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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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Since for most of the past 12 years, a large part of my job has been trying to help journalists – especially in small newsrooms – make sense of the changes and new tools sweeping the industry, I’m going to take a crack at interpreting the imposing study Post-Industrial Journalism: Adapting to the Present, from the Tow Center for Digital Journalism.

So, do you need to read it? If you work in either the content (news) or business end of a journalism organization, you should read it. But realistically, it’s huge, so there’s a chance either you’ll start and won’t get far, then later think of it but won’t go get your computer or tablet to do it, and if you print it out it will go into your stack of magazines and you won’t touch it until spring, when you’ll put it in the recycling bin. So let’s prioritize: Pressed for time, what do you need to read? The whole thing is a tough slog for one sitting, both for its length and its academic style, and there are pretty good summaries out there, notably from Jeff Sonderman at Poynter, Josh Benton at Nieman Journalism Lab and Matthew Ingram at GigaOm.

Start with those summaries and then seek out the parts that in the summaries sound most interesting. My take:

The Introduction: If you are one of the people who think the industry’s whole problem is putting information online without charging for it, you seriously need to read the introduction because you have an incomplete understanding of the business end, its history and what’s happening to it.

Part 1: If you are unsure what exactly is changing about the role of a journalist, this helps fill in the blanks, though to me it seems overly focused on what I would call large newsrooms (Chicago, Boston, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Denver, Seattle and New Orleans, for instance), not the size of newsrooms that predominate across the country. However, to the extent that these larger newsrooms have resources and an ability to experiment that small newsrooms do not, it is important to be aware of what they should or may be trying to do because changing technology may make it easier for you later.

Part 2: If you have a big-picture job – an executive, an academic, a journalism think-tanker, writer for CJR, AJR, Nieman Lab, etc. – this section gets into some useful philosophical space about institutional change. It’s also helpful if you are trying unsuccessfully to manage up in a company that is resisting change; you’ll understand better why you can’t get the urgency of your message conveyed higher up. It is not as much immediate help to the typical ground-level journalist except for further context about the changing face of the industry.

Part 3: This attempts to use some recent examples to flesh out the larger picture of how the emerging models of journalism may work. It builds on part 1, so if you still aren’t sure what the changes there mean for you, read this part.

Conclusion: This takes up where the introduction left off, going from how things have already changed to trying to extrapolate into the future. If you found the introduction useful, read this.

To me, the essential message for journalists can be summed up with these passages:

Even as the old monopolies vanish, there is an increase in the amount of journalistically useful work to be achieved through collaboration with amateurs, crowds and machines.

… Figuring out the most useful role a journalist can play in the new news ecosystem requires asking two related questions: What can new entrants in the news ecosystem now do better than journalists could do under the old model, and what roles can journalists themselves best play?

… For many newsworthy events, it’s increasingly more likely that the first available description will be produced by a connected citizen than by a professional journalist. For some kinds of events – natural disasters, mass murders – the transition is complete.

In that sense, as with so many of the changes in journalism, the erosion of the old way of doing things is accompanied by an increase in new opportunities and new needs for journalistically important work. The journalist has not been replaced but displaced, moved higher up the editorial chain from the production of initial observations to a role that emphasizes verification and interpretation, bringing sense to the streams of text, audio, photos and video produced by the public.

… The availability of resources like citizen photos doesn’t obviate the need for journalism or journalists, but it does change the job from being the source of the initial capture of an image or observation to being the person who can make relevant requests, and then filter and contextualize the results.

… People follow people, and therefore just by ‘being human’ journalists create a more powerful role for themselves. It is a device personality-driven television has long relied on, but only in a one-way medium. In a networked world, the ability to inform, entertain and respond to feedback intelligently is a journalistic skill.

In September of last year, I saw what I think is a perfect example of what the above describes, and it came from a small newsroom, the News & Messenger and insidenova.com in Prince William County, Va. After severe flooding in the region, people found themselves without a clearinghouse for information and discussion — but they gravitated to the newspaper’s Facebook page and were filling it with just such information. So, seeing that, online editor Kari Pugh created a flood information clearinghouse page on Facebook (it’s still there). In just a few hours it had garnered about 250 “likes,” and the community discussion on it became mostly self-sustaining.

Though the newspaper’s circulation is something around 10,000, on Facebook it has more than 26,000 likes. And its users have remained an active community. Key to the online community’s activity has been the involvement of the journalists. You can see it in the back-and-forth between them and people in the community.

How the news staff reacted to the flooding and the community’s desire to share information is something at least close to, though less sophisticated than, what Jeff Jarvis said this week he wishes he saw in the New York area in the wake of Sandy. It’s not a complex skillset, it just takes a shift in the way you see what the role of journalists is in this world of mobile devices that let every person report on what’s happening right then and there.

The Tow Center report is massive, and the future it paints may feel at times overwhelming. But you don’t have to build that future in one day, just as video games didn’t get from Pong to “World of Warcraft” overnight. (BTW, Happy 40th birthday, Pong.) What’s one step you can take today? Engaging your “readers” is an easy one, and, as it did with the News & Messenger, it may point you to the next step.

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One thing in particular to note from the news earlier today that Warren Buffett’s World Media Enterprises is closing one of its newspapers:

“Terry Kroeger, chairman of World Media, said the newspaper is in direct competition with many other publications and, being part of a large metropolitan area, had a tough time finding the sense of community that a community newspaper needs to prosper. He said the paper had been losing money for years.”

That’s not entirely true. If you check on Facebook for the page of insidenova.com, the website of the News & Messenger, which is the Virginia paper Buffett’s company is closing, you’ll see it has more than 24,000 likes, and if you dig down you’ll find that the Facebook community that had formed around insidenova.com is an active one. There is a community there. The problem is that WME, like other print publishers, doesn’t know how to make a profit from that. That’s the entire crux of the crisis in print publications. There is not necessarily the lack of an audience for news about any particular community, there is just (so far) a lack of ways to make enough money from those folks to keep the lights on.

UPDATE: Don’t take my word for it. From the Washington Post:

“This is horrendous news for everyone in Prince William County and those who care about Prince William news. The News & Messenger and InsideNoVA are the definitive source of news in Prince William.”

And note this quote: “They put a lot of emphasis on their digital products,” Kroeger said, “so their print circulation fell even further.”

So [Edited to clarify] If that view is correct throughout the industry, then the question is whether the closing of the News & Messenger is an aberration or a sign of things to come.

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Niagara Falls
This morning brought me a good composite illustration of the evolving media landscape, at least a snapshot of it, that is so challenging for traditional news organizations to adapt to.

On Facebook, a journalist friend vented about local sites’ aggregation practices, which several times a day summarize and link to news her staff has reported: “It’s my reporters doing all the hard work! Am I looking at this wrong?” It’s a type of heartburn, but keep it in perspective: It has been going on since the first time a radio talker read the news on the air.

Nieman Journalism Lab reports on how NPR is trying a new strategy for rolling out new shows, aiming to simplify the process and lower the cost while also making use of social media. My first thought was it just shows that NPR, perhaps because it relies on grants and donations rather than advertising, has been somewhat insulated from the economic issues confronting print and commercial broadcast news organizations because it has been several years since I became used to hearing the idea of “fail fast, fail cheap.” But my second thought was that it illustrates one problem for traditional media: We don’t like to do anything just one time. I don’t mean stories, I mean columns, features, shows, sections, segments. We’re used to the idea of stand-alone news and features, but anything that we would do more than once, but not at least weekly and not for the foreseeable future, is a giant barrier. Any traditional news source is tremendously structured and formatted. The idea of predictability is roundly accepted as a plus, that people want to know what they are getting before they even try. Try telling a newspaper editor (not to pick on newspapers; this is just an example) that certain stories should run in larger type. At best, he’ll convene a committee to discuss it for a few weeks, and if they tend to agree they’ll run off test copies on the press and discuss it some more. So in that sense, even though many organizations have been preaching “fail fast, fail cheap,” almost no one really practices it. “Fail fast, fail cheap” means you go ahead and do it, and if it clear quickly that it isn’t working, you stop.

Finally, John Robinson explains what I would call the cognitive dissonance in a Pew study of news habits, which reported that “31 percent of people ages 18-24 get no news on an average day, and 22 percent of 30-34-year-olds get none either.” The nut of John’s argument:

“The 18-24 year-old age group is the ‘if-the-news-is-that-important-it-will-find-me’ generation. Those folks are on Facebook. They get news every time they log on. Their friends tell them the news in their worlds. (And for you not on Facebook, don’t think that they talk about what they had for breakfast.) This generation doesn’t immediately call it news the way we old-timers do, but when they watch, say, the president slow jammin’ the news, it is news. When they see the ‘Trending Articles’ foisted upon them by Facebook, that’s news. (Well, some of them are.)

“But if you ask them where they get news, the answer is Google and Yahoo and Jon Stewart and Huffington Post. It’s rarely actual, traditional, mainstream news organizations. The news may originate there, but they don’t identify those as the sources. And that’s one of the problems with using the generic term ‘news’ in a survey.”

And that right there is the larger issue: Not just young people but almost everyone now picks up news everywhere throughout the day. It used to be far more structured; the morning paper (or, before that, the afternoon paper), the evening TV news and whatever people talked about during the day that was passed on by word of mouth or that was big enough to warrant a news break on TV or radio in the middle of the day. It’s all atomized now, or it’s increasingly so.

A further illustration: Although I started my day with the morning paper, all of the above was stimulated by things I found online — starting with Facebook.

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Regret
The category of “don’t do this on Facebook (or Twitter)” is a large one. While many examples stem from what I guess you might call youthful exuberance or failure to consider the nature of the first two Ws in World Wide Web, not all of them do, which is a good reminder for everyone who laughs off those mistakes as things they would never do. One such tale comes in Jay Rosen’s Anatomy of a Facebook Fail: Mine, in which he explains how he came to post a brief comment on Facebook that he wishes he hadn’t. Skipping to the caveat that any of us could tape to the bottom of the computer screen:

“… that’s exactly why I should have waited to post my comment: so I could examine it with a cooler eye. And that’s what it was: a comment (38 words) not an attempt to report on the episode.

“Still, I have 8,000+ subscribers on Facebook. I knew I was commenting publicly. I teach journalism and I study the Internet. I know a lot about how to avoid these things. That of course makes it worse.”

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This is what it has come to: I can’t see an Oscar-winning movie without finding parallels in journalism’s changing landscape. In this case, while watching “The Artist” I was struck by the remark by the lead character, a star of silent film as talkies begin to sweep the movie industry, quoted in a newspaper that he would not do talkies because he was an artist. He dismissed the emerging technology of film as crass and lowbrow, less worthy of notice. The sentiment was very familiar; I’ve heard or read it a thousand times from traditional journalists about the idea of (pick any): blogging the news, aggregation, raw video, frequent (or sometimes any) web updates, Facebook, Twitter, engaging with reader comments, and probably a few that I can’t recall right now.

The at the end of “The Artist” you get, in the only spoken lines of the whole movie, why he really dismissed talkies. In case you haven’t seen it, without giving the whole thing away I will just say it came down to an ability. But the way he coped with that and adapted to the new medium was a different skill that had not been utilized by the silent films. He could act, but in the new world acting was not enough. But he had something else to add, and the combination worked.

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Google logo
Writing for Poynter.org, Jeff Sonderman explains the longer-term implications of Google starting to incorporate your social connections in search results, so that whatever results Google might feed you for a search will be influenced by whatever your friends have looked at:

“The point for news organizations and journalists is that it’s more important than ever to build strong social followings and to optimize content for sharing. Social media is becoming an engine that drives more than just Facebook and Twitter’s own referrals.”

In other words, it’s another argument for engaging the audience, whether you like it or not.

However, I have a feeling the search model is going to change yet again. The whole “what your friends are reading will influence what you see” thing is wearing on me in my Washington Post Social Reader. Apparently a heck of a lot of my friends read not only celebrity gossip, which I don’t care to see at all, and Apple fanboy love but also a lot more fluff than I ever expected to come to me via anything with “Washington Post” in its name — of the top six headlines at the time of this writing, two are Apple stories, one is about a Korean pop group and one is about paparazzi photos of Kate Middleton’s sister. Social search, in other words, is making my social reader less and less useful to me, to the point I expect I’ll stop using it at all — until they fix it, at which point the model will shift again.

1/12/12 UPDATE: Good additional details from Justin Ellis at Nieman Journalism Lab. … Still haven’t seen anyone share my “Hell is other people” take on it.

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