Newspapers: Looking back to move forward

The biggest threats to newspapers aren’t just their familiar revenue problems and ever-proliferating competitors, but also the opportunity costs of failing to innovate more boldly — to be transformative, not incremental, in moving forward.

Melanie Sill’s insightful post about former editors wishing they had done things differently got me thinking about current editors.

Have they learned anything from the past five years of layoffs and cutbacks? To find out, I asked several North Carolina editors to address that with these questions: What if you could go back to 2004 with the budget, resources and FTEs you had then, but knowing what you know now? What would you do with the additional people and money? What would you do differently?

To focus on the critical few, I asked them to list three changes. Three editors responded, and I included my own “wishes.” The answers were remarkably similar, and none was earth-shattering.

Here’s a summary. (Full responses at the end.)

1. A smokin’ hot active digital presence. “They would cover breaking news maniacally, create interactive databases and do more video,” Carol Hanner, ME of the Winston-Salem Journal. “I would have challenged them to design a website that’s not modeled after the organization of the newspaper’s content.”

Robyn Tomlin, executive editor the Wilmington Star-News, would create a community engagement team. “Their goal would be to engage the community in a constant conversation, wherever they are. They would focus on social media, aggregation and curation along with doing a better job of promoting our content and staff in the community.”

2. Reorganized coverage. I said reorganize reporting around enterprise, especially focused on investigative and community. Tomlin agreed. “I would create a watchdog reporting team focused on doing investigative and public service journalism. I mean day-in-day-out political fact-checking, creating online databases of public records, doing local consumer reporting and sometimes just chasing our tails in an effort to tell important stories that seem to get missed along the way.”

In addition to a “watchdog team,” Hanner added: “I’d have a breaking news team that covers the heck out of everything that moves in the community and put it online. I would have a team that does nothing but focus on feature stories about local people, community organizations’ work and the acknowledgements of worthy and fascinating efforts.”

3. Idea incubator. Robyn and I had similar ideas; not surprisingly, hers was more expansive. I wanted to take three bright, creative people and tell them to come up with the next YouTube, eBay, or Craigslist based on giving people something they didn’t even know they needed or wanted. She said: “I would hire an innovations editor and obtain other resources necessary to create a Google-like idea incubation initiative where every news employee devotes a percentage of their time to working on a project of their choice. The projects would need to meet certain criteria, like audience growth, innovation in storytelling, improvements to existing processes or products that make them emasurably more effective, efficient or profitable.”

The responses raised two questions in my mind: First, did we go far enough, and, second, can the editors do any of those things now? The answer to the first is probably something like: If it is 2004, that’s a fine start: media watchers would call you bold and daring. But what have you done for me lately?

The answer to the second has to be yes.

As Melanie writes: Thing is, there’s still plenty of time. We’re not at the end of change, we’re in the midst of it. Even for print newspapers, there’s plenty of upside (and plenty of audience) — not for a shrunken version of the newspaper format of 1992 to be valuable in 2012, but for contemporary approaches to print to serve readers well as part of a menu of options in the digital era.

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The full responses:

Mike Arhholt, editor of the Fayetteville Observer

1.  I would put in place a newsroom restructuring plan like the ones we’ve had to institute by necessity given cutbacks and online growth. I know that 2004 resources focused through more streamlined and coordinated systems would have had impressive results for growth of local content both in print and online.

2.  I would develop an online strategy sooner and put a pay plan in place for the website off the bat. The industry’s belief that advertising could pay the bills for all the work that goes into innovation and management of websites simply didn’t pan out.

3.  I would have spent more resources on developing new local niche products for both print and online, and I would have done a better job of working across the hall with advertising to help that department better understand our online goals.

Carol Hanner, managing editor of the Winston-Salem Journal

1. I would create a Web team led by a few veteran journalists and executed by a young staff that has grown up with the Internet. they do, They would cover breaking news maniacally, create interactive databases and do more video. I would have challenged them to design a web site that’s not modeled after the organization of the newspaper’s content. I would have two or three creative Web developers as part of that staff. The team would include a staffer devoted to nothing but researching what’s cool on the web and examining the much larger pool of market research we would have, with the idea that social media and mobile would emerge more quickly as a focus than it did.

2. I would create jobs that play to people’s strengths instead of expecting journalists to become even more generalized than they already are. I’d have a breaking news team that covers the heck out of everything that moves in the community and put it online. I would have a team that does nothing but focus on feature stories about local people, community organizations’ work, and the acknowledgements of worthy and fascinating efforts. I would have a watchdog team for the people who always have a nose for something fishy and don’t mind obstacles to getting information. Every story would have multiple layers.

3. I would focus much more on business in two ways- understanding it myself more, and reporting on the local business community much more extensively.

4. Bonus question. I would use staff to create more niche publications and web sites and get as close to customizing what kinds of news people get as tecnology allows, with the goal of getting away from an expensively produced and distributed print mainstream paper trying to reach a mass audience.

Robyn Tomlin, executive editor, Wilmington Star-News

1. I would create a watchdog reporting team focused on doing investigative and public service journalism. I’m not talking about the yearlong project kind of stuff, although there might be a little of that. I mean day-in-day-out political fact-checking, creating online databases of public records, doing local consumer reporting and sometimes just chasing our tails in an effort to tell important stories that seem to get missed along the way. One piece of this initiative would be to hire a general assignment reporter (or some paid interns) who can fill in on other reporters’ beats when there’s a big project that is going to take more than a week or so to develop.

2. I would create a community engagement team (we have a community engagement editor, but he’s just one guy) focused on both digital and in-person community engagement. Their goal would be to engage the community in a constant conversation — wherever they are. They would focus on social media, aggregation and curation along with doing a better job of promoting our content and staff in the community. They would also organize more events like public forums and community conversations “in real life.”  The run regular contests and do other fun things to make our print and digital products more interactive and engaging.

3. I would hire an innovations editor and obtain other resources necessary to create a Google-like idea incubation initiative where every news employee devotes a percentage of their time to working on a project of their choic. The projects would need to meet certain criteria, like audience growth, innovation in storytelling, improvements to existing processes or products that make them measurably more effective, efficient or profitable.

Moi

1. I would reorganize the reporting staff almost entirely around enterprise. Anything I could get from the wires, I would — which includes many of the non-Guilford County sports. By enterprise I mean stories and photos that people can’t get anywhere else, especially investigative and community. I’d look for the “wow” content.

2. I would take 25% of the people that I am getting and put them on the digital report, creating a different site than a newspaper site, curating, aggregating and building a large social media presence.

3. I would find the three brightest, most creative people I could and tell them to come up with the next youtube, ebay, facebook, groupon or craigslist. I’d tell them not to worry about the technology. Give me something that will give people something they want and need.

 

 

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.

Putting public interest second

Yesterday, I was puzzled that more newspapers didn’t see the late-night early morning session of the General Assembly as front-page news. (I know it happened past most deadlines, but the AP had a story available.)

More newspapers got on board this morning, thanks to strong statements by the governor and NCAE yesterday. Stories about the furtive session made the front pages of Charlotte, Raleigh, Greensboro, Winston, Fayetteville, Burlington, Asheville, Salisbury and Greenville, among others. Editorials in Charlotte, Raleigh, Greensboro and Wilmington condemned the action.

Good politics and good government are not contradictory. You just need legislators who put the public interest first.