Create journalism that matters

I had the privilege last week of speaking to a workshop hosted by the Texas Center for Community Journalism. I was told to speak to/elaborate on these blog posts. Here is basically what I said. I say basically because I tend to write out what I am going to say. Once I get there, I tend to immediately start riffing, based on audience reaction, audience questions, time and a bad memory. (I didn’t talk digital because the guy after me had that covered.)


This is the perfect time for you to be an adventurer. Journalism needs more adventurers, experimenters, entrepreneurs. Those of you with rising circulation, you can afford to explore new possibilities. If it’s not going up, you MUST do it now.

I was and I wasn’t an explorer. I thought I was but I was not radical or fast enough in my market. But you can be better than me. It’s not rocket science and you don’t need to be a genius. Your next speaker — Steve — is and you should pay attention to what he says. But you don’t have to be. You just need to care about your craft and want to make it better.

I’m uniquely qualified for you to learn from my mistakes. In the time that I was editor in Greensboro, our circulation went from about 110,000 to 80,000.

Let’s start with an exercise — Describe the news content in your papers.

(The group listed the predictable basics — City Hall, schools, every board and commission there is, high school sports, listings of every public record possible, etc.)

You’re still the paper of record for the community? (Most nodded.)

OK, now, how do your readers spend their lives?

(The group listed church, work, eating, watching television.)

How much of how they live their lives is actually covered in your papers? Not much. How much of what you cover is so important they don’t want to miss a day?

This session is called Fix Local News or Die, but I really should have called it “Tomorrow’s News Today.” An editor friend of mine said that what he tries to do. is his  If I were still running a newspaper that is the slogan I would adopt. We’re too often publishing newspapers with the slogan yesterday’s news. I know that, as a reader, I would love to get a newspaper that looks forward — that is in touch enough with my wants and needs that it would tell me where my community was going, what is going to happen and what things mean.

That would be a job the paper could do for me. How many of you are publishing Tomorrow’s News Today?

My thesis is that we tend to think if we just publish local stuff, we’ll be OK. My hometown paper has lots of lists of local people in the news; business achievers; kids successes in the classroom. I even helped create some of it, but I don’t read it. It’s stuff. It’s local. It’s easy. It’s boring.

We never asked readers if they wanted it. It just kind of happened. Lot of data out there saying that’s wrong.

Here is what I want you to do when you leave here. I want you to get two of your  smartest, most creative friends and imagine that you’re going to steal the readers and advertisers of your papers. What would you do? Here is how I want you to think about it:

1. Start with your readers:

How well do you know them? Who are they? How do you know what they want?

Let me tell you two stories.
* A friend of mine wanted to put a wedding announcement in our paper. She called me to complain about how expensive it is. She said, “Growing up I used to read all the wedding announcements so I could see who was getting married that I might know. No, you don’t have hardly any in the paper. I would think it would help sell papers. I didn’t buy one even though I wanted people to know. Are you making so much money that you want to leave some on the table?”

* I have a friend who told me she stopped her subscription because she needs the paper delivered by 6 a.m. and it is rarely there even by 6:30 a.m. I told her I would alert the proper authorities and get it delivered on time. She resubscribed, and the paper was delivered prompty. For a few weeks. Now it’s back to being late. She stopped again.

Each of you has stories like this. How well do you know what your readers want and how do you know it?

When I stepped away from editing a newspaper, I realized how boring my newspaper really was. We covered city, county & schools through the bureaucracy. It was that dull but important stuff that papers have always done. 20 years ago, we thought it was fine. Why not? It was the paper or TV. It’s not fine now.

People won’t adapt their behavior to you anymore. You must adapt your content and delivery system to them.

So, as part of this three-person work session of cannibalizing your own paper, I want you to get inside the head of people, readers and non-readers.

Clay Christensen — Innovators Dilemma/Solution — talks about finding out what people consider jobs to be done. Tell the milkshake story. Much of what I talk about today is stolen from Christensen so Google him and read up.

What is the job your newspaper is doing for people? I guarantee you that you don’t know the answer without actually observing why people buy it and how they use it.

SecondHow is your news coverage organized? How do you decide what you’re going to cover and what gets into the paper? Most important, when was the last time it was overhauled?

The traditional coverage of local news doesn’t interest most people. It’s boring. Have you ever gone to a government meeting for fun? No. They aren’t fun. So why would we think people are going to read them unless we make them relevant? Get out of the meetings. Instead, ask yourself: What do people need from City Hall? How can I help them?

Many of the stories of a community are happening outside the beat structure. But what are you missing outside the beat structure? And how do you find those stories?

Steve tells the story of the illness and death of his 16-year-old nephew, Patrick, who was working on his Eagle Scout project on his death bed. Or of his niece, Kat, who had a stem cell transplant  and when Make A Wish sent Kat to Hawaii. Huge community support. Great stories about, presumably, wonderful people.

But how do you find them?

Thirty years ago, I covered religion for the News & Observer in Raleigh. My boss made me — made me — cover Sunday church sermons. I had won an investigative award and a spot news award and here I was covering Sunday sermons. Ultimately drove me away. Didn’t see til later that I was embedding myself in the community I covered. It markedly changed the type of stories I got.

You guys have small operations. You can’t be all things to all people. Saying you’re local is too broad. Find some topic areas on which you’re going to be the best. But they must be determined by what your readers want.

So what are the jobs that your community needs to be done and how can you help do them? Other papers have started down this path: Sarasota (seniors & insurance); Deseret (religion & faith); Cedar Rapids (healthcare & education).

You know the job my wife wants my paper to do: provide the bridge column, the jumble & UNC sports. There is no demographic or marketing survey that will tell you that. You have to get out and ask people and watch how they use the paper.

Stop with the predictable stories. People don’t read them.

Third, how can you build a relationship with your community? Jeff Jarvis preaches that we are in the relationship business, not just the content business. Your advertising and circulation folks know that.

We expect people to trust us…but these days? People want to more than a business relationship with people they trust. If you can build that relationship — make it rich and deep — you’re on to something.

Facebook and Twitter figured this out. I had a publisher who had a conversation at a dinner party with a neighbor who didn’t take the paper. “How do you get your news,” he asked her. “From Facebook,” she said.

One of my big ideas when I was at the paper was believing that we could create a Facebook-like presence for our community. I was intrigued at the friendships I build on social media. I connected with people emotionally and intellectually. FB allowed me to meet new people and develop friendships. You know what makes a video go viral? Why a silly video of cats playing the piano or of one kid biting his older brother’s finger get millions of views? It’s not informative. They have emotional appeal. They connect people. Figure out how you can tap into that and you’ll be rich.

What if you could create a network of people who can help tell you what you need to be working on? Tell Duke Medical story.

Remember a Buttry admonition: “If you want video of the winning shot, ask the crowd.”

MeasuresWhat gets measured gets done. And it’s not circulation or readership. It’s value. Go back to my wife: She gets the paper because of the bridge column and jumble. What value are you providing her journalistically? None. That counts on your circulation numbers, but when she discovered the jumble online?

I would steal a form of Jeff Jarvis’ measure: Does the public know what it needs to know and wants to know?

Final thoughts:

* Think. Create some space so that you can spend some time thinking big thoughts. Get out from under all your papers and duties and phone calls.

* The world is dramatic. Are you telling it that way? Write with passion, authority and strength.

So, go back, grab two friends and figure out how you’re going to steal all the business away from the paper. You know its weaknesses as well as anyone. And don’t be timid, be radical. Create journalism that matters.

9 thoughts on “Create journalism that matters

  1. John, there is so much to think about here. Not only in how newspapers are doing their jobs now, but also in what we are teaching. I am pushing my students to think of media and journalism as a conversation because we need to listen. I am pushing my students to think of innovation and entrepreneurship because thinking about what causes our readers pain (no jumble, late delivery, no wedding announcements) is where we should be trying to innovate. Newspapers charge for wedding announcements.

  2. Great points John.

    I think this applies, to an extent, across all forms of journalism.

  3. Well said, John. We need visionaries who aren’t afraid to try new things, who aren’t afraid of failing.

    From a column I wrote one time:

    In the movie “Batman Begins,” Bruce Wayne has a flashback: He falls into a well as a young boy. His father, a doctor, sets his fractured arm, and he asks Bruce “Why do we fall?” The answer: So we can learn to pick ourselves up.

    Later, Bruce Wayne’s butler and confidant, Alfred, asks Bruce the same question after rescuing him from his burning home. The answer doesn’t change.

    Falling hurts. It makes us cry, and it makes us angry. But if we never learn to pick ourselves up, we will never learn to deal with life’s strikeouts.

    GREAT job, John. I love that you’re always so honest. We need more people who aren’t afraid of speaking the truth, even when it might hurt.

    I loved these lines:

    +1 What is the job your newspaper is doing for people? I guarantee you that you don’t know the answer without actually observing why people buy it and how they use it.

    +1 How much of how they live their lives is actually covered in your papers? Not much. How much of what you cover is so important they don’t want to miss a day?

    +1 People won’t adapt their behavior to you anymore. You must adapt your content and delivery system to them.

  4. Interesting and well said, John. And you have lots of credibility here–many years ago, a different era in internet time, I came up with an idea I thought would be great for newspapers and their readers. I sent out some feelers, but the only meaningful contact I got back from an editor was from you. You discussed the idea with respect and you were open and candid. Things moved so fast in internet time that soon the time for the idea, as hatched, was past. But in that moment of possibility, you had an interest in exploring a new idea. That was impressive. As is this piece.

    Create. Think big thoughts. Don’t be timid. Be radical. Create journalism that matters.


    • Ha! How bad is it that I don’t remember the idea. (I do remember corresponding with you, though. I thought you were pretty cool.) In retrospect, should we have moved on the idea?

  5. I’ve worked at a lot of small newspapers, and can say that the vast majority of reporters are sick and tired of writing up boring and pointless stories drawn from endless meetings. Yet any suggestion of NOT covering them, and doing real stories of interest, gets a “we are watchdogs and thou shalt watch” response. Any newsroom, sans editors, could come up with a thousand great ideas if they were freed of these chains. The best journalists do the great stories on their own time… and then they burn out and get a real job.

Comments are closed.