Reinventing the Newsroom

Rethinking Newsroom Roles, Pt. 5: The Chef

Posted in Cultural Change, Digital Experiments by reinventingthenewsroom on March 31, 2009

Quick Review: Part 1 of this series explained why not all Web journalists are cut from the same cloth, and offered my list of must-have skills for Web-first journalists. Part 2 discussed the first two specialized roles for Web-first newsrooms: the packager and the specialist. Part 3 considered the leapfrogger. And Part 4 examined the incubator.

The final role is also the most difficult to fill and fit into the newsroom effectively: the chef.

What do chefs do? They take their colleagues’ great stories and build on them, adding audio/video and creating hooks for a community to get involved with the story. I think finding people for this role and making the role work is a challenge for a lot of newspapers still working through the print-to-Web transition, one that has pushed them too far out of their cultural comfort zones.

There are two ways to create chefs, but generally speaking newspapers haven’t been very good at either one.

One potential chef is the all-in-one multimedia storyteller. When budgets were healthier, this chef tended to arrive with a blast of hullabaloo, reveal a lack of grounding in basic reporting and writing and spend the rest of an unhappy tenure doing brights. Yes, there are exceptions — I’ve been lucky enough to work with some of them — and there will be more as digital journalism matures. But I don’t think we’re there yet.

It’s great if you can find an all-in-one chef who truly has the chops for reporting, writing and storytelling. If you can’t, there’s another potential chef: a pure multimedia person who doesn’t have ambitions to be the primary storyteller.

In the multimedia boom of the early 2000s these chefs would arrive in print-first newsrooms with less fanfare, but that made them easier to ignore, and led to them generally being brought into the writing and editing process as an afterthought. The results are predictable, and I still see them in too many papers: slideshows with captions cut-and-pasted from the story, videos of nervous reporters discovering firsthand that you can’t just read your own story on camera, and interactive graphics that capture little of the depth of the stories they accompany. These stories can drive traffic, but I don’t think they drive reader engagement — they can be the equivalent of tacking on four extra rights to directions to see if your buddy will notice and go around the block an extra time.

The way to escape this and make chefs effective is to treat multimedia and community as a team effort that begins when the reporting begins to gel. (I wouldn’t start it earlier because then I think you get a reporter with anger-management issues. He or she needs a little peace to find the thread of the story.) Packagers have a role in the process too — I think of chefs as super-packagers who are given more time to dive more deeply into a story and whose focus is more on creating new material than on assembling existing stuff.

Too often, today’s would-be chefs are treated like photographers used to be — they’re being asked to do the multimedia equivalent of getting a shot of a house or a person hours after the reporter has driven back to the newsroom. In that situation, multimedia ambitions wither and it’s hard not to produce a mere add-on to a story. Even when these deliver great photos, I find myself wondering how much more they could have been.

There are young multimedia and community specialists who could be great chefs. But to jump-start the process of finding them, I suspect newsrooms may have to look beyond journalism to bright, creative marketers and business-side folks who are used to bigger projects and longer lead times. I know that sounds like heresy — these folks aren’t journalists! But I think they’re more than capable of learning journalism’s rhythms and rules well enough to be valuable complements to journalists. I’d love to see what would happen if newsrooms offered apprenticeships to teach them the basics of journalism.  And then, of course, newsrooms should put them — and their colleagues who are packagers and specialists and leapfroggers and incubators — to work.

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Rethinking Newsroom Roles, Pt. 4: Incubators

Posted in Cultural Change, Digital Experiments by reinventingthenewsroom on March 30, 2009

In Part 1 of this series I offered a reminder that not all Web journalists are cut from the same cloth, and my list of skills and attitudes all journalists working for Web-first newspapers need to have. In Part 2, I discussed the first two specialized roles for such newsrooms: the packager and the specialist. Part 3 considered the leapfrogger, a good role for reporters who like breaking new ground but prefer not to gather moss.

The next role is the incubator, and it’s one that every Web-first newspaper needs.

In any medium, new things take time. A new print column doesn’t arrive fully formed, but takes weeks or even months to find a voice and connect with an audience. A new print page or section takes a while to hit its stride, with editors road-testing features and approaches and winnowing out the ones that don’t work. This is even more true on the Web, which has many more dimensions than can be considered in print. Writers trained in print need time to internalize the rhythms and styles of the Web and sometimes have to work at responding to and engaging with readers. Without the time-tested structure of a print newspaper, it’s harder to make an online column or blog a destination, and harder still to turn that blog or column into the seed of a community of readers. Multimedia endeavors need time for efforts in multiple channels and different disciplines to flow together smoothly and add up to more than the sum of their parts. And along the way, any new online feature will be shaped not just by writerly trial and error and editorial guidance, but by the community talking back and pushing the discussion where it wants it to go.

Often the results aren’t what you originally planned. I was the original editor (and eventual co-writer) of the Daily Fix, WSJ.com’s daily roundup of the best sportswriting online. The initial idea for the Fix was for a showcase of great writing, with the Fixer serving as a “guide on the side” whose principal job was enticing readers to click links and read other sportswriters’ columns. But what WSJ.com readers really wanted was a watercooler primer for yesterday’s sports, with links to great writing appreciated but not of paramount importance.  So the Fix found its most-successful niche as “a daily roundup of the best sportswriting online about the most important sporting events,” a subtle but important difference. Similarly, my Real Time column began as a co-written, weekly analysis of multiple business stories in the tech world, capped by a humorous Spam of the Week. By the end of its six-year run my co-writer had moved on, Spam of the Week was no more, and the column had become a look at how technology was shaping our work and social lives. And so it was with every feature I wrote, edited or helped plan: You’d look back a year after a project began and smile in bemusement at how thoroughly the original plan had been overhauled.

An incubator oversees these Web endeavors, and needs a lot of different skills. He or she has to have solid Web chops, storytelling ability and the easy bedside manner of every good editor. But the incubator also has to be entrepreneurial, poring over traffic reports and trying and retrying different ways to promote and spotlight a new feature. And he or she must be technologically curious, looking for new ways to make a feature work and incorporating them in the newsroom’s arsenal of technological solutions.

The incubator has to have a lot of patience, accepting that a new feature will need weeks or even months to evolve, yet flexible enough to see how a few tweaks might make all the difference and ruthless when something just isn’t working. Rigorous organization and coordination is a must, but so’s the ability to fly by the seat of one’s pants.

Reporters and editors who thrive on deadlines and value scoops and the authority they bring won’t make good incubators — incubators tend to work behind the scenes and often go largely uncredited. But it’s a perfect role for journalists who love starting new things and figuring out how they work (or don’t work), but get bored with routines. Incubators are the venture capitalists of the Web-first newsroom, nurturing successes and weeding out failures, then starting again with brand-new experiments. And more than anything else, that’s what today’s newsrooms need.

Next: Chefs.

Friday Quick Reads

Posted in Branding, Creating Context, Cultural Change, Digital Experiments, Long-Form Journalism by reinventingthenewsroom on March 27, 2009

I’ll continue the series on Web-first newsroom roles next week. (In the meantime, you can read Parts One, Two and Three.) For now, some interesting recent reads:

My latest Webside chat with my colleague David Baker is on EidosMedia’s site. David and I do these every month or so; they’re distillations and amplifications of the themes explored daily here on the blog. David always asks very good questions and I struggle to keep up.

ESPN.com’s Jim Caple asks what the loss of so many baseball beat writers will mean for fans. Caple’s writing about baseball, but his take will be of interest to anyone concerned about journalism and the changing ecosystem of mainstream press, blogs and other new forms of commentary and news coverage. As Steven Berlin Johnson put it in his talk at SXSW, sports is part of online news’ “old-growth forest,” so it’s an excellent place to look for clues about how things will play out elsewhere in the journalism world. Extra points to Caple for a discussion of mainstream press coverage and blogs that’s even-handed and fair-minded.

Lots of interesting thoughts about classifieds, display advertising and other things that could use a reinvention at Revenue 2.0.

Jay Rosen has a “flying seminar” on journalism’s future that’s an excellent overview of current thinking about where we might be going. And all this is just from March. It was really quite a month!

Finally, this take (in PDF form) on newspapers’ futures, from Mitchell Madison Group’s Arnon Mishkin. The late Harvard professor Theodore Levitt famously said that railroad companies died because “they thought they were in the railroad business, not the transportation business,” and that aphorism has become an article of faith in discussions of technological change. Mishkin argues that Leavitt was wrong, and railroads were lucky to avoid the airline business: “Transportation may have been a wonderful business on rails and sea, but it has proven a dreadful business in the air.”

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Rethinking Newsroom Roles, Pt. 3: Leapfroggers

Posted in Cultural Change, Digital Experiments by reinventingthenewsroom on March 26, 2009

In Part 1 of this series I offered a reminder that not all Web journalists are cut from the same cloth, and offered a list of skills and attitudes all journalists working for Web-first newspapers need to have. In Part 2, I noted that during my Wall Street Journal Online tenure I came to see Web roles as fitting into five categories, based on the rhythms of the work and the temperaments required. And I discussed the first two roles: packagers and specialists.

The next role is the leapfrogger — which might be the first of these roles to disappear.

In the early days of the consumer Internet, online readers were primarily early adopters of technology. This was the era in which Cool Site of the Day was king, and if it brought word that someone had created a Web site about, say, marmosets, a large chunk of people who went online would go visit the marmoset site just to see what it was. That’s gone the way of battleship-gray Web sites — today online readers are increasingly just readers, just as life online is increasingly just life.

But segments of the online audience are still ahead of the general-population curve in terms of time spent online, adoption of Web 2.0 habits and other metrics. And readers from those segments can be invaluable to a newspaper as sources of online credibility, seeds of online communities, and pointers to where the paper needs to go technologically. It’s worth looking at your beat coverage and identifying areas where committed online readers may want coverage that’s different, or that goes beyond what mainstream online and print-centric readers expect. That’s where leapfroggers come in.

I was WSJ.com’s first technology editor, which was a leapfrogger role in itself, and we made great use of this idea, hiring reporters to cover subject areas that the print paper didn’t yet see as full-fledged beats. (In the beginning, the entirety of the Internet was more or less such a beat.) As the paper caught up to things such as cellphones, e-commerce and digital music, we’d cede those beats to the print side and take another jump forward somewhere else.

This role’s usefulness is dwindling not only because readers are growing more tech-savvy, but also because print/online divides are finally being erased. But I think it’s still a useful one: If I were still in my old tech-editor gig, I’d try to get a leapfrogger or two to dive deeply into mash-ups, location-based services and identity across sites, confident that we could appeal to a very valuable portion of our audience and jump-start coverage as those areas matured.

Is there a place for leapfroggers in a local or regional paper? I think so. In fact, at some papers covering the online world’s local impact might make for a terrific leapfrogger beat. There are opportunities to report on what local businesses are doing online, “news you can use” locally based on information gathered online, and how social-networking outposts are converging with real-world communities. (The local bakery that’s been a civic treasure for generations started an online business six months ago — how’s it going? How are local businesses doing on review sites such as Yelp — and what are they doing in response? Is there a Facebook group for the area? Who’s a member?)

Leapfrogger beats are by their nature impermanent, so this isn’t a great role for a reporter who prides himself or herself on having the world’s greatest contacts list and knowing everybody in town concerned with a given subject. (Though of course those are great things for any reporter to take pride in.) A reporter who’s curious and enthusiastic but also somewhat restless, on the other hand, might be an ideal leapfrogger.

Next: Incubators.

Rethinking Newsroom Roles, Pt. 2: Packagers and Specialists

Posted in Cultural Change, Digital Experiments by reinventingthenewsroom on March 25, 2009

Second in a series: Here’s Part 1, and here’s Part 3.

In Part 1, I talked about the assumptions we should be able to make about journalists working in a Web-first newsroom — the bedrock skills and attitudes we should expect new hires to have and existing staffers to develop. Before that, I offered a caveat that printcentric newsrooms making the transition to Web-first often assume that Web journalists — formerly thought of as the “Web guys” off in a corner of a newsroom, or on another floor or in another building — are cut from the same cloth. That’s no more true of Web journalists than it was of print journalists. In my time at the Wall Street Journal Online, I came to see Web roles as fitting into five categories, based on the rhythms of the work and the temperaments required.

The first two are packagers and specialists. These two are the workhorses of the Web-first newsroom, the folks whose job it is to make the hourly miracle happen.

The boundaries of a packager’s job depends on the size of your operation. A packager might work with reporters and editors or the news desk. The packager and the reporter/editor might be one and the same. The news desk might be an assemblage of packagers assigned to different beats.

Whatever the case, the packager’s job is to take related pieces of content and assemble them into a whole that tells a story how and when readers want it told. Packagers think about what media types will be effective for telling a story, what people could contribute to the story, how to make a story work effectively in a paper’s various delivery channels, what supporting documents can be made available, how the community (which includes both readers and newsroom folks) will want to interact with the story, and how long the story is likely to hold community interest.

There’s no one-size-fits-all model. A simple news story might not need context beyond references to standing resources maintained by the paper and the ability for readers to share a story and comment on it. A complex story might unfold for weeks or months; be told through stories, audio and video created by reporters and by readers; include interactive graphics, interview transcripts, primary documents and searchable databases for readers to interact with; and be told through a topic page enriched by backgrounders, photo galleries and ongoing discussions. A packager needs strong news judgment and a high metabolism, the ability to be the readers’ advocate, and a sense for how to drive greater reader engagement by creating new context for stories beyond a single URL found through Google News or a shared link.

Where packagers are generalists, specialists are … well, you get the idea. A specialist focuses on a given channel to a depth that doesn’t make sense for even Web-savvy generalists. The specialist might be a video artist, a podcast host, an expert at seeding and weeding communities, a whiz at interactive graphics, or have some other expertise for a deeper dive into something.

Newsrooms can tie themselves in knots figuring out where to draw the line between packagers and specialists. When I was part of the team tackling the integration and reorganization of the Wall Street Journal’s newsroom, this question was a source of particular agony (though we didn’t think of the categories the way I have here).

There isn’t a perfect answer to this question, but I do think there’s a common trap to be avoided. Newsrooms instinctively resist big changes to their workflows and culture, and so there’s a temptation for those charged with implementing change to err on the side of revolution, to erase the current structures and say that henceforth everybody will do everything. It’s useful rhetoric in the beginning, but not terribly practical in the end — the old saw about jack of all trades, master of none still most definitely applies. Packagers and specialists are separate roles, but they have to have a working knowledge of each other’s worlds and reinforce each other in the newsroom’s hourly and daily routine.

A final caveat for today: A newsroom that doesn’t have its technological house in order will always be fighting uphill. Editors who work in different channels that don’t talk to each other and spend their time transforming and repurposing content are human bridges across technological chasms. On the one hand this is admirable, and a testament to human ingenuity. But it also concentrates critical know-how in a few heads, and commits time and resources to simply maintaining things as they are rather than remaking them into what they could be. In a situation like that, you don’t really have packagers and specialists. You have survivors, and that’s not a good starting point for cultural change.

Next: Leapfroggers.

The Web Alone Is Not Enough: Rethinking Newsroom Roles

Posted in Cultural Change, Digital Experiments by reinventingthenewsroom on March 24, 2009

First in a series. Part 2 is here, and here’s Part 3.

The recipe for change seems straightforward: Make your newsroom Web-first. Teach reporters that publication is the beginning of the process, not the end. Get them shooting photos. Teach them to do video. Tell them their jobs include engaging with readers in chats, comments and discussion forums. Get them blogging. Introduce them to Twitter.

And indeed, all of that stuff should happen every day in the reinvented newsroom. But there’s a danger of seeing the Web as a wholly new country, one in which every reporter and every editor becomes a multi-armed digital entity doing absolutely everything. It’s an alluring theory, and can be a necessity in newsrooms cut to the bone. But in practice, Web journalists aren’t cut from the same cloth any more than print journalists are. Take a  print paper with a hardcore investigative reporter, a feature writer with an eye for character, a movie critic, a City Council reporter and a parenting columnist. (Sadly, this example is increasingly hypothetical.) Ask those five to work and write like each other and you’ll get an ungodly mess.

The same is true online. Newsrooms’ printcentric folks sometimes lump Web staffers together, but they too have very different styles and ways of working. A reporter who bird-dogs breaking news and updates it throughout the day works and writes quite differently than a daddy blogger valuable for his engagement with a loyal community of readers. A curator who provides roundups of links may employ a very different voice and skills than a reporter who’s great at packages of text, photos and video. A producer of interactive graphics drawing on data sources has a very different job than a wrangler of reader discussions. The only link between these jobs is the Web.

In my decade-plus at the Wall Street Journal Online, I tried my hand at a few of those roles and helped our newsroom try out variants of them. Through trial and error, I found that Web-journalism jobs fit into five or so broad categories, based on the rhythms of the work and the temperaments they required. Understanding how those roles were different, and matching the right people to them, was an important part of making the newsroom work.

I’ll explore those roles in the next few posts — but first, some baseline assumptions.

I’d hope this would go without saying, but every reporter or editor hired today should be told the following:

1. Your job no longer ends with the production of material for the print paper. You’ll be expected to think of a story as it will be expressed across multiple media channels, and to supply whatever’s needed to tell that story effectively for each of those channels.

2. Your job begins with filing online first — and that first filing could be a tweet, SMS, email alert or Web headline. Expect all of the above.

3. We love great writing, but storytelling is no longer just that. The storytelling process includes shooting and/or selecting video and/or photos, preparing supplemental material (such as relevant primary documents) to post online and being involved with the creation of interactives or data sources for exploring a story.

4. Storytelling is now two-way — you’ll offer ideas for reader discussion and how to shape the conversation, and be a part of that conversation.

5. Stories morph and flow to follow and find readers. Part of the reporting/storytelling process is thinking of ways that other parts of the newsroom can leverage a story — whether it’s through a related blog item, an online chat with a source, or something else.

Not every new hire or existing staffer assuming a new role has to have all these skills immediately — we’re not there yet as an industry. Nor should we demand that everybody have the same level of ability at each skill. But what we absolutely should require is a willingness to spin up a story’s wheels in all channels, instead of expecting that work to be done by others.

Next: Packagers and specialists.

A Newspaper Challenge: Bridging Online and Real-World Communities

Posted in Cultural Change, Digital Experiments, Going Local by reinventingthenewsroom on March 23, 2009

It’s become a generally accepted truth that Americans’ traditional social bonds are withering, with community participation declining as we retreat more and more into individual pursuits, such as watching TV and using the Web. The idea — a distillation and expansion of one theme in Robert D. Putnam’s 1995 essay “Bowling Alone” and his 2000 book — has underpinned concerns about the rise of online communities that aren’t limited by geography.

On the one hand, online communities are great: Whether you’re a pregnant mom or a gay teen, a woodworker or a car customizer, an anime fan or an antiques collector, the Internet will give you a place to go and feel accepted where in the real world you might have been alone. (It’s less great that terrorists, identity thieves and Nazis get online clubhouses of their own, but the Internet never delivers the good without the bad.) But what happens when these online communities prove so compelling that people withdraw from real-world communities? Do our real-world bonds decay even further? Do we wall ourselves off in echo chambers of the like-minded, rarely hearing from people who think differently and challenge our ideas? What does that do to our society and our democracy?

I’ve always felt this scenario misses something important: the rise of online communities that are based around neighborhoods and towns, and that reinforce and strengthen those real-world communities. These online communities are still relatively new and a place of rich experimentation, and I think their potential is far from being fulfilled. The uneasy question, for this old newspaper guy, is who is going to deliver on that potential.

I’m a New York Mets fan and a Star Wars dork who loves technology, writing and storytelling, and in every respect the Web has made my life richer, offering me communities where I feel at ease and letting me make acquaintances and then friends I never would have had. None of those communities is rigidly based on shared geography (the Mets blog I co-write has regular readers from as far afield as Azerbaijan), and you could certainly argue that my screen time spent in those communities has come at the expense of my own neighborhood. But that ignores other things I do online — I regularly check in at two sites concerned with my own little slice of New York City — Brooklyn Heights Blog and Brownstoner. I’m not a tremendously active member of those sites, but I read avidly and comment occasionally, and because of those sites I’m aware of what’s going on in my neighborhood in a way I wasn’t even five years ago.

The difference between those online communities and blogs dedicated to, say, Star Wars or technology is that online relationships can easily become real-world ones — Brownstoner’s readers meet up regularly, for instance. Those real-world relationships represent exactly the kind of social capital that we fear is disappearing. And they’ve been brought into existence by the Web that supposedly furthers our isolation.

It’s interesting — and heartening — to think about where this will lead. Once the local Web becomes as robust as the global Web, online communities will be the starting point for how many people participate in their real-world communities. Sometimes this process will seem almost accidental: A person will start off too busy to make real-world commitments, but eventually some neighborhood question or concern will lead him or her online. There, an online community will be waiting. Like all online communities, it’ll be easy to get involved with, with periodic visits and comments becoming regular visits and comments. Until one day, it’s a drink with an online acquaintance at the corner bar, or a quick drop-in at a site meet-up, and online involvement has become real-world involvement. (Maybe our newly engaged person even joins a bowling league.)

But here’s the disheartening part for this newspaper veteran: Who will create that online community? Neither Brooklyn Heights Blog nor Brownstoner is connected to one of New York City’s metro newspapers. They certainly link to articles from those papers and comment on them, but they’re separate entities that generate a considerable amount of news on their own. From a community perspective that’s fine — heck, it’s wonderful! — but from a newspaper perspective it’s the stuff of heartache.

Newspapers could still be the hearts of these rapidly forming local communities — they were for generations, when things were simpler, communication with readers was principally one-way and papers had a hammerlock on production and distribution. None of that is true now, but papers still have considerable local presence and residual social capital they could build on. The question is if they will — and maybe it’s if they can. For newspapers, such local engagement isn’t a lost opportunity quite yet. But their chances are rapidly slipping away.

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No Obit for the Living

Posted in Cultural Change, Digital Experiments by reinventingthenewsroom on March 17, 2009

Today sees the final edition of the print version of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. But it’s not the end of the P-I. That’s something too many well-meaning obits like this one and expressions of sadness and dismay in journalistic circles leave out, or give insultingly short shrift.

This isn’t to say that the move to an online-only P-I is grounds for celebration. That would be horribly callous — there is no celebration when nearly 150 people are forced to give up jobs they loved and pursued with passion and a sense of civic mission, and there is no rejoicing when it looks a lot of the journalism jobs to which those people once aspired are now gone for good. The grand bargain between advertisers and papers that drove “big journalism” for decades may have been a historical accident, as Clay Shirky’s essay made plain (see yesterday’s post for more), but its passing is still something to mourn.

Yet giving the P-I last rites is unfair to the small staff that will carry on in Seattle, and whose experiment in digital-only journalism will be keenly watched in an industry that desperately needs new direction.

Slate’s Jack Shafer is the latest to offer advice to the new P-I, and to ask why Hearst seems to be approaching what should be a bold experiment so half-heartedly. It’s a good question: Hearst is one of the more forward-thinking news companies, yet it hemmed and hawed for an awfully long time about whether the online P-I would even exist, and is launching it with a skeleton staff. That’s putting an awful lot of pressure on a staff that will already be expected to work insanely hard and experiment (with experimentation’s inevitable failures) with the eyes of the journalistic world on it. And if Hearst starves the new P-I instead of nurturing it, it will be harder to counter the position — expressed here by a heartsick P-I reporter — that online journalism is just a vehicle for union-busting.

What can and should be celebrated is that P-I executive producer Michelle Nicolosi’s opening declaration of principles seems wise and bold: “We’re going to break a lot of rules that newspaper Web sites stick to, and we are looking everywhere for efficiencies. … Our strategy moving forward is to experiment a lot and fail fast”. Shafer smacks Nicolosi around for a lapse into memo-ese, but I see nothing whatsoever wrong with her vision. (Full disclosure: I was the greenest, mouthiest intern in the history of the New Orleans Times-Picayune when Michelle was a young reporter there, and she treated me with kindness I doubt I deserved.)

The online P-I will be a critical experiment for figuring out where the newspaper industry needs to go. It’s often considered unseemly for reporters to have a rooting interest, but considering what’s at stake, they ought to have one here. Treating the enterprise like it already died isn’t the best start.

More on the future of the P-I: Advice from the Newsosaur Alan D. Mutter, from other online-only editors via CJR,  thoughts from Ken Doctor at Content Bridges, and good wishes from Recovering Journalist Mark Potts.

Thoughts on Two Must-Reads

Posted in Cultural Change, Digital Experiments, The And World by reinventingthenewsroom on March 16, 2009

Journalists are by nature a disputatious lot, so it’s rare to find them in widespread agreement on anything. But those trying to map the newspaper industry’s rough transition to the digital age have spoken virtually unanimous on this: Clay Shirky’s Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable is to be read and digested and read again.

Shirky explains, with a clear and unflinching gaze, how various scenarios mapped out by newspapers in the 1990s didn’t come to pass, while the unthinkable scenario — the one that would destroy the print-newspaper model — did. And he explains (with a refreshing lack of axes to grind) that the arrangement old newspaper hands came to regard as a law of physics was something else entirely: The economics of printing made newspapers the only viable way for advertisers to reach a mainstream audience, creating a situation where, in effect, “Wal-Mart was willing to subsidize the Baghdad bureau. This wasn’t because of any deep link between advertising and reporting, nor was it about any real desire on the part of Wal-Mart to have their marketing budget go to international correspondents. It was just an accident.” And, Shirky adds, ramming the point home: “That the relationship between advertisers, publishers and journalists has been ratified by a century of cultural practice doesn’t make it any less accidental.”

But most of Shirky’s post is about the future: “Round and round this goes, with the people committed to saving newspapers demanding to know ‘If the old model is broken, what will work in its place?’ To which the answer is: Nothing. Nothing will work. There is no general model for newspapers to replace the one the internet just broke.” And, a bit later on, he notes that “[t]hat is what real revolutions are like. The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place. The importance of any given experiment isn’t apparent at the moment it appears; big changes stall, small changes spread.”

It’s a sober-minded take, but not a despairing one. The way to strengthen journalism, Shirky writes, is to conduct a lot of little experiments, to find the Craiglists and the Wikipedias that will, in time, create new models and new social contracts.

The bookend to Shirky’s post is a speech delivered by Steven Johnson at South by Southwest. In it, Johnson uses his late-1980s routine of hanging around a Providence, R.I., bookstore waiting for the latest MacWorld as a jumping-off point for exploring what’s happening to journalism. He looks at the transformation of journalism about technology and politics in order to predict what may happen to more mainstream journalism. Why is tech journalism a good predictor? “Because it is the old-growth forest of the web,” Johnson explains. “It is the sub-genre of news that has had the longest time to evolve.”

From there, Johnson uses tech and politics to explore what he sees as a new ecosystem of news, one in which there are many more sources of information to choose from than there used to be, but also much more noise to filter out. And here, he suggests, is journalism’s way forward: to serve as an authoritative guide to help readers find the useful information out there. “If [newspapers] embrace this role as an authoritative guide to the entire ecosystem of news, if they stop paying for content that web is already generating on its own, I suspect in the long run they will be as sustainable and as vital as they have ever been,” he writes.

These two articles weren’t designed as bookends, but they’re admirably complementary. They’re clear-eyed about what’s happened but also point the way forward, even while firmly insisting that a path is more to be found than followed. I hope they will be read and re-read in journalism circles, by men and women in corner offices and on newsroom floors.

What’s the lesson to be drawn from them? I’d summarize it like this:

Stop thinking of where you work as a newspaper. This is not the same as abandoning the print paper — only the idea that it’s the pillar of what you do has to go. The business model for print newspapers that we all grew up with is splintering, and there is no business model for Web newspapers that will replace it — that’s our industry’s Godot, so quit waiting for it.

Start thinking of where you work as a venture-capital shop. Compared with other competitors in the news industry, you have some advantages: a big audience, smart people with hard-to-replace skills, and money. It’s time to get your house in order technologically and culturally, and fund a host of start-up experiments — experiments based not on what you think you need but on what readers are demonstrating they want. A lot of those experiments will fail. But some of them will succeed — and the ones that do will open up new possibilities. And the time to start is right now.

The Hourly Miracle Reconsidered — Plus Friday Quick Links

Posted in Creating Context, Cultural Change, Digital Experiments, Going Local, The And World by reinventingthenewsroom on March 13, 2009

Yesterday’s post sparked an interesting conversation with my friend and former WSJ.com colleague Michael. Michael was discussing the idea that reporters and editors are the last great generalists — you come in in the morning, get an assignment, learn as much as you can and then publish the best that you’ve got when your deadline arrives. From there, we were discussing how the Web has accelerated that to a breakneck pace and made the process iterative — leading to extreme (and extremely enjoyable) cases like covering Election Night and revising the same Web story 30 or 40 times.

But of course that’s not the only way to cover a story online — in fact, it’s a somewhat old-fashioned one, the wire service in Web clothing. There’s nothing whatsoever wrong with that, but as publishing tools have gotten better and more flexible, we’ve been given some terrific alternatives.

For example, you can turn my Election Night job inside-out — instead of creating a succession of camera-ready stories telling readers what you know now, start a conversation that will continue throughout the event in which you tell them each significant thing you learn. This is the liveblogging model, and it’s a great one for events like Election Night. (I was in Italy for the 2008 presidential election, where I stayed up until 3 a.m. listening to a streamed audio feed of CNN and reloading fivethirtyeight.com, which I kept trying to turn into a minute-to-minute liveblog by sheer force of will.) For long-running stories (Katrina or Madoff, for instance), a blog or topic page can create larger context for individual stories and other items, which ideally drives repeat visits and brand loyalty. (But beware the automated topic page — nobody likes getting dumped in a link farm.) The concept of beatblogging extends this idea further, and is an ideal way to build a connection between a reporter and his or her audience. (Because, as I kicked off this blog by saying, your best reporters should be micro-brands in their own right.)

What gives me pause about the conversation model of news is that it can be taxing for the reader who arrives in the middle — nobody likes to be the guy who walks in halfway through a great tale. As always with the Web, I think the answer is that ideally you do both. There will be readers who want to track a story in real-time along with the reporter and other readers, and readers who want a solid account of what’s known at a given moment, and you should serve them both. This isn’t redundant — the two can reinforce each other quite nicely.

Three quick links for a Friday:

At Nieman Journalism Lab, Tim Windsor asks a very good question: Why don’t more news sites link to things that have obvious link potential? As I commented on Tim’s post, I think this mostly happens with repurposed print content put online by a staff stuck with editing-and-publishing software that doesn’t give them much if any help. You can get to this unfortunate pass by having a paper-to-Web flow that’s automated and dumb or by having one that’s manual and exhausting, but it’s no fun either way. Missed links used to drive me crazy at WSJ.com, and there we had a full night crew of passionate folks, which is a lot more than many papers have. The problem was that our folks spent their nights shoving rocks uphill, and so the extras tended not to get done. It’s not an excuse for missing links, but having seen the problem firsthand I have sympathy for the journalists who miss them. The answer, in my mind, is to make sure papers have a system that lets journalists be journalists. That won’t solve the problem in itself, but it will get you to a point where it’s much easier to solve.

Sticking with Nieman (a consistently interesting and engaging blog), Joshua Benton chats with Andy Prutsok, publisher of the Norfolk Reflector, about life without the AP. Prutsok says his paper hasn’t missed the wire (or the $48,000 annual fee), in large part because he considers his franchise “100% local news,” and that his readers haven’t missed it: “Our readers couldn’t care less if we carry the same news that they can get off the evening news.” Sub “lots of other Web sites” for “the evening news” and you’ve got the situation a lot of Web papers are facing, and an answer they should consider. Andy Prutsok understands the rules of the And World and is using them to sharpen his paper’s focus.

At Recovering Journalist, Mark Potts looks askance at Hearst and the case of the Seattle P-I. Like most everyone in journalism, I’m keenly interested in how the P-I’s online-only life will unfold, and am rooting for them. But it seems like Hearst is making it harder than it should be for reporters and editors to sign on to what could be a pivotal and fascinating experiment. Journalism is hard enough work as it is.

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