Goodbye to Most of That
Time to make what was all too obvious official: This blog is going on semi-permanent hiatus.
Reinventing the Newsroom began as part of my work for EidosMedia, as my place to explore trends in digital journalism. But I no longer work for Eidos (though I continue to hold them and their work in high esteem), and I’ve largely moved on from digital-journalism explorations as well.
The reasons? There are several.
The major reason is that I’m increasingly focused on my own writing. I started writing Star Wars books when I was still at The Wall Street Journal Online, and what began as a hobby has become more of a career, or at least I’m trying to make it one. I write stories set in various established universes, as well as ones that spring entirely from my own head, not to mention essays about music, baseball, travel or anything else that catches my eye. Give me a chance to tell a story — fiction or non — and I’m happy.
If this is a change, it’s a change back to what brought me into journalism in the first place. My rather odd digital-journalism career was something of an accident. I joined WSJ.com when it was still a free, standalone section (the Money & Investing Update), and I was in the right place to take on a variety of responsibilities as the site grew and changed. I became an editor, columnist and blogs guru, as well as the editorial guy in meetings about technology projects and business-side initiatives, because I was able to understand what the developers and marketers wanted and assess that in terms of what the newsroom could deliver. That hybrid existence was useful for the Online Journal and useful for me, but it took me further and further from what I’d originally wanted to do, which was to find things out and write stories about what I’d found. Few of us pick our career paths, but when we can choose directions, it’s good to remember what originally made us so passionate.
I also came to accept something else that I’d been trying to ignore for a while: As a full-time pursuit, being an unaffiliated guide on the side was just too frustrating for me.
Part of this was the head-against-the-wall feeling that most newspapers aren’t going to change in the way they need to — not necessarily because they don’t want to, but because they simply can’t.
I say that with sympathy, not disdain.
The traditional newspaper is a compendium of news, information and entertainment intended to make use of expensive printing-and-distribution infrastructure and tailored for a general, approximately defined audience restricted by geography. Now, think how much has changed in that sentence: Printing and distribution costs are now trivial, geography no longer limits readership, and audiences can be defined — or define themselves — with great precision. As a result, the very model of the traditional newspaper has been called into question.
Traditional newspapers now have to defend every part of their rather amorphous businesses against a host of small, digital-first competitors focused on taking one small part of that business and doing it better. They’ve been beaten time and time again in that competition, and I think they will continue to be. The outlook is brighter for small local papers and the big entities with glittering brand names, but in other cases I’ve come to doubt how much consultants like me can help.
While I was slowly coming to that realization, I was also increasingly focusing on sports news in the digital world. That began with a weekly digital-sportswriting column for Indiana University’s National Sports Journalism Center, and has continued in my role as an ombudsman for ESPN as part of the Poynter Review Project, ESPN’s partnership with the Poynter Institute. Digital gurus who don’t understand sports are missing essential trends and experiments they need to know about: There is no longer any serious argument within sports departments about the need to be digital-first, the rhythms and metabolism of sports coverage and consumption are now almost wholly digital, and the audience demand for up-to-the-minute sports information and analysis is off the charts compared with any other aspect of the news industry. If you want to know where the future of news is brightest, it’s right here.
Assessing my first couple of years as a digital guru/consultant/what-have-you, it was obvious to me that a role working with ESPN and Poynter would be a much more effective use of my time than what I’d been doing. ESPN has used its considerable resources to nurture long-form sportswriting, storytelling through video and infographics, and old-fashioned local beat coverage in more and more cities. These are exactly the kind of endeavors I’d encouraged and celebrated on my own, and ESPN struck me as a far better bet than existing newspapers or independent blogs to be shaping those trends five years from now. I love independent blogs (I’m an indie blogger myself, after all) and I was raised as a newspaper true believer, but I saw I could have more impact standing up for journalistic values, spotlighting good work and helping diagnose issues in a relationship with ESPN than I could on my own.
I know this probably isn’t forever. My ombudsman tenure will end, the life of a fiction writer/essayist/freelance journalist is uncertain, and I continue to care deeply about what happens to the news industry. I’ve got pixels in my blood, as well as some ink. But if there’s a return to the news world in my future, it’ll be all in — as a member of a newsroom again, trying to help my organization navigate digital challenges and opportunities, and using that platform to find things out and tell stories about them. If a news organization I felt I could help came calling, I’d certainly listen.
And absent that, well, I’ve got plenty to do. I’m working on an interesting ESPN piece for Poynter Review, with a list of ideas beyond that. I’m excited to start chronicling the daily doings of the Mets again. I just sent a young-adult novel to my agent, and returned edits on a Star Wars project. I’ve got a long list of articles and essays I want to tear into. And hey, maybe someone will need a consultant, and I’ll think I can actually help. But for now, time to hang the Gone Writin’ sign on Reinventing the Newsroom’s door. Heartfelt thanks to everybody who stopped by over the years to read, comment, argue or link.