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?”

Getting past the inconvenience of newspapers

It’s been years but newspapers still haven’t grasped the inconvenience of their products. And inconvenience is killing them.

Consider:

* A longtime newspaper loyalist told me last week that she finally dropped her 7-day home-delivery subscription to Sunday only because she was in her car headed to work by the time the paper was tossed on her driveway. If it isn’t there when she needs it, it’s useless.

* Want a paper delivered? Get dressed and walk down the driveway in all kinds of weather to get it. This in a time when many people check their smart phones before they get out of bed. 

* Want home delivery only on Sunday and, say, Wednesday? You’ll be lucky if that option is available. It may be convenient to you, but it’s inconvenient to the paper.

* Some papers, like mine, promote their e-editions, which for a relatively cheap subscription price you can read the newspaper itself online. But it’s a clunky interface, requiring you to scroll up and down to see the entire page. Inconvenient. Not accessible on iPad either.

* Some newspaper websites are good. More often, though, they aren’t. It’s hard to find what you want. Design is cluttered. Ads come unbidden onto the screen, and, like a pesky mosquito buzzing around the room, it’s hard to get rid of them. Search is bad. Some content is walled off. Inconvenient.

* On Thursday, I went looking for stories about the U.S. Women’s soccer team because I wanted to read and see photos of its gold medal victory over Japan. I went to the Washington Post, the New York Times and ESPN, and I was struck by what an inconvenience that was. Each site gave me stories by their reporters only. I wanted more than that. I wanted a curated collection of content from everywhere. (C’mon Project Thunderdome!) Finally, I went to Google News, but even there I seemed to keep pulling up the same AP story.

* Don’t get me started on mobile.

I love newspapers and can’t imagine not getting one every morning, though I know that day is coming. That’s OK because I love journalism even more, and I hate to miss good journalism because of obstacles put in my way. I know well that there are sound business, financial, cultural and historical reasons why these obstacles exist. The problem is that customers don’t care about any of them. They want ease of use and service.

There is a solution.

I hate to stand in line for anything, but I do it when the payoff is worth it. If you assume that news organizations can’t or won’t eliminate the inconveniences, the only way to save themselves is to make the payoff worth it. The content must be so compelling that I will tolerate hassles because I know that there is gold at the end of the rainbow.

This is so much easier said than done. If it were easy, every day papers would be full of interesting enterprise, hard-hitting investigations, surprises, local analysis, depth, news about my neighbors (my neighbors, not someone who lives in this city of 300,000.) Or perhaps it’s not breadth but it’s a clearly designated focus, in the way that I know what I’m going to get if I go to Politico or watch FoxNews. (Poynter has a good piece about “the continental content divide.)

Mass is dead. Personalized is alive. Make it so easy and seamless to get the news I want OR provide news and information that is so relevant and necessary to my life that I’ll trample the crowd to get it. I know journalists want to do that the latter. Let them loose.

Before the internet, there was the night editor

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

That’s from this week’s New Yorker. (More cartoons here.)

It’s not all that accurate, though. In real life, the next frame would be one of them on the phone — usually with a few more empty wine glasses on the table — to the night editor at the local newspaper saying, “I need you to settle a bet. Who played the super on that TV show from the early Seventies? The one with the three veterinarians.”

And the night editor would know the answer because that’s what night editors know. Either that or he — invariably male — would tell the caller to screw off and hang up. Or maybe both.

Update: In addition to the comments from Lex and Steve below, I have a few from Facebook and Twitter friends. They are mainly along the lines of, “The Internet? Son, please. Still happens.”

Shannan Bowen: “I guess there are some people who don’t know how to use the Internet, because I swear I get calls like that all the time! Today someone called me to ask what kind of parking permit she needed in a particular area. I gave her the parking department’s number, because I just didn’t know the answer.”

Lorraine Ahearn: “We were just talking at dinner about the Google effect, no one has to remember trivia anymore. Like we were trying to remember the name of the guy who cleaned OJ’s pool. But we didn’t bother Googling him. That’s the Kardashian effect. When it’s not worth Googling…”

Buffy Andrews: “For me, it was the information desk at the library.”

John Cole: “The news desk at an afternoon daily where I worked decades ago routinely took calls from a woman who needed help with that day’s crossword puzzle.”

Cindy Loman: “I remember people from other states calling sports night desks to check on Nascar.”

David A. Johnson: “We’re still Google for old people.”

R.L. Bynum: “I settled bets many a night on the desk. Also got calls from parents who should have sent their kids to library!”

 

 

(Hat tip to John Cole.)

Not a student; a learner

A week or so ago, I was trying to describe to a friend the kind of student I was in college. I said, “I wasn’t a student; I was a learner.” I meant that I liked to learn stuff — to read, to listen, to watch and experience — but I didn’t care to recite it back or answer a bunch of true/false questions. I was a B-/C+ student in a family of straight-A brilliance. I was a learner; my siblings just called me dumb. (That’s what brothers and sisters do.)
I think that “learning chip” is partly why I became a journalist. I got paid to observe, to ask questions about things I didn’t understand, and then write what I found out. Yes, I ended up “reciting” what I learned, but I wasn’t overtly given an A or a B. People either read me or they didn’t. If I found an interesting story and I didn’t get in its way in the telling, I passed. If I put a dull finish on a story, I failed.
And then I got to go out the next day and try to do a better job on something else. I got to keep learning something new every day, and it was my job! For a learner, how awesome is that? So what that it didn’t pay much.
When I became an editor, I had to adjust my reward and recognition system. I found stories, but I wasn’t writing them. (Except, of course, when I had to rewrite someone’s  sloppy reporting/writing job.) I needed to find another outlet and I discovered the online world. It was new and exciting. It seemed as if it changed every day, with new processes (blogs?) and practices (linking out?) and terms (viral?) and ethics (transparency, how?). It morphed into digital and social and networks and mobile. The learning curve looked sharp, but once I started, I found it was smooth and gradual and easy. It fit my mode of education: observe, read, ask questions, experiment.
The grading system is the same, except it’s faster and, honestly, more fun. If you have something to say, people read you. It might be a story, a blog, a Facebook post, a Tweet, an Instagram, a video. I could go on for awhile on that track. And people would do more than read you. In real time, they would tell you that they enjoyed it or that you sucked or that you got this or that wrong.
You learned something, you told people and they reacted. Not bad for a journalist.
I thought of this when I read Steve Buttry’s excellent “Dear Newsroom Curmudgeon” post. I don’t know that I ever feared being a curmudgeon. I think I just feared getting bored and being left behind. Maybe that’s what happens to B & C students whose siblings are straight A students.

Restoring a sense of community ownership in the local paper

Two days ago, I wrote about how “our newspaper” became “the newspaper.” I ended the post with a copout: “Newspapers — new organizations, actually – can take many steps to make people feel a sense of ownership and partnership in their journalism. Some are already doing it. But that’s another post.”

Many commenters left suggestions. Here are some more:

* Figure out what jobs people need to have done. That came from the 2005 Newspaper Next project. Both Steve Buttry and Justin Ellis evaluated the success of that project this past fall. (Answer: Not all that successful.) OK, the problems still remain and answers are still out there. Revisit it. What does the community need? Too often news organizations are focused on what they want to give the community. That’s a notion rooted in the boomtimes when newspapers dominated their markets. Now circulation and revenue trends indicate that the community doesn’t need what papers are doing.

* Develop an engaging, constructive social media voice. Ideally, the top editor would be on Facebook and Twitter talking with people in the community — really talking, not just posting links to the paper’s website. She would seek out everyone who lives in the circulation area and invite them to join in. (A lot of people would be flattered when the editor invites them into her circle.) She would be active and attentive. Best of all, she would have a personality that suggests she wants to help, to listen, to improve things.

* Forbid all anonymous online comments. Most people want to live and visit in communities in which real names are used.

* Release obits and wedding announcements from paid advertising. They should be free. They do one of the things newspapers say they want to do — track the passages of the community. You want people to say, “Hey, I saw in the paper that Sheila is getting married.” I know how much money obits bring in. (Weddings don’t bring in that much because so few people are using papers to announce them.) The elimination of one page of newsprint each day would cover the lost revenue. And I would eliminate one of the pages devoted to national/world wire copy. (While I’m at it, pay the person who takes obits to ensure that he knows how to spell, how to follow style and where the local landmarks are. His primary goal should be to make sure every single obit is perfect.)

* Hire someone to answer the phone. In my old job, I heard from readers and advertisers who couldn’t get a real person to answer the phone and who reached deadends in phone trees. Imagine the dividends in having someone answer the phone who cared about getting you help. I know the cost of a phone operator, too. I promise media companies can afford it.

* Unleash editorial pages to kick ass and take names. The institutional newspaper editorial voice is often like reading a textbook. I want people to talk about the editorial in the morning paper. Let them hate it — that’s ok. The readers you care about will respect you for saying it.

* Tell the truth in political reporting. This seems obvious but it is increasingly hard to do.  Government reporters know who the crackpots are and what the crackpot ideas are. But they err on the side of “objectivity” and don’t describe them as crackpot. Or unlikely. Or contradictory to something said by the same person in the past. Readers deserve the truth about Ron Paul’s past comments, Rick Perry’s term as Texas governor, and Mitt Romney’s record at Bain. At this point it seems as if reporters are only covering talking points and gotcha moments. That tends to make everyone but political partisans sick of it.

* Create content the community needs and that people care about. It is community news that many of us know as “chicken-dinner news.” It is strong watchdog reporting that takes on issues of wasted tax money, fraud in government or an injustice involving the little guy. If your own staff doesn’t read the paper every day — and I assure you that many of them don’t — you need to get a clue that your content isn’t relevant enough.

These are just a beginning. I know you can come up with many more, and I encourage you to do so either in the comments and/or at your own workplace.

These won’t bring back the times when “everyone” subscribed to the paper. But they will restore some people’s trust in the paper. Will it translate into dollars and cents? I don’t know. But journalists should embrace the idea of trust between them and readers. That’s the only thing we have going for us.

(P.S. I know some of my former staff are saying, “Where the hell has this guy been.” I apologize for that. It’s amazing the clarity of purpose that comes with having time to think about things.)