Rearranging the lipstick on a sinking pig

Mark Potts, fresh from the demise of Backfence, rolls out a to-do list for newspapers who actually want to re-invent themselves — as opposed to those that want to have lots of meetings about re-invention.

A few of these I’ve been throwing in your face for quite some time, dear readers, so I won’t give you the blow-by-blow, but obviously one of my favorite bits is the one about giving readers what they can’t get anywhere else:

“Get local. Very local. Does every paper really need to have the AP story on Iraq or Bush or Paris Hilton on Page One? That news is available all over the place. Bring your readers something they absolutely can’t get anywhere else–news about what they care most about.”

Lots of good ideas, of course, if you can get your organization, or corporation, or mega-conglomerate to implement any of them.

But that’s the catch, isn’t it?

Are news organizations just too damn big to turn around at this point?

In the comments on Mark’s post, it looks like Christopher Mims, a blogger at Scientific American, has this to say:

“In other words, no institution as hidebound as a newspaper can possibly have the agility of the nascent startups that are going to replace them.”

Yikes. He’s right, of course.

So here’s the mission: Make your newspaper function like a start-up. How would you serve your community if you were the small, agile online news site in town?* That’s the question we’re all trying to answer — that we must answer — if we want to survive.

Get busy re-inventing, or get busy making plans to get out of the business.

*Credit where credit is due: I didn’t use this “let’s pretend we’re a start-up” bit until one of my bosses said it. In a meeting. About re-invention. I’d love to hear some real answers to that question.

The eleventh obvious thing: Your subscribers are dying

Here’s a newsroom exercise sure to drive a stake of fear squarely into the heart of your circulation manager:

Count the number of obituaries printed in your paper in the last year for local residents over the age of 60.

Now compare that number to your paper’s drop in circulation over the same period.

If you see a correlation, you’re probably not alone.

At least once a week, it seems like another study or survey or poll or Pew report pops up explaining the obvious: The young’uns don’t care much for the newspaper these days.

Sure, you can go all Redeye and ASAP on their asses with a tab or a pretty site that shovels the same old news into a colorful, modernized wrapper, but *tricking* young people into reading the news isn’t exactly what I had in mind.

It’s the content, stupid.

(Yes, I realize I’m throwing around quite a few early-’90s references here. Forgive me – they were formative years.)

How many 18- to 30-year-olds in your town do you think give a shit about what the city council passed or didn’t pass at Tuesday night’s meeting? It’s not that they’re not politically active — don’t make that mistake — it’s that the issues are far more interesting than you make them out to be.

Let’s put it this way: I grew up on stories, not city council meetings, so why would you tell me a city council meeting when you could tell me a story?

Will a redesigned print edition or Web site bring in the flock to read about city council meetings and legislation that your local representative floated in a press release months before it will ever hit a committee, much less the House floor?

Again, if you’re serious about staying in business, you’re going to need content that the LIVING people in your circulation area are interested in. So let’s start brainstorming: What does the younger demographic in your town need to know, and how do you frame the story so it catches their eyes?

Just the FAQs, please

Jeff Jarvis on the Local Challenge:

“The biggest challenge facing local news organizations today is figuring out how they can gather more and produce less. That is, how can they help other people produce, so the news organizations have something worth gathering?”

Gather more and produce less, indeed. It’s hard for lifelong newsroom types to see layoffs one day and reader participation initiatives the next and not feel a bit slighted. But we’re not just talking about event calendars and little league reports here, although I love ’em, we’re talking about your newspaper as the platform for local information and interaction.

So it’s not just “send us your events and we’ll shovel them where they belong,” it’s “post your own events on your calendar which other users can add to their calendar, and tag your event with a number of useful categories that will help others find it.” Then let readers add their write-up of the event, and photos, and video.

This isn’t new, and it’s obvious enough. Apply that model to any information you want the community to have: Reviews of local businesses, parking lot maps or detailed notes on bus routes. (Did you know that if you’re quick about it, you can snag some free wi-fi access at one of the Scotts Valley stops on the Highway 17 Express Bus? It makes for a good moment to refresh your RSS reader.)

And a thousand other things. What are the frequently asked questions in your community? Answer those questions, and write a FAQ for your newspaper site that answers them with articles from your archives, links to all those maps and databases you’ve created, and aggregate local blogs that answer some of the same questions. Your reporters are resources here, as gatherers of information and mainlines to the institutional memory you’ll need when you try to answer these questions.

Jarvis goes on to say that one platform might not be able to handle all the hyperlocal information your town needs. I disagree. I think your newspaper can, should, and will be the information aggregator for your community. If that’s not our function, then what is?

Wave your nerd flag high

Will Sullivan of Journerdism and the Palm Beach Post gets the Bryan Murley IM interview treatment over at Innovation in College Media.

In a wide-ranging interview (heh…) Sullivan offers a bit more advice than we usually get from his linkblogging, although the studied eye should be able to find the wisdom in the snark, as always.

Will’s take on some of the oft-raging newspaper video debate points:

“So the issue I’m much more concerned about is the lack of proper training, editing and opportunities for people to take gear out and fail. Failing while shooting and editing is part of the learning process. We need to realize that and allow staff resources to be devoted to it. I’ve seen so much reporter video that is a great effort but shouldn’t see the light of day. I’ve also seen lots of ‘high end’ video that really needs a re-edit.”

He and I often differ on this sort of stuff, but I think this is an important part of the answer to the question that goes something like “Should we buy expensive cameras and train photographers to shoot video or buy cheap point-and-shoots and throw them at reporters?”

On both fronts: Train, try, fail, learn, repeat.

That includes the big shots shooting HD and the young guns grabbing a tiny P&S on the way to the crime scene. Don’t get caught up in listening to the bunch of photographers and pundits telling you what’s best, just go out there with whatever gear you have available and give it a try, no matter what your role is at your paper.

More wise words along those lines from Will on what to do while you’re in college:

“The point is, while you’re in school: DIY! Get your hands dirty in everything. Play with it. Understand it. And then specialize in the areas that you really have a natural talent.”

Exactly. Don’t wait around for your school to develop an Online Journalism track or a Django for Non-Programmers class. Find a good blog or a good book on the topic of your choice and woodshed on that sucker until you come out with either a finished product or a failure that leads you to the next project. Sitting on your hands waiting for the Magic Professor to come along won’t get you a job anywhere.

Read the whole interview and think about how you can get your hands dirty with a new technology today. As for me, I’ve got an easy project in the works that should help our paper practice a tiny slice of some of what I preach here on a regular basis.

Newspaper community site philosophy

Steve Yelvington talks about Bluffton Today in an e-mail interview he’s posted, reminding me that there are reasons why community sites work and there are methods to manage and market them to the community:

“There’s a lot we can learn from Internet startups if we just recognize that geographic community is actually a special interest. A smart special-interest community-builder works to heighten participants’ sense of identity — of being part of something special. Traditional, local media can do that, too.”

That’s right. We’re talking about horizontal bonds here in a geographical sense. On the Web, no one knows if you’re in Portland, Oregon or Portland, Maine, but it doesn’t matter if people in both places really dig Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite.

So let’s take our neighborhoods and bring people together not based on a locator map that defines the boundaries, but based on the shortcuts and sunny side streets that only the locals know. There’s an obvious analogy there for the taking about talking to more regular folks and less official spokesmen. Steve puts it this way:

“We pick up some blogs and photos for the print product, but the real ‘secret sauce’ is that the community conversation helps the professional journalist connect with the real interests and passions of regular people, and not just the agendas of the institutions and newsmakers that pro journalists usually cover.”

Agenda vs. passion is the key contrast there. Ever notice that a story a reader called in to tip you off to gets more response (and page views) than a story that started with a press release from the mayor’s office?

Go read the whole thing. It’s a good place to start if you want to set goals for a community site with the community in mind, not just the numbers.

I’m exactly as pompous as I sound. No more, no less.

If, for any reason, you can’t get enough of me prattling on and on about the future of newspapers in text, you can enjoy 33 minutes of me getting interviewed by Cameron Reilly, who apparently is the king of all podcasting in Australia.

If you’re reading this, chances are you’ve heard me say all this stuff before, but you can have the pleasure of hearing me nose-breath through the first three things on that list I made until Cameron cues me to pull the mic back. (Now I know what Hugh was doing wrong on all those Gillmor Gangs).

A few references I made in the podcast and one correction:

This was lots of fun – Cameron puts together a great podcast – check out G’day World and the rest of the shows at The Podcast Network.

Blogging on the shoulders of giants

It’s not every week someone names me in reference to a generation (hint: name a generation of journalists after Adrian and you’ll get more useful code and less seething rhetoric), but if readership of this blog has passed the “three of you” mark, it’s because I’ve been paying gobs and gobs of attention for the last two-plus years to a horde of intelligent folks who write about media, technology, and education.

Here’s a few of the people I’m stealing getting the most ideas from:

Howard Owens – Here’s a bit from today about the “7 Be’s of Pull”:

“Newspapers are largely push. You get people to subscribe, and you deliver it to them, or you put it out on a street corner where it is easy to pick up. You’re not making people come to you. The web is entirely pull. The only way you get a visitor to your site is if you give them a reason to visit. They have to remember there is a reason to visit. There is no ‘newspaper on the door step’ reminder.”

Matt Waite – A journalist who knows more code than I do shares a real-world example of how and why he learned some new bits of script to work into a map project for a news story:

“The power of this particular map is that everyone in west-central Florida who is from somewhere else — which is just about everyone — can see the numbers on where they came from. We could never hope to do that in print.”

Angela Grant – She might be the Simon Cowell of the newspaper video world, but she’s a constant source of great tips for shooting straight-ahead video journalism. From a recent critique:

“…But I’m not into the voiceover. It’s read in that TV-news plastic style. It makes the story feel posed, forced and fake. It makes it feel like it’s talking at me, not talking to me. That mood doesn’t fit with Internet video, even though I may not think twice if I saw this story on TV. The actual information in the voiceover is good, I just wish I got it in a more organic and natural way.”

Mindy McAdams – Want to know how to get started in multimedia journalism? Professor McAdams has you covered. Gear, tutorials, and most important, logic — as in why you should or shouldn’t learn Flash:

“As for Flash — Flash is NOT BASIC. The first people in your newsroom who should be thinking about using Flash are the graphic designers, the news graphic artists — NOT the reporters!”

There are so many more. The blogroll way down at the bottom of this page is somewhere to start, but I don’t update it much, and some of the essentials are missing. Essentials like Dan Gillmor and Jay Rosen, two of the first media bloggers I ever subscribed to. And the new school, the hyperlocal thinkers like Adrian Holovaty and Rob Curley.

And here’s the worst-kept secret, kids: All of these people are incredibly accessible. Have a question? Looking for advice? Trying to decide if this is the right business for you? Working on a story about the future of newspapers and need a quote on deadline? Leave a comment, a link, an e-mail, a phone message.

These people won’t turn you away.

A story that didn’t fit in the paper

I was skimming Mark Glaser’s Jennifer Woodard Maderazo’s round-up of online mappety map goodness at MediaShift a minute ago when I saw a link to the LA Times crime blog Homicide Report and remembered that it was one I wanted to check in on as a reference point for something we’re taking about brewing up at work.

And the first post I saw was something far more important than a quick brief on a reported homicide to add as a point on a map:

“One reporter? One single reporter?” Solomon Martin, 71, was forthright about what he thought about a reporter for The Homicide Report walking down his Compton street last month after a homicide. “They send you, by yourself? Where are your lights? Where are your trucks? Your cameras?” he demanded. “You can tell your supervisor that I was displeased! Displeased with you coming out here with a little digital camera–a little digital camera–for this! Where are your trucks?” Martin, a retired school-district worker, assumed a look of disgust. “One single reporter,” he repeated. “To do a story that will be three lines on page 20.”

He’s right, of course, but now the story of his dissatisfaction is told — and the good questions are asked about covering murders in a city of 11 or 12 or 13 million people.

Why? Because there’s this blog, see, and there’s actually a reporter spending a part of her day just covering murders in L.A. by doing bits of journalism and posting them to an online stream of news and a map mashup.

Journalists provide the public with information. And obviously, the public provide journalists with information.

In this case, the information was about the relationship of the source to the coverage, of the community to the coverage, of the victim and the suspect to the coverage.

And now the readers of the L.A. Times online have that information, too.

Is one reporter with a point-and-shoot enough to cover a homicide?

It appears to be enough to tell an important part of the story.

Vell, Zaphod’s just zis guy, you know?

I got the IM interview treatment from Bryan Murley over at Innovation in College Media last night. Hopefully I don’t come off sounding like I have two heads and three arms, if you know what I mean.

Regular readers of this blog (all three of you) have heard most of what I said, er, typed, before, and if you’ve actually met me in person, most if this is just my usual broken-record blathering on about how everything’s changing, get on the bus, etc.

One thing I do want to throw a little emphasis at is the last bit in the interview:

“Find yourself a favorite piece of online journalism, get in touch with the journalists who reported it, and you’ll find out how passionate online journalists are about the mission of newspapers and the craft of reporting.”

I really mean that, and the idea of tracking down the reporters and talking about comes straight out of the e-mail conversations I had with Katy Newton and Sean Connelley about the Not Just A Number project. That’s what I’m talking about when I try to point out that there is amazing and important work being done online.

A newsroom colleague (yes, you) wondered aloud earlier this week about whether that list I made left out the whole mission of journalism. Everything on that list is about getting out of the sad rut of layoffs, buyouts and mergers and getting back to the work of informing the public, one person at a time, for the sake of democracy — not profits.

If online readership were falling and people were leaving Facebook in droves and print circulation was off the charts, I’d like to believe I’d say the opposite. I’d say “Quit screwing around with video cameras and get back to the work of words-on-paper.” But that’s simply not the case.

I say, get creative everywhere. Print numbers dropping? Try something different in print. Re-arrange your front page. Rotate in a new columnist or two. Work up a big investigative piece that will get people talking about your paper. Don’t forget about your print edition in all your excitement about online. Ideally, both would be doing well, right? Right.

The sky is not falling

From the Columbia Journalism Review comes a short note taking “A Long View on Layoffs.”

For those looking for some comfort in numbers, rest assured that there appear to be plenty of working journalists left around here somewhere. The CJR piece runs down some long-term employment statistics and then turns loose some of Wilson Lowrey’s ideas.

I quote Prof. Lowrey in the lit review to my thesis-in-progress, and I had the pleasure of meeting him last year when he moderated an AEJMC panel that gave me quite a bit of hope for the future.

But on to the blockquote from the CJR story:

“…bloggers are individual workers, while traditional journalists contribute to larger systems. Their competitive relationship, he says, “could benefit audiences and society” by pressuring professional journalists to be more accurate and, in some cases, filling the need for information that either falls outside the bounds of traditional newsgathering or simply slips through cracks caused by downsizing. Unlike the for-profit news outlets on which they depend for original reporting, bloggers are relatively unencumbered by professional media’s overarching “need to attract large audiences and advertisers.” As a result, blogs are free to be specialized, complex, and partisan. They can also stay with stories longer and quote nonelite sources often ignored by their institutional counterparts.”

That’s a great way to say that bloggers operate out in the Long Tail; a great deal of agility comes with that position.

(CJR article via my thesis adviser, appropriately enough.)