Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Heart of Steamboat Springs

I spent a few days last week with the folks at Steamboat Today. It's a local news operation that is worth the attention of others looking for ways to thrive in the digital era. It starts with a committed owner, the same family that owns the Lawrence Journal World in Kansas. Then there's a passion about the people who work there. They seem to love the place and the work. And most important, they're striving to deliver content and advertising on a number of platforms. They have a free tabloid newspaper six days a week. They publish a paid broadsheet newspaper on Sundays. (My guess is that they'll soon be a tabloid seven days a week. I would be if I were in their shoes.) They have multiple Web sites. They build Web sites for local businesses. They publish multiple glossy magazines. They have their own TV station, with a live, two-hour morning show on weekdays. They're launching an aggressive high school sports effort, online, on TV and in the paper. That's the key. They see everything as multi-platform. They're making their way as a mobile provider. That's not to say they've got everything figured out. But there's a deep commitment to serving the community and being the news and information source for Routt County. With all the talk of the problems facing newspapers, it's important to remember that these smaller news organizations - while facing steep revenue declines because of the recession - have much better long term prospects than larger operations. The reason for that, I believe, is that they're closer to their communities and can better serve readers with content they can't get elsewhere and advertisers with a connection to the community they can afford that produces results. I shot this video along the Yampa River in Steamboat because it was so beautiful and I wanted to see whether I could share the experience.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

A comparison of the closing of the Rocky Mountain News with the closing of the Chicago Tribune's suburban Tribs

The following is by John Rebchook, longtime real estate editor of the Rocky Mountain News. He is now blogging at insiderealestatenews.com. He sent me this in response to my survey of Rocky employees six months after the closing of the paper. My final question was: Do you have any comments you'd like to share about your experience post-Rocky Mountain News? To read other responses, click here.

Of the five papers I worked for during the past 30 years, four of them have gone out of business.

Besides the Rocky, I was only working at one other paper during its death knell.

Twenty seven years ago, I was a reporter for the Suburban Trib, a tabloid insert into the Chicago Tribune. It was owned lock, stock and barrel by the Tribune, but we were autonomous, with our own staff, editors, and even our own printing press.

Employees at the Little Trib, as I liked to call it (because it irked the editors), were paid a fraction of those working in what we called “The Tower,” in downtown Chicago.

When I compare the way E.W. Scripps - the parent of the Rocky - handled the closing of its flagship paper with the way the Tribune company began to shut down the Suburban Trib, it is like a contrast of good and evil.

First, E.W. Scripps gave us several months of warning that the Rocky could close.

By contrast, at the Suburban Trib we arrived to work on a bright spring morning in 1982 and we were broad-sided with the news that the majority of us would lose our jobs that day. We learned about the firings not from management, but from a fellow reporter, whose father had a close business relationship with top executives at the Chicago Tribune. Also, the Suburban Trib was closed before the WARN, or Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act, was enacted, which requires employers to give advanced notice of large, mass layoffs.

The Tribune hired goons – guys with fat bellies, open shirts and gold chains – to make sure we didn't filch any of the crappy typewriters in the newsroom.

Days before the Little Trib closed, we were asked to turn in current overtime. My editor, who did not know what was in store for us, told me they could never pay me for all my overtime, but he would let me take comp time whenever I liked. I had no idea of how much free time I was about to get.

As I was waiting for the ax to fall, I went into the morgue to get some of the original copies of my articles. My immediate supervisor told me that was company property and I had no right to them. I pointed out that under our library system, there were three copies of every story. He allowed me to take the originals, but he said he was sure the Tribune would allow people to return to make copies. It did not. The Tribune decided having former Suburban Trib employees return would be “disruptive” to the handful of people they kept.

When we were handed our walking papers, we were told that the Suburban Trib was profitable, and it was not being closed for economic reasons.

Rather, the Tribune was giving up on the zoned model, and going forward would incorporate suburban coverage in the main paper. Back in the early 1980s, when this occurred, the Tribune was privately held, so I have no idea if they were telling the truth about whether the Suburban Trib was making money. I will say the former, cold-blooded executives at the Tribune make Sam Zell look like Mother Teresa.

The Tribune sold our building in Hinsdale, Ill., to a developer, who razed it for a strip center, I'm told. They sold the presses that printed the Little Trib to another suburban Chicago newspaper.

At the time, my friend Samuel G. Freedman, now an author and professor at Columbia University, gave me some sage advice. I'm paraphrasing, but he said “give your loyalty to people, not to companies,” because companies don't care about you. And they don't deserve it.

After my experience at the Little Trib, I harbored no naive expectation that corporations are run by some caring, grandfatherly types. They're run by bean counters. And that's OK.

And frankly, I've long-thought that Dean Singleton was smarter than anyone at Scripps. And more passionate about the newspaper racket (I hesitate to call it a business, these days).

I remember covering the opening of our new building, and thinking that the Scripps' executives might as well be here for the opening of a new Wal-Mart or King Soopers. Singleton seemed to really be speaking from the heart. Former Gov. Bill Owens, for that matter, spoke far more eloquently about the importance of newspapers – especially the Rocky Mountain News – than the suits from Scripps.

If you look at the meteoric rise in the Scripps' stock price (it's up 1,029.85 percent from its 52-week low, as I write this), one can argue Scripps made the right move by closing us, from a purely financial point of view.

But if Scripps had ripped out the page on closing a paper from the former reptilian-like executives at the Chicago Tribune, things could have been far worse.

An editor on lessons learned from producing his own videos - part 2

One of the things I'm doing on my "sabbatical" from the working world is trying to learn new skills. As an editor, I never had the time to shoot and produce my own videos. The experience of doing so definitely builds an appreciation for the work of others. It also puts me in touch with what got me into journalism in the first place. While the technical aspect of video can sometimes seem overwhelming, the pleasure of working with sound and motion outweighs any frustration I've experienced. One thing that's become very clear to me is that any news organization doing video should establish very clear standards, practices and procedures that a person can follow to make the process as simple as possible.

Here's my latest video, "Dave Barber: Peaches and Opals," the story of a fixture at Denver's farmers markets with his great peaches and his opals. Click here to read my previous installment about this topic and see an earlier video.


video

Today is the six month anniversary of the final edition of the Rocky Mountain News - Read reflections from the paper's staff

Today is the six month anniversary of the final edition of the Rocky Mountain News. Yesterday I sent out a short survey to everyone who was on the paper's editorial staff on that day, hoping to give an account of what had happened to them. Anybody who's lost his or her job will understand that the most common question you hear is, "So what are you going to doing now?" I'll try to answer that question for the staff in a quantitative way next week. But in the meantime, I think some of the comments I've already received are worth sharing.

Here's a sampling of responses to my final question to the staff: Do you have any comments you'd like to share about your experience post-Rocky Mountain News?

First, from Sports Columnist Sam Adams, this video:

video



From Features Editor Joe Rassenfoss:

No matter how many times you said to yourself "The closing of the paper is inevitable, I'll just move on when it happens," the closing and the loss of the job knocks you for a loop. Your daily pattern, shaped over decades of work, doesn't just wind down -- it snaps shut. You're done. You lose the day-to-day interaction with a lot of fun and talented people. You need to figure out a new pattern that allows you to start a job search while also making sure you enjoy some of the free time you suddenly have. For many of us, you have to explain the situation to your kids (good luck with that). I have certainly hit some dead ends trying to navigate a new course. Still am.

And let's face it: The fact that the paper closed just shy of its 150th birthday, in an economic environment in which things turned so bad so fast, shakes you up. Papers have been around for centuries, you think, and now everyone is saying in a matter of just a few years they may be extinct. What the heck is going on here? What's disappearing next?

All that being said, after more than 25 years in newspapering in a variety of positions, I was open to trying something different, and not because I was sick of journalism or because finding a news job would be difficult (although it certainly is more difficult). I wanted to see, first, if I could run my own business. And I wanted to find something interesting and forward looking that fit my skills. This became even more clear after spending months networking like crazy and applying for jobs (to no avail) via e-mail, the current bane of every job-seeker's existence. I am, however, saving all of the rejection form letters, because I'm sure they will form the basis of a book I can sell at supermarket check-out lines next to celebrity magazines and weight loss tomes.

So I have launched a social media consultancy where I help businesses figure out the best way to communicate with and engage their clients, customers, fans ... you name it. There's a lot (a LOT) of hype in the space. More persuasively, there are a lot of people in that space. Facebook has more than a quarter of a billion members, and there are plenty more on the likes of Digg, Twitter, MySpace, YouTube and many others. (And yes, those names may change in the years ahead, but the people are going to stay in the space.) Newspapers, many of whom liked to mock social media over the past few years, are suddenly starting to realize what a powerful tool it can be for their breaking news. Hey, even the Iranian dictatorship (sorry, elected government) can attest to the power of social media.

So am I going to be a big winner? Have I picked the right thing to do? Will R&R Media (see, I even have an LLC) make a lot of money? I have no idea. But I am learning something new every day, I have two clients (bless 'em) and working on more. It's exhilarating. It's terrifying. It's difficult. Most every day I think about failing. In other words, just like working at a newspaper.

From copy editor Hereward Bradley:

It has been a more difficult adjustment than I would have believed at the start of the year. I am now 60, so unless I plan to move out of the city or the state for a newspaper job, I have pretty much concluded that my journalism career is over. I now find myself in this quasi-retirement state (I'm on my second part-time job) feeling as if I'm too young to call it quits in the workplace and not having the energy to continue the daily grind. I'm still sorting it out, but my feelings -- call it mental exhaustion -- might have something to do with the emotionally charged battle we all fought during the last months at the Rocky, and then the battles we continued fighting after the paper closed. Even during the best of times the job could be stressful, but the last three months at the paper took its toll. I am lucky to have a wonderful wife with a full-time job, so we're not facing eviction or the poorhouse. But for me, it's been a struggle to adjust to this life-changing event, and to accept the fact that a Denver institution that I worked at for so many years no longer exists. I eventually will get over it. I just have to stop looking back. - Hereward Bradley

From Presentation Director Kathy Bogan:

I miss the collective energy that comes with collaborating on stories that can make a difference in people's lives.

From city desk editorial assistant Karen Ziegler:

I loved being part of the of the newsroom. I don't think I could ever find another job that could ever match that of the Rocky. The rush of the city desk and the way everyone worked together was unbelievable. It truly was my home away from home and I miss my Rocky family.

From copy editor Alexandra Foster:

I'm glad that I'm still in "communications" and glad that my experience as a journalist helps me do my current job better, but knowing that I probably won't ever work in a newsroom again is tough.

From Finance Editor David Milstead:

I am disappointed that both Scripps and the guild seemed caught off guard by the change in Colorado law that made ex-RMN staffers ineligible to collect unemployment for the period their "separation" payments were deemed to be in lieu of wages. I can't argue that we are as deserving of unemployment as other workers who did not get separation/severance. It's just that had the process been completed just a couple weeks earlier, we would have received different treatment.

From general assignment reporter Tillie Fong:

I spent a couple of weeks in Japan, traveling with my mother. Also spent some time visiting my siblings in California, and attending workshops on job seeking in Denver. But mostly, I'm finding it difficult to stop being a journalist - hence my stint with In Denver Times and Rocky Mountain Independent, even though I'm not getting paid. I will have to find a paying job soon - just not sure if I can find something that will be as fulfilling as being a journalist. In many ways, much of my identity has been based on being a reporter, and now, I'm trying to figure out if there is something else that I would like to be. In the meantime, I've been following stories and blogs about the newspaper industry with great interest, and wondering if there is still a place for me in the media business.





Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Provocative thinking about journalism from Nicholas Krstof and Sheryl WuDunn

The most recent issue of the The New York Times Sunday Magazine is focused on the theme, "Saving the world's women." The lead headline, "Why Women's Rights are the cause of our time," stems from an article adapted from a new book by Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and his wife, former Times reporter Sheryl WuDunn. I think theirs is a fascinating article, but my point in writing about it is not to address the question of whether they're correct, but instead to explore the ramifications of what they say about journalism.

What I appreciate about the article as a journalist is the way they talk about how their own thinking about what journalists should be covering has evolved. They describe witnessing the massacre at Tiananmen Square where between 400 and 800 people lost their lives and a year later learning from an obscure study that 39,000 baby girls died annually in China because their parents didn't give them the same medical attention that boys received. "Those Chinese girls never received a column inch of news coverage, and we began to wonder if our journalistic priorities were skewed," they write.

They write about their time as correspondents in China: "When a prominent dissident was arrested in China, we would write a front-page article; when 100,000 girls were kidnapped and trafficked into brothels, we didn't even consider it news."

The question their article raises is what should journalists be covering. One unrelenting dimension of the daily newspaper is that it needs to be fed. A narrow definition of news as what governments or people in positions of power did yesterday is a reliable and easy way to feed the beast. And, no, I'm not arguing that such coverage isn't relevant. But I am asking whether it's enough. My answer is, "No."

Kristof and WuDunn raise the importance of thematic coverage, of journalists committing to an issue or topic and not just covering it through the prism of what government is doing. They argue for an independent approach that I think is more demanding of journalists but in the long run also potentially results in much deeper and more valuable work.

As newspaper newsrooms shrink and we look to alternative business structures to produce journalism, it would be good to consider the approach of Kristof and WuDunn. If we do, I think we see a big window for publications with a thematic focus rather than with a geographic focus or a traditional news focus. (Maybe if so many news organizations weren't producing essentially the same news content, it would be possible to produce more of the kind of journalism Kristof and WuDunn provide even at traditional mainstream news organizations.) If we follow their model, I think we see an opportunity for even better reporting to emerge.




Washington Post's Paul Farhi resorts to generalizations about bloggers that wouldn't make it past any good newspaper editor

I've never met The Washington Post's Paul Farhi, but now that he's waded into the debate about the future of media with his argument that newspapers should charge for online content or keep material off the web and put their emphasis on print, I've been paying a bit of attention to what he's writing.

He's obviously one smart guy. But his latest chat on WashingtonPost.com raises serious questions about his judgment. One thing a good newspaper reporter doesn't do is make sweeping generalizations. So what does Farhi do? Read the following exchange from the chat to hear his view about bloggers.

Re: Bloggers: Why aren't bloggers more interested in helping newspapers make a go of it on-line? If we lose the big newspapers, what will they aggregate and/or comment on? I mean, CakeWrecks will probably still be in business, but anyone whose subject is current events will suffer greatly with no original material to work with.

Paul Farhi: I generally agree with you, although sadly, newspapers have cut back so much that they are providing less and less original material all the time. I can't imagine a world (or an internet) without the raw factual material that newspapers provide every day, but I guess the bloggers don't really care about any of that. They're mostly about themselves and their opinions, with little thought given to where they're getting their basic facts.

Come on, Paul.

Most newspaper newsrooms today are full of bloggers. And there are thousands of bloggers producing original content of value. Let's replace bloggers with the word "Democrats" and see how his thinking sounds. "I guess the Democrats don't really care about any of that. They're mostly about themselves and their opinions." Or how about Jews: "I guess the Jews don't really care about any of that. They're mostly about themselves and their opinions."

I hope I don't need to go any further to show the absurdity of Farhi's assertions about bloggers. Newspaper types aren't going to get anywhere by resorting to the very kind of writing they bemoan on the Internet.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Mark Cuban has good advice for Rupert Murdoch and other media barons on paid content

Mark Cuban came out with excellent advice for Rupert Murdoch and his ilk when it comes to paid content.

Generally, the big guys sound like bullies when they discuss this topic. Or they sound defensive. Even defeated. But Cuban has some sound ideas worth listening to.

I'd take what he proposes even further. Membership is a model that works for NPR. Even its advertisers (I know it doesn't call them that, but what else are those spots on how smart it is to support NPR?) are members. That's what newspapers should be experimenting with.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Associated Press responds to my blog post. How about naming names instead of tell us to "rest assured" about the basis for its "important" plan?

Paul Colford, AP Director of Media Relations, responded to my earlier post raising questions about whether its "plan for reclaiming news" needed an editor.

I think it's important to give prominence to his response for two reasons: a sense of fairness requires me to give his words the same prominence my own writing had, and I think he raises an important issue that would open the door to a more fruitful discussion of news and who owns it in the Internet era. The following is the entirety of what he wrote:

"Mr. Temple appears to believe that the one "important internal document" on which he bases his blogpost is the lone, full summary of AP's ongoing efforts to protect its news content.

"Rest assured that additional materials, valuable research and AP's fruitful discussions with its members continue to inform this important undertaking."

Paul Colford
AP Director of Media Relations

I don't actually believe what Mr. Colford says I believe. But I have seen AP struggle to explain its position. Which raises questions for me about the quality and depth of the supporting material he assures us exists. But most important, the AP and other news organizations routinely urge government and powerful corporations to be open and transparent. Yet when dealing with such an important issue as what constitutes misappropriation of content and what should be done about it, the AP isn't operating in a transparent way.

Again, let's treat this the way the AP would treat a news story in the Internet era.
  • AP should post a list on the Web with links to the "tens of thousands of Web sites" it believes are using AP content in unauthorized ways. Then the public could understand by example what the AP considers to be unauthorized use.
  • AP should explain why it hasn't taken legal action against any of those sites that are in states where the "hot news" legal doctrine is recognized and it already has recourse to sue to stop the kind of free-riding it says is rampant. Many of the biggest states in the country recognize this doctrine: California, New York, Florida, Illinois, Missouri and Pennsylvania.
If it would take these steps, the public could better understand an important news organization's thinking and it could enter "fruitful" discussions beyond those it says it's having with its membership.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Insightful CJR article on newspaper industry ad revenue raises important question about size of news staffs

Ryan Chittum has written a terrifc article for the Columbia Journalism Review. It gives valuable perspective on the economic state of the newspaper industry.

Basically, Chittum reveals that newspaper industry ad revenue in 2009 is at 1965 levels, if you use inflation-adjusted numbers. That finding raises what I think is an important question: How big were the newsrooms in 1965? (Remember, those were the days before publicly traded newspaper companies.) In addition, I'd like to know what percentage of a newspaper's revenues on average went to editorial coverage in 1965? It also makes me wonder about the news hole staffs filled in those days. Does anybody have that data?



Tuesday, August 18, 2009

A NEW LIFE: Journalists on how they reinvented themselves - Part 5 - Dean Krakel, from Rocky Mountain News photo editor to adventure in Africa

Dean Krakel worked with me at the Rocky Mountain News for almost the entire 17 years I was there. When I first met him, he was a photographer shooting a photo column called "Krakel's West." His photos and captions captured the modern American West and were collected in a book. He went on to become a photo editor and ultimately director of photography, working with Janet Reeves, who became the paper's senior editor for multimedia and photography. Dean wasn't just a visual journalist at the Rocky. He was also a writer and an adventurer, always taking off on rafting trips and other journeys, some of which he chronicled for the paper.

Now he's planning on his biggest adventure ever. A trip down the length of the Omo River in Africa. I share his story as part of the series, "A New Life." At this time of wrenching change in the newspaper business, I hope it's encouraging for those caught in the storm to see that there's life after your newsroom has no place for you anymore. If you don't believe it, listen to Dean Krakel.


Photo by Stuart Ringer

"Imagine for a moment a river so mighty that it has carved out a 4,000-foot canyon of immense proportions, beauty and complexity, yet almost totally unknown except to a handful of the world's cartographers. Imagine, too, this river flowing for countless eons and yet so isolated from human affairs as to exist completely outside human history. Imagine all this and then give the river a name. Call it the Omo."

- Richard Bangs, Sobek Expeditions.


When I’m asked what it was like when the Rocky stopped publishing and what the closing meant for me I always have to take a long pause. The sorting out is not over yet. I’m still searching for answers. It may take the rest of my life to arrive at some kind of peace with what I find out.

I was at the paper for over 20 years, starting out as a staff photographer and ending with a brief term as Director of Photography. I’m glad I didn’t get the jitters and leave early when it was announced that the paper would be sold or closed. There’s certain poetry in riding the rocket all the way down. Our last two days were among our best.

Months before the paper closed my marriage of 35 years ended in divorce. In one fell swoop I lost two things I loved and two of the things that were the most stable in my life. I was in free fall for a long time and only recently has the wind quit whistling past my ears and have I found myself on a kind of ledge where I can breathe and look around.

The first few months for me were filled with a kind of stunned disbelief, a wake-up-in-the-middle-of-the-night, heart pounding, breath-quickening panic. The divorce was financially devastating. Now I didn’t even have a job. I was in emotional tatters from two major life-changing events. What was I going to do? Where would the money come from? Would I lose the house? What about our boys, one in high school and the other just starting college? What about this? What about that? The age of 57 seems a little late to be trying to figure out what you’re going to be doing in life.

During the last weeks at the paper I used to joke about taking a long vacation and going skiing all the time. Instead that sense of panic rolled me out of bed each and every morning as I immediately began looking for work. Since then I’ve cooked Chinese food for $8 an hour, cut trees for fire mitigation and began doing some freelance photo editing. The happiest thing for me is that I have once again started writing and taking photographs, skills that were placed on the back burner when I became an editor.

I have always loved rivers. In times of trouble I have always turned to moving water for comfort and answers. Rafting or kayaking always seems to put things in perspective for me. Despite the clichĂ©, it really is true, life is like a river. You learn to go with the flow, even if that means sometimes going upstream; life’s challenges are a bit like rapids, you study the current, pick your line and then paddle or row like hell. One way or another you usually come out the other side.

So, what do you do when you love rivers, you’re divorced, unemployed, have very few prospects and are a bit undecided about your course in life? If you’re me, you buy a plane ticket to Addis Ababa in Ethiopia and join your friend Mad Max on a month long rafting trip down the Omo River.

The Omo rises in the Simien Mountains and flows 621 miles to Lake Turkana in Kenya. It flows through one of the most remote and wildest parts of Africa. One of the last remaining true wildernesses on the planet.

It is said that if Africa is the mother of all humanity then the Omo has been the main artery. The oldest known hominid fossil was found in the Omo Valley.

Every African animal you can name, and some you can’t, call the Omo home. The banks teem with Hippo and Crocodiles. Well, teem may not be a good term. Yikes. But there are lots, okay. In Hippo Alley we may have to delicately navigate through as many as 200 of them. In the jungle canopy are amazing numbers of birds and monkeys.

As many as 45 different tribes of people live along the Omo. Most have had limited contact with the outside world. On this trip we’ll be mainly interacting with members of the Bodi and Mursi tribes. The Mursi, historically, have been the fiercest and are known to the outside world by the fantastic clay plates that the women wear in their lips and the tattoos the men decorate themselves with to denote that they have killed an enemy.

The first raft trip down the Omo took place in 1973. Only a few hundred people have been down the river since. Unfortunately our trip will be one of the last descents. A series of hydroelectric dams are planned on the Omo. One, the Gibe II, is scheduled to go online at the end of September, forever altering the river’s flow. We will have to portage our rafts and equipment, somehow, across this dam, now 98% complete.

I’ve always admired the paintings of Karl Bodmer, one of the first artists to journey up the Missouri River to paint and sketch the wild places and people of the early west. His art remains the only record we have of a lost world.

In late June, when Max, owner of Renaissance Adventure Guides, invited me to travel along with him on a trip down the Omo with his partner company in Great Britain, Water by Nature, I saw it as a chance to fulfill a dream and play Karl Bodmer. But I was totally undecided until two weeks ago. Going to Africa is expensive and rafting down the Omo doubly so. A huge leap for an unemployed guy with limited resources. The question I turned over and over in my mind was, "Could I afford to go?" But then the question became, "Can I afford not to go?" There won’t be any more Omo River as it exists now in the very near future. This is my chance to document the story of one of the last raft trips down a great free flowing river.

My friend, Richard Murphy, Director of Photography at the Anchorage Daily News, helped me make the decision when he emailed me and said that if I lived a long life it would just give me all that much more time to regret not going and that the money I saved by not going would just allow people to drink expensive tequila at my wake. He added that when I ran out of money I could come live with him in Alaska.

Today, two weeks from leaving for Ethiopia I sit in my house surrounded by ever-growing piles of photo gear and other equipment. But I find myself still torn. I’m leaving so much behind. The slight living I have been cobbling together. My sons. My life here. It’s a gamble, one of the greatest in my life so far, that I’ll be able to take a big leap to another continent and come back home with a good tale to tell the readers back home. It’s so foreign to me in some ways and yet again so familiar. After all that’s exactly what we did at the Rocky Mountain News.

Dean Krakel can be reached at dkrakel@gmail.com.

If you know of others whose stories I should tell as part of this series on journalists reinventing themselves, please let me know at jtemplermn@gmail.com.

Thank you.

John Temple

To read earlier installments of the series: ME Sprengelmeyer, Jay Bryant, Julie Hutchinson, Reggie Rivers.

The Associated Press needed an editor for its “plan for reclaiming news”

It’s strange how one of the largest news organizations in the world can make such a muddle when writing about serious issues in an important internal document.

I know the AP has good editors. But based on a reading of its confidential “plan for reclaiming news” you have to wonder whether they ever get to apply their skills to the strategic documents executives at the news cooperative produce. Thanks to the folks at the Nieman Journalism Lab for making the document available and for their intelligent reporting on the topic. The plan is worth reading. But it’s also troubling, the same way the American Press Institute’s proposals for saving newspapers were troubling. I wish industry leaders didn’t seem so defensive. There’s so much positive that could be done, and the AP, to its credit, is trying some interesting experiments.

So why do I say AP's planners needs an editor? Because editors make writing clear and understandable. And this “plan” is neither.

When reporters write news stories about the challenges an industry faces, it’s important that they be clear - and, of course, accurate - about what the problems are and what steps are proposed to address them. The reporters’ job is to help readers understand the problems and evaluate possible solutions. It’s also important that reporters be clear about the potential industry or company conflicts that stand in the way of or complicate possible solutions.

The first paragraph of the AP document makes a bald assertion without the facts to back it up that a good editor would require of any reporter. It talks of news content being monetized without fair compensation and “rampant” unauthorized use of AP content on literally tens of thousands of Web sites. It says the problem is quickly spreading. The document goes on in this vein and seems to mix and muddle two concerns: unauthorized use - the blatant stealing of entire stories or photographs - and the use of headlines and snippets by search engines and others. It never makes clear how big the first problem is. Is there really that much revenue being stolen from the owners of content as a result of bloggers and others cutting and pasting AP stories? I don’t know the answer from reading this document. But I question whether it’s a huge issue deserving of this kind of urgency. If it is, it would seem the AP has legal recourse that could serve as a persuasive warning to others. The document implies that what its authors perceive as the second problem is part and parcel of the first, that basic linking is costing the AP and newspaper publishers big time and constitutes “unauthorized” use. The conclusion one is apparently supposed to reach is that if links were not permitted without compensation, the AP would rake in more dough and the industry’s financial problems would at a minimum be much ameliorated. But there’s no analysis of the financial benefits the links bring to the papers getting the traffic or what it would cost them if they lost those links. Nor is there any examination of whether the AP has a legal foundation to challenge the link economy or why it hasn’t been able to put a stop to the “rampant unauthorized use of AP content.” Put simply: The AP position is confusing.

As for its concern about Wikipedia as a new major competitor (along with Twitter), it almost seems like a replay of the newspaper industry’s response to Craigslist. Oops, we didn’t think to build it. It would have hurt us. Somebody else did it anyway. Now they’re stealing our franchise. And we have to try to get it back. The document says the Web numbers for coverage related to Jackson’s death “suggest that more publisher content was likely consumed through search engines and aggregators than on site, which is the crux of the issue now facing publishers.” Well, do we know that to be true? Answer: No. A good editor would have asked for more rigor. It may be that other sources were better for Jackson coverage. Period. We live in a hugely competitive era. Would it also not be “likely” that Web users found many other places to go on the Web that they found more satisfying?

AP is right that Google and other aggregators get value from linking to AP content. But the AP and its members get value from the traffic generated by search engines. AP is wrong to think that just because The Los Angeles Times was the only newspaper in the top 20 for Web traffic related to Michael Jackson that it’s the fault of the aggregators or search engines. That’s not explored by the writers of the document. An editor would have asked whether there couldn’t be other explanations.

The AP’s plan sends a muddied shot across the bow of search engines and aggregators, one that I believe will sink into the sludge. I endorse the AP’s cell phone efforts and its attempt to standardize the markup of news copy to raise its profile for search engines. But I wonder whether the editors of the document shouldn’t have addressed the fact that there’s a tension between AP and its member newspaper owners. AP has historically been a business to business organization. Now it’s talking about creating features that will better serve consumers, something that is not clearly a part of AP’s DNA and something that has traditionally been the purview of its owner members. Wouldn’t an editor have asked for examples of where AP has shown itself capable of becoming a successful magnet for the general public? Just as newspapers struggle online because they’re always trying to protect the print product, the AP appears to be held back in this era because it must serve its members’ needs and can’t do what CNN or The New York Times have done, which is build robust online brands. How does it resolve that tension? Not clear from this document.

What is clear is that it wants to “extract” what it calls fair compensation from search engines and aggregators that link to its stories. Would you like to partner with somebody who wants to “extract” something from you? I can’t believe an editor would have let that word through. It's a telling word.

That’s not going to be the way to save the newspaper industry. What might be is to work with search engines and major aggregators to come up with ways to help journalism survive and thrive in the Internet era. A good editor would have asked the plan’s writers to answer whether the AP has any legal standing to take on the link economy and whether search engines or consumers would be likely to play along. The answer to both: No. But you wouldn’t know it from this call to action against those who are “siphoning off consumers and revenue from those whose content is being exploited.” What I would like to extract is the truth from that claim, something the writers of the plan never do.

Monday, August 17, 2009

PULITZERS LOST, WHAT A COST - Ninth in a series on the impact of thousands of job cuts at America's newspapers


If you want to know what the decline in the number of journalists in newspaper newsrooms means, it's worth listening to Joe Demma. Demma's been around and see and done a lot. He's been involved in three Pulitzer-winning efforts. Now, as he says in the following interview, he's grateful that he's not "10 or 20 years younger worrying about supporting a young family. It's clear, I think, that he's also dismayed by the impact of newsroom cuts on the quality of journalism in America. "Communities aren’t being covered. People aren’t being informed of what’s happening in their neighborhood and nobody’s watching over how government is working. There is no longer a Fourth Estate.
"


This series explores the impact of newsroom cuts on society, journalism and journalists. Demma speaks with troubling authority on all three topics.





1. Name, age, final paper.

Joe Demma, 66, South Florida Sun-Sentinel investigations editor.


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

I was actively involved in three Pulitzer-winning projects as a reporter and editor with Newsday.

a) As a reporter, I was part of a team that wrote The Heroin Trail, a 31-part series that traced the drug from the poppy fields of Turkey to the arms of Long Island addicts. It won the gold medal for public service in 1974.

b) I was the national editor who oversaw the reporting of Patrick Sloyan, who won the Pulitzer for international reporting in 1992 for his coverage of Desert Storm.

c) As the investigations editor, I directed the reporting and edited the Cops on Disability series by Brian Donovan and Stephanie Saul that won the Pulitzer for investigative reporting 1995.

3. Why did you leave your newspaper? When?

I left the Sun-Sentinel in July 2008 when they eliminated my job -- and me along with it.


4 What are you doing now? Any reflections on life after newspapers?

Well, I ride my motorcycle, go to the beach, spend time with my family and am currently working with former Miami Herald investigative reporter Dan Christensen to put together the BrowardBulldog, a non-profit investigative reporting website.

There is life after newspapers, especially if you have Medicare and social security. I started as a copy boy in 1965. We still had hot type and wrote our stories on typewriters with two carbons and sent the stories to the back shop with pneumatic tubes.

It was a great time and Newsday was a great place to learn the craft. I had a terrific run working with some of the best people in the business and on some of the biggest stories of the time. Along the way, we afflicted the comfortable quite a bit and even comforted some of the afflicted.

Now it’s over and I’m grateful that I’m not 10 or 20 years younger worrying about supporting a young family.


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

I’m hoping to be retired, but I don’t think I’ll ever get out of journalism. The immediate plans call for us to put together the BrowardBulldog website and get that running. Once it’s rolling -- funded, staffed up and naming names -- I’d like to step away from the day to day operation and work as a consultant/advisor.

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.

Communities aren’t being covered. People aren’t being informed of what’s happening in their neighborhood and nobody’s watching over how government is working. There is no longer a Fourth Estate. When I got to South Florida almost five years ago there were three newspapers elbowing each other for circulation with the Sun-Sentinel making inroads into Palm Beach County and parrying with the Miami Herald for a no man’s land in northern Miami-Dade and southern Broward County.

Now, the Sun-Sentinel has retreated out of Palm Beach County, is printing the Palm Beach Post and has split up the reporting of Broward and Miami-Dade counties with the Herald.

Without the competition, there’s little of substance going into any of the three newspapers.

It’s even hurt TV news, which used to rely on the newspapers to lift the local news. Now they’re stuck doing video of disasters outside their markets.

Even the layout of the newspaper isn’t being done locally, but by template in Chicago.

It’s this vacuum of news and watchdog journalism that is giving rise to investigative and local news websites across the country. Eventually, they will change the face of journalism.


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

They could have not sold out to the Tribune Company. But that’s ancient history. Once the individual papers started getting gobbled up by the chains and the chains went public, Wall Street wanted profit over journalism and the business got a one-way ticket to Palookaville.

This is not new. How many monastic scribes lost their jobs when Gutenberg started cranking up his press?

How many typesetters lost their jobs when offset presses came along?

This has been coming on for a long time. And while all these CEOs of the big chains were talking about how you can’t cut your way to profitability, they kept cutting. When there was no more fat, they cut into muscle and then bone. And what did it get them?


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

Go for it. Whether your reporting is on newsprint or the web, it will be read. Just don’t expect to make a lot of money doing it. This is a calling not a job. And that’s why it is hitting journalists so hard. We all could have made a lot more money doing something else, but we chose to do this mostly because we wanted to make a difference. I still think we can.


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


Why no newspaper company bought Everyblock

Alan Mutter raises a good question on his Reflections of a Newsosaur blog.

"How could MSNBC.com have scooped the newspaper industry by buying Everyblock.com?"

The answer is simple, I think. The newspaper industry is running scared. Many companies are bankrupt. Others aren't, but probably should be. Others are seeing their revenues plummet and don't have the stomach for the big risk. Many company leaders are fighting defensive battles over ownership of their content. And newspaper companies generally don't see themselves as national players. They're a collection of local entities. MSNBC.com knows what it is: a global player.

I'm delighted to see Everyblock get the opportunity to expand dramatically. Who cares who owns it, if it's getting the support to spread?

The only issue I'm concerned about is that Everyblock was funded to be open source software by the Knight Foundation and I think it's critical for other local publishers to be able to use its tools to serve their communities.

Bakersfield keeps innovating

The Bakersfield Californian is one of the papers in America worth watching, because its owners are willing to take chances in print and online. Their latest step - going tabloid on weekdays and sticking with the broadsheet format for weekend editions - is a worthwhile experiment that I believe others should consider following.

BrassTacks Design's Alan Jacobson has written a comprehensive post about the thinking behind the change and the paper's strategy going forward. While I don't necessarily agree with everything he says or everything the paper is doing, some of their core concepts are right on. And I admire the effort.

I always believed that if Denver had to go to one paper, it should been a tabloid during the week and a broadsheet on the weekend, for a number of reasons. I couldn't believe owners in other markets didn't see the benefits of the tabloid format as full-page ads dried up.

In any event, a few key points, mostly from an editorial perspective:
  • The paper is smart to streamline its design. Limited staff resources need to be deployed to create and curate content, to involve the community.
  • The paper is smart for the paper to treat ads as content and work with advertisers on the design of their ads. The tangible quality of the paper will be enhanced as a result and the results for advertisers should be better.
  • The paper is smart to eliminate "non-essential content." Papers need to have value. The only way to do that is to have a focus. Wire news is commodity news, unless it can be explained in Bakersfield terms. There are too many other places to get it otherwise.
  • The paper is smart to use a 54" web width for its tab. Square tabs are ugly. They avoided that by using different web width for tab and broadsheet.
  • I don't fully understand Jacobson's statements about photography. "Non-news photos, such as stand-alone feature photos, should be eliminated to save space and make better use of news photographers' time. Editorial designs should not be dependent upon display photos which consume newshole." I agree that feature photos can be space fillers. I also agree that it's not the best use of staff photographers' time to send them cruising for features. But readers love photography, including seeing their own pictures. Sometimes standalone photos are wonderful. They can be a story unto themselves. We live in a highly visual world. Display photos can be what readers remember. Papers should be surprising.
That said, this is an experiment worth watching.


Friday, August 14, 2009

What I'm doing on my sabbatical - perhaps a lesson for other editors

I remember hearing retired people saying they couldn't believe how busy they were. I never really understood. Until now, that is. Now that I'm taking a sabbatical - writing a blog, learning about video and multimedia, exploring the future, talking with other journalists and journalism organizations, doing things I'm interested in - I think I'm starting to understand.

When I was editor of the Rocky, I didn't have the time to immerse myself in learning about video equipment and how to shoot and edit stories. I worked with others who could do it way better than I'll ever be able to. But I was able to bring my sense of story and my experience as an editor to help with their work. Now, it's different.

I started by using a flip cam. To anybody who hasn't tried one, I recommend that you do. I bought mine for $80 on Woot. It's not HD. But it's fun to play with. And it gave me a sense of what's possible. I edited with iMovie. But I knew I wanted to do more. I want to be able to use video, audio, still photography and text to tell any story.

So I bought my own video kit and after attending a multimedia workshop with MediaStorm (I actually wanted to begin before then, but circumstances prevented it) I started working with Sonya Doctorian as a coach. It's been such a pleasure. There's nothing like hands on work. It's both fulfilling and startling, because you more easily see the possibilities.

Here's my first video using my new Canon HV30 video camera and Final Cut Express. It's called Judith's hallah. Judith is my wife. She bakes hallah for most Shabbat dinners for our family and friends. I thought it was going to be a how-to video, but it turned into more of a story about a family tradition and Judith. By the way, I attached the recipe for this bread to the video on my youtube page. I hope some of you try it.

video


I've already got another video planned for next week. I encourage anybody in a leadership position in a news department to try to get the same kind of experience. It will deepen your understanding of what's possible and build your appreciation of what some who work for you have to go through to produce and distribute a story. Valuable lessons come from giving up your secure position as a leader and being open to learning new things. It's also rejuvenating. So much to do...

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Interesting use of Twitter and Facebook by TV assignment editor

Check out what Misty Montano is doing at CBS4 in Denver. She's using Twitter during her shift as an assignment editor at the Denver TV station in a way that seems to enrich the station's connection with the community and deepens its news report. What she's doing seems like a conversation with the community rather than a feed of news reports. Worth following.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Why it's hard to believe CEO of Philadelphia papers when it comes to what would be best for their survival

I don't know which ownership group would be best for the future of the bankrupt Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News, but I find it hard to understand why the current CEO gets cut so much slack.

The papers' biggest creditors want to dump current management, according to a story in the Daily News.

I remember vividly in 2006 when new CEO Brian Tierney said there would be no layoffs at the troubled papers. I could not believe what I was hearing. I knew then that he was out of touch with what was happening in the industry and missing a key opportunity to speak the truth. Clearly it wasn't just the unions who weren't facing reality in Philadelphia. Of course his view had to change. And it did. But his promise made him look naive from the start.

Then, just before the papers totally tanked, in another example of bad judgment recounted in a solid Sunday Magazine article in The New York Times, Tierney "accepted a pay raise and a $350,000 bonus right before the bankruptcy filing — and after employees agreed to give up their own paltry union raises."

Look, I've seen Tierney in action and I welcome his passion for newspapers and for the survival of the two in Philadelphia. I want to see him or any other owner succeed. But I've also been on the inside of a troubled newspaper operation and it's impossible to believe that when he got his pay raise and bonus he, and others involved, didn't know how serious his company's financial problems were.

If you were a shareholder, would you want somebody who took a pay raise when his operation was plunging under water running the company? How could you trust that he would put the best interest of the company over his own?

I don't know. That's why I wouldn't get too sentimental about which ownership group takes over the papers.

Monday, August 10, 2009

PULITZERS LOST, WHAT A COST - Eighth in a series on the impact of thousands of job cuts at America's newspapers

Glenn Frankel brings a voice of authority and restraint to the discussion of what society, journalism and journalists are losing as a result of the shrinking of newspaper newsrooms. What strikes me about his interview and the previous interview with Tamara Jones, another former Washington Post reporter, is the appreciation and respect they still feel for the institution that supported their journalistic life and their former colleagues.

In this interview, I believe he makes an important point about what I'll call "real journalism." He writes: "
I fear that the downsizing is becoming so drastic and the search for younger readers so frantic that many news organizations may lose sight of their true value and importance. I also fear that the journalism is being lost or sacrificed in the emphasis on new technologies, social networks and shiny packaging. If we don’t have anything important to say and no unique journalistic contribution to make, we won’t need new platforms. We won’t need to exist at all---and we won’t."

1. Name: Glenn Frankel
Age:
59
Last news organization: Washington Post

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

I won the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting for “sensitive and balanced” coverage of Israel and the first Palestinian uprising.

3. Why did you leave your paper? When?

After 27 years at the Post as a reporter, editor and foreign correspondent, I took a voluntary buyout in the summer of 2006. It was a ridiculously generous offer to all of us of a certain age and experience level.


4. What are you doing now? Any reflections on life after newspapers?

I’m one of the lucky ones. I landed a gig teaching journalism to undergraduates and journalism master’s students at Stanford University, where I’m entering my fourth year as a visiting professor. I teach a basic reporting and writing course, as well as magazine writing and human rights journalism---all things I deeply care about---to students who are smart, committed and intrigued by journalism, whether they are planning to enter the field or not. I was extremely fortunate to have gotten out of the newspaper business before the wave of bought-out, laid-off or just-plain-fired journalists went tidal. I miss working with my dear comrades at the Post in an enterprise I admired and believed in, but many of them have been following me out the door, voluntarily or otherwise.


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

I’ve written two books and had always planned to write more. I’m working on one right now that combines history, film studies and journalism. I’ve also written a number of freelance magazine pieces, book reviews, etc. Anyone who wants to see my latest work can click on
www.glennfrankel.com. I plan to stay involved in journalism until the bitter end---my own demise or that of the profession, whichever comes first.

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.

It makes me very queasy to sit back and criticize my wonderful former colleagues and my devoted former employer. I don’t relish the role of aging ex-sailor, drinking grog in my rocker by a blazing hearth and wagging my ink-stained finger at the hard-working, rain-drenched folks still manning the lifeboats. American daily newspapers were never as good as they should have been, and they’re not so bad now. I don’t live in Washington most of the year and I can’t tell you what stories the Post may be missing. It’s pretty obvious, though, that the shrinking number of journalists covering federal, state and local governments throughout the country means fewer flashlights shone in fewer dark corners. As a former foreign correspondent---14 years as the Post’s bureau chief in London, Jerusalem and Southern Africa---I’m particularly concerned about the loss of alternative voices and perspectives as important newspapers like the Boston Globe, Baltimore Sun, Chicago Tribune, Philadelphia Inquirer and Newsday shut down their overseas operations and others like the Post and LA Times cut back.

There’s no rule that says a Washington Post newsroom of 400 to 500 people---roughly the same numbers the Post had when I got hired in 1979---can’t put out a great newspaper. But there’s also no rule that says newspapers will become smarter or better managed as they become smaller. Each contraction of the staff damages morale and reduces journalistic ambition. Newsrooms are, among other things, creative enterprises that rely upon committed, restless, energetic people who are willing to take risks and work extra hard. They dry up quickly when the creativity and ambition are drained from their veins.

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

See answer above. I allow myself the occasional cynical smile when I read the faux- brilliant clucking of some of the New Media gurus. The Washington Post did a lot of things right and a few things wrong, but it couldn’t prevent Craigslist or Google, revive the department store business nor patch up an irrevocably shattered business model. I fear that the downsizing is becoming so drastic and the search for younger readers so frantic that many news organizations may lose sight of their true value and importance. I also fear that the journalism is being lost or sacrificed in the emphasis on new technologies, social networks and shiny packaging. If we don’t have anything important to say and no unique journalistic contribution to make, we won’t need new platforms. We won’t need to exist at all---and we won’t.


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

There’s never been a better moment to be young, flexible, enterprising and fearless. Journalism---the real stuff, not the phony, useless garbage---was never for the faint of heart, nor did it ever pay very well except for a lucky few. No one’s going to have the predictable, straight-ahead, climb-the-ladder careers that some of us enjoyed. People will have to be adept at moving from job to job, and platform to platform. They’ll have to specialize sooner and create their own personal brand in a chosen area of inquiry like foreign affairs, health, politics or environment. The days when generalists like myself could move from place to place are probably over. But the popular appetite for original reporting that defies conventional wisdom is great and growing, and the demand far outstrips the supply. That’s what I tell aspiring journalists---some of whom have the potential to be the best I’ve ever seen---because it’s what I strongly believe.

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

Confessions of an Organization Man

The following is a column I wrote based on my experience after the Rocky Mountain News published its final edition. An edited version of this column appeared previously in The Wall Street Journal.

----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

I never thought my life would come to this. Or that I would say what I’m about to say. It’s so hard for me to believe it that even now I doubt myself.

But before I explain, let me start at the beginning. I remember as a 20-year-old working one summer on a small oil tanker on the British Columbia coast thinking I didn’t want to live my life in the position of a crew member, answerable to the captain, with little say over my fate. At that time I thought I would find the independence I sought by learning a trade. Which I did. I know it might sound far-fetched, but I became a log-house builder. I figured if I knew how to do something well, I would always be able to call my own shots. It didn’t quite work out that way. Sure, I did find I could make a living on my own. But I also discovered I was reliant on suppliers and customers. I had to keep finding new jobs, the work was hard, the days long - and lonely. I couldn’t imagine myself standing atop a stack of logs with a chain saw in my hands when I was 50. So I charted a different course, one that ultimately led me to my first love: writing. One that took me inside an old and large organization, where I built a life that supported my family and provided me with great satisfaction. Then came last fall’s economic collapse and, more than 30 years after my short stint at sea, I was without a job. The Rocky Mountain News, where I had worked for 17 years, closed, and my role as its editor, publisher and vice president/news of its owner, the E.W. Scripps Co., was finished.

I found myself on my own again. I was living and breathing outside the cocoon of a large company for the first time in a generation. It was then that I learned a terrible truth: I appeared to have become something I had sworn I would never be: an “organization man.” Could it really be true? Could I have become one of those people whose identity, purpose and meaning derived to a great extent from their trip each morning, briefcase in hand, to an office?

For those of you who’ve never lost your job, let me tell you that it takes some getting used to, even when you don’t need to find work the next day to feed your family or hold on to your house. As much as I might have seen myself as someone who embraced the uncertainty and opportunity of forces - the Internet in particular - that were changing my work, when I was suddenly confronted with having to find my way in this new world it was much more difficult than I had imagined. One step at a time. Patience. These are the things I keep reminding myself. I call myself a “free agent.” I like the sound of it. Free. Agent. The kind of person I had always wanted to be. Self-reliant. Self-directed. I enjoy my new life. And I’m intrigued by what may come.

And yet, I also feel a sense of loss. I wonder what will be the cost if, as seems possible, we end up in a media universe of free agents. I see more clearly what the journalists who come behind me might miss. Many of them won’t be able to experience the benefits of being part of an organization with a mission much larger than their own, with a history and traditions. Yes, many companies today may be suffocatingly slow to adapt to changing times. But for those who want to be part of telling the story of their era, there’s nothing quite like being able to work with other talented people with the kind of backing you don’t need to think twice about. Good journalism does require an independence of mind and spirit. It starts with strong, smart, curious individuals. But it’s also made possible by the help of others, whether colleagues to elevate the quality of the work or companies to provide the support to do the digging and the reach to give it impact. Of course the journalists of tomorrow will find new ways to collaborate with others. But time spent with a group building a common culture can lead to unexpectedly beautiful things.

I grew up in the West, at a time when being able to stand on your own feet was seen as a virtue. I wanted to be the kind of person who needed no one else to help carve his fate. Now I stand free and independent, ready to live that dream, and new doors are opening. Perhaps there are new organizations to build. I hope so. Because if I’m honest with myself, I must admit that I miss being part of an entity with a purpose. I’m not embarrassed to say I may have become the man I never wanted to be - an organization man.


Rocky's Web site shouldn't be treated as junk yard

Alan Mutter raises an important - and sad - question in his post about the web site of the Rocky Mountain News. His headline asks "How long should dead paper linger on web?" My answer would be that it would be best for society if the paper's Web site could be archived and preserved. Barring that, though, Mutter is right that the current state of the web site is disturbing.

"I can’t help but wonder why the final website of the Rocky Mountain News remains online today as an uncomfortably maudlin reminder of the paper’s demise nearly six months after it closed," he writes.

The site has been disabled and sits as a painful reminder of the paper's last day. Instead of just disabling it, my former employer should have put up a page at the Rocky's url explaining what it is doing with the content from the web site and how readers interested in finding something can do so. That would have been a true public service. What they're doing now makes it seem they don't care anymore. Which I refuse to believe.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

PULITZERS LOST, WHAT A COST - Seventh in a series on the impact of thousands of job cuts at America's newspapers


Today I interview Tamara Jones, a wonderful writer who left The Washington Post right after one of her stories was honored as part of an entry on the Virginia Tech shootings that won the Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Reporting in 2008. In preparing many of these interviews for publication, I find myself wishing that I could have worked with the person whose story I'm sharing. That certainly was the case with Tamara.

It saddens me to see people of this caliber on the outside of the newspaper industry. Our newspapers are losing talent, experience and wisdom that's awfully difficult, if not impossible, to replace. This occasional series, "Pulitzers Lost, What a Cost," is an attempt to explore what it means for society, for journalism and for journalists that America's newspaper newsrooms are shrinking. It's a sign of how serious the times are that even people with this type of track record, people who have produced work recognized to be at the highest level, are now on the outside, without a newspaper to support their journalism.

Typically, I introduce each subject with a photograph. But when I asked Tamara, "Is there a picture available on the Web that you prefer?" here's how she responded.

"Yes, I would like Angelina Jolie's picture, please," she wrote.

"I don't think there is a picture of me, and if there is, I hate it and, being Irish and all, I would just get vindictive and probably make you an unspeakably horrid character in my novel. Can we use the Far Side cartoon, instead??"

I wish. But I don't have Gary Larsen's permission to use his cartoons, so I thought it best just to leave the photo space blank. Tamara's words speak volumes. No picture is necessary.

1. Name, age, final paper.

Tamara Jones, 51, The Washington Post

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


A feature I wrote on deadline, "Tragedy Beyond the Imagination," was one of 10 stories in the Post's winning package for coverage of the Virginia Tech massacre. We won the breaking news category in 2008.

3. Why did you leave your newspaper? When?

I left a couple of weeks after the Pulitzers, in May 2008. I took a buyout. As a narrative feature writer, I felt increasingly like the deer in that classic 'Far Side' cartoon -- the one with the red bulls-eye over its heart. ("Helluva birthmark, Hal," the other deer observes). I had dreamed of writing for the Style section since I was a baby reporter working overnight rewrite at the AP, and it took me nearly 15 years to get there. I loved Style too much to bear its death throes. And I didn't really fit in anywhere else at the paper.

4. What are you doing now? Any reflections on life after newspapers?

Most G.A. writers have the attention span of gerbils on Red Bull, and I'm no exception. We crave variety. I'm freelancing for a few national magazines and am under contract to write a crime novel. I've done some media-consulting for The Kaplan Thaler Group, the advertising powerhouse behind the Aflac duck, and they've opened my eyes about how to apply my journalistic skills to that wildly creative world. I also enjoy ghostwriting, but I'm too picky about my projects to depend on that full-time. I never imagined doing all that I'm doing. Before leaving the Post, I figured I'd just go to a smaller paper -- ideally, someplace where I could coach, edit and write. I fantasized about a nice little journalism boutique. But those hopes were quickly dashed when the industry took such a nosedive, along with the economy. Of course I miss the romanticism of working for a newspaper, but I have to admit at the same time that I feel liberated creatively. Writing, for me, has always been more of an emotional than intellectual exercise. My rush is that sense of connecting. There's so much I want to try. I've spent my entire adult life observing the world around me, chronicling it, and keeping it at the required arm's length. Now I want to engage it. This is such an exciting time to be involved in the field of communication no matter what the medium. I relish the collision of urgency and intimacy. (OK, that sounded way dirtier than I meant).

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

I hope to shift to fiction, but I'd like to keep one foot in journalism through magazine work. I want to explore other things, too. I'd love to make a living writing for humanitarian organizations. I also enjoy teaching and mentoring, but I don't have a Masters, and colleges seem more interested in the degree than experience in the field. Crisis-management communication also intrigues me, having covered more than my fair share of disasters, high-profile trials and crises.

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 Post newsroom has been decimated, and the people left behind keep being told to do more, more, more with less, less, less. They're exhausted, they're anxious, they're beyond demoralized. And guess what? They're still committed 110% to serving a misguided public that considers them disposable. Has quality been impacted? Of course it has, especially in feature-writing. Voice is being replaced with attitude, and there are more and more 'lite' quickies. The lack of warm bodies and resources in the newsroom also results in less first-hand observation. Travel budgets have been slashed, which translates to a lot more reporting done by phone and surfing the web. You can get quotes and factoids that way, yes, but you won't get poetry. What's sacrificed is depth, nuance, layers. Steve Coll, when he was managing editor, used to call it "sitting still inside the story." I also notice a lot of promising reporters flatlining instead of flourishing, because editors and senior writers who served as coaches have either left or no longer have the luxury of time to mentor. When I wrote my first Style piece, Gene Weingarten was my editor, and we spent two entire days locked in his office, fine-tuning every single sentence of a 100-inch piece. It was about a miracle in Baltimore that had been used to canonize a saint. Gene told me I had "to prove whether or not God exists." Those heady days are gone for good. If I pitched the same idea today, I'd probably be told to just do a phoner with God and cobble together a 10-inch Q&A for tomorrow.

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 Washington Post has been spared the corporate greed and buffoonery that has systematically sucked the lifeblood out of so many great newspapers -- the LA Times, the Miami Herald, the Philly Inquirer. If something could have been done to prevent jobs lost at the Post, I know with utter conviction that Don Graham would have done it. He cherishes that paper. The Washington Post will be the last family-owned paper standing. That said, I think we all wish we hadn't been so complacent. There's always been this disparity between the way we perceive ourselves and how society views us. As journalists, we genuinely believe that we are doing noble work, but opinion polls consistently rank us among the least-trustworthy, right down there with ambulance-chasers, grave robbers and mercenaries. Maybe we should have been less indignant and more curious about why we weren't valued.

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


Be flexible about the medium, and become as savvy as you can about all the different platforms. Journalism isn't about ink and newsprint; it's about bearing witness. Storytelling existed before language did, and I'm sure the people who drew on cave walls never imagined computer screens. There will always be a hunger for a story well-told.

Editor's note: If you know of other people I should approach for this series, please let me know.
To read previous installments: Deborah Nelson, Andrew Schneider, Kim Komenich, Janet Reeves, Jerry Kammer and Paul Giblin.