What newspapers could learn from the NFL

Last year, Alex Smith quarterbacked the San Francisco 49ers to the NFC championship game. He started this season hot, too, until he got injured mid-season. He was replaced by backup Colin Kaepernick, who played well for the two games Smith was out.

Smith was ready to play again. From Wikipedia: “Smith was ranked third in the NFL in passer rating (104.1), led the league in completion percentage (70%), and had been 19–5–1 as a starter under (Coach Jim) Harbaugh.”

Harbaugh decided to stick with Kaepernick because Kaepernick had skills that Smith didn’t have. Despite Smith’s past success, Harbaugh took a chance and put his money on the guy he thought could get the team to the Super Bowl. “It is always difficult to change something that is working, especially when the other option is a relative unknown with very little NFL experience. However, Harbaugh had the guts to make the switch. The playoff win over the Green Bay Packers proved that he made the right call. “

What if newspapers thought that way?

Meanwhile, in yesterday’s other game — Broncos versus Ravens — the Broncos had the ball on their own 20 with less than a minute to go. I’ll let Woody Paige of the Denver Post set the scene: “After the Ravens shocked a bitterly cold crowd with a 70-yard balloon bomb from Joe Flacco to Jacoby Jones, with just over half a minute to go, to tie the game for the fifth time, at 35-35, the Broncos had the ball at their 20-yard line, had two timeouts and had the quarterback who had produced more winning drives in the fourth quarter than anybody else who ever played the game.”

As Paige writes, the Broncos had time for six plays, time to get close enough for a field goal and to win the game without going into OT. The other option was a conservative, play-it-safe move: take a knee, let time run out and play to win in the overtime.

And that’s what Denver did, and they lost.

Lessons?

Sunday sampler

Many newspapers featured stories on their front pages about helping the needy during the Christmas season. That’s nice and expected and valuable. I’ll highlight one from the:

Wilmington Star-News on homeless students. I select it because the account of a 15-year-old student resonates. Remember being a teenager and how everything mattered? Now think of being homeless.

Raleigh — The N&O asks a key question that every institution of higher learning should ask itself: Which comes first at UNC-Chapel Hill, academics or athletes? Or, in a nicer way, as the N&O says: “Can top-flight athletics and top-tier academics “coexist” in Chapel Hill, where academic reputation matters and sports teams strive for national titles?”

Greensboro — Commuting sentences of prisoners at the end of the year — and the end of an executive’s term — is always dicey. The N&R reviews several of the decisions that Gov. Bev Perdue must make on 50-some pardon requests. My overall sense after reading the story was sadness.

Good ideas from the Nieman Lab

December is a wonderful time for predictions for the coming year. For journalists in a business that is in flux, it’s perfect. The Nieman Lab asked a couple dozen big thinkers to weigh in on predictions for 2013. For the most part, I like them. For the most part, I think they are hopes, rather than expectations of reality. Dan Gillmor even acknowledges that in his. “(As always, this reflects my hope more than my expectation. Call me an optimist.)”

Some of those I think are more hopeful than realistic:

Keli Goff on race: “As a result, the media will likely be privy to much more candid discussions of complicated policy issues — many of them having to do with race in some way, such as gun violence, the epidemic of black male unemployment, race-based health disparities, racial profiling, and many others — and as a result it will be more likely to cover them.” It would be cool if that is so, but grappling with complicated policy discussions isn’t the media’s forte these days.

Miranda Mulligan on the rise of the robots: “Perhaps we will build more, better, stronger robots that write some of our stories for us. In fact, friends of Knight Lab — Narrative Science — have made significant strides in automated story generation since 2010. Each year, there seem to be more and more startups and projects in the market of automating stories through datasets. Perhaps we will build systems that learn our user’s social media behavior, providing us with more significant understanding of our audience’s desire for news. Perhaps we’ll learn more about how our readers perceive us, based upon the specific words we write. Perhaps we’ll get machine-learning design and publishing systems.” Perhaps is right. I can see it happening — although 2013 seems too soon — but seeing many journalism organizations having the money and wherewithal to make it work? In 2013?

Mark Katches on the end of the editorial: “Newspapers will start to taper off writing editorials. They’ll find that they can be a leader in their communities by engaging audiences, moderating forums, holding events and curating round table discussion — while avoiding the pitfall of alienating a significant percentage of their audience by telling people what to think.” They might taper off writing them, but it’ll be because publishers want to save the cost of writers.

Michael Maness on breaking news: “What is needed are newsrooms that can filter, verify, curate, and amplify social media for their audiences, in addition to journalists reporting in enterprising and contextual ways.” Yes, but will many make that move in 2013? I don’t think so.

(Actually, there are so many Nieman Lab predictions that it would have been helpful for it to have been filtered a bit more.)

I think:

Nicholas Carr is right when he says: “The future is uncertain, yes, but the future has been uncertain for a while now. The basic dynamics of the news business didn’t change much from 2010 to 2011 to 2012, and I suspect they won’t change much in 2013 or, for that matter, in 2014.”

Mindy McAdams is right when she says: “Put yourself in the shoes of the audience. This is the real challenge for journalists in 2013. I’m not sure if journalists will do it or not, so this is not exactly a prediction. I do know it’s necessary. It’s more necessary than a business model, because if no one wants what you’re selling, you won’t be able to sell anything.”

 Fiona Spruill does a good job of explaining what mobile is where it’s at…and why most media organizations will have trouble doing a damn thing about it.

Laura Amico is right when she says: “These are examples of what the birth of mainstream “solutions journalism” looks like from the ground floor of crisis. It’s reporting that seeks to build context and community around a politically and emotionally charged subject. It is journalism that engages in meaningful conversation. My prediction for 2013: What we learn from our approach to the Sandy Hook shooting will inform our approach to many key social issues on the front burner in 2013: immigration, healthcare, and now gun control.” The problem is that this, like so many other movements in the media bias, will not move as fast as it needs to.

There are many more great ideas there. And whether they come true in the next year is essentially irrelevant. I wish every journalist would read them and think about them. It could spark ideas and action everywhere.

 

Betting on the future of print

This is an evolutionary time for media but an era rich with opportunity. We want to find new ways to deliver quality journalism.

Those are the words of John Drescher, executive editor of the News & Observer. He is writing about a new monthly magazine in Raleigh called Walter, named after Sir Walter Raleigh. It is being produced by the N&O and filled with stories and photography from some of the state’s leading writers and shooters.
It follows O. Henry magazine, a bi-monthly started a year ago about the people and places in Greensboro. It is produced by the Pilot in Southern Pines.
It’s tough times for newspapers, but print isn’t close to being dead. The number of regional magazine titles is growing, and it seems as if their is money and interest there. Those who dare to produce great journalism whiile expanding their horizons are to be admired. I hope other newspapers will follow their lead and make some bets on the future.

Answers for TV & newspapers

“No one in charge wants to fail, of course. But the hesitation to boldly address this emergency is a failure of leadership. Maybe some are waiting for the economy to turn around. The economy isn’t helping matters, but that’s not the problem anymore. Much more fundamental. It’s been called a culture of inertia in the print world.”

Those are the words of a former TV news director, who is actually talking about TV news, not newspapers. TV is following the same path newspapers blazed a few years ago: chasing new customers with an old product, trying to make the audience come to the TV rather than going to where the audience is when it’s there, and chasing news that has only incidental relevance to people’s lives.

“I believe too few people know what to do, and the ones who do aren’t being given the money and authority, along with the time needed, to create the disruptive change.”

Right now, TV’s solution seems to be “make people like you.” Jeff Jarvis comes to the rescue with a more helpful — but much harder — to-do list. This list is not just for TV; newspaper journalists — and newspaper leadership — can easily adapt Jeff’s list to their purposes. It will be difficult and frightening, but not as difficult and frightening as the current path we’re on appears to be.

Three journalists seek the future

Three smart young journalists I know are leaving their jobs and returning to school to study journalism’s future. If I were still the editor of a newspaper and one of them worked for me, I would mourn the loss of a good reporter. But I’m not. I’m hopeful that they will do more than study the future. I’m hopeful that they will create something new, not just for themselves, but for all of us. I told her what I would study if I were returning to school..

1. Money. Enough people are looking at the future of reporting the news, of figuring out how to reach people. While that’s what interests journalists, don’t go there. Look at the other side of the equation — the revenue. Where is the money going to come from to produce the strong public service journalism we want? Many have suggested solutions, and some are even trying them with varying degrees of success. But what that says to me is that the best solutions are still out there. If I were returning to school, I would study how to make good money practicing journalism.

2. Community. Traditional news organizations lost their built-in headstart to be the community’s place to be when Facebook came along. But Facebook is vulnerable because of its immense size, because of its insistence to do things that annoy its users and because it’s now a publicly traded company with all the profit pressures that brings. It’s not unthinkable that it could go the way of MySpace. Competitors are popping up all the time. What is the next Pinterest? It’s out there. I think someone can concoct the magic formula that melds journalism and community with connective tissue that is  valuable, informative and profitable.

3. Mobile. It is the future of media. Baby Boomers, who were once the core loyal newspaper and TV audience, are dropping subscriptions and appointment TV news watching and going mobile. That should scare news execs in the same way they should have been scared — but weren’t — when they heard about Craigslist. While some media have figured out how to do mobile effectively — Netflix, for instance — news organizations haven’t. (By effectively, I mean not only delivering a good product to people who want it, but also making money doing it.) Yes, there is cost to mobile and the ROI isn’t immediately apparent. But the ROI of YouTube wasn’t apparent until it was purchased by Google for a couple billion dollars. There’s opportunity. Why let the next Zuckerberg or Brin or Newmark get their there first?

I was going to add a fourth. I was going to suggest she examine why media ownership has been so resistant to understanding or accepting where the business is and what is coming down the road. I was going to suggest that she start with Media General’s CEO, who said that it wasn’t until last year — last year! — that they realized newspaper world had changed. But I decided that topic had been hashed over and resolved by many, and it was more of a psychosociological study, anyway. Besides, SchoolhouseRock teaches that three is a magic number.

I don’t know that these are the best three. What would YOU study?

Five things to do when looking for a newspaper job

After reading Malcolm Gladwell’s paean to newspapers, a student asked me advice on picking the right newspaper at which to work. I didn’t go Gladwell’s route. I like newspapers and think that they are an excellent place for rookie journalists to get the training and discipline they need.

Here’s a smarter version of what I said.

1. Find out what papers laid off people in the past three years. Then read up on what the chief executives, publishers and editors said about the layoffs. If their message was along the lines of “News coverage won’t be hurt,” cross those papers off your list. The leaders are either out of touch with the news department or they are blowing smoke to their readers. They can’t be trusted.

2. Find out which chief executives got big bonuses, severances and/or retirement packages while their properties had laid off people. That tells you a lot about the character of the leadership. Avoid them. (I would make an exception of the New York Times because, despite its issues, it’s still the best paper in the country.)

3. Check out the website. Is it easy to navigate? Does it seem to be community-based, rather than newspaper-based? Does it have a good mobile app? Does it have more content than what was in the morning paper? Are there community voices? If the paper lags here, then you have to doubt its commitment to the future. While a newspaper company’s main revenue source is the paper itself, digital is the future. The smart papers are preparing for the future and investing profit into exploring and developing its digital future.

4. Does the paper have a presence on Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest? Is it active and engaging or does it just shovel content? Is there a staff presence that’s easy to find? Is the paper’s leadership there? If the answers are no — or the answers aren’t easy to determine — beware. The paper is either timid about social media, doesn’t understand how it works or isn’t committed to being where people are gathering.

5. Last — not first — look at the printed edition. Are the stories interesting? Are the photos and design well-done? Are they well-edited? Is there a sense of enterprise and risk-taking? Good ideas, good reporting and good editing will give you an excellent sense of what you can learn at the paper.

Not all newspapers are “dreary, depressed places.” The ones that are looking forward and taking care of their people are as lively and interesting as newspapers ever are. (Bear in mind that I was in the business for nearly 40 years — and never did I hear someone say, “Man, morale is so good in the newsroom!” I did hear a lot of people say, “This is one helluva good story.”)

Filling the investigative gap

Last week, I wrote about the high cost of journalism and acknowledged that I let the News & Record’s investigative effort slide so that we could have broader coverage of more traditional news.

Andria Krewson writes about non-traditional news organizations in N.C. filling the gap, in many cases ably, in others, well, less so.

Some sources are relatively new, part of a crop of independent, nonprofit news outlets sprouting in many states. Others are long established, serving policy-oriented parent organizations that have a clear political ideology, even if they are technically nonpartisan.

Whatever their pedigree, the nonprofits are sometimes hard to find for readers outside of political wonk circles. But as a group, they’re providing more information about politics and the money behind it, particularly for state elections and issues—an area where the number of newspaper reporters has sharply declined both in North Carolina and across the country.

Because it’s Andria, it’s filled with links and detail. Give it a read, bookmark the links and I guarantee you’ll be a smarter political citizen.

 

Has your newspaper improved in the past 10 years?

The question from one of Andy Bechtel‘s students in his Advanced Editing class at UNC stopped me.

“Are there any newspapers that have improved in the past 10 years?”

It’s a question that should be posed to newspaper managers across the country. I doubt many would honestly answer that their newspaper is better today than in 2002 or even 2007. Years of layoffs and page reduction have taken such a toll that only a few papers might venture to say they have improved.

It would take some courage — and I believe newspaper managers have courage — to ask their readers the same question. Yet, some newspapers don’t tell their readers of layoffs. Many that do are accompanied by a statement such as this one: “We will maintain and over time enhance the quality of our newspaper.”

Well. OK.

On Planet Earth, the fact is that newspapers aren’t better. Their websites may be. Their newsrooms are certainly more focused on delivering the news that readers want. But with reduced staff and less space, they simply can’t provide the news coverage, the delivery range or the customer service they used to.

So, now what?

First, when you’re in a hole, stop digging. Forget about 10 years ago. Determine the new normal. Decide what size staff you’re going to have and stick with it for longer than the next quarterly report. The readers you have now have stayed with you through the hard times. They aren’t going to leave you. Move forward from now. If you stop changing it and cutting it, readers will get used to it and appreciate it for what it is.

Second, make the smart play — invest in digital. That’s where the people are. If you want them to see you, you have to be where they are. Then you have to have content that they want to see. Every local audience is different so you’ll have to figure that out, but I don’t think they want to see the content that is in the morning paper. They want new stuff created for them…and the web or their phone. You have to be smart, web-centric, quick-moving and open to change. You need a voice. And you need a good CMS.

Third, don’t “fix it,” slap your hands together and think, “well, that’s done.” This is your future. The UNC student’s question should haunt you. Ask yourself and your fellow newsroom managers this: “What have we done to improve our digital report in the last 10 days?”

The Dow Jones is near 13,000. Take some of those profits and funnel them into the digital operation. You won’t regret it.

Digital progress: We have a long way to go

If the future of news is digital (Sorry. I forgot it isn’t 1999. Let’s try again.) Because news is now digital, why do so many newspapers continue to drive Yugos on the Autobahn?

Last week, I emailed a few questions to the leaders of the digital operations at the state’s largest newspapers to help me think about needs and next steps. (I also asked the editors of the papers a different set of questions. I’ll write about their responses tomorrow.)

I asked three questions: What are the first three websites, other than your own, you check each morning? What current news website is similar to the one you aspire to be?  If you had, say, $100,000 to spend on your digital presence, what would you do first?

Unfortunately, only two of digital folks bothered to respond.

Fortunately, I think the two who did — John Nagy of the News & Record and Randy Capps of the Fayetteville Observer — are on the money. Their answers aren’t surprising, and they show how far newspapers still have to go.

The answer to the $100,000 question is simple. We need good, up-to-date equipment so that reporters can do their jobs digitially. Smart phones, tablets, decent video cameras. In other words, we don’t necessarily need a Ferrari for the road, but at least get us a new Chevy. As Capps said, “It’s hard to think, produce and sell digital media with a notebook and pen.”

Can you imagine?

$100,000 isn’t pocket change, but it isn’t $1 million either. And when you’re talking about developing what everyone says is the only longterm future of the newspaper business, why isn’t more being done? Gannett apparently is making the investment. “Readers’ speedy adoption of new technology for news consumption creates new opportunities for us to uniquely serve them. To do so, we must ensure our journalists are equipped and trained on the tools to work in new ways,” reads a memo by the Gannett newspaper division president.

Exactly.

Nagy adds the need for content producers, a comment echoed by the editors of the papers. That, of course, is what permits a site to create unique, exclusive content, which leads to the ability to charge for access to the site. As Frederic Filloux writes in his description of a simple business model, “The simulation is aimed at showing there is a life after the death of the daily print edition. Success is a “mere matter” of persistence.”

At least, that’s one way to go about it.

Here are the full replies:

1. What are the first three websites, other than your own, you check each morning?

NagyGoogle Reader, Facebook, Twitter, in that order.

Capps: Facebook, ESPN Soccernet and Yahoo!

2. What current news website is similar to the one you aspire to be?

Nagy: ChicagoTribune.com or washingtonpost.com. With the Trib, I love the design of it. Open, very white, lots of clean type and photo display. Good use of horizontal display and multimedia content. With the Post, it’s more about the content, like the NY Times. I know I’m going to get authoritative national news, well written features and reasonably good display. A little tightly packed, but not like the Times. I’d rather read the Times’ ipad app than the website.

Capps: I’d like to have WRAL’s content volume with The Boston Globe’s design.The responsive design. If it’s done right, you can serve mobile, tablet and PC users in one fell swoop.

3. If you had, say, $100,000 to spend on your digital presence, what would you do first?

Nagy: If the $100,000 is recurring, it would be to hire a couple more content producers, especially multimedia/social media specialists. Likely would be just-out-of-college hires. If the $100,000 is a one-off, new digital equipment/software for staff. 3G/wifi ipads/iphones, modest video cameras, laptops for others. Then set strict and measurable performance standards to ensure their usage in posting digital content.

Capps: I’d put a smart phone in the hands of every content producer and a tablet in the hands of the online and marketing staffs. It’s hard to think, produce and sell digital media with a notebook and pen.