How did I miss the future?

Since I posted this one-year anniversary thought, several people have asked me why I wasn’t more aware of what I was missing, including Mindy McAdams, Bill Densmore and Anthony Moor, suggesting that my post was incomplete.

Quite so.

Here are some of the reasons I ended up working on the wrong things too often. (If you’re rushed, skip to the last one):

* Space must be filled. When staffs were larger, this wasn’t as pressing. But now that so many newspapers have half the number of reporters they did five years ago, editors have lowered the bar on what’s “news.”  You can — at least I did — get hypnotized by the need to come up with enough good story ideas to fill the paper. As every journalist knows, some days are better than other. And that’s why newspapers publish monthly unemployment number stories and weather stories and small-bore crime stories. You’ve got to fill the white space, and your imagination gets tired.

* As a corollary, I had less time to think. Mathematically, fewer reporters would mean fewer stories. Yet journalists tend to see stories and want to bring them to readers. We’re pesky that way. Consequently, reporters to juggle more stories and report them faster. They are working longer hours, doing more. Time is precious and spending it thinking, or chasing an in-depth investigative article was often tough to come by. When I became an editor I swore I would never comment on reporter productivity. In the last five years, I broke that vow more often that Lindsay Lohan’s been tabloid fodder.

* The beat structure encourages complacency. Beat reporters always have something to do — a meeting to cover, a story to follow, a news release to write. They often deal with the same sources day-in and day-out. We make fun of the inside-the-beltway journalism club — what Jay Rosen calls “the church of the savvy” — but many reporters outside the beltway have a similar membership in their own communities. I know. I was one as a reporter and continued as an editor. (I watched city council meetings on television!) It’s tough to break out.

* The bureaucracy sucks the life out of any good editor. It did me. You want to focus on doing great journalism, but you find yourself sinking into a morass of budgets, meetings, demands from publishers and other departments, technological problems and equipment that doesn’t work. Have you ever tried to tie your shoe when you were running? Too many days, I went home with the sense that I contributed nothing of value to journalism.

But here’s the biggest one: I was deluded. I thought I was doing it right — working on big ideas and compelling stories and listening to readers and planning for the future. And I was. But like the fable — and it’s just a fable — of the boiling frog, I was used to what I was used to. And I was moving at the speed of dial-up when the world was on  broadband. Even though I read the smart people, I fell behind and hardly even knew it.

There may be other reasons. Complacency, however, wasn’t one of them. I never felt as if we were in decent shape, that we could rest, that we had reached our destination. Instead, I was like a kid running around with my arms outstretched thinking I was an airplane.

I’m not unique among newsroom managers. Most newsrooms are led by creative, resourceful people. But when you’re running as fast as you can, it is easy to get into a rhythm — runners know this — and forget to pay attention to other things. The best thing editors can do is ask for help — from their staffs, from their publishers and from the public.

I am positive about one thing: 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.

P.S. As I reread this, it sounds like a hand-wringing mea culpa. It’s not intended that way, and were I a cleverer writer, I’d fix that. It’s intended simply to answer the question, “Why did it take you so long to figure out what you were missing?”

15 thoughts on “How did I miss the future?

  1. Frankly, when you identify deeper conversations with the public as your principal shortcoming, it only serves to underscore how vast the problems are and how elusive the solutions. What you say you should have done differently would have been … nice. Nothing more. Sounds like your priorities were the right ones given what your job actually was.

  2. If the “solution” was as simple as listening to what readers want and delivering it to them, we’d have figured this thing out a long time ago. People have tried that. And it hasn’t worked. So don’t be too hard on yourself.

    • I don’t know that I agree with you guys. I think newspaper people meet with readers a lot and listen, but don’t hear exactly what readers are telling them. I think we dismiss a lot of what they tell us, sticking it in the category of “that’s not what we do” or “we’ve tried that” or “geez, that’s not what we got into journalism for” or “great idea, but do you know how expensive that would be?”

      I’m not arguing that responding to what the readers tell us is the ANSWER…just that it’s a start.

      • “I’m not arguing that responding to what the readers tell us is the ANSWER…just that it’s a start.”

        Then we don’t disagree. Listening and responding to readers is always a good idea. You’re right: newspapers tend not to be in touch with their communities nearly as much as they should be. I’m just saying that all the listening in the world can’t offset the collapse of the advertising model.

  3. In 33 years as an editor on weeklies and small dailies, I fought the same battles and pushed reporters to get beyond the who-what-when-where to the why and the how. I also fought against the lazy journalism of meeting coverage (little more than minutes) and police blotters. James J. Kilpatrick called newspaper editor the best job in the world, but it’s also among the toughest. Keeping coverage fair each day but also fair in the long term — treating equivalent events or scandals with the same scales — while consistently following the public’s interests and the public interest, which are moving targets, is very difficult. What saddens me most is that even the best journalism gets little respect outside the industry, and politicians, state and municipal governments and corporations are all moving toward an era when newspapers lose their relevance or cease to exist. They have their own websites and write their own news. The press, an institution that served the nation well (with a few glaring exceptions) for more than 200 years, is dwindling before our eyes.

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  5. The excellent essay by Jeff Jarvis boils it down to one point: The question that journalists should be asking and answering is what the public needs them to do. What the public wanted during the most recent campaign was to watch Honey Boo Boo. What they needed was to watch Mitt Romney, to help them determine who would lead America for the next four years. But Honey Boo Boo and the rest of her ridiculous clan did better in the ratings. Before I left for the dark side of public relations (after 20 years in journalism) , I was pulled off a story about a murdered child to cover the arrival of the Oscar Meyer Weinermobile; cute kids auditioning by singing the jingle. When I asked why, I was told that the reader surveys showed that folks wanted to read about cute kids singing. What they needed was to read about how the choices you make in day care (this was an unlicensed daycare center where the child was shaken to death) can make all the difference. This is so, especially in a town where so many young couples live and raise their children and send their children to daycare centers. It didn’t matter how passionately I argued, the editor’s mind was made up. I’d love to go back to journalism if I could find a place, somewhere, where the readers needs, rather than their wants, held sway. That’s what I think is the best bet for saving this profession.

  6. I ask this question not to put you on the spot — indeed, feel free to treat it as rhetorical — but to give your readers who have no background in the newspaper business something to think about: How much did you try to do that the publisher and/or parent company refused to let you do and/or denied you the money to do?

    When I was running the cit-j initiative for you, we held fairly regular meetings with readers and/or events for them: Dan Gillmor and Dave Winer’s appearances, discussions about website plans, etc. It helped. We got a lot of good ideas out of it. But the ideas alone didn’t make the difference, even in cases in which we accepted them on the spot and attempted to act on them.

    • It was mostly an issue of money and priorities. The financial squeeze was on by then so I had little money to spend. And the priority was never on online. The parent company had nothing to do with priorities — in fact, they were pushing it. But when your publisher calls Twitter a fad and not worth the time, it’s clear where he stands.

      Still, it wasn’t his fault. I could have pushed harder and done more.

  7. How did you miss the future? I dunno. Maybe your aim was a little off. But I don’t think so. If nothing else happened under your helm other than the front page when Obama was elected, I’d say you’d done a pretty good job. That was the best front page in the state. And the plaques! What a great idea that was. Seriously. I bought one and I didn’t even vote for the man. Of course there were other highlights, but the highlights aren’t the point. The point is the sweat you put in day to day. Did you keep things running? It appears you did. Did you treat your employees with respect? I would guess you did since you were kind to me at a time or two when I needed to get an ad in. These, to me, are the things that count. As for creativity, unless you’re a graduate of the Charles Foster Kane School of Journalism ( “You supply the pictures, I’ll supply the war”.) I’m not sure how “creative” one should be when it comes to reporting. However, “How did I miss the future?” is certainly one of the more creative titles I’ve read. How do you “miss” the future. And if you miss it, can you, like Marty McFly, go back? Is “All Time”, as Eliot put it. “eternally present?” I dunno.

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  9. John, Thanks for the write-up. I was particularly intrigued by your comments on the role of the editor and the newspaper’s bureaucracy. I’ve never worked at a large news organization, so I have no idea how the bureaucracy works there, but similar structures exist on a much smaller scale among smaller, community publications like mine. It is especially true considering that smaller community or minority newspapers often work with minuscule staffs. My paper, for example, has one full-time writer: me. I depend on filling space, graphic design, print edition layout, ad sales and more off a small part-time staff. As the editor and only full-time writer, it is hard for me to keep up with everything that goes on, from news gathering, writing and reporting to managing parts of the business and outreach. I’ve heard an awful lot of talk about how some smaller community newspapers or alternative news publications are making it in this economy and in the industries’ changes, but I’ve yet to see it really trickle down to us. I wonder sometimes if the “business” of journalism is more often what I’m doing at work instead of the real journalism.

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