I was talking with a couple of journalists when, as is the wont when journalists get together, the conversation turned to the “good old days.” You know, 15 or 20 years ago when readership was decent, advertising was strong and newspapers were a dominant presence in community affairs. After a while I said, “The pity is that, even with all the trouble, newspapers should be better today than they’ve ever been, even in the golden age.”
It was as if I’d said they were looking at having to take a week of furlough days.
“Let me finish. I know I was in charge during our circulation and revenue decline. We took a few chances and changed a few things, but not enough. Fortunately, you still have the opportunity to be the best news organization around, better than we ever were.”
They weren’t buying: “We have half the reporters we used to have. Important beats are going uncovered. We’re missing stories. We’ve cut back on space. We’ve cut wire services. We can’t travel. Our technology crashes. What the hell are you talking about?”
I nodded and agreed with all of that. Then I said, “Yep, I know. But even with all that, papers should still be better.”
* You know more about what people want than ever before. The research is everywhere. What do you supply that is unique and interesting? Stop covering stories that don’t have an impact. How much of the paper do you actually read? Why do you think non-newspaper people read more of it than you do? Be ruthless about eliminating things that don’t help people. You won’t have as much stuff in the paper as you once did, but few people actually read everything. (Few of them actually read to the end of the stories you do write. You know this, yet you still write long stories. What are you thinking?) Make smart choices. Stop clinging to old traditions that people just don’t care about. I know what I think you should cover, but each community is different and has its own needs and priorities. If you don’t know, ask people. They’ll tell you.
* Good journalists crave competition. Show me a journalist who doesn’t want to win and I’ll show you a lazy hack. If you were on a team that was losing games and fans, you’d do something radical to change the equation. So, what are you doing to win? Identify your top five competitors, figure out what they’re doing that you should be doing and do it better. Or co-opt them. Or curate their content. Be better.
* You know the power of technology. You have more ways to reach more people than ever. Newspapers aren’t just print, and you know that. But are you effective in going to where the people are gathering? Do you have an active, smart presence on Twitter and Facebook? Are doing more than broadcasting your own stories? Is your mobile presence strong and easy to use? OK, if you want a paywall, fine. But don’t expect it to be your future. It will simply mean that fewer people will read your stories and your impact will be even less than it is now. So, what is your strategy to turn that around? What else will take your stories to people?
* Innovation is vital. Time was when you didn’t need to do anything except open the doors and people would give you money. No more. The big winners in the past 15 years have been innovators who figured out how to do what you do better. Amazon, Craigslist, eBay, Google, Facebook and Twitter now have your customers, or, now former customers. Fortunately, there are still innovations to be made. Figure out how you can make parts of your business — or complements to your business — easier for people to use. Example: Are you the best there is in your community for delivering the news? Is your site simple and engaging? Is your mobile app easy? Do you have what I want to find? My guess is the answer to those questions is no.
* To paraphrase Samuel Johnson, nothing focuses a mind more than the prospect of being hanged in the morning. The latest Gallup poll should tell you that, if you aren’t being hanged in the morning, it’s coming soon. “Americans’ confidence in newspapers fell slightly to 23% this year, from 25% in 2012 and 28% in 2011.” It’s not too late to make adjustments, but it’s getting there. Malcolm Gladwell has an interesting essay in the New Yorker about Albert Hirschman, who studied failures in planning that ultimately resulted in achievement. The point is that “lofty achievements, such as economic, social or political progress, could have come about by stumbling rather than through careful planning.” Start stumbling; it often incites creative solutions.
More reporters would make it easier, but you don’t need them. More space would be neat, but speaking as a reader, I promise, you have enough space. You don’t need to cover more ground; you need to cover the right ground.
I didn’t persuade anyone, but maybe they’ll think about it.