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Posts Tagged ‘newsroom structure’

Part of me agrees with Teresa Schmedding’s “The news industry can’t cut its way to quality.” After all, I made largely the same point myself in 2012. Schmedding writes about the massive layoff of copy editors at the Bay Area News Group and what it portends for the quality of stories that BANG will be able to produce from here on — and what the likely effect among the reading audience will be:

“When is the last time you paid more for less? Newspapers do not have a monopoly on readers’ eyes. They have a choice, and they’re choosing to not read content they can’t trust because of typos or because it is complete gibberish.”

And she’s right, of course. To a point. I certainly agree that cutting by itself can’t improve the product we are trying to convince people to buy.

My emphasis was different because I focused on the content creators, those who generate the story ideas and/or chase down the stories. People who are not creative or not bright can’t generate interesting stories, so in my view you need to pay enough to get and keep such people. All trends so far seem to show that media employers disagree.

Schmedding’s point is that everyone needs an editor. Even the most creative and intelligent people make mistakes and are blind to their own errors. I am reminded of this constantly at work, most recently this morning as my publisher remarked that in the proof of our big, annual, tourism-focused magazine there were a lot of errors I marked that were in stories I had already edited. “There always are,” I said. The entire reason copy editors are necessary is that all of us are often blind to errors we made.

During my time in the corporate media world, I was surrounded by people with primarily business training. My desk for most of my time in Richmond was alongside desks of accountants. I listened to them talk on the phone to staff at individual newspapers, explaining the rules, and I heard more budget discussions than I could ever wish to for the rest of my life. I understand perfectly well the reaction of cutting — when revenues drop, you cut expenses and seek new ways to raise revenue (I cannot address here whether media companies are adequately trying the latter). That’s why copy editors may be first on the cutting-room floor: A publication HAS to have those who write the stories, because without them there is nothing to edit; so you reduce the editing layer to preserve the content layer, opening the door to more errors in the product.

The ledger-based mindset is reducing not only staff numbers but squeezing pay so that payroll totals are shrinking even when the staff level does not. From that kind of view, it’s positive to maintain staff levels while reducing the cost of that staff.

The idea that any expenses at all need to be protected, even raised, as you cut others is counter-intuitive to this way of thinking. But to me it seems urgent. The smaller you get, the smarter you must be, because there are fewer people making sure all your t’s are crossed and i’s dotted. There are fewer people who know what to do and how to do it, so they ought to be more valuable.

However, the assumption Schmedding and I both make is that there is an audience of sufficient size to support news and that would actually do it if the quality were maintained at a high enough level. Not many local or regional publications have tested this assumption, but the Orange County Register did, to disastrous effect.

Almost every week I receive fresh reminders from current or former subscribers that they do not recognize or appreciate the difference between good work and bad. I get far more complaints when the Sudoku puzzle is left out than when there are grammatical errors in the paper’s lead story. I have been told regularly that the crossword puzzle was the only reason to get the paper.

Those are not the majority, I tell myself, but how can I ever know how many of what is left in our circulation — less than half what it was in the late 1980s — recognize and appreciate it? If I can’t find that, how do I convince the ledger-minders to offer pay to reward work that fosters it?

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I spent most of the 12 years before coming to Lenoir trying to translate the national discussions about new media and news transformation for small newsrooms. Everyone talks in terms of big newsrooms and metro papers. But in terms of the national media scene, those are a minority of news organizations. The things that are of top importance in their newsrooms are luxurious daydreams for most newsrooms in the country.

In that sense, I was amply prepared for my current job. Yet I remain frustrated that smaller newsrooms, even those much larger than mine, seem to be less than an afterthought in journalism-discussion circles.

Take, as just one example, the Denver Post memo about the paper’s newsroom reorganization, much publicized and much discussed. “As part of the public meetings starting later in July, think about what The Post should cover, how should we be organized, what beats would you start and which would you eliminate,” it says.

It is the latest of many news conversations focused on rethinking what newspapers do cover versus what we should.

Good. I agree. Let’s rethink it.

I have four reporters in my newsroom, with these beats: sports (all), justice (cops and courts, countywide), city-county (Lenoir city government plus county government), and education plus the other five and a half (one is on the county line) small towns throughout the county.

I have no idea how I might reconstruct things to get better coverage. Literally everyone is a generalist. Half of all stories, at least, are what the city folk would call general assignment.

Do I stop having people cover the small towns in the county? That one reporter would like having Monday and Tuesday nights back, but the town leaders would view it as abandoning coverage, which would feed the negative narrative in the towns about our coverage. They are small towns. The average citizen in Charlotte may not give much weight to what his or her city council member thinks of the Observer’s coverage, but in Gamewell the elected officials are authorities, to many, and if they go around saying the newspaper doesn’t care, that carries significant weight.

Or maybe there should be no beats based on government structure at all. Except that my reporting staff is entirely under the age of 25 and from places other than here. Where would they begin? Beats, lets remember, are structure and help a new reporter figure out where to begin.

Or perhaps everyone would agree with me, that my newsroom is smaller than anyone would contemplate trying to reorganize beat structures.

Yes, well, move on, then, but it won’t mean I am less affected by the restructuring of media habits, advertising and news consumption patterns than you are.

The national discussion in journalism is divorced from the reality that the majority of papers face. Yet I know it is what the people on my staff will face if and when they decide to seek a job at a larger newsroom. And I know, from experience, that whatever larger newsrooms confront now will manifest themselves eventually in smaller newsrooms. Except it will be different, and no one will talk much about it then.

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Am I necessary?

I am an editor, and the main thing I do every day is change (a little or a lot) what other people have written. That’s not all I do, but that’s the part that other people seem to focus on, such as in discussion of changes like the ones under way in Gannett to reduce the ranks of editors.

Writing for Gawker, Hamilton Nolan seems to make the case that editors do nothing but hurt the writing they touch and make it worse. I’ve heard that before, indirectly. A reporter of mine about 15 years ago was working at the General Assembly in Raleigh, talking casually with other reporters, and the subject of editors came up. One said that he had never written a story that was improved by an editor. Others agreed. My reporter said she didn’t agree, and when talking to me she actually sounded stunned, and saddened, that the sentiment was so widespread.

I wasn’t that surprised.

It’s true that if you are a really good writer, the odds that your editor will improve your writing by much are small.

But it’s also true that if you think you are a really good writer whose work is so good it doesn’t need editing at all, you’re probably wrong. You might be right, but the odds are against it, partly because you probably are not as good as you think and partly because even good writers have blind spots and weaknesses – and if they are lucky, they are aware of that and seek someone else’s perspective.

As an editor, working with a good writer is a pleasure not because there is nothing to do at the end of the day but because from morning to evening you get to focus on what can elevate that person’s work. Maybe that’s in the writing or an angle of the reporting, but maybe it’s in the headline, the presentation, the art, a sidebar that can be drawn from a small but interesting element in the story.

One of the best reporters I ever worked with knew he needed an editor for one simple reason: He couldn’t stop himself. He would write 40 inches of copy because he felt the need to write everything he gathered, but he knew the average reader would never plow through it. Some editors couldn’t trim his stories well. He thought I did and that I made them better. He also liked to have a trusted ear to bounce ideas off of, someone who could challenge them or add to them.

Some of the most important work an editor does is editing the idea for a story, which happens in talking with a reporter about the story before or during the reporting process. I would hope this is not the “looking over their shoulder” that Gannett feels its papers no longer need, but it sure sounds like the part that “listening” to readers and data will replace.

In truth, a good editor – like a good reporter – is always listening to readers, whether or not corporate says to, with whatever tools are available. The question isn’t whether listening is good, it’s what do you mean by “listening.” If it’s, “Stories about neglected dogs get a lot of traffic and comments,” and the intention at corporate is to then produce a lot more stories about neglected dogs, then that isn’t a helpful definition of listening. If the intention instead would be to look seriously not only at neglect but at the issues surrounding, contributing to and spinning off of it, that could be a good thing.

And maybe that will be what Gannett’s “content editors” do — Kate Marymont, Gannett’s VP of news, told CJR’s Ryan Chittum: “We certainly are not looking for clickbait. We’re not trying to drive empty clicks. We’re trying to build loyal returning customers by giving content we know they want by following over period of time.” — which would make the elimination of assignment editors just another bit of corporate double-talk to justify cutting the editing ranks.

But whatever you call it, can fewer editors improve more reporters’ storytelling skills across platforms? It doesn’t seem likely.

Coaching is actually more time-consuming than simple editing. That’s why any discussion of coaching usually starts at the assigning stage. If you are going to coach-up someone’s storytelling skills, that person has to enter the reporting process with a sense of what exactly he or she is after; otherwise the coach can only point out after the fact what would have been nice to have so that next time the reporter gets it.

No, by sharply cutting editors to maintain reporting strength the calculation clearly is that content by itself is the main value and that the value-added benefit of most editing is, considering continuing decreases in advertising revenue, expendable; that you have to maintain your content level, but you have to cut expenses, so you keep the content-creators and cut those who enhance it. Then you hope that whatever errors and omissions result don’t undercut too seriously the perceived value of your product.

This line of thinking would be equivalent to a furniture company keeping the factory workers who produce the furniture but no longer selling it stained and finished; it’s still sturdy furniture, just as well made, but more raw. (The thinking is incorrect, because editors do some of the furniture making, not just the polishing, but that would be the equivalent.)

And to some extent, especially in larger markets, that kind of thinking may work out for a while.

But good writers (or content creators) do not just appear in a publication’s newsroom like driftwood carried in on the tide. If they did, no one would need editors at all. Someone hires them. And while some very good writers may truly believe their talent is self-evident to all, that would tell me they haven’t spent enough time around people who don’t know good writing when they see it.

Thinning the ranks of editors necessarily increases the dependence on the talent-evaluation skills of whoever is left.

All the way around, it’s a thinner margin for error.

Ideally, that higher dependence on more talented individuals – each reporter standing more on his or her own, each of the remaining editors or coaches responsible for that much more – should translate into higher pay in order to retain and reward those who are capable of maintaining quality in a more high-stakes environment.

But it won’t. Don’t get me started on that.

UPDATE 8/25/14: From a related post by Ken Doctor:

“Sure, we can add in coaching — mentoring has always been a key ingredient in the best newsroom cultures. Coaching and editing, though, don’t equate, especially in newsrooms increasingly populated by underpaid, relatively inexperienced younger journalists. Even as we recognize the value of the more amorphous community intelligence, and attempt to add it to the news report, greatly diminishing editorial intelligence is a recipe for disaster — and business failure.

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The past year has been a whirlwind.

I’m three weeks away from the anniversary of my arrival in Lenoir. By Jan. 21 I will have been working here four months longer than I did when this place gave me my first reporting job in 1987-88.

The change in my working life from 2012 to 2013 is reflected in part by what you don’t see. Before, I blogged an average of several times a week about news issues, new media and social media. In large part, that reflected my job at Media General – part of my role to was to track trends on things like that and point our newsrooms to what other news organizations were doing.

During 2013, WordPress tells me, my posting dropped to an average of two or three times a month.

Mostly that’s the result of the time-consuming role of running a small, resource-starved newsroom. At a place this small, the editor is not just the editor; he (or she) is also a reporter, tech support, obit clerk, calendar editor, photo editor, editorial page editor and sometimes handyman. If you want your reporters to be reporters, you have little choice but to sweep up those other roles.

Among my frustrations from my job hunt was that editors and publishers often seemed to think my time in the corporate news division of Media General actually was a detour out of news, that the 11-plus years there could only have dulled my instincts for supervising reporters or my willingness to pull long hours. My publisher here would say otherwise.

But one thing I can credit to my time in Media General is learning, by observing nearly two dozen newsrooms, from weeklies up to metro dailies, that when the resources are cut, you have to let something go. I had seen many examples of editors trying to keep doing the same with less. As busy as I am, I could be busier if I weren’t willing to embrace what’s “good enough” and move on to the next battle.

Which brings me to another change in my blog posts. In general, my posts now most often address what confronts me as the editor of a small-town newspaper, or they are personal observances. I haven’t taken time to rethink the “About” portion of the blog, so I blog less.

My main challenge during 2013 was setting expectations for the staff: The main point isn’t to fulfill a byline count but to make sure what you do is interesting to the reader. That has meant shooting down stories that the paper might have done before and sending others back for more work. It has meant learning to use social media to draw attention to stories since fewer people subscribe. We’ve begun getting a little video in as extras, but the emphasis has stayed on the writing.

The staff is smaller than it was in mid-2012, but this paper is better written now, I think it’s more interesting, and the number of local news items in print is about the same.

I could be wrong about our performance. We didn’t do well in the state press awards, and home subscriptions continue their years-long slide (though the most common reason given for canceling is free news online). But single-copy sales are stronger.

My biggest frustrations are things that are out of my control: the budget, and the ability of a paper this size, in this kind of market, to appeal to young talent.

In those, I am sure, I have plenty of company.

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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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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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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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