Tag Archives: Future

A solution for journalism, in one sentence

From Matthew Yglesias:

Why not get political news from a political news outlet, movie reviews from a place that specializes in movies, and local news from an organization that’s really passionate about covering its community rather than viewing it as a JV form of journalism to be endured before moving on to something bigger?

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The problem with journalism, in one sentence

Amy Gahran has a good column at Poynter Online (via Craig Stoltz) about how closed-mindedness is keeping newsrooms from plunging headlong into the future — and leaching all the fun out of journalism, to boot.

Gahran identifies a number of attitudes that “directly cut off options [for change] from consideration” and can lead to a “toxic” newsroom culture. She also articulates what, to my mind, is turning out to be the central problem with objectivity-era mainstream journalism:

Journalists (more so than most other professions) are supposed to be fundamentally curious and profoundly interested in what’s happening around them.

An apparent lack of curiosity shows up in today’s newspapers in the form of ignorant political journalism, stories written straight from press releases and PR pitches, stories that treat technology and consumer electronics as alien subjects. It shows up inside newsrooms in the form of old-timers who still aren’t comfortable with computers, new-timers who’ve heard of RSS but haven’t tried it out, higher-ups who rarely read journalism/new media blogs.

Institutional strictures are probably the main culprit here. Why bother being well-versed in policy if objectivity conventions forbid you from betraying your expertise in print? Why bother learning how to use new technology if the paper is (until recently) making boatloads of cash doing things the way they’ve always been done? Why explore things like RSS if nobody in the newsroom has articulated why you should do so?

Still, just as newspapers as institutions will have to change, individual journalists will have to ask themselves if they’re curious and interested enough to pro-actively face the coming shakeout. Because in three to five years, it’s likely that the only people to still have journalism jobs will be those who view journalism as more than just that job they’ve always had.

Maybe news sites CAN take on Craigslist

Last month I wrote a post wondering why newspapers don’t try to take on Craigslist by making their classifieds free (and making money from targeted advertising on a robust, user-friendly, feature-rich site). Now there’s evidence that this is possible: According to Lost Remote, KSL.com — the Web site for an NBC affiliate in Salt Lake City — gets 130 million page views a month, 75 percent of which are to its free classifieds site.

It’s hard to know if KSL’s model is replicable at this point. “I believe most of our success come from getting into the game early,” the site’s director of online content tells Lost Remote. But it would be worth a shot for at least a few other newspapers or TV stations to try.

The Washington Post transforms editing (in theory)

Does Leonard Downie Jr. read my blog? (I’ll field this one: no.)

Via Jack Shafer, I see the Washington Post has accepted that the current editing system is outdated, inefficient, and unaffordable. From a memo to Post staff by executive editor Downie and managing editor Philip Bennett:

We will remove layers of editing by providing greater flexibility to determine when a story is edited and by whom. We will create truer alignment of editing for the web and for the paper, recognizing that deadlines for many pieces are defined as the earliest moment they can be edited and published online. We will deepen collaboration among editors on assignment desks, copy desks, photo and the news desk to change how a story, graphic or photograph goes into the newspaper.

Overall, these changes are meant to make our editing model less like an assembly line — moving copy towards the presses on a pre-determined schedule – and more like a network, responding to how journalism is actually created, distributed and discovered by our audiences in print and online.

My main recommendation for keeping copy editors was to give them more responsibility as editors. This is the first element of the Post’s plan:

Several editors will move from the National and Foreign copy desks to take on new roles that begin earlier in the day. These assistant editors will have broad responsibilities for moving early copy to the web and for the next day’s paper. They will provide the first read on some stories and the final edit on others. They will compose working headlines. They will collaborate with the News Desk to assign stories to pages earlier than our current practices allow.

I argued that giving copy editors more responsibility would potentially allow for fewer eyes on a story because a handful of thorough edits can be better than a half-dozen cursory edits. This is the Post’s logic as well:

With the involvement of assistant editors, we’ll reduce layers of editing. Currently, stories in the A section are routinely changed by a half-dozen different editors (an audit by Don Podesta for this project found fingerprints of 12 different editors on one single inside piece). Under the new model, many stories will be handled under a “two touch” rule; they will have a first editor and a second editor.

My next recommendation was to free up copy editors for new roles by giving reporters and line editors responsibility for basic tasks traditionally left to copy editors. The Post calls for this as well:

In addition to supervising their reporters, assignment editors will advance the editing process by doing more fact-checking, and (along with assistant editors) composing working headlines for pieces. Working headlines will also be welcome from reporters when they file.

Finally, I disagreed with copy editor curmudgeons who doubt change is possible because “this is the way it’s always been” or because they think reporters will never learn to write or worry about the little things that copy editors have always had to check. My answer to that argument: make reporters change. So it was especially nice to see this in Shafer’s piece:

The reason many newspapers rely so heavily on editors—a reason rarely spoken—is that some reporters can’t write. Their copy isn’t edited as much as it’s rewritten. Bennett has a message for them: “Reporters who can’t write are a dying breed.”

If the Post truly follows through, this will amount to a revolution. Every newspaper editor should read Shafer’s story and the Post memo — and consider making the same kinds of changes.

UPDATE: David Sullivan has a much more skeptical take on the Post memo. He argues that this has been tried in the past, and all that happened is dayside people spent their time working on pretty centerpieces and still left all the real editing and too many stories for the night desk. I think he’s right to be wary, but the Post’s plan seems to be different in several ways from similar attempts in the late 80s/early 90s.

According to Sullivan, those attempts came in response to investors getting crabby about poor (or no) earnings growth during a general economic downturn. But the business was still sound; the industry was doing fine; that’s just shareholders doing what they do. The Post’s attempt to transform editing is a response to a crumbling industry whose business model is in peril. It’s less a “hey, where can we shave costs regardless of if it makes sense for day-to-day operations” plan than the start of a holistic attempt to reconfigure newsroom roles in the face of the new reality.

The plan will only work if the Post is serious about rethinking newsroom roles; as I said in my original post, changing copy editors’ roles without giving more responsibility to reporters and line editors for basic stuff won’t solve anything. But the Post’s memo and Phil Bennett’s comment to Shafer about reporters who can’t write indicates to me that they understand that. At least I hope they do.

David Simon as journalism’s Rip Van Winkle, revisited

So The Wire is over, and there’s no shortage of response around the Web. I’ll post my thoughts shortly about the show overall and how it stacks up to Sopranos/Deadwood, but for now I want to address David Simon’s assessment of the ills of modern journalism.

After the season’s first episode aired, Simon responded to Slate’s TV Club discussion of the show by saying: “The Wire’s depiction of the multitude of problems facing newspapers and high-end journalism will either stand or fall on what happens on screen, not on the back-hallway debate over the past histories, opinions passions or peculiarities of those who create it.” Well, he’s had his on-screen say. And all it did was nearly ruin one of the best shows on TV and prove that David Simon has either no clue or simply nothing interesting to say about the very real, very serious problems facing newspapers in 2008.

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Why newspapers make bad decisions

There are a hundred reasons why newspapers are in such poor shape. I’ve discussed some of them here and here: an outdated view of what’s news; an outdated view of readers; major inefficiencies in use of newsroom resources, as seen in the current roles of copy editors, reporters, and line editors. In a great post calling for a tax on newspapers that still publish stock tables, Craig Stoltz points to an often overlooked factor: newspapers seem to be institutionally clueless about how to plan for change. (Hat tip: Publishing 2.0.)

Stoltz argues that “There really isn’t a use case to justify continuing to publish daily stock tables.” There are plenty of other newspaper elements that are beyond justification, or at least deserve a rethinking — box scores and general sports agate, TV and movie listings, op-ed pages. Stoltz’s description of newspapers’ decision-making related to stock tables perfectly captures why other unjustifieds continue to take up space:

I have heard reasons for continuing to publish stock listings. They usually boil down to (1) the fear the paper would lose subscribers; (2) results of a focus group that found people liked the stock tables; (3) our publisher/editor emeritus/board of directors/influential stockholders insist we keep them.

No. 1: You’re hemmoraging readers anyway. The thought that a business decision with profound impact on the future bottom line should be driven by a couple of hundred indignant (let’s be plain) older readers who over-represent themselves with phone calls and (written!) letters to the publisher and top editors is. . . just plain bad business. Sure, you’ll get 200 calls. Accept them politely and forget them immediately. …

No. 2: Focus groups do not have to deal with zero-sum budgets. Focus groups like lots of stuff you can’t afford to keep. In fact, unless you give them a roster of features and tell them they have to lose half of them, you’re not gathering meaningful data. Secondly, doing focus groups with current readers isn’t a good idea anyway. Find potential future users of your news products online and in print. That’s who you have to re-build your business around.

No. 3: They are sentimental, retrograde, self-satisfied, isolated from reality or not paying attention. Do your best to make the case that the choice is another 10 percent staff cut or losing the stock tables. If they don’t buy that argument, do your best to subvert, ignore and marginalize them without getting fired.

This is what traditionally passes for strategic thinking at newspapers. So it’s no wonder that at a time when actually making imaginative, forward-thinking, potentially risky decisions is necessary for newspapers’ future, they are singularly unable to make or even consider those decisions.

Consider, for example, the recurring hand-wringing over comic strips. Something as basic as jettisoning outdated and unfunny strips becomes a perpetual exercise in self-flagellation based on a handful of readers who promise to revolt if the paper kills Family Circus. And if newspapers can’t intelligently and pro-actively decide that Marmaduke and stock tables have had their day, they probably can’t make intelligent higher-level decisions, either.

Worst. Justification for copy editors’ existence. Ever.

I recently proposed a new vision for copy editors in the newsroom of the future, in response to a provocative Alan Mutter post asking whether papers can still afford editors. My basic prescription: Have reporters and line editors take responsibility for some basic things they’ve traditionally left for copy editors, which would free up empowered copy editors to also take on more responsibility.

I took issue with some responses to Mutter’s post that essentially argued for the status quo because a)”that’s the way it’s always been” and b) reporters and line editors are so lazy and useless that copy editors are needed to pick up their slack. Now comes an even lamer version of the latter argument, in the latest American Copy Editors Society newsletter. ACES president Chris Wienandt writes:

I’ve just been hit with another reason copy editors are indispensable: We know how our computer systems work. …

When a story goes missing in the system, who’s the person who can find it? When a reporter doesn’t know how to generate the character ä, who’s the person who can tell her? When two versions of a story are floating around, who can spot which one is actually going into print?

[large snip]

So when these little glitches … no, snafus … crop up in your newsroom, it’s great that you can fix them. But be sure to take that next step: Let someone in authority know … that there was a problem, and that it was the copy desk that solved it. It’s another demonstration of how valuable we are. (italics mine)

Is Wienandt serious? Newspapers are hemorrhaging cash and he’s trying to justify keeping copy editors because they possess the most basic technological knowledge? I’m sure Wienandt has written plenty of other pieces about why copy editors are important as editors rather than as IT cheat sheets, but come on.

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