January 6th, 2008

Journalism At The Crossroads: Change Or Die

by

As I read this year’s first crop of posts from the smartest voices on the future of journalism, it’s clear that 2008 is the change or die year for journalism, as symbolized by the uncertain future of the newspaper industry.

This is the year that the journalists who will embrace the challenge of transforming journalism for the digital age will be separated from those who are waiting to take the buyout. This year will break the back of the old newsroom culture that was supported by monopoly distribution economics, which have been destroyed.

Here are some of the tea leaves I’ve been reading:

Mindy McAdams: Time to get crazy

The flash came as a reaction to the oft-repeated observation that everyone in the newsroom knows the newsroom needs to change — but it hasn’t changed yet. No one seems to know how to get change to happen.

It’s too late for incremental change. It’s too late to be cautious and timid.

The time has come to be bold.

So here’s an insane, heretical idea for change. The goal is to make everyone in your community start talking about your newspaper and your Web site. You want people asking all their friends and co-workers, “Did you read x this morning?” and “Did you see y on the Web site this afternoon?” You want a woman coming home from work to say to her stay-at-home dad/husband, “I have to show you this thing on the Beacon’s Web site!” You want her to say that even before she asks, “What’s for dinner, honey?”

Howard Owens: Journalists doing their jobs better is a competitive advantage

It is time for newspaper journalists to set up and start creating the competitive advantage that will help us win. Current newspaper journalism is pretty much a commodity. When what you produce becomes a commodity, you can no longer win on price (and some journalists think we should be charging a fee for what people are already telling us doesn’t much interest them). You can only win on a competitive advantage. For journalists that should be doing a better job of story selection, presentation and interaction with the people in their communities.

Steve Outing: What’s Needed in 2008: Serious Newsroom Cultural Change

“My wish: That you could fix the incredibly dysfunctional culture in the newsroom,” wrote an editor from one of the large metro newspapers in the U.S., who asked not to be named. In the past year, that paper’s top management decided to put the web first in all ways and went into major restructuing mode. The paper’s website, this editor reports, went over the last half decade from a small group of people to “the total focus of our news gathering efforts.”

But the big problem is that the newsroom culture hasn’t changed enough to support the kind of innovation that the paper’s leaders are trying to implement, the editor says. “Somehow the people who do the work always get overlooked in the ‘fixing.’ We are ignored. We are shifted around like widgets. Our experience is disregarded. Our ideas are received with indulgent pats on the head. … I get the need for young voices and fresh approaches. But the environment, the existing culture, has to allow and encourage innovation. All the ‘process mapping’ in the world won’t fix that. ‘Culture’ is much harder to fix than ‘process.’”

Steve Yelvington: Resolution: Newspapers should be more like Apple

Newspapers, which have built up institutional layers of protection from outside influences and outside ideas, are stuck in a past that doesn’t exist any more. Just look at how we typically respond to a new idea. Let’s take video:

  • Assumption 1: We’ll shoot it. After all, we have the visual experts.
  • Assumption 2: We’ll edit it. After all, we’re the experts in deciding what’s important.
  • Assumption 3A: We’ll post it on our website and rig it so it’s difficult, maybe even impossible, to copy/post anywhere else. After all, we own it. Can’t have the unwashed masses stealing it.
  • Assumption 3B: No, it’s not going on YouTube with the exploding cola bottles and half-clad dancing teenagers. We have to protect our brand.

And the result is about as successful as Microsoft’s Plays For Sure dudware.

Kara Swisher: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Learned to Love the Blog: Goodbye Dead Trees!

As I always like to keep in mind about everything: Don’t fight the trend.

That might sound a bit glib to some, but I think it’s an important thing to keep in mind as the fortunes of great newspaper companies continue the steady and unwavering declines of the last decade, in what feels a bit like a long and agonizing circling of the drain.

So it’s not exactly a brilliant move to see that and contemplate a move to higher ground–it is simply common sense.

Well, common sense combined with a sense of inevitability that is hard to deny.

I would hope, for example, that if I were around riding for the Pony Express and I saw a newfangled car chug on by for the first time, that I would be one of those people who immediately got the fact that life as I knew it was about to change rather dramatically.

Alan Mutter: $23B zapped in news stock value

The accelerated erosion of newspaper shares since the collapse of the easy-credit markets in 2007 appears to reflect waning hopes on the part of investors that a fresh crop of daring souls like Rupert Murdoch or Sam Zell will arrive to bid up the stocks of the sagging public companies so they can take them private and try to fix them.

With neither improved business prospects nor white knights likely to be on the horizon, you can’t blame newspaper executives for cringing as they turn a new page on the calendar. Unless they come up with a lot of creative and profitable ideas in a hurry, many of them may not be around to ring in 2009.

Howard Weaver: You Say You Want A Revolution?

Two central truths about our business become clearer every day: first, that there is an enduring need and opportunity for public service journalism; and second, that the current transition, involving everything from audience relationships to revenue models, is indeed revolutionary.

It is our good fortune to be the generation entrusted with this rebirth, though not everybody will agree with that. Some of you will think we’re going too far as we transform our operations, priorities and relationships. Many will criticize us for moving too slowly. Tragically, some of you will give up and quit too soon.

But there’s a profoundly important role in the evolving information ecology for the journalism of verification, organized responsively in an outside/in relationship with audiences, drawing upon networked resources, founded on trust and reputation. We must be prepared to do pretty much whatever it takes to our business operations and organizational charts to get us there.

Nearly every day I discuss changes that would have been heresy for newspaper editors even 10 years ago. Things that once seemed like tenets now look like artifacts. The pace of change and the momentum of the imperatives we face truly are disorienting.

Doug Fisher: Lazarus resurrects old argument

“The view from the bottom of the well”: What says the “newspaper” is the only way to have a news operation adequately staffed to challenge and stand up to society’s institutions? Just because we can’t clearly see it yet does not mean it won’t exist. It’s not impossible to conceive of agencies being formed that aggregate “independent” news professionals into fluid but cohesive units for various projects across media and that provide them with the professional services (insurance, legal, etc.) that newspapers now do for their writers and editors. What’s to say that the L.A. Times needs a newsroom of 800 people? Perhaps a close look discloses that only 400 are needed, with other “specialists” being brought on as needed. I suspect we are going to see a redefinition to the true meaning of “journeyman” journalist.

Still don’t think journalism is facing its change or die moment?

Connect Doug’s comment with this comment on my post about whether journalists would go all digital if given the choice:

I think it may mean freelancing and working other jobs such as PR in order to make it all work. A friend of mine who graduated 2 years before I did has been a freelance PR person for more than 10 years now, but she is also a health reporter for the Houston Chronicle when she has time and inclination. I think online journalism will work that way too. Write an post an article to an online publication for extra money until you establish enough cred to get more and more online work. Eventually you can quit the PR day job and just do online journalism. Eventually online pubs. will have enough money to hire full time reporters. But I still see online as more of a freelance type situation hiring writers who they trust for specific gigs.

When I connected these dots, here’s the question that popped into my head: What if journalism in the future will only be a part-time job?

I was going to write a post with that title, but I didn’t have the heart — and because I don’t believe it’s inevitable. New economic models can support robust, full-time journalism online — and given, sufficient transformation, in print — but it won’t happen by clinging to old models.

If you follow people like Mindy McAdams, Steve Outing, Howard Owens and many others, there’s no shortage of transformative ideas. There’s no shortage of opportunity.

Journalism CAN be transformed. Journalism CAN thrive.

What’s needed is a MASSIVE ATTITUDE CHANGE.

Back in 2006, American Journalism Review was saying “Adapt or Die,” directed largely towards newspapers companies. But organizations can’t change unless the people that comprise the organization are willing to change.

I think Howard Weaver framed the imperative to change best, as an aspiration: “It is our good fortune to be the generation entrusted with this rebirth”

It is the responsibility of every journalist to actively contribute to journalism’s rebirth, rather than enable its decline through inaction or resistance to change.

Change or die. It’s that simple.

UPDATE

Here’s a great post from Yoni Greenbaum that argues change needs to start at the top: Newsroom leaders, change or step aside

We can no longer afford senior editors who require passionate blog posts and magazine articles to give them direction and motivation. We can no longer afford to lose aggressive, young employees who flee our newsrooms frustrated with poor salaries, stagnation and lack of direction. We can no longer afford to say that this must be the year of change and hope for the best.

Increasingly we talk about the skills we expect from new hires. I believe it is time to outline the skills we expect from our newsroom leaders. Can we afford senior editors who are still questioning the need to provide content across multiple platforms? Can we afford senior editors who don’t grasp the basic technologies that we need to use and have no desire to learn? What is the message to employees when the editor doesn’t blog or read blogs? When the editor doesn’t use text messaging? When an editor doesn’t know what a news reader is? Or what a smart phone is?

Let me know if you come across (or have written) other posts that should be here.

UPDATE #2

Dave Cohn upped the ante in response to Yoni, arguing that anyone who hasn’t embraced the need to change has already lost, and that we should focus our attention on the people already doing what needs to be done: We Don’t Need Newsroom Leadership, We Need Individual Entrepreneurs

I think the time for evangelizing is over. At this point if you are in a mainstream news organization and you don’t see the need for change, the battle is lost and I’m not going to spend time trying to convince you to change the culture in your newsroom. I will simply shake your hand, wish you an honest good luck and move on.

and

A fundamental rule of the internet: “Trying stuff is cheaper than deciding whether to try it. (Compare the cost of paying and feeding someone to do a few weeks of P* hacking to the full cost of the meetings that went into a big company decision.)”

  • From Comment 10:

    "it is so easy to celebrate Kara Swisher as a true convert, because she makes one blog post about how blogging is wonderful. But nowhere does somebody evaluate her for how well she responds to comments."

    "Swisher posted that blog post on Wednesday, and then followed up with 6 blog posts through Friday. It’s a fairly easy calculation for a prominent blogger to realize that more blog posts => more hits, whereas more comments with the readers doesn’t bring much quantifiable value. This happens all the time."

    This leads me to think about how these two interact with the audience. There is so much chatter on involvement with the community - than sheer number of posts.

    Another great thread!

  • Without a doubt change is necessary but can you do it within your current organization?

    My experience is that while saying all the right things (converged news rooms, blogs, mojos, video journalists, blogs again etc) many newspaper companies are not following it up with cash and passion. The strategy most newspaper companies are following is to continue to milk their print assets and minimise their investment in innovation (and sweat the journalists a bit more).

  • Dave,

    Thanks for the pointer, great post, I added it to the list of links above.

  • Craig,

    You're making a BIG assumption -- that the work most journalists currently do is actually the best use of their time, so that any of this "digital stuff" has to be additive.

    You also point to the elephant in the room, which is the economics. But just as the business model that supports journalism needs a clean sheet of paper, so to does the practice of journalism.

    Will it require hard work for journalists to learn new skills? Of course. But it's not tenable, when the business model that supports your job is collapsing, to sit back and say that you don't want to work harder.

    Digital technology is disrupting many industries, not just the news business. Just ask musicians and record execs.

    Besides, the idea that all of these digital tools are "extra work" is a canard. It was a lot of extra work to switch from using a typewriter to using a word processor, but the productivity gains made it well worth it.

    It may take extra world to learn how to practice journalism in the digital age, but the survival of journalism will be well worth it.

  • An excellent gathering of the recent posts on this topic, but amidst all the cries for a more digital future, I feel a rather pertinent point is being missed out: who is going to pay for it?

    The product is being given away for free, advertisers are looking for more targetted audiences and the powers-that-be do not want to spend to invest.

    And while I know there is a growing call for the be-all journalist that does the normal routines of reporting but is also expected to be web-savvy, take pictures, use SMS, twitter, blog and take/edit video the question has to be asked about should someone be a jack of all trade or a master of a few? After all, 20 years ago at the start of the latest technology revolution to newsrooms no-one asked a reporter to also be a photographer and sub-editor did they?

    I also feel that there is a danger in that if a person is doing all of that, then are we asking for people to work 12-14 hours a day? Many a geek - who were online and doing online first - may be used to that, but should be looking to make that the norm? Also, many hacks already work very long hours to do their job as is, so how much longer would they be working?

    Before this revolution really kicks off, we should be looking at defining what we expect of journalists and others in this move to a fully digital era.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Subscribe

Receive new posts by email

Recent Posts