaining agreement at the Rocky, we entered into effects bargaining shortly after the closure of the Rocky. The goal was to tie up loose ends and effectively terminate the contract between Rocky employees and the Denver Publishing Co. (the Rocky) and E.W. Scripps (the parent company). In the process, we negotiated and received a monetary settlement in return for our signatures on waiver and release documents, the contents of which we are bound not to reveal.

Confusion about how this money should be treated in relation to our continuing unemployment insurance benefit claims continues six months after the closure of the Rocky. Some of us have received notice that our benefit will be delayed for a period of time determined by the amount of money we received. Some of us have appealed and won this decision. There are others who were never penalized for claiming the money and continue to receive benefits. There are still others whose unemployment benefits have ceased, but they have never received a notice as to why. It is unclear how HB1076 is affecting these decisions.

As journalists, we tend to ask a lot of questions and knock on a lot of doors. We've been fortunate to have a dedicated group of public servants working with us to resolve and clarify our cases. We are grateful for the involvement of Rep. Sal Pace, D-Pueblo; Steve Fowler, head of the state's unemployment division, and his staff; Gov. Ritter's chief of staff, Jim Carpenter; and Don Mares, head of the state's Department of Labor and Employment in addition to many others willing to listen along the way.

As we continue to look for meaningful employment, our cases continue to be reviewed by state officials.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Rocky Mountain News survey: Six months after final edition, here's what the former staff is doing

What happens to the staff of a newspaper when it closes?

That's the question I tried to answer last week by sending a simple survey to the 230 or so people who were on the editorial staff of the Rocky Mountain News when it published its final edition on Feb. 27.

This is not a scientific survey. My findings are based on the responses I received and information I already had from a handful of people who didn't reply. I received 142 responses from about 200 eligible staff and 28 responses from 30 eligible managers. The paper had a staff of about 200 Full Time Equivalents when it closed. There were many part-timers, especially sports clerks, copy editors and reporters. I do think the survey gives a good picture of what has happened, especially when combined with the comments people provided. At least it did for me.

This report on what happened to the staff of the Rocky consists of this story, plus:
- Comments from reporters, photographers, artists, videographers (content generators)
- Comments from copy editors, designers, editorial assistants, imagers (the office staff)
- Comments from managers
- A copy of the survey I sent out
(I will try to replicate this survey at the one-year mark, perhaps with a more refined set of questions. If you have suggestions, please let me know.)

So, to the findings*:

  • 46 (out of 142) staff members have found new full-time jobs. 11 (out of 28) managers have found new full-time jobs.
  • 15 staff members have new part-time jobs. 1 manager has a new part-time job.
  • 64 staff members are freelancing or started their own business. 9 managers are freelancing or started their own business.
  • 11 staff members are going to school. 1 manager is going to school.
  • 8 staff members are collecting unemployment. 4 managers are collecting unemployment.
  • 15 staff members reported doing "other" things, such as traveling, taking care of grandchildren, taking time off. 3 managers reported doing other things.
* The totals do not equal the number of respondents because some people listed multiple activities. In the case of other questions, the totals don't add up because some people declined to answer.

  • 14 (out of 142) staff members who are working say their job is better than their job at the Rocky. A sizable percentage of this group were part-timers at the Rocky who now have a full-time job. 2 (out of 28) managers said their new job is better than their job at the Rocky.
  • 32 staff members say their new job is as good as their job at the Rocky. No managers reported feeling that way.
  • 23 staff members said their new job was worse than their job at the Rocky. 3 managers said the same.
  • 9 (out of 142) staff members are earning more in their new job than they earned at the Rocky. Again, a significant percentage of this group were part-timers who had found full-time employment. 3 (out of 28) managers are earning more.
  • 5 staff members are earning the same as what they made at the Rocky. No managers are earning the same.
  • 78 staff members are earning less. 11 managers are earning less.
So, what struck me about the responses?

As might be expected, the Web staff seemed the most successful in finding new work. People landed at,,, and other sites.

It seems many reporters, photographers, videographers, designers and managers are finding some success, satisfaction and cause for optimism by either starting their own businesses or freelancing. This path seems more unusual for copy editors.

I'm surprised by how many people have found jobs in journalism. The Post made a bold gesture and hired 11 former Rocky staff members, who've made a significant contribution to that paper. The Gazette of Colorado Springs has 3. The Denver Business Journal 1. The list goes on. For example, we have an editorial assistant who's going to be a reporter in Tucumcari, a small New Mexico town. A part-time page designer has become the editor of a weekly near Colorado Springs. And of course, there's our former Washington correspondent, ME Sprengelmeyer, who bought his own weekly in New Mexico and is now its editor and publisher.

But clearly, the thing that sticks out most is that people are making less than they made at the Rocky. In many cases, I was told, a lot less. The financial picture for most is more difficult now than it was when they were employed at the Rocky. That's the bad news. People lost jobs that they valued, that were a part of their identity - and most are still suffering a significant financial loss. The question is whether that will improve over time.

That said, I must say I was impressed by how many people were looking ahead with optimism, building new businesses and lives. That doesn't mean people aren't struggling with their loss. Many are. But there are many examples in the accompanying blogs posts of comments from staffers and managers that show how people are looking for the bright side in their new lives. We have one reporter who always struggled with new technology who's jumped right in and already bought 9 urls as part of her new business. There's a great sense of adventure afoot.

Finally, I must say that I was gratified that many still feel as I do, that we had something special in the Rocky newsroom. I think you'll see that in the comments as well. While I think the numbers, and the following lists of new jobs, are interesting, I would encourage you not to miss the comments. They give a deep and varied portrait of the experience of the past six months.

Many former staffers and managers are now doing more than one job. Some have a part-time job and are freelancing on the side. Others have started their own business.

Among the jobs former staff members are doing:
- Working full-time and part-time for The Denver Post
- Working for The Gazette of Colorado Springs
- Working for The Denver Business Journal
- Editor and publisher of the Guadalupe County Communicator, N.M.
- Reporter, Tucumcari, N.M.
- Editor, The Record, N.J.
- Copy Editor, Montgomery, Alabama, Advertiser
- Director of Communication for a company selling a new respiratory-care device
- Internal Communications in office of the president of the University of Colorado
- Editor,
- Editor,
- Editors, writers at
- Private investigator
- PIO for a community fire department
- Teaching journalism in Cairo, Egypt
- Teaching English in South Korea, 3
- Business editor of an English-language newspaper in Seoul, South Korea
- Freelance writing, editing, photography, design, filmmaking, web design
- Web design, Las Vegas Sun
- Web developer, Las Vegas Sun
- Researcher/writer for a major architectural firm, Fentress Architects
- Writer, University of Colorado Athletic Department
- Managing Editor, Carolina Journal, Raleigh, N.C.
- TV news
- Opening a bicycle shop
- Investing
- Writing a novel
- Marketing for a physical therapy company
- Publishing community newspaper
- Bloomberg News reporter in Sydney, Australia
- Pit boss at a California poker/card room
- Communications Director for the governor's economic recovery team
- Studying for a master's degree in documentary film and history
- Studying to become a physical therapy assistant
- Studying to become a teacher (many are doing this)
- Research and media specialist for the American Indian College Fund
- layout specialist and proposal writer
- Web developer for Naples Daily News
- Screenwriter
- Stand-up comedian
- Music writer for
- Reporter for Spanish-language weekly, Viva Colorado
- Record store sales person
- Associate Editor, Denver Magazine
- Staffer for U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet
- Executive Director of the Colorado Association of Funders
- Health Care research/project manager for Colorado Medical Society
- lawn mowing and garden work
- help desk manager for major Web company
- raising grandchildren
- columnist for
- Suicide prevention worker for the Colorado Wingman Project, aimed at the Air National Guard
- Editor, Pikes Peak Bulletin
- National NBA writer for AOL website

Among the jobs former managers are doing:

- Wildlife, nature, travel photo business
- Online editor (2) for Web site, Politics Daily
- Web content coordinator for the University of Colorado School of Medicine
- Enterprise Editor for the Western United States for the Associated Press
- Senior director of projects and programs for
- Office manager for a major local church
- founder and freelance writer for web site
- Freelance writing
- Director of Communications for Mayor John Hickenlooper
- Editor, Houston Chronicle
- Local news editor at The Record, N.J.
- Editorial page columnist, The Denver Post
- Albuquerque Public Schools Foundation Executive Director
- Photo editing business specializing in wedding photos
- Studying in the masters of public health program at the University of Colorado at Denver
- Assistant Managing Editor/Photo for a metropolitan newspaper (announcement soon)
- 2 social media consulting businesses

And then there's me, who's blogging, writing, consulting and speaking on journalism and media issues. And, yes, making far less than I was at the Rocky. But as difficult as it's been some days, I'm enjoying life more than ever in so many ways. I loved being part of the Rocky team and would love to be able to collaborate on that level again, but I also am enjoying my independence. My time is my own. And it's not hard to find many things to do with it.