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.

 

 

We or them?

A couple days after I left the News & Record, I asked this question on Facebook: At what point, when talking about the newspaper, do I switch pronouns from “we” to “they”?

The answers came quickly and in abundance. They were all over the place, ranging from now to never. Some classics:

Dan Conover: From my experience, when the paper does something you like, it’s “we.” When the paper does something you don’t like, it’s “they.” When it’s something that makes you want to to grab a flame thrower and go torch the place, it’s “the media.”

Mike Orren: After the last piece of copy you touched runs.

Robyn Tomlin: Being a journalist is like being an alcoholic. You can be “in recovery,” but you live with the disease for the rest of you life, even if you never take another drink (or write another story). You will always be part of the collective — whether you like it or not.

And Teresa Prout, who is currently interim editor, left my favorite: It should always be “we,” John. You’re grandfathered in.

I think it will be “we” as long as I can’t pass an open rack of newspapers at the Harris Teeter without making sure it is filled. As long as I feel a pang of regret when I pass a house at 11 a.m. and see the paper still in the driveway. As long as I defend the paper when an ignoramus takes a cheap shot at it having a liberal bias. As long as I see a blog post that is so insightful that I want to call the writer and congratulate him or her.

It will be “we” so long as I read a story that I wish never ends, see a photo that takes my breath away or get dazzled by a design that makes me proud to be a subscriber. Given who is there now, I think it will be “we” for a long time.