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Posts Tagged ‘management’

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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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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Another week, another ruckus over paywalls. That link will take you to Steve Buttry’s angle on the issue, but he links to the rest. Suffice to say I don’t think it’s a good idea for anyone to base an argument in favor or against anything, let alone declare victory, based on trends that started in just the past few years.

This ruckus erupted just ahead of news that Rupert Murdoch will pull the plug on his iPad-only, subscription-only news product, The Daily.

That by itself is evidence enough not to be too eager to declare victory. In this case, it was not the launch of The Daily that I refer to; many raised questions about the wisdom of launching a new product and immediately making it unavailable to the potential audience – that it would be one thing to take a well established, highly regarded newspaper entirely behind a hard paywall, and it’s another thing entirely to launch something new behind one.

What I recall also happening at the time, though, is swooning over the iPad’s implications for print publications moving to digital formats. I remember multiple company meetings where editors asked those responsible for digital initiatives when their newspaper would get its own iPad app. Everyone needed an app, so it seemed. An app! An app! My kingdom for an app.

While I loved the look of things I saw on the iPad, the idea of apps never struck me as a good one. They are not cheap or easy to build, and if you recall, your phone is not only old but totally obsolete in less than two years, so how long, I wondered, would the technology in an app be likely to last before it needed to be redesigned for the next generation (two years from now) of mobile products?

Part of The Daily’s problem, then, might be overeagerness to buy into the Apple iHype. But in a column about The Daily at GigaOm, Jordan Kurzweil lays out what he sees as the ways the The Daily went wrong and that he thinks still could be fixed. And I was struck while reading it that a great deal of what he said sounded like it applies to any newspaper trying to adjust to the digital world:

Be more than daily. Simply put, people now expect constant news updates. It doesn’t matter whether you think that’s good business; if you don’t provide it, the customers will go elsewhere.

Use technology to be bigger. I think the particulars of Kurzweil’s argument for The Daily here are different than I would put them for most newsrooms (most newsrooms having fairly limited technological capabilities), but a big part in either case is curation – or, as Jeff Jarvis says, do what you do best and link to the rest. In any community, it’s a rare news organization that is trying in any serious way to curate local blogs, competing news outlets, Twitter and whatever else is out there. One person doing that using common online tools could re-establish the newsroom as the hub of community conversation and news discovery.

Be available. I used to hear this worded differently: Go where your customers are. Nowadays, that is online, and rapidly it is becoming mobile. If you are 100 percent walled off from non-subscribers – meaning not only do you require payment for reading your stories, but you do not run any kind of free, web-friendly site to offer even a taste of your work to a casual passerby – it is not likely you will gain many new customers. Why are there ever stands in the grocery store offering free samples of a particular product? Same idea.

Fix the user experience. Most journalists I know give this practically no thought at all. Spend a day using nothing but your phone to keep up with the news, then think whether, if you had similar frustration when you went to a local restaurant, you would ever go back. Unfortunately, the technicalities of the user experience are largely outside your control, but you can think about the elements you are delivering to that experience, and if you are thinking about it, then when the opportunity comes to weigh in on the technology, you will have a base of knowledge from which to speak.

Be frugal. Most newsrooms I’m familiar with are way past frugal, so I have to reframe this. The problem The Daily had on this count was ignoring the frequent saying in business, “Fail fast, fail cheap.” But the mindset that led to this failure is well ingrained in newsrooms. Murdoch decided the future of the newspaper was in a highly formatted online product, so he threw a massive amount of money at it and tried to build Rome in a day. Didn’t work. I have seen over and over again that when an idea for something online is presented in a newspaper newsroom, the managers don’t want to do it unless they can make it pretty close to perfect; when moving to a new CMS, they will fuss over minute details and delay the launch; even redesigning the print product, they will agonize or argue over fonts. I would translate “be frugal” here as “be good enough,” using the phrase that in the mid-2000s the Newspaper Next project beat editors over the head with. I don’t think it took. (In 2010, Steve wrote a good update on the topic.)

I don’t know whether any of the above steps would have saved The Daily. But I have trouble finding a downside in the basic ideas.

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I am happy to have actual scientific evidence that I am right: Newspapers can’t go wrong by explaining to readers what they are paying for and why. Actually the proof is tangential to my argument, but it’s related so I’ll claim it as evidence anyway.

As the combination of the recession and the migration of advertising revenue drove newspapers to lay off staff and cut back content, journalists and readers alike often complained that the publications were being slimmed down and made less compelling just as the price per copy was being raised — all of which is true. The thing is, readers were not presented with any options. The decision was made and then presented to them in as happy terms as possible. I wondered whether it had to be that way and have argued that if you tell readers exactly what it costs to produce a single copy of the newspaper, including specifically the cost of printing and delivering it, readers would be much more likely to accept price increases. After all, the typical subscriber is barely covering the cost of paper, ink and gasoline as it is, leaving the cost of all the humans involved in creating the content out of the picture.

The evidence I’m claiming comes from a study of consumer reaction to the New York Times’ online paywall. The study authors fault the Times for failing to adequately justify charging for online content after it had been free for so many years, because the justification or lack of it made all the difference in the world in how people reacted:

“When participants were provided with a compelling justification for the paywall — that The New York Times was likely to go bankrupt without it — their support and willingness to pay increased,” Cook and Attari concluded.

Times readers who thought the paywall was merely an effort to improve the newspaper’s bottom line, on the other hand, visited the website less frequently and looked for loopholes to avoid the charges.

The reason I’m claiming this as evidence in support of my argument is that the basic situation is the same: People do not inherently understand our industry’s finances. If they truly value what your publication does, they will accept a higher price as the cost of keeping it. If they don’t value it, well, then you have a larger problem. But if you don’t even bother to explain to them the exact reasons you want to charge more, they just assume you want to pocket the higher revenue.

Readers I have talked to don’t even realize advertising has declined. They don’t realize that advertising essentially pays (or historically has) the full cost of news production. They think that all the cost-cutting of recent years, as well as the move to start charging online, has been about INCREASING profits. People understand the need to balance income and expenses. Explain it to them. It’s not a radical concept: Treat them like adults.

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Anyone remember when “disruptive innovation” was the focus of discussion about the future of the newspaper industry? It seems like ages ago, but it has been just six or seven years. A Nieman Journalism Lab interview with Clay Christensen of the Harvard Business School has brought the phrase back in recent days. For those who don’t remember Newspaper Next, Mathew Ingram at Gigaom.com aptly summarizes the idea:

“One of the classic lessons from Christensen’s seminal book ‘The Innovator’s Dilemma’ is that companies with a commanding lead in their field, whether it’s hard-drive makers or steel mills, are almost incapable of taking the steps that need to be taken to survive a technological and/or behavioral disruption — even when the danger of not doing so is blindingly obvious. In other words, even when a company can see quite clearly that a freight train is approaching or a cliff lies directly ahead, it is still almost impossible to step off the tracks or do anything other than stampede over the edge.”

For a few years, “innovation” got a big push, at least in newsrooms. Journalists, in fact, generally have done the most innovating in the business, making their news more mobile, more diverse in form.

But in the wake of the Great Recession and the ongoing slow recovery, many people in the business are focused on where they can find revenue, not on the main point Christensen had stressed, which Joshua Benton described for the Nieman Journalism Lab as:

“First, focus on the jobs that your customers are hiring you to do — and on new ones that you might be in a good position to do. Successful companies often value elements of their products that audiences don’t particularly care about; getting too much distance between those two perceptions leads to business failure.”

What is the job that people come to newspapers or any news source to get done? Ingram asks at Gigaom:

“Are readers suffering from a lack of paywalled content for which they can submit their credit cards? Probably not.”

The current focus on paywalls and how to grow the online subscription business helps the business survive, and it might even be considered an innovation if the purpose is to change the industry from one relying on cheaply acquiring an audience in order to sell lots of advertising to one that relies on creating a product that people are willing to pay to acquire — but it doesn’t serve customers. Continuing to provide the public with the same information we’ve always provided them isn’t an innovation. There has to be more.

Look at the way people use technology – and how rapidly that technology is moving. Ask yourself whether the way you do business makes sense in that world. What is the job people come to you to get done?

Christensen sounds a warning that innovation focused on customers can’t be put off for long:

“Even as the disruption is getting more and more steam in the marketplace, the core business persists, and is really quite profitable for a very long time. Then, when the disruption gets good enough to address the needs of your customers, very quickly, all of a sudden, you go off the cliff.”

10/26 UPDATE — More on the ways people use technology:

“This year, the amount of time consumers spent using mobile devices—excluding talk time—will grow 51.9% to an average 82 minutes per day, up from just 34 minutes in 2010, eMarketer estimates.

“… Time spent with print media will drop to an average 38 minutes per day this year, eMarketer estimates, down from an average 44 minutes per day in 2011. Newspapers will see a drop to an average 22 minutes per day this year, while time spent with print magazines will fall to 16 minutes per day.”

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Mathew Ingram at GigaOm reminds everyone that even with a paywall in place online, a newspaper has quite a gap to fill if advertising continues to decline (as it likely will), and that relying on payments from readers does not equal freedom from pressure to generate traffic. Sample:

“But the biggest flaw in … (that) reasoning, I think, is the idea that having subscribers means newspapers won’t have to be driven by pageview-based tactics any more, and can just focus on high-quality journalism. This assumes that the readers who subscribe will be radically different creatures than the ones who read the content for free: in other words, they will only be interested in serious journalism and not celebrity news briefs or slideshows, whereas the free reader is driven only by their interest in those sleazy eyeball-grabbing tactics.

“I don’t think that’s the case at all. I think most readers who pay will still want just as many of those things, and will only continue subscribing as long as they get them — and without them, the paper’s subscription base may be loyal, but it will also be relatively tiny. This is the flip-side of the transformation that some newspapers like the NYT have already undergone, where the revenue provided by readers now exceeds the revenue provided by advertising. While that may seem like it would provide great freedom to pursue quality, it also means the the paper is even more beholden to a small group of readers …”

That being said, I think the industry still needs to move aggressively to build non-advertising revenue. Journalists just shouldn’t look forward to the day when finally they are free of business-driven demands on their time and websites.

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Mark Potts’ description on his Recovering Journalist blog of the first glimpses he and Washington Post executives had 20 years ago of the coming media technology revolution reminds me of my own moment of realization on that topic.

It’s worth the time to read Mark’s post, but his tale revolves around this:

“Twenty years ago, Robert G. Kaiser, newly appointed managing editor of The Washington Post, took a trip to California to learn more about the then-developing world of Silicon Valley. While there, he was invited by John Sculley, then Apple’s CEO, to a conference in Japan about the future of digital media. Several dozen movers and shakers from the worlds of publishing and technology gathered in the resort town of Hakone, outside Tokyo, to discuss what it might mean to use computers to collect and distribute news and information, something described by the newfangled word ‘multimedia.’”

It was just 1992, but what was described in that meeting in Japan is pretty much the online media environment we have now. As Mark describes it, Kaiser and others recognized the need to prepare for the technological tidal wave, but for all the effort put into it, things just petered out:

“The history of the past 20 years of newspapers and digital media is, unfortunately, a legacy of timidity, missed opportunities and a general lack of imagination and guts to leap into the future.”

My moment of realization comes on a much smaller, more limited scale. In 1997, I told my reporters that we all needed to think of the newspaper’s website as a place to report breaking news because it put us on an even playing field with TV, but I remained skeptical of how much new effort needed to be directed online. But in June 2005, I attended a session at API in Reston, Va., with the unwieldy name “Cross-Platform Media Teams: Strategic Thinking for a Multi-Platform World,” and that changed everything for me. In particular, a presentation by Jeff Coles of USC’s Center for the Digital Future drove home the idea that the Internet was driving far-reaching changes in people’s behavior in the same way that the advent of television did. The trends indicated that even then, before the first iPhone launched the explosive growth in smartphones.

Which leads us in more recent years to the kind of scenes such as former Wall Street Journal reporter Paul Glader recently described from a trip on Amtrak:

“All of my neighbors were pecking away at Amazon Kindles or Apple iPads. In this container on rails, the microcosm of well-connected travelers showed what kind of ‘Star Trek’ world in which we are, or soon will be, living. … They flitted back and forth, like distracted youngsters, between email, news sites, books and video games like Angry Birds.”

Newsrooms already have been decimated by massive declines in advertising revenue. Often, the cuts in staffing make editors even more resistant to changing beats or organizational structures – we’ve lost so much, how can we do anything new when we can’t even do what we once thought was the bare minimum? But retrenchment is no way to keep up with a world that’s racing ahead of you.

(Thanks to Poynter’s Jeff Sonderman for pointing to both of these articles.)

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