Jobs to be done, newspaper style

Image courtesy of

Image courtesy of

Ten years ago, the Newspaper Next project released a plan to transform the newspaper business. It used Harvard’s Clay Christensen’s research as one of its tenets, saying newspapers should “understand the job the customer wants to get done, and design products and brands that fill that need.”

Today begins the season in which you can tell if your newspaper and TV station understands what jobs you want done.

If it tells you how to get the best shopping deals today and tomorrow, good. If you’re planning to shop, the paper or TV station can tell you where the deals are, how to navigate the crowds and what shopping scams to avoid.

If, on Friday, it tells you how crowded the stores were today, not good. If Saturday’s paper tells you about Black Friday crowds, it is wasting your time and its space.

Think about what you want to know this holiday season. Shopping tips? Present ideas? Reminders to make your donations for tax writeoffs? Special holiday shows? New Year’s Eve party plans?

Does your paper provide it?

Or does the paper tell you about events that happened yesterday when, really, nothing happened? Crowded malls? Check. Special meals for the homeless? Check. People who have to work on the holidays? Check.

These are stories that are published every year — I know; I assigned them — and they don’t tell you anything that you wouldn’t expect, didn’t already know, and they don’t address any “jobs to be done.”

They aren’t bad. They’re there because they’re easy to do and they fill space. But when reporters are in short supply, is this how you want your paper to deploy them?

Is it helping you with the jobs you want done?

Journalistic courage under fire

“Courage is grace under fire.” — Ernest Hemingway

“Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth.” — “The Elements of Journalism’ by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenthiel


The most important — and least talked about — characteristic of a good journalist is courage. I’m not talking about physical courage in the sense of the bravery required of a soldier or cop or firefighter. I’m speaking of professional courage.

Once you get past the ability to think, report and write, courage is vital to do good journalism.

I started thinking about it after the Republican presidential candidates felt so free to defame the news media in their debate.

I started thinking about it after the Republican presidential candidates felt so free to defame the news media in their debate.

Then, yesterday, there was this:

112315-CNNI know that it takes courage to say publicly that a popular politician doesn’t know his ass from a hole in the ground. It takes courage to say that, rather than transcending the truth, he is telling a lie. (Remember: this isn’t a simple mistake. Trump has been confronted with the facts. His memory is playing tricks on him and, by this time, he knows it. His insistence that he’s never wrong and will never apologize gets the best of him.)

So here we are. Protesters ban the news media from public and private property. Leading politicians spout things that are not true, whether about themselves, another candidate, or a reporter.

The news media isn’t admired much these days — although they have a ways to go before they reach the level of hatred reserved for politicians. People don’t like journalists and trust them even less. It’s not that hard to imagine a reporter getting the same treatment that a heckler got at a Trump rally.

Journalists have always needed courage to get the story. But there are fewer of reporters today. Publications and networks are smaller and weaker. Who wants to risk the wrath of readers and viewers, or the withdrawal of advertisers? People seem angrier at the news media than any time since the civil rights protests of the 60’s.

But as Glenn Greenwald points out:  “The two most respected American television journalists in the history of the medium are almost certainly Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite. The legacies of both were shaped by their raising their voices in times of creeping radicalism and government overreach.”

We don’t talk much about the courage it takes to try to get at the truth and to tell it. We don’t talk much about the courage it takes to speak truth to power. We don’t talk much about the courage it takes to stand tall when that power mocks you and calls you names.

We should. We need journalists who do those things.

And we need publications and networks that will stand by them.

Sunday sampler

In the pre-Thanksgiving rush, not a ton of new stuff that catches my eye this morning, but there are these.

Charlotte: Years ago when I worked for the News & Observer, I wrote about a school superintendent who awarded contracts to a company that then hired him as a consultant. Today’s Observer story about a former Mecklenburg sheriff who granted a multimillion-dollar no-bid contract to a company that contributed money to his campaign and later paid him as a consultant reminded me of that. No laws were broken in either case, but neither case passes the smell test.

Raleigh: The News & Observer has an excellent story on the number of people opting out of health insurance because the rates have jumped for 2016 coverage. “North Carolina’s health insurance rates under the ACA are going up as much as 50 percent on some policies next year, and most of the nearly half-million residents insured through the federal program will see double-digit increases.

Sunday sampler

Here because I like the photo of Groot. Courtesy of

Here because I like the photo of Groot. Courtesy of

Many N.C. newspaper front pages are dominated by the attacks in Paris. There are still some good enterprise pieces.

Raleigh: If you missed the memo that being a campaign donor to a politician gets you special favors, the News & Observer reminds you with a story on the strict enforcement of the intolerable offense of illegal parking on the shoulder of an interstate ramp. Thank you, Gov. McCrory and one of his campaign donors who thought it was unsightly. I’m going to think about the use of State Highway Patrol time on that as I get passed on I-40 by cars going 85 and cutting in and out of traffic.

Greensboro: Three weeks ago, the New York Times featured Greensboro on its front page with a story about the disportionate number of police stops of black motorists. The News & Record did its own analysis of police stop and found the same thing. Plus: “The same could be said about Fayetteville. In Charlotte and Raleigh, black drivers accounted for about 60 percent of such stops in those five years. In Durham — more than 70 percent.”

Winston-Salem: One thing that’s different — and not better — from when I was in school is the number of standardized tests students are required to take. All in the name of accountability, of course. “Students take, on average, more than 112 standardized tests between pre-K and grade 12, a recent report found,” the Journal reports. It quotes a student. “Diemel estimates that in six of her courses this year, she’ll take about 10 end-of-unit tests on top the mandated end-of-quarter and end-of-course exams. Each of those will take about one class period. By the end of the year, that’s nearly three weeks worth of class time spent testing.

“The sheer amount of tests that high students have to take, I don’t really see the benefit of it,” Diemel said. “Tests do make you study and cram to understand concepts, but usually after the test you’re done. Once I’m done with a test that information is done.”

Sunday sampler

Image courtesy of

Image courtesy of

Welcome to a special edition of the Sampler focusing on the results of budget cuts throughout the state.

Burlington: You think you’re busy? “Last year, the four judges for District 15A, Alamance County, heard all or parts of 30,426 criminal and traffic cases. Another 2,562 civil District Court cases were filed. Those figures yield an average of 8,247 cases per judge.” The Times-News doesn’t bother to speculate on the possibility of a fifth judge assigned to the county — ain’t gonna happen. But it needs to.

Fayetteville: People in the county jail get sick, right? So, you know who takes care of them? “Jail health care is the most expensive Health Department program funded by the (Cumberland) county. It accounts for more than 12 percent of the department’s budget. Those costs have risen dramatically, from $1.6 million in 2012 to a budget of more than $2.6 million for the current fiscal year ending June 30.” The Observer does a good job of detailing the problems facing the county and how it is trying to cope.

Greensboro: Every community of any size has a section of town that is wracked by poverty, unemployment and undereducated citizens. Zipcode 27406 is that one in Greensboro. The News & Record details both the problems and writes about a United Way program that aims at helping the residents of that zip get the services they need.

Wilmington: The Star-News has what looks like a good piece on the reshaping of the North Carolina coast. Groins, replenishing, sandbags — we do what we can to keep what we got. Most don’t work for long, but we keep at it. I say that it “looks like a good piece” because I hit my limit of complimentary page views and can’t read it beyond the front page. (The Star-News has an annoying site that divides each story into four or five pages so that each time you click to continue reading, it counts as a visit.)

Charlotte: I have a fondness for libraries and librarians so this Observer story about the elimination of librarians in the Charlotte-Meck public schools caught my eye. The superintendent has a justifiable reason for using staff members rather than librarians to run school libraries. It reminds me of the reason that newspapers layoff the most experienced journalists, too, with the justification that less experienced people can do the job. (It’s about the money and to hell with the experience and institutional knowledge.)


The vanishing newspaper, updated


People have been making predictions on the timing of the death of newspapers for years, and they’re all pretty ridiculous. No, ridiculous is the wrong word because the end is coming for most. But the predictions are off-target, usually by a lot.

I’m reminded of that because Jim Romenesko sent me a posting he made four years ago, quoting Jeffrey I. Cole, director of USC Annenberg’s Center for the Digital Future, who predicted that most newspapers would be dead by 2016. Jim’s post included my response, which was “wanna bet?” (No one did, dammit!)

I’m aware that newspapers continue to lay off people, most recently in Philadelphia, Boston and LA. And we only hear about the big papers. Who knows how many people in smaller newspapers have been cut “to align the business with the changing market”? But as I told Romenesko yesterday, I’m confident that my response to that post four years ago will hold up.

Newspapers aren’t growing and they continue to lose readers and advertisers — hello, layoffs! — but they still make money, sometimes in spite of themselves. They just cover less news, produce fewer pages and have fewer staff members to do it. Is the paper as good as it was 10 or 20 years ago? Few people outside of publishers would say so. Does it make as much money? Absolutely not. But it’s still there, delivering news and information that people – most of them 60 and older – want.

Five years ago, Alan Mutter did some calculations about the lifespan of newspapers that are built on more than anecdotes and emotion. His work is similar to Phil Meyer‘s before that. I’l repeat what Phil said in response to my post four years ago: “If you are willing to build your own good will from scratch, there should come a time when you can acquire a newspaper for 20 percent of the historic cost, manage for a 6 percent margin, and enjoy the same return on investment that required a 30 percent margin in the good old days.”

What’s more, as the book value of newspapers continues to decline, more “hometown” business people will buy their hometown papers for cheap. Already happening. That has its own set of problems, but it does continue a newspaper’s life.

Of course, unless most of them change their ways, they will be less relevant in their communities. Fewer reporters means that they run from one assignment to the next. Few newspapers outside of the nation’s largest commit resources to investigative reporting. And fewer readers mean that newspapers have less influence, which is unfortunate because it seems — based on the support some of the GOP presidential candidates get for their cockamamie schemes — as if the citizenry is happily uninformed. But that’s a different issue.

My prediction, which could be ridiculous and likely off-target, is this: Most newspapers will live well into the 2020s. They will continue to get smaller and many, if not most, will reduce the number of days per week they deliver. But as long as the current readers are alive — those who have decided they like the experience of newspaper reading — they’ll have an uncertain, yet safe, place.

Who now will shine light in dark corners?

Journalism today:

* Newspapers across the state Sunday told their readers about the candidates in the municipal elections taking place in their communities on Tuesday. It’s what newspapers, more than any other medium, does.

* The movie “Spotlight” about the Boston Globe’s incredible investigation into pedophilia among Catholic priests debuts this week to rave reviews. Like “All the President’s Men” a generation ago, it will remind audiences of the power of committed journalism to hold the powerful accountable.

* News events recorded by citizens with smartphones continue to dominate the news. A man with a smartphone showed us how Walter Scott was killed. A group of students at Spring Valley High recorded how one police officer dealt with a disobedient student.

These are all related events. They demonstrate the spread of news reporting, bringing to light events, issues and people that likely would be kept in darkness.

I’m glad that newspapers continue to provide the public service of reporting on candidates for office, even if that reporting takes time and doesn’t get them new readers or much web traffic. It’s the sort of service that contributes to democracy, in a way. It’s likely they reached fewer people than they have in many years.

I’m glad, too, that smartphones with cameras are ubiquitous. They allow so many of us to become recorders of events. I don’t mean that everyone is a photojournalist yet, but many of them are.

I’m glad that newspapers like the Globe and the New York Times and the News & Observer are printing stories that let communities know that things are NOT working right. That people in power will take every advantage of the system that they can, particularly if they aren’t being watched.

OK, here is what worries me: the insidious corruptions that take place every day because there is no light shining in the dark places.

Yes, what we once called citizen journalism is helping, most visibly involving police and African Americans. (I’m aware Facebook is filled with viral videos of the good sides of people, too.)

But thanks to the implosion of the newspaper business, fewer journalists are around to pay attention to the process and detail of government. Fewer journalists cover state government. Fewer journalists cover local government. In my county — the third largest in the state — I understand the daily newspaper didn’t staff a meeting of the county commissioners because it didn’t have any reporters available.

Let that settle in for a moment.

No, I’m worried about the government committee meetings, the planning boards and the zoning commissions and the mental health boards. I’m worried about how decisions are being made and carried out in the inspections departments and school superintendents offices. I’m worried about court cases that go unnoticed and police reports that get filed away.

These are the places where reporters often lurked, finding stories that needed to be told, making their presence known so that those wanting to game the system might think twice. (Yes, I’m aware I wrote that in past tense.)

I’m worried about dots that don’t get connected because no one is being paid to add 2 + 2.

I believe that most government officials — elected, appointed and hired — are honest. But I don’t believe that they all are, and I don’t believe that every government action is clean and done above board. If the true test of a man’s character is what you do when nobody’s looking, as John Wooden once said, then we have some shady characters out there.

No, newspaper journalists aren’t the only ones out there. TV reporters break investigative stories. (Thinking of you, WRAL.) Alt weeklies do, too, as do bloggers and “regular” citizens. But the reporters who most often walked the corridors of government and sat through slow meetings to find a story were — and still are — newspaper reporters. Because their companies bought ink by the barrel, their stories would spread.

Now, take a hard look at your local paper and your TV news. Gauge how much space and time are devoted to the democracy and the levers of government in your community. Evaluate how much is enterprise and how much is basically clerical. I hope you’ll be pleasantly surprised, and if you are, please let me know. I want to be pleasantly surprised, too.

We’ve entered what the New York Times has called the “postprint era.” And it’s a good time – again – for all people interested in good government to wring our hands over how light is going to shine into the corners of power.

The reviewer of “Spotlight” by WBUR ends this way: “After the credits rolled at the premiere, the actors and their real-life counterparts took the stage. Former Globe editor Marty Baron, depicted with understated accuracy in the film (and now with The Washington Post), thanked the audience and made a simple request. ‘Our highest mission is to hold powerful institutions accountable,’ he said. ‘Please support that.’

“The movie ‘Spotlight’ may not spark massive new spending on investigative journalism or fix the broken business model that no news organization has yet to solve. But if this respectful, honest tribute can restore some of the shine to a struggling profession and remind the public why quality journalism is worth paying for, it’s a start.”

Addendum: This piece in CJR by my friend Corey Hutchins just popped up in my email. It’s on the same topic and has insight from a member of the Dane County, Wisc., board of supervisors.

“It used to be that even our committee meetings were covered,” he says. “Well, that’s not happened in a long time. Then the gradual erosion started hitting board meetings. And so one by one they started disappearing.… There needs to be a presence there just to keep us on our best behavior, number one, and number two, to keep the public in touch with what’s going on.”

Sunday sampler

In case you didn’t know that city voters — almost every city, but probably few voters — can go to the polls Tuesday, the front pages of N.C. newspapers will tell you all about it.

But none of those make the Sampler this week.

Winston-Salem: The Journal has a rare two-fer. It is time to re-up for health insurance and it annoys me to read that rates are going up…in a sizable way.” Blue Cross will be allowed to raise its policies to individuals, whether sold on the exchange or elsewhere, by an average 32.5 percent, state Insurance Department regulators said Friday. UnitedHealthcare was approved for an average 20.4 percent hike, while Aetna was approved for an average 23.6 percent increase.” Thank you so so much, Department of Insurance.

And, in an unintentional story juxtaposition, the Journal reports that the city is behind on its restaurant inspections.”According to preliminary data posted on the DHHS website and provided by Stott, in 2014-15, Forsyth County only completed 24 percent of its required food and lodging inspections, or 887 out of 3,640. That percentage may not be final.” Don’t worry, though, I’m sure the food is fine, but just in case, make sure your health insurance is paid up.

Gaston: As this seems to be a health-related Sunday, I must mention the Gazette, which looks at the lack of doctors in Cherryville, pop. 6,000. “The city now has two family practice offices — one run by a nurse practitioner and the other that only serves members who pay monthly dues.”

Greensboro: The News & Record reports that about 9 percent of Guilford County school students missed a month of school last year. More than 25 percent missed 10 days of school. No wonder so many kids aren’t testing well.

Writing for understanding

Updated at the end

Last weekend, I was with a group that included a professor who taught me when I was a freshman. I took the opportunity to apologize to him for the poorly written 500-word papers that I wrote for his class. Now that I teach college students, I realize how awful my essays were: half-baked thinking, ill-constructed paragraphs and pompous, bloated writing.

He laughed and said, “no, no, they weren’t” as if he remembered them 40 years later. It was nice of him to object, but I know better.

On Monday, the Atlantic published a wonderful essay titled “The Needless Complexity of Academic Writing.”  It is about the unwieldy, jargon-filled writing that bores virtually everyone. Most people agree that research papers built around sentences with 10-dollar words and four or five clauses are examples of bad writing. The Atlantic piece speculates on why. Read it if you care. I don’t.

What does trouble me is that many students are being taught to write that way. I teach basic journalistic writing, which is to say, the way that people speak. Like most journalism teachers, I emphasize clarity and cogency. Simple words, simple sentences, subject-verb construction. You don’t want people to have to reach for the dictionary; you do want them to understand easily.

Take a moment to cut to this 90-second video of billionaire Paul Tudor Jones talking about the value of journalism writing skills. The money quote: “The single most important thing you need to learn for any job in business is how to communicate, how to write a memo, how to talk, how to think. The easiest way to learn how to do that is to take journalism 101, newspaper writing.”

So, back to the Atlantic. I saw it when Patrick Thornton, director of digital products with the Washingtonian, retweeted the link and suggested a reason why academic writing is hard to read.

I responded and it was on:

Update: After I posted this on Twitter and Facebook:

From Julia Woods on Facebook:  “I was somewhat shocked when you told me to write my final essay in the style of my class blog and not like an academic essay– not surprising after having you as a professor, but because I’d spent the last 15 years of my education being taught to write formally and with little humor or inflection of my personality.”

From Mel Umbarger on Facebook: “Thank you for defending my writing style on my thesis to the committee member who didn’t think it sounded academic enough.”

From Chancey Kapp on Facebook: “One semester at UNC-CH, I took only English and RTVMP/journalism classes. I consciously “flipped a writing switch” as I ran back and forth between the disciplines. Good academic writing should be clear and concise. It should also be thorough, engaging and graceful in its use of language. Perhaps it is not as terse as news reporting, but it can be similar to good feature reporting or perhaps to the best articles in The New Yorker. The only time I was caught with the switch stuck in the wrong mode was in Renaissance Lit, where the wonderful Father Devereux noted, “Your prose is admirably efficient. However, it could use a little more rhythm.” He then “scanned” a line as though it were poetry, and I saw that he was correct. The “just the facts” style did not quite suit the topic of Wyatt’s poetry. He did reward my efficiency with a good grade. My point is that different assignments sometimes demand different styles, and a good writer should be versatile.”

Sunday sampler

Courtesy of the Newseum

Courtesy of the Newseum

Fayetteville: The heroin “epidemic” has arrived in Fayetteville. Over the past year, more and more newspapers have written about the increase in heroin overdoses in their communities. The Observer does a fine job describing the effect of unintended consequences. “Medical professionals say a major reason is a government crackdown on prescription opioid painkiller abuse. Opioids are synthetic drugs that mimic the effects of opium, the base ingredient in heroin.”

Gaston: I had forgotten about the Legislature’s misbegotten effort to dictate what is taught in public schools. You know, there’s nothing better than letting partisan politicians tell you what’s important to learn. The Gazette reminds us. “The reformed American history course established by lawmakers in 2011 teaches certain principles as truths rather than as debatable ideologies, according to Buchenau. He says experts could reasonably question some of the information the course presents as fact.” We know that politicians like to have debates over ideas rather than political philosophy!

Raleigh: In case you wondered at the value to a community by having a powerful legislator, wonder no longer. The News & Observer ran the numbers on this year’s N.C. budget and surprise, surprise! The two legislators who brought home the most bacon were the House speaker and the Senate’s chief budget writer. Watch the GOP struggle to justify what they had previously complained about when the Democrats were running things. Yes, it rings so hollow that even the conservative Civitas Institute is critical.

Winston-Salem: Appalachian State University has 584 African American students among its 18,026. Let that sink in. It’s making an effort to improve that.