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From the day that Robyn Tomlin described to me what Digital First Media’s Thunderdome was going to be, I thought it sounded like a much bigger, broader, better-planned and better-financed version of what Media General (the pre-2012 version of the company, which still owned newspapers) had tried to do through Newsbank (the company’s intranet for sharing all of the company’s newspaper stories and photos) and its Interactive Media Division. We didn’t try to be a national news desk for the company’s newspapers, but we produced specialty pages, had a Washington bureau that tried to tailor stories to our markets, encouraged sharing of stories and reporting resources, and offered video, interactives and help with live chats and other online projects.

In Jim Brady’s Lessons learned from Project Thunderdome, the successes and problems he cites were, naturally, of a much larger scale, but they were parallel to Media General’s experiences. One paragraph in particular resonates with me:

One inadvertent lesson learned from Thunderdome was its service as a bellwether in surfacing who inside DFM was truly interested in culture change. Many DFM journalists worked collaboratively with Thunderdome to support DFM’s strategy and secure its future; others focused only on preserving their own futures. Centralization, in that regard, is an effective mousetrap in identifying who doesn’t want his cheese moved.

Every newsroom I worked with varied this way. At some, the top editor bought into what we were trying to do and encouraged the staff to work with us. At others, the top editor was at best indifferent, and there might be individuals in the newsroom who were enthusiastic while others would rather MG just go away and leave them alone. (The top editor at one newspaper literally never returned a single phone call from me. Not one.)

One of the lessons I learned early on in my time at Media General is no one seeks to become an editor at any level because they think someone else is better at what they do than they are. Making an argument about the time they will save that could be better devoted to better local coverage won’t fly with everyone because in the eyes of some editors, whatever is being done centrally is making the paper worse and they just can’t stand it — there were times that I sent out to MG’s papers a specialty features page using a design lifted straight from an award-winning designer in Tampa, and the features editors at some papers that used the package changed the design, often radically. Some editors even will argue in favor of duplicating reporting effort in order for their readers to see that the local paper “owns” the topic.

Brady also writes, “Never underestimate the technical challenges of centralization.” He means it in Thunderdome’s case in terms of producing online packages that will need to run across multiple content management systems, but in a broader sense it applies to anything you try to do across multiple newsrooms. The most-cited reason editors gave me for why they used an AP version of a story instead of the much better version produced by another MG paper was that AP stories flowed into their computer system at the press of a button, but the stories on MG’s own network had to be copied and pasted in (a system that itself was the lowest-common-denominator solution to creating the network in the late ’90s after MG had bought dozens of papers that all had different computer systems — some PCs, some Macs, some new, some old). And I see something similar in my current company, where the editors in North Carolina have talked about ways to work together more or at least share more, but there is no easy way to share plans or see what everyone else is doing. If your technology and workflow are developed for a silo, everyone then is stuck working in a silo.

You don’t have to be working at a national organization to gain useful insights from Brady’s piece. Anywhere you are trying to change the work culture, you’ll find parallels.

July 16, 2014, wreck in Lenoir
I’ve mentioned before that when I am coaching writers one of the main things I focus on is derived from advice that Ernest Hemingway gave to a young writer and described in a portion of “Monologue to the Maestro: A High Seas Letter,” which he wrote in 1935 for Esquire. It involves making use of what you observe wherever you are reporting.

A few days ago I had a perfect example of the difference this can make in even routine reporting. There was a very bad head-on collision here in Lenoir, and the only reporter who was in the office at the time was our sports reporter. He and our photographer rushed out to the scene, got what was available and came back to the office. The reporter had not done news before and was nervous, which accounted for a few holes in what he first turned in, but he had the basics:

A two-car, head-on collision in front of the Gamewell fire department on Morganton Blvd. resulted in three fatalities on Wednesday evening.

According to Sgt. Dawson of the Highway Patrol, a witness stated that the vehicle traveling southwest on Morganton Blvd. was “driving at high speeds and recklessly.” The vehicle then collided head-on with a silver Lexus traveling northeast in the left lane of the two-lane road. The unidentified vehicle rolled down a hill into a ravine and was not visible due to tall bushes and weeds. The driver and two other passengers of the unidentified vehicle were pronounced dead on the scene.

The silver Lexus was left in the turning lane with the front end being unrecognizable. The street was littered with pieces from both cars as first responders investigated the scene. Police officers secured the area and directed traffic as about 10 citizens stood outside watching the horrific scene.

No further details of the incident were available at press time.

From here, we needed to draw out the rest of what he saw there. What is described above is a collision, then one car “rolled down a hill.” That’s not what happened. When cars collide at high speed, what happens? Use words that describe it. This is what we ended up with:

The Toyota caromed off and went down a steep bank roughly 20 feet deep and into a field of weeds so tall that the car couldn’t be seen from the road.

As for the car that didn’t go down the hill, we start with “the front end being unrecognizable.” What does that mean? How will the reader see “unrecognizable” in his or her head? It’s an abstract term, not a concrete one. You need to be concrete and visual. We also have the street “littered with pieces from both cars,” but listening to the photographer and reporter talk about it, and seeing a photo of the wrecked Lexus, made clear that we could do better:

The wreckage of the silver Lexus sat in the turning lane of Morganton Boulevard, the front end destroyed, the hood looking like a piece of crumpled paper. So much debris littered the street that Dawson and rescue crews could scarcely take a step without it crunching underfoot.

Finally, no official information was released on the occupants of the other car, but the reporter saw the rescue effort, so we had that to add:

At least two passengers were removed from the Lexus and taken away in ambulances, but no information was released about how many people were in the car or how badly they were hurt.

Outside the lines set up by Caldwell County sheriff’s deputies and Lenoir police, about 10 people stood watching the horrific scene.

Just making use of the details the reporter observed, not relying solely on what official sources had to say, turned a 5-inch news brief into a much more vivid, 9- or 10-inch story. It won’t win awards, but it surely engaged the readers’ imaginations much better than the original, and that’s the daily battle we face.

Over a year ago I wrote that I soon would be posting about my experiences with a paywall. Sixteen months later, the paywall finally went up on the News-Topic’s site, so this is my first postcard.

This actually is the site’s second experience with a paywall. I was not here for the first, but I am told all hell broke loose from people angered that they could no longer get the site for free. There were about 200 paying subscribers (paid print circulation at the time was about 6,000) by the time the company switched website vendors in 2012 and the site became free again because the new vendor was not quite ready to handle a paywall. How unready it was apparently was a surprise.

Given that previous experience, folks were bracing for a similar round of trouble when the paywall went up again in mid-June, but there was barely a ripple of trouble, mostly questions from people wanting help registering online. We have eight or nine new online subscriptions so far. Our Web traffic has taken a slight dip, but nothing so far that looks significant, and it could be attributed to the slow news of the past few weeks, the pre- and post-July 4 summer holiday period. We’ll have to keep watching.

The talk this week focused on how to drive the traffic we have past the home page headlines so they have to pay. In other words, how much information beyond the headline goes on the home page. Whether the slow pace of new subscriptions is due to that is, to me, an open question, but what we put on the home page is a valid issue for us because our site’s analytics show that the home page remains the first stop for most of our users. It’s a local audience.

A proposal raised at another paper in the company is that there should be only headlines and photos because people see enough of the story on the home page and don’t dive in to read. That analysis may be correct, but the solution that was chosen seems wrong to me. First, it puts a heavy premium on good Web headlines, and newsrooms our size don’t have reliably good headline writers. Second, the behavior that practice seeks to stop is not limited to the website. At any newspaper rack, some people walk up, look in the window, read what they want and walk away. Worse, at a newspaper stack inside a convenience store, they pick up the paper, turn it over, read a lot more and then don’t buy it. There always will be window-shoppers who don’t become buyers.

No, the trick as always is figuring out how much information is needed to make a person want to read more. A headline alone — or headline and photo alone — usually won’t do it, especially with a feature. You need some text from the story. How much might vary, but it shouldn’t give away so much information that clicking on the link to read the whole story will leave the person feeling that he/she wasted time because all the really important information was on the home page.

This is not a question unique to the Web. The same basic issues apply to writing teasers on A1 for stories appearing inside the paper. That’s all you’re doing on a website homepage if your goal is to drive readers past that page. Entice the reader with factual information, but leave questions hanging. Don’t overpromise or mislead. This is a writing skill. Use your writer’s instincts.

For the past four years, I have wondered why there has been no equivalent of Craigslist for obituaries. The question was sparked by a post by Steve Buttry in 2010, but it wasn’t until my mother’s death in May 2012 that I learned myself how truly awful – and expensive – the newspaper-based obituary system is. Submitting obituaries is, in many cases, cumbersome and emotionally taxing, exactly the opposite of what people who are placing obituaries need, and the cost of a single obituary in larger newspapers is equivalent to what I spend on my credit card in an entire month.

The difficulty and cost of placing obituaries is pretty much equivalent of some of the reasons people migrated away from newspaper classified ads years ago to free or cheap online listings (and why journalists themselves shifted their own job ads from the expensive Editor & Publisher, which used to be the go-to place to look for a job, to the relatively cheap journalismjobs.com).

Why, I have wondered, had that not happened with obituaries?

Part of it, I am sure, is that having a print obituary still has some emotional value to people. They can hold it, put it in a scrap book, frame it. It’s a tangible link to someone who is no longer there.

Perhaps a bigger part is that people grew up with newspapers being considered the place to announce births, engagements, marriages and deaths. There are people in the city where I live now who have told me that if it weren’t for their desire to see who died, they wouldn’t buy the paper anymore, and I doubt that I am the only editor who has been told such a thing.

Despite all that, I wondered why there was not a cheap online alternative to obituaries.

And then last week, the people behind The Memorial Post sent me a link to a video explaining their cheap online alternative to obituaries. The site itself is not actually functional yet (it has only the video and a field to sign up for email updates), so I can’t say whether it’s as easy as the video makes it appear, but the video paints a picture of a potential Craigslist for obituaries – a site that could siphon away yet another revenue category from newspapers.

An online-only obituary site might not appeal to traditional print readers, but it may seem perfectly reasonable to those raised on the Internet.

My newspaper is in a mostly rural, conservative, very traditional area, yet our website’s metrics tell me that the people coming to our site online may be part of the audience that would be willing to go to an online-only obituary alternative.

More than 60 percent of our online readers are under 35, according to Google Analytics, and only 11 percent are 55 or older.

Our online obituaries have more pageviews than any other page but the homepage, accounting for nearly 15 percent of overall pageviews – and our obits are not fancy, consisting only of the text of each obit, no photos.

In other words, for someone who gets information primarily online, our obits are not a satisfying reader experience.

We are a small publication, so our charge for obituaries is not much more than The Memorial Post’s, but if the Post’s online reader experience lives up to what its video promotes, it is the kind of thing that has serious potential going forward, as fewer of the people placing obituaries will have ever had the newspaper habit.

UPDATE: Via Twitter, ‏@TheMemorialPost says, “We are on schedule for mid-August and the U/X will be unparalleled”

Sturgill87
We were both 22.

As a young reporter covering courts in Caldwell County in 1987, I noticed what a high percentage of people facing charges were roughly my age. Sometimes what landed them in trouble was a situation similar to one I had been in, but a different choice here or a different starting point there made all the difference in the outcome.

There was not a lot about Sammy William Sturgill or his background that felt familiar to me, but we were both 22 – he was born in October 1965, I was born a couple months earlier. We were both slim. He appeared to be in better shape. He looked like a nice enough guy, and from the thumbs-up he flashed at the News-Topic’s photographer while being led out of the courtroom during his murder trial, he sure seemed to have a sense of humor.

Sturgill testified in his own defense in that November 1987 trial, a not at all common thing for murder suspects to do. I recall that he was calm and seemed relaxed as he described the events of Feb. 3, 1987, that ended with Walter Blevins, 68, bleeding and unconscious, suffering from many injuries but dying of a blow to the side of the head.

Both of them, Sturgill said, were drunk; Sturgill described himself as having a chronic drinking problem. But in Sturgill’s telling, Blevins was the aggressor, angry that Sturgill had sold him for $6 a whiskey bottle half full not of whiskey but a mix of whiskey and soda, and Sturgill, drunkenly defiant, refused to give the money back. Blevins pulled a pocket knife. Sturgill, stumbling back into the woods, saw a discarded wine bottle, picked it up and smashed Blevins in the side of the head, causing Blevins to drop the knife, which Sturgill said he picked up and used to stab Blevins.

The story sounded reasonable to me.

But Sturgill’s version didn’t account for the extent of Blevins’ injuries, which included a number of fractured ribs, the prosecutor pointed out. Nor did it explain how fibers from the Blevins’ wool cap became stuck to the toe of one of Sturgill’s boots. The prosecutor’s contention was that the fatal blow to the head came not from a wine bottle swung in self-defense but from a kick to the head while Blevins already lay bloody and broken on the ground.

I had largely forgotten that trial until a couple of weeks ago when I was searching through microfilm at the Caldwell County Public Library, trying to find a particular story I wrote around that time and came upon that front-page photo of Sturgill giving the thumbs-up, with perhaps a wry smile under his moustache and a light in his eyes, on the day that he testified.

Sturgill14Last week, after Sturgill himself died after being stabbed in another confrontation with an older man, I kept thinking about that photo — the distance from that courthouse scene to a recent county jail mug shot of Sturgill, and the distance from my seat in that courtroom to my office now.

Sturgill’s family describes a man who, when sober, was kind and generous, who planted flowers and vegetables at the Gateway Nursing Center on Harper Avenue. When he was younger, “he was a good kid,” his older sister told the News-Topic on Wednesday.

It all awakens in me that feeling I had at my first full-time job, sitting in court, watching young men my age stand not more than 10 yards from me and face judgment. Where do things begin going wrong? Where did things pass that point that ultimately one person would sit on one side of that courtroom, able to walk out the building’s front door, and another person would sit on the other, being led out the back in handcuffs?

One of my reporters seemed stunned recently to hear me say that one day most people probably would get all of their news, including their hometown news, from Web and mobile devices. She was barely out of college and a member of the generation of “digital natives” who grew up with the Internet, yet she somehow had a baby boomer’s romantic attachment with the printed page. The newspaper’s website to her was a public service, to make news quickly available in case it was needed, but not a replacement for ink on paper. Why would there not be a demand for a printed newspaper?

I think I was more stunned to hear her than she was to hear me. I thought maybe she was joking.

We had never had an extended discussion about the news business model. I knew she was adamantly opposed to charging online readers for access to the website. She knew that advertising essentially pays the bills for a newspaper but that print circulation and advertising have been in industry-wide decline.

Yet somehow she had not done the 2 + 2 math and thought out where that all leads.

And then today Steve Buttry posted a link to a piece by Clay Shirky that fairly bursts with exasperation at people who have remained stubbornly print-centric and cheered on Aaron Kushner’s attempt, now apparently failing, to reinvigorate the Orange County Register with a fiercely print-first model, investing in more staff and more pages. Shirky has an anecdote similar to mine:

A year or so ago, I was a guest lecturer in NYU’s Intro to Journalism class, 200 or so sophomores interested in adding journalism as a second major. (We don’t allow students to major in journalism alone, for the obvious reason.) One of the students had been dispatched to interview me in front of the class, and two or three questions in, she asked “So how do we save print?”

I was speechless for a moment, then exploded, telling her that print was in terminal decline and that everyone in the class needed to understand this if they were thinking of journalism as a major or a profession.

That’s a thought I don’t like to think. I know that there are people of all ages who like to read, and importantly there are children, teenagers and 20-somethings out there who read newspapers and printed books – I see them in coffee shops, or in photos that friends post on Facebook of their children – but in general the way of the world is moving in the opposite direction. Fewer people do.

A couple of days ago, my wife was in a coffee shop downtown when a teenage girl there was told by the shop owner that she was in a picture in our newspaper’s print coverage of the Pop Ferguson Blues Heritage Festival. The girl didn’t care. Then my wife told her that the newspaper also put the photo on Facebook. The girl instantly went to find it online.

Many people have a sentimental attachment for reading on paper. But sentiment isn’t a business model.

UPDATE: Another view: “Print is under pressure but it does have a real business model, one that brings in real revenues.

“The sensible strategy is to not walk away from a print business model that works, that continues to do great journalism, that provides many good journalism jobs. Keep that print revenue coming in and keep looking for new approaches on the digital side, trying to create a digital business model that brings in real money.”

A few weeks ago, an article in The Atlantic by Daniel D. Snyder examined the clash between being a superhero with a secret identity and the ethics of journalism, namely being open and honest about who you are and how you got the details for your stories and photos.

It reminded me in a tangential way of a short story I wrote a few years ago after seeing “Superman Returns.” In that movie, despite being set in the modern world, the Daily Planet’s newsroom seemed culturally excavated from the 1950s — there were big, flat TVs and everyone had a computer, but it was as though the Internet didn’t exist. Reporters wrote. Photographers shot still photos. No one worried about minute-to-minute deadlines. And the more those thoughts stewed inside of me, I came to the conclusion that no superhero would find it possible nowadays to hold down a job as a journalist, which led to this story …

No Place for Heroes

As I left the news building for the last time, the breeze fluttered through cards in the Rolodex atop the box I carried. The old Rolodex had been with me since I started, filled with contacts made over more than two decades. It used to be every reporter had one, but over time you saw fewer of them around the room. Now it’s almost as much a relic as the lead spike sitting in the bottom of the box with my other things. No one has actually “spiked” a story since the day the last typewriter left the newsroom, but Ed, one of the old copy editors, couldn’t bear to take it off his desk, and when he retired a couple of years ago he handed it to me as a parting gift. Maybe I should have handed it off myself when they told me to clear out my desk, but as I packed the box, it was as though memories were piled deep on that spike, so I picked it up and placed it on the box to carry home.

News has been my life. Well, at least my work as a newsman made me feel a part of humanity in a way that nothing else did. There was electricity to working a story. It made me feel alive, charged. Not as charged as flying out and being in the action itself, actually catching the robbers or putting out the burning skyscraper, but being a reporter on the scene was always the next best thing, and there were plenty of times I could tell the trouble wasn’t so bad and the police or fire department could handle it while I took notes and shot bull with the other reporters.

Now, here I was, laid off, downsized, holding a box with a Rolodex, some personal files, cubicle knickknacks and mementos. A stuffed Cartman doll. A few photographs. A signed cartoon from the editorial cartoonist, who had been laid off a few years ago. A copy of the first A1 story I was part of, about a corrupt senator. A fragment of the rocket that narrowly missed hitting the city, last year’s biggest story. A Mason jar of river water, first captured and sealed up for an environmental story 17 years ago that became both mysteriously browner every year and also somehow now was a little more than half its original volume; a newsroom legend, and now it sat here, in my box, out in the sun for the first time in 17 years.

I just stood there by the car, looking down at the box. I hadn’t been unemployed since that first time I arrived in the city. Once, when unemployment rates were high, a man I interviewed told me how he remembered every detail about the moment he was fired – the ticking second hand of his boss’s clock, which snagged a half-beat near the 9 every time; the smell of cigarettes that clung to his boss’s shirt; the way his boss looked almost afraid of him. I understood him now in a way I didn’t before. Though truly what I think I will remember most is the powerlessness. I had never felt that before. I saw the end coming, as I had countless times before outside that building, but this time, sitting in that chair in human resources, there was absolutely nothing I could do about it.

About two dozen of us were let go today. Some simply left everything behind. Most, like me, gathered their things and walked out holding a box and trying to keep a brave face. A few I had seen leave were angry. Michael, for instance, strode out muttering loudly, punctuating everything with curses as his wiry, brown hair bounced around him. When he reached the sidewalk, he turned and drop-kicked his box at the building, then turned back and kept walking to the parking lot.

Walking toward my car, I passed Betty loading her box into her car. She looked at me and paused just a moment. “Early retirement,” she said, shaking her head. “I guess I’m lucky for once that I’m old.”

“Old” was the common denominator in the layoffs. Not old age. “Old” as in “old ways.”

Betty’s work habits had been the same for 37 years. She was careful, thorough and conscientious. That used to be enough to make her a model around the newsroom. But it wasn’t enough anymore. She refused repeated requests from the editors to participate in the newsroom’s expanding number of webcasts. She insisted on holding on to her stories until the absolute final deadline, polishing the words, and didn’t care about getting the story out early enough for the social media team to link to it before Facebook traffic peaked. She never got the hang or the habit of posting her stories to the website herself. She wouldn’t use a digital audio recorder. She never even included Web links – an editor looked them up instead – and she gently scolded colleagues who used “Google” as a verb.

Like all journalists, I had recognized the business was changing. More and more, reporters kept in constant contact with the newsroom and filed updates throughout the day, just a paragraph or two by email or cellphone or even text message. A reporter on a major breaking story in a city as big as this one often had to take a few minutes for at least a phone interview for use on the Web and TV.

All of this was exactly why I found myself my possessions in a box. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to change with the times or didn’t know how to do all those things. I just couldn’t. You can rescue a crashing airliner and later write about how it was saved, but you can’t interrupt the rescue to post a live update. Even once it’s on the ground, you can’t just whip out your phone and write a bulletin. The marauding alien bent on destruction won’t simply pause for a couple minutes just because you need to step aside to call the newsroom with the latest on which buildings have been seriously damaged and where traffic is blocked by debris.

Back when I started with the paper, you had a deadline. One. The job was easy. Whether I was in uniform part of the day or always playing the reporter, all I had to do at the end was write everything I knew was true and turn it in before Perry blew his top. I could type so fast I’d break the keyboard. But even if you’re fast enough to dodge a bullet, you can’t be in two places at once.

The company began offering multimedia training a year ago, and I signed up. But something always came up. Once I was headed for a session on recording and editing video for the Web, but a man in Chicago had set a bomb protected by lasers, so I had to skip it. Once I was in a session, but then a meteor was about to wipe out Fiji, so I pretended to be sick and excused myself early. Other times I showed up late.

Perry called me and several other reporters into his office a few months ago to preach to us about the “new media universe.” Afterward, he grabbed me by the elbow while everyone else walked out. “Jesus, Kent,” he said, “the whole world could be yours if you’d just reach out and take it. What are you thinking?”

That rolled around my head a few times as I stood outside my car, looking down into my box. I had heard it before, but not quite like that. I opened the back door of the car and slid the box onto the seat.

Out of the corner of my eye I thought I saw someone coming, then I turned and realized it was my reflection in the window of a van parked beside me. For a moment, the figure I thought I saw looked frail, slumped. I straightened my shoulders.

Looking up at the building again, I saw Perry come out on his way to lunch.

I hope a meteor lands on your house, buddy, I thought. See if I lift a finger to stop it.

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