Journalism, one year later

A year ago today I walked out of the News & Record for the last time as editor. Twenty-seven years there, 13 of them as editor. It was a good run.

But I wish I had been smarter. After a year as a civilian newspaper reader, I realize how often I worked on the wrong things. What I should have been working on:

* The content — Stories and art must be compelling. Too often we wrote the sorts of process-oriented government stories that are a time-honored tradition with newspapers. But for many papers, that time has run out. In short, we spent time and precious resources on stories that didn’t matter much to most readers. We should have been writing stories that compelled people to read them. We didn’t do enough investigative pieces. We didn’t do enough good reads. We didn’t do enough of what readers valued. Jeff Jarvis calls this journalism as service: “that journalists should measure their success not by column inches or by page views but by results: whether we, the public, know what we want and need to know.” In 2007, I think, then managing editor Ann Morris said that the paper should become an enabler, helping people get what they wanted. I didn’t pay it much attention, but I should have. She was right. Too often the content under my watch was too traditional, boring and didn’t get results for people. The consequence? Readers left us. As I compile the Sunday sampler each week, I see the need and the potential to do work that matters to the community.

* Digital — While we were quick out of the blocks years ago, we stalled when money ran thin in 2007 or 2008. When I left, the website was old and slow. We had no mobile presence to speak of. (Both have been updated in the past year.) While I didn’t have full control over our digital offerings — technology was in a whole ‘nother department — I had influence that I didn’t use as effectively as I could have. But putting the technology aspect aside, we didn’t take advantage of the interactivity and immediacy that digital offers. For instance, it provides a wonderful avenue to build relationships with people. I don’t mean business to customer, but person to person. (See Facebook.) We should have built community. Instead, we squabbled with commenters and bloggers. We didn’t build an inviting, informative, smart community, which is dumb of us because newsrooms are places where smart, creative, fun people work. (With a lot of black humor, coffee and cursing thrown in.) Though few news sites see themselves that way, we could have.

* Listening. I spent the past two days sitting around a long table in Durham talking about Duke Medical’s practices. The CEO, CFO and various VPs were there, along with stakeholders — patients, community members, patient advocates and a couple retired media types — to talk about how to improve Duke Med. I heard a lot of constructive criticism, but didn’t hear a defensive word among the Duke folks. Instead, they asked for more and built improvement lists. We occasionally had similar sessions at the newspaper office. Defensive and dismissive are good descriptions of our attitude. We eventually stopped having them. Had we met with members of the community — readers and non-readers – to listen, learn and improve every other month, perhaps we wouldn’t be in as much trouble as we are.

* Big ideas. I didn’t think big enough. Several years ago, I offered the newsroom leadership the opportunity to take a week off to think about the craft, the business, readers, the community, etc. The idea — stolen, I think, from Bill Gates — was to give smart people steering the ship the chance to consider the possibilities, to innovate and to create. Not many of them took me up on it, which was disappointing, and I stopped it after one year. Big mistake. I unsuccessfully tried to get funding to create a two-person skunk works to come up with the next YouTube or Craigslist. I should have done it anyway, under the radar. I had some great minds and I didn’t unleash them.

I’m not able go back to fix any of this, but editors today can. It’s too late for newspapers to claim their former dominance. But it isn’t too late to build positive, helpful relationships with people. Or to actively listen to what their communities want and need. Or to create journalism that matters, whether it holds power accountable or is a list of food banks that need donations for the holiday season.

Start now.

23 thoughts on “Journalism, one year later

  1. Wow, based on that stuff you regret, didn’t do or did wrongly, it sounds pretty crappy.

    Except that you always believed in your people and gave them the two things needed to thrive: freedom to do their best work and trust that even if they screwed up they wouldn’t get cut off at the knees.

    Except that, as a senior manager who led a newsroom through years of difficult cost cutting, you always defended the work your staff did to your higher ups, respecting their roles and respecting them as individuals. You treated your staff like the people they were, not employees. You remembered birthdays, visited staffers ills at home and always knew when to show up with a bottle of booze.

    Except that, while others were slow to accept the challenge of a changing technological environment, you embraced the potential of Twitter and blogging. You spoke of Twitter when fewer than a million people were on it. You wrote a popular blog, almost daily, that connected with the community and acted as a valuable tool of transparency for the paper.

    Except that you weren’t afraid of confrontation, so you moved out people who needed to go. You recognized the good works of those who hadn’t been so noted previously. You built trust in a business — and at a time — when that was rare in the industry.

    Except that you never lost your sense of humor and perspective.

    Except that the rest of the newspaper industry has repeatedly recognized you as a go-to person to reflect on trends and issues because of your insight.

    Except that you never claimed success for yourself but always shouldered the blame when something went wrong.

    Except that your style of management and editing is now spreading to a new generation of editors and managers and reporters. That would be those folks now at The New York Times, Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Cleveland Plain Dealer, St. Paul Pioneer Press, CNN and papers across North Carolina.

    Except that the first day without you as editor was one of the most hollow days your staff felt, ever.

    Many of us only hope we’ll have such a crappy career.

  2. So when you get out, you start to have the delusion that people have good ideas about the newspaper? And healthy comments?

    I’ve just gotten more elitist. If I convened a focus group, everyone would probably leave saying, “Wow, I learned a lot. And that Dure guy’s a jerk!”

  3. As an avid, daily, and often-disappointed News & Record reader, I think you have several good ideas there.

    Yes to listening more! I remember, at least a decade ago, coming in to talk with folks at the N&R about the paper’s small numbers of editors or reporters of color and how that affected the stories that were chosen and how they were written. We were invited, but our observations were not exactly welcomed. There seemed to be no eagerness to learn from community members. I remember thinking what a waste of time it was, and how someone from the community would be doing it again in several years. Alan and Morgan (and others of all colors) have made it better since then, but there are still many interesting non-white-focused stories the N&R doesn’t cover.

    Rather than broad surveys of readership, how about sending out a reporter and/or an editor on a regular basis to talk to random subscribers about what they like and don’t like, and how they would improve the paper? (I did that once on behalf of the Glenwood Branch Library and it was a strange and wonderful experience. The feedback was a mix of dopiness, crankiness, and creative suggestions.)

    I second your idea about more investigative journalism. Lorraine used to do a great job, and she was pretty much the only one. Yes! weekly does a really good job with very few staffers, so money can’t really be the determining issue.

    As for the general news, once the AP and the N&R has covered a story,why don’t they save precious space the next day by summarizing it in a sentence or two and a couple more sentences updating? Reprinting word-for-word the whole story I read yesterday is just annoying & it happens all the time.

    My pet peeve, again: The people who do newspaper crosswords are older people. When you make the crosswords smaller, it’s very hard for older folks to read the tiny numbers in each box. If it’s going to be impossible to read without a magnifying glass, why bother to print them at all?

    Finally, I really appreciate how much you care about the paper. I do, too.

  4. In less than three weeks as a non-reader, I’ve noticed that the newspaper has ZERO ways of promoting itself to people who don’t see the physical product. If I don’t see a newspaper box — and I rarely do — I have no idea what might be in the paper. I might be missing something awesome, but I’ll never know.

  5. JR, your forward-thinking leadership was one of the reasons I applied to work at the News & Record back in 2006. I second everything Nagy wrote; in short, I think you did the best you could with what you had to work with. I wish you had stayed, but I certainly believe one should move on when one’s work is done and the time is right.

    To your point about relationships, I feel that traditional media is sooo behind when it comes to covering and in some ways facilitating the collaborative/gift/sharing economies that are covered well by sites like shareable.net. I touched on this a little bit when I covered the green beat, but typically the conventional media takes a “gee golly” feature approach to this kind of stuff instead of covering it seriously.

  6. Thanks, everyone. I didn’t intend this to be a hand-wringing post. I hope it would inspire other editors to make sure they’re working on the important things. I had a great time at the N&R and wouldn’t have traded it for anything…And John and Morgan, the very best was getting to work with talented, caring journalists like you.

    • I spent years trying to convince the editor of my local paper to do some of the things you mentioned and more. When a new editor was brought on board who wouldn’t even answer emails, I unsubscribed.

      That hurt……I’d been reading the newspaper for 50 years.

      Now they routinely call me with wonderful promotional opportunies but without changing anything. I tell them unless you change, I won’t even take the paper for free. I am glad you had an awakening. My wish is that others could have one too (preferably before it is too late).

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  10. A great post, John. The truth is, most journalism is boring to the audience. It’s boring in the newspaper, and it’s boring on TV. The most interesting journalism I find, consistently, is on NPR’s Morning Edition and All Things Considered. A lot of good stories there. A lot of things I didn’t already see on Twitter 12 hours ago. Things that are new, that spark my imagination. Sometimes, they make me cry.

    I think some of the “boring” problem is a legacy from the days when the editor had to somehow fill all the space that was available in a fat, healthy newspaper. Reporters churned out easy stories because they had to produce a lot of volume. Now the staff is reduced and there’s still a demand (from management) for easy stories, stories reporters can turn around quickly and plop into a hole. Or use to update the Web front with some crap every few hours.

    The problem is, no one wants it.

    Why is this so hard to figure out? As a longtime editor, do you think it was just because in the day-to-day news production environment, you couldn’t really see it — sort of not being able to see beyond the end of your nose? In other words, why do you see it now, and why didn’t you see it that way then?

    • It is what you said, Mindy, and a few other things. I think the beat structure encourages it. Beat reporters, who become insulated on the beat, always have something to do. And their editors, brought up during the days when papers wanted that coverage encourage them.

      And coming up with new, interesting stuff is hard. It’s risky, too, because people used to and interested in the process-oriented coverage, complain. In short, fresh ideas are tough to produce every day, which is why so many newsedia produce the same schlock. Then you have to stand strong when the complaints come from readers and reporters….

      And in my case, I was blinded by my own interest in some of those boring government process stories. I had covered many of those boards and issues myself so I was interested.

      • I have an idea to send students out to cover local K-12 education, attending school board and PTA meetings but not writing ABOUT the meetings. They will have no daily deadlines. Their mission will be to find out what parents, teachers, etc., in that district are concerned about, and why. Write about that. I’m hoping this will lead to some interesting stories — fingers crossed. It’s a beat, but not a traditional beat approach.

        • I like it, particularly the PTA meetings. My experience is that little that parents really care about happens in school board meetings. We had a weekly feature in which we sent reporters into the schools to write about what happened in the classroom. The reporters didn’t like it much and it turned into puff features.

  11. I’ve told Ann, and I hope that it would be true, that if I went back to a daily I’d be a million times smarter and do so many things completely differently (and a lot of it isn’t that difficult). We did good work, and I don’t lose sight of that, but it really helps to get off the moving train and look at it from a different perspective.

  12. If I may add my two cents: I’ve been in the business about 10 years and as long as I’ve been in it (and I’m sure before that), editors and reporters have tried to figure out how to cover beats/topics without attending or writing about most of the meetings. And to me, that is like ditching the regular oatmeal and PB&J sandwiches and trying to eat only gourmet, four-course dinners every day. It’s just not really possible from an economic standpoint. Skip meetings and you miss things. And as hourly employees, reporters need to produce copy on most of the days that they are working. It’s easy in the abstract to think of all the cool stories one could right if they just didn’t have to attend meetings. Papers like the New York Times are able to get around some of this by scanning all the stories the local and regional reporters write and then parachuting in to do a take-out. Same with magazines. This is the media ecosystem. Somebody needs to do the grunt work and I just don’t see that changing. Moreover, it’s hard to hold people’s attention even with the really good stories. Often times our more mundane or low-stakes stories will get more reader feedback then a big enterprise or investigative story. I recently got about 100 comments on a story about a group of parents who wanted to change the mascot at a middle school.

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