How did I miss the future?

Since I posted this one-year anniversary thought, several people have asked me why I wasn’t more aware of what I was missing, including Mindy McAdams, Bill Densmore and Anthony Moor, suggesting that my post was incomplete.

Quite so.

Here are some of the reasons I ended up working on the wrong things too often. (If you’re rushed, skip to the last one):

* Space must be filled. When staffs were larger, this wasn’t as pressing. But now that so many newspapers have half the number of reporters they did five years ago, editors have lowered the bar on what’s “news.”  You can — at least I did — get hypnotized by the need to come up with enough good story ideas to fill the paper. As every journalist knows, some days are better than other. And that’s why newspapers publish monthly unemployment number stories and weather stories and small-bore crime stories. You’ve got to fill the white space, and your imagination gets tired.

* As a corollary, I had less time to think. Mathematically, fewer reporters would mean fewer stories. Yet journalists tend to see stories and want to bring them to readers. We’re pesky that way. Consequently, reporters to juggle more stories and report them faster. They are working longer hours, doing more. Time is precious and spending it thinking, or chasing an in-depth investigative article was often tough to come by. When I became an editor I swore I would never comment on reporter productivity. In the last five years, I broke that vow more often that Lindsay Lohan’s been tabloid fodder.

* The beat structure encourages complacency. Beat reporters always have something to do — a meeting to cover, a story to follow, a news release to write. They often deal with the same sources day-in and day-out. We make fun of the inside-the-beltway journalism club — what Jay Rosen calls “the church of the savvy” — but many reporters outside the beltway have a similar membership in their own communities. I know. I was one as a reporter and continued as an editor. (I watched city council meetings on television!) It’s tough to break out.

* The bureaucracy sucks the life out of any good editor. It did me. You want to focus on doing great journalism, but you find yourself sinking into a morass of budgets, meetings, demands from publishers and other departments, technological problems and equipment that doesn’t work. Have you ever tried to tie your shoe when you were running? Too many days, I went home with the sense that I contributed nothing of value to journalism.

But here’s the biggest one: I was deluded. I thought I was doing it right — working on big ideas and compelling stories and listening to readers and planning for the future. And I was. But like the fable — and it’s just a fable — of the boiling frog, I was used to what I was used to. And I was moving at the speed of dial-up when the world was on  broadband. Even though I read the smart people, I fell behind and hardly even knew it.

There may be other reasons. Complacency, however, wasn’t one of them. I never felt as if we were in decent shape, that we could rest, that we had reached our destination. Instead, I was like a kid running around with my arms outstretched thinking I was an airplane.

I’m not unique among newsroom managers. Most newsrooms are led by creative, resourceful people. But when you’re running as fast as you can, it is easy to get into a rhythm — runners know this — and forget to pay attention to other things. The best thing editors can do is ask for help — from their staffs, from their publishers and from the public.

I am positive about one thing: Had I organized monthly meetings with the public to hear how we could serve them better, it would have improved our journalism, and I would have been a better steward of their newspaper.

P.S. As I reread this, it sounds like a hand-wringing mea culpa. It’s not intended that way, and were I a cleverer writer, I’d fix that. It’s intended simply to answer the question, “Why did it take you so long to figure out what you were missing?”

Earth to NBC: The Internet is here

Smarter people than I will write about this, but I’m interested so….

Is NBC aware that the Internet and social media has changed the world of news? It’s hard to tell.

* Last night, Matt Lauer and Meredith Viera claimed not to know who Sir Tim Berners-Lee is. As a result, they embarrassed themselves and the network to millions of viewers.

* The first big event of the Olympics was the 400 medley pitting Ryan Lochte and Michael Phelps. Did NBC, which half-a-dozen channels at its disposal, show the race live? No. But damned if you couldn’t watch endless cycling, soccer, volleyball, fencing, etc.

* At the 6:30 p.m. nightly news broadcast, Brian Williams apologized to viewers for being a spoiler and announced that Ryan Lochte won the 400 buttterfly medley earlier in the day. Awkward for a newsman announcing the day’s top story, but OK. Then the network doesn’t actually show film of the race itself. Shows only stills.

* At 7:30 p.m. the network promotes the 400 butterfly as “tonight’s race” between Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte, even as it — and many viewers — knew that Lochte already won the race. Difference between the news division and entertainment? Embarrassing? Absolutely. The local affiliate, WXII, did the same in its special report preceding the 8 p.m. Olympics coverage.

* At 8 p.m. Bob Costas, to his credit, announces that everything the network is showing is taped and that the network is not going to announce results before it shows the races. No spoilers, he says.

I’m sure there are others. I’ve not watched much of the Olympic so far, but so far I’m not impressed.

Sunday update: Yes, there are better observers. Stacey Higginbotham at GigaOm is one. Jeff Jarvis has another.



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.

When it’s OK to lie

Jeff Jarvis tackles an issue that has puzzled me — and most journalists, I suspect for years: people who think it’s OK to lie.

Isn’t telling the truth the norm in our society? Don’t you expect anyone you know — friend, family member, coworker — to tell you the truth? If they don’t, aren’t you at least disappointed? If caught in a lie don’t you expect your credibility to be diminished? Isn’t there a cost to lying in society?

So how could that norm be canceled for public figures, for politicians who insist we’ll have death panels or for performers on stage who think the spotlight forgives lies?

It reminds me of a suggestion my wife made back in 2006 when I was still the editor of the paper. “You know what you need to do? You need to create a standing column on public lies. You could fill it every day…. Jessica and Nick say they’re happily married. Angelina says she’s not dating Brad. WMDs. ‘I did not have sex with that woman.’

“You say you want readers to connect emotionally with the paper, to feel smarter after reading it, to be inspired and entertained. I guarantee this would be the most entertaining thing in the paper. You could call it ‘The check’s in the mail.'”

I didn’t do it. Yet one more regret I have.

Year-end lists: the news silly season

Via Twitter this morning, Jeff Jarvis declared this the news media’s silly season. Jeff being Jeff, he used more colorful language: “Bullshit season begins. First: Time thing o’ the year. Next: Top 10 lists. Then predictions. All bullshit.”

And he’s right. The year-end lists contain no real news. They help us remember what happened in the calendar year. But there is little new information published. Predictions for the year are about as accurate as guesses about the length of Kim Kardashian’s next marriage. For the news organizations, these features fill time and space during what is traditionally a slow news time. (Time’s Person of the Year is a one-sentence news morsel and you move to the next thing about Lindsay Lohan.)

The thing is, people seem to enjoy them. It’s no coincidence that Buzzfeed’s biggest traffic day of the year came with its Most Powerful Photos of 2011 entry.

Nieman Lab’s Megan Garber talked with Buzzfeed’s founder, Jonah Peretti about that.

“I think the future is going to be about combining informational content with social and emotional content,” Peretti says, and “the post did a great job of combining those two things.”

I think he’s right, too. The problem with most of the year-in-review and year-ahead features is that they don’t include enough information and emotion to serve a true journalistic purpose. They’re done because we’ve always done them. With energy and emotion, they could be much more relevant than they are.