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.