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Archive for December, 2012

Yesterday I mentioned that I stopped taking the local paper in mid-November, and I said that “if the paper has produced anything important in the past six weeks, it was like a tree falling in the woods with no one nearby to hear it — which is a subject for another post.” This is that post.

I do not watch local TV news. I listen to NPR each morning, and I’m on Twitter and Facebook pretty much daily, which both point me to news from a number of outlets. Earlier this month it occurred to me that aside from one political columnist who is on the public-radio station each Friday and a columnist with whom I’m Facebook friends, not a whiff of the newspaper’s content had managed to reach me. It reminded me that there has long been discussion in the newspaper business that although the industry relies on advertising revenue, newspapers are pretty bad about advertising themselves.

The main ways that many newspapers publicize what’s in the paper each day and what big stories are coming in the days ahead are all within the newspaper itself – house ads, teasers, promos. In other words, the newspaper targets people who already are looking at the newspaper. People who do not see the newspaper, no matter the reason, will never see those efforts. This would be like a TV station running its ads and promos for its news show only during the news show.

An editor told me just last year that no one had yet explained to him what the newspaper gained from being active on Facebook and Twitter. He felt that being active made those social media platforms better and built their customer base but did nothing for the newspaper other than siphon off staff time that perhaps would be better spent improving the paper. I tried to connect these dots at that time, but I don’t think I did it well. This might be clearer: There are many people in your community who do not subscribe, but almost all of them might be interested in some specific thing the newspaper does and would come for it – if only they knew it existed. Because of the growing reach of social media, you stand a chance of reaching those people – if only you are active and engaged, which teaches you how to tailor your posts and what people are likely to share.

It’s true that a tree that falls in the forest creates a thunderous crash, but if no one is anywhere nearby, that tree could rot away before anyone knows it fell. A good news staff creates some pretty good rumbles now and then, but an awful lot of people are out of earshot of the forest. You have to find a way to amplify the noise to reach them.

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Continuing on the topic of changing what local news reporters do (I provided some links in this post a couple weeks ago), John Robinson proposes a kind of New Year’s resolution for editors:

If editors do one thing for their newspaper readers in 2013 — yes, there are a slew of things needing to be done for their digital audience in 2013 — it should be to examine how they are covering the local news. Is it what people need to understand their community? Are we covering this because it’s vital information or because we need to fill a hole in the paper? Will this story make reading the paper an indispensable act? Because if it doesn’t — and with the circulation losses papers have suffered over the past 10 years, there is evidence it doesn’t — it’s time for a change.

Meanwhile, Steve Buttry adds to his previous posts on this topic with more specific thoughts on how a newsroom might change some or all of its beats.

I fear that some people will stop reading at the point where Steve suggests a pets beat and will miss his larger point: Something has to change, and you have to start thinking about it, and what you change may be less important than having a thorough discussion about the possibilities and doing something about it.

John notes as evidence of the need for change some results of a September 2011 Pew survey: “For instance, when asked, ‘If your local newspaper no longer existed, would that have a major impact, a minor impact, or no impact on your ability to keep up with information and news about your local community?’ a large majority of Americans, 69%, believe the death of their local newspaper would have no impact (39%) or only a minor impact (30%) on their ability to get local information.”

John also cites his experience in the past year reading the front pages of a dozen Sunday papers around North Carolina and seeing too much rote, uninteresting coverage. I can go further: For the past six weeks, I haven’t read any newspapers at all, nor have I watched local TV news, and I firmly fall into the camp saying that as far as I can tell the death of my local newspaper would have only a minor impact on my ability to get local information. (I do miss certain columnists and the routine of the morning paper, but if the paper has produced anything important in the past six weeks, it was like a tree falling in the woods with no one nearby to hear it — which is a subject for another post.)

But this is where the hope for fixing local news hits a Catch-22. John quotes Philip Meyer from a 2008 online discussion about local news:

“Local is cheap to produce if you limit yourself to stenographic coverage of public meetings. But to really cover local news, you need talented, specialized reporters who are free to dig for weeks on a single topic.”

I won’t rehash all the arguments I made on this point three months ago, but I will summarize:

The success of any attempt to change or “fix” local news is ultimately dependent on publishers and the executives who supervise them agreeing with the need to restructure the newsroom pay scale and to end, where they exist, any mandates that the front page absolutely has to be all-local. Yes, I mean better pay, but I also mean fewer people in the newsroom because the revenue isn’t there to raise pay and keep the staff the same size, which is the reason publishers who want all-local front pages have to give that up in the name of getting better reporting. That also means more pressure on editors to ensure their staff follows through – more-engaged editors, more-engaged reporters.

Lord knows newsrooms have many creative, imaginative people who consider the job a calling and work cheap. But it has fewer every day – beyond layoffs, many are no longer willing to work low-paying jobs that have become content farms of rote coverage. Counting on an endless supply of new ones who are willing is likely to be as healthy for your business model as counting on an endless supply of gasoline under $4 a gallon.

1/2/13 UPDATE: A good follow-up today by John Robinson on the need for editors to confront the reality of permanently smaller staffs and how to figure out what people really want the newsroom to do.

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Sometimes it’s easy to feel down about journalism. It’s a little too easy. Yes, the collapse of advertising and the rapid pace of technological change are problems, but there is a lot in journalism still worth celebrating. Among them:

Technology. Yes, the industry is having trouble keeping up with what new technology is doing to the business model for news, but look at all that technology is making possible. At one extreme is the kind of rich storytelling experience exemplified recently by the New York Times’ “Snow Fall” (FYI, good info on that package from The Atlantic Wire). Even in small newsrooms with nowhere near that level of technological ability, new tools are enabling new forms of storytelling.

At the very basic level, technology allows reporters to be untethered from their desks yet still be able to reach sources at any time and also file stories and photos from almost anywhere, and it opens the possibility for new, deeper, stronger ties between news organizations and their communities. Technology is making access to records faster and easier, and giving us databases where once there only were farflung file cabinets of paper, if the information existed at all. It is easing and speeding communication of all kinds. All of this is good news if you believe an informed public is inherently a good thing.

Bosses worth working for. I have been lucky because I can count on one hand, and still hold a cup of coffee, the bosses I’ve had for whom I would not happily work again. One of my editors I actually did work for twice. There are editors out there who make their staffs feel good about their work, and some even make the workplace fun. Not only that, there are good publishers. True, I’ve met my share of underhanded, unimaginative or timid publishers, but I’ve met many more who believe that good journalism is good business in the long term. Just in the past month I met two who specifically said they want their news staffs to feel free to butt heads and do stories that might upset local officials. A good boss makes a world of difference, and there are a good number of them out there.

Staffers worth supervising. Journalists fancy themselves as crusty and cynical, but it’s hard to find a more optimistic group. Look at how they have watched their newsrooms dwindle, but see how many of them remain hopeful about the future of the business. In all my travels visiting newsrooms, spending time with a news staff has always left me feeling energized. Journalists just want to do a good job, and their job, when done well, helps the public.

Strivers and innovators. Although the traditional business model faces many problems, there are many people and organizations constantly trying new things. Just visiting the Nieman Journalism Lab site every now and then will give you some hope. If you’re like me, you can feel frustrated at either the pace of these efforts or the slow adoption of some innovations, but at least there are people trying new things. With enough people trying in enough places, good things have to result.

Thinking about things such as these make me feel better — as light as a feather, as merry as a school-boy, maybe even as giddy as a drunken man, Dickens might say. I should try to dwell on them more often.

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I got a lot of problems with you people. Too many to list, actually, so some of the big ones:

Pack journalism. Washington, D.C., remains ground zero when making the case for too many people chasing the exact same story, but Newtown, Conn., is the most egregious example of what happens when a big story breaks anywhere else. Why? What was gained by having this many journalists in one place chasing exactly the same thing? Isn’t this why any news organization pays AP?

General unwillingness to challenge traditional beat and story structures. See my previous post and the links there to other sites for more detailed discussion. Staffs are smaller, the world is more linked and mobile than ever, so change is necessary – not just changing what you cover but how you cover it. In many newsrooms, everyone is preoccupied with an urgency to feed the beast. Consider whether you can let the beast go hungry a day or two a week so you can assess whether what you are spooning into it is worthwhile.

Related to the above: story quotas and related mandates. A couple of weeks ago I visited a small newspaper where I was told that staffers are required to file 8-12 stories a week, and that the company requires that the front page be all-local. Eight stories a week is not onerous, in my experience, but as a glance at that paper’s front page made clear, no one was exercising any quality control to ensure that the quota was being filled by solid, well reported stories that people would want to read – probably because the editors were more afraid of not having enough staff-bylined stories to fill the page. Quotas and mandates can have that effect: The staff goes on autopilot, and the product suffers. Manage for quality first.

Also related: general reluctance to engage the community. Our world is full of bloggers, social posting and sharing. Our news is not. Why isn’t that widely acknowledged as a failing?

News websites remain unnavigable. This morning my wife was trying to find something on the site of the local newspaper. Couldn’t do it. I went to Google and found it in seconds. She actually has a better sense of how news sites are organized than the average person because of her exposure to that structure through me – but it’s still a mystery to her. Sites have too many sections, and where stories are listed and how they are tagged may be entirely at the whim of whatever overworked staffer posts them to the website at night. At some sites there is little consistency, or logic. Stories on a race for U.S. Senate, a legislative story, a profile feature and a food story all are tagged as local news? Seriously? Why? Oh, looking at the rest of your stories, I see why: EVERYTHING by your staff is tagged as local news, apparently because your late editor doesn’t want to think about it. And you, the editor, never noticed because who the hell has the time to look at such things? There is a reason your website has a taxonomy in the first place, and it’s not just because the site designer is anal retentive, but if you are tagging everything the same you are nullifying it.

Related to the above: Too many news people have no sense at all of how the industry’s finances work. The next time you see an argument for how many reporters $1 million (or any amount) in paywall revenue could pay for, check to see whether the math includes benefits, insurance, office rent/mortgage, utilities, office supplies, staff expense reimbursement such as mileage … You get the point. You can’t fully participate in an argument over the future of your business if you are ignorant of the business end of the business.

A few grievances that are less about journalism than the practices in the revenue-generating end of the building:

The general unclickability of business transactions related to news websites. Have you tried to place an obituary lately? Or any kind of advertisement? It’s usually an experience straight out of 1990. It is hard to spend money with a newspaper. It’s like you walk up to the building with a wad of money in your hand and can’t find anyone who will extend a hand to take the money from you.

Related to the above: the willingness to charge online readers to read obituaries, which themselves are paid advertisements. Are we so absolutely desperate for any revenue stream at all that we won’t consider the long-term implications of what we are charging for? If you charge the public on the front end to place a type of ad that you know helps you build an audience, and then you charge the public on the back end for the ability to read all of those ads in one place, you are simply begging for someone else to engineer a faster, cheaper, easier way to distribute that kind of ad. There WILL be a craigslist for obituaries, and newspapers don’t seem to care.

That scratches the surface. Looking back over them, I detect some things in common: lack of imagination, too much adherence to tradition, failure to engage new technology, timidity. Happy Festivus. Now, on to the feats of strength …

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I wrote a couple weeks ago that my response to a question about how to fit in all the new things journalists are told to do now was that if you want to start something, you have to stop something. I probably should have fleshed that out. I didn’t, but Steve Buttry has. Sample, on government meetings:

Maybe for your community, the answer is to send a reporter to the meetings to livetweet (live coverage gets more readership than stories), but to have the reporter turn his attention after the meeting to enterprise reporting on topics covered in the meeting, rather than undertaking the redundant task of writing a story about the meeting he just livetweeted.

If your local government agencies livestream their meetings, maybe you don’t need a reporter present. You embed the livestream on your site for meeting coverage and spend your reporter’s time on enterprise, unless a meeting promises to be unusually newsworthy.

In fact, that was essentially the approach I took as a reporter in a far-flung bureau covering meetings in a town where there was a local paper. Anything that happened during the meeting that sounded interesting, I knew the local paper would report the next day, so instead I would do my own reporting on the subject and flesh it out over the next day or two, such as a case where people living near a quarry complained of the damage that blasting at the quarry was causing to their well water and homes. I got a better story, plus a photo. Nowadays I might be able to get a slideshow and/or video out of it too.

Steve has other suggestions, including, “We need to work out partnerships with community journalists (and non-journalists)” — another word for those is “bloggers” — “who are doing jobs we’ve been doing and stop doing what they are doing, so we can focus our resources on unique ways we can serve the community.” The Seattle Times has such a network going (and discussed it at a session I attended at ONA12), so it’s not just a vague idea, it’s a model you can study and emulate, and tweak to fit your community.

Steve also links to several previous posts he had that address the idea of what needs to change. It’s the only topic that’s certain to remain on your radar.

12/21/12 UPDATE: From one of the Nieman Journalism Lab’s columns making predictions for 2013 that seems relevant to part of this discussion: Local news organizations no longer have the luxury of throwing skilled reporters at procedural news stories that are only important to niche groups …

12/30/12 UPDATE: More on this topic John Robinson and Steve Buttry.

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I don’t use this blog to comment on issues outside of the news media, so I won’t address the gun-control debate that has come after the elementary-school shootings in Connecticut, but one that I first came across last night through a conservative friend’s post on Facebook, and which I subsequently came across multiple times, is the argument that the media should refrain from ever again using the name or photos of a mass killer because that would rob him of the infamy he craves.

(Among the places I have seen this are the website created by a mass-shooting victim’s family; Steve Buttry’s blog; and by David Brooks in a segment of NPR’s Dec. 14 “All Things Considered.”)

I’m sympathetic to the argument, but ultimately I think it would be futile, for three reasons.

First, the one thing that people on all sides of the gun debate would agree on is that the people who have carried out mass killings are deeply unhinged. Is the argument, then, that although they are unhinged, they will pause in their determination to kill, put down their guns and go home quietly once they realize they won’t get their name on the national news? Explain that to me. Even if a craving for infamy is part of their motivation, and I think that’s an open question, you’re assuming a crazed mind can draw the straight line from a national boycott on that publicity to the futility of seeking that publicity.

Second, how exactly is this boycott to be carried out? As anyone in any news organization can tell you, the news media are as organized and monolithic as a herd of cats. In my last job, I couldn’t even get the editors at four newspapers in the same company that had a congressional district in common to have just one reporter instead of four do the quarterly story on the district’s campaign finance reports. How you could convince even the majority of major national news organizations – let alone not just the broadcast and 24-hour cable networks and all of the nation’s largest papers but ALL. OF. THEM, down to the smallest of the hundreds of mainstream print, broadcast and online news outlets that are out there – is beyond me.

Which leads me to the third, decisive reason: A huge number of people don’t really want you to keep the killer’s name secret, no matter what they think right now. My conservative friend asked me my take on the media’s role in this and other news events, and my take on the media’s role is that people get the media they deserve, which is demonstrated by the media they choose. (For instance, if you want to live in a world where science is optional and math doesn’t matter, there are outlets for that.) What the media does at a time of tragedy is try to answer the questions that the typical person has; if we don’t answer them, we get calls and email asking why, and people will seek out media that answer those questions. In greatly simplified terms, the nature of a free market drives media to answer those questions in order to retain audience, which pleases advertisers. If even one news outlet uses the name, that organization will see a surge in its audience, and one by one others will wonder why they are withholding a name that is rapidly becoming common knowledge.

In the 1990s, the Winston-Salem (N.C.) Journal ran a story revisiting a decades-old killing in which a woman took her young children down to a creek and one by one drowned them. It was chilling and riveting. Among the calls that came in to the newsroom was one by a woman complaining that the whole story was so awful it never should have been printed. The veteran reporter who answered the phone asked the woman, “Ma’am, did you read the story?” She answered firmly, as if scolding him, “I read every single word of it.” He replied, “Then you must have really enjoyed the story.” She hung up on him – but he was right.

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John Robinson, former editor of the News and Record in Greensboro, N.C., writes in part 2 of his look back on his former job, from the perspective he has gained a year out of the job (part 1 here), the reasons why he thinks he didn’t do more of the things that, in hindsight, seem so obviously needed. I encourage everyone to read it, not just editors. He posted it a day after I was asked, by everyone from a publisher to his reporters, how to fit new things into all the things they already do. The answer stems from everything John wrote about. And I agree with him completely that maybe you need to step out of the newsroom to see where events tend to sweep a news staff along.

The short answer I gave to the question was that if you want to start doing something, you have to stop doing something. John didn’t put it quite that way, but his explanations about “Space must be filled” and the inertia of the beat structure — together, the feeling of urgency to fill the paper (presumably, the urgency stems from feeling the need for LOCAL bylines) plus the easy availability of incremental news from the beat structure — are at the heart of what I meant. News staffs are smaller than ever. They are being asked to do a wider variety of tasks than ever. You can’t have it all, and they can’t do it all. Choose your battles.

And my last advice asks the most of the editors at the top. Follow John’s suggestion:

Had I organized monthly meetings with the public to hear how we could serve them better, it would have improved our journalism, and I would have been a better steward of their newspaper.

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