My hopes for journalists in the future

Well, it’s 2009. So it’s time for some introspection. After much thought, I’ve come up with this list of my hopes for journalists — including me —  in the coming year. These aren’t resolutions, as I don’t have the power to make them come true. But I hope they will for the sake of our industry.

I hope journalists this year will:

  1. Move more quickly through the “stages of grief” over the newspaper industry: I love journalism, and I’m as sad as any journalist about the transition the industry is going through. I understand that journalists need to grieve, but I think too many are stuck in stage one of grief — shock and denial. We need to head to stage 5, when we start the upward turn and rebuild a new life.
  2. Not just tolerate new media, but embrace it: To me the question isn’t, “Why should I use new media”; the question is, “Why wouldn’t you want to.” Imagine if those monks who spent years transcribing books by hand said “no way” to the new-fangled technology of their day, the printing press? To me, that’s as silly as journalists today refusing to even try the new technologies.
  3. See our product as information, not newspapers: We don’t often think of paper, as in newsprint, as a technology, but it is. When that first piece of papyrus was used to communicate, it became a technology. As much as I love to hold a newspaper in my hands as I read it while drinking my morning coffee, it’s the news that matters, not the paper. Our job is to tell readers what’s going on (as a favorite editor of mine used to put it: “Where they firetrucks are going.”) Our job is to expose the wrongs in society and trumpet the rights; to question those who lead and celebrate the unsung. Our mission as the Fourth Estate is to provide readers with the tools to support self-government in a democracy. We can do all that even if we don’t have the paper.
  4. Think of ourselves as working for a great Web site that happens to have a quality newspaper: What does that mean? News After Newspapers blogger Martin Langeveld calls it an “online-first” newsroom and notes it means everything from restructuring reporters’ and editors’ work flow to take advantage of the Web-heavy traffic times to ensuring reporters can add hyperlinks — which link to other content — in their online stories. I think is also means posting news as soon as you get it and updating it furiously, not waiting to post on the Web until you finish writing your story for print.
  5. Create a mutually beneficial relationship between newspapers and their Web sites: If a blog post generates lots of buzz on the Web go ahead and publish a sampling of the comments in the next day’s paper to drive new readers to that blog. Every print story should have an online connection — some content that connects to the story that’s only online. The blog item shouldn’t be an after thought (“Oh, shoot, we forgot our Web refer again.”) It should be so intrinsic to the storytelling that it’s as unforgettable as the story itself. Connect to readers through Twitter and let them know what you’re doing in the newspaper, and let them follow along on the conversation through an aggregated Twitter feed on your Web site.
  6. See the Web as a priority: Yes, lots of newspapers have online features and blogs, but how many put as much effort (or even a quarter as much effort)  into what they do on the Web as to what goes on the page. Yes, advertising dollars from the Web are nothing compared to what newspapers get from print ads, but the potential for growth on the Web is enormous — if newspapers make the Web the priority it needs to be. This doesn’t mean we let the print newspaper decline; it means making the Web a purposeful part of the job. It means updating blogs regularly, not when we have nothing better to do. It means brainstorming ways to improve and connect print and online content, not just letting it happen.  Social media like Twitter should be part of everyone’s job, not just a handful of people. It should be as routine to post a blog item along with a story as it is for most journalists to type their byline before they start writing. And nearly every writer should blog, so your Web site connects with as many niches as possible. Get members of your community blogging, too, and promote their work in your publication.
  7. Shout out the new content; don’t whisper: I find that newspapers often have some really good content on both their Web sites, and their print publications, but readers can’t easily find it. We need to remember that readers don’t know every nook and cranny of our publications the way we do. If we have a great contest or poll or feature on our blog, let the newspaper readers know in a bold way, not by a small tagline that few will see. The approach some newspapers take to promoting online content reminds me of when newspapers get a redesign and change the pica-width of a rule and expect readers to notice the “different look.” They won’t notice unless we tell them.
  8. Cut through the bureaucracy of the newsroom: Now newspapers are set up in a way like an assembly line, with one person doing part of the process of creating a story somewhat detached from the others. A reporter gathers the news and writes it; an assigning editor reads it, looks for “holes in the story” and advises the reporter; a copy editor checks the story for style and grammar and makes sure it makes sense and writes a headline about it; another copy editor reads it in “slot”; and another person — a paginator or a designer – puts it on the page; and finally someone proofs it. I’m not against editing; during my 20 years in the business, I spent 11 years as an assigning editor and a year as a copy editor. But as a story slips through the assembly process, each person in the line shares only a bit of ownership. What if we turned that on in its head and used a more collaborative approach. A writer — who may be an editor or a reporter — gathers facts and writes a piece and is involved in the headline and the layout. A series of editors still read the piece, but those editors may also write stories that go though the same process. I guess what I’m saying is a lot of talent gets wasted waiting for the stories to show up in rim. A copy editor could blog; an editor could write; a reporter could suggest a headline. Our journalistic boat is sinking, and we need everyone baling out the water.
  9. Create the next new big thing: To me, there’s no reason why newspapers individually or, even better, by working together, couldn’t come up with a new Web application that would meet their needs and serve readers. I don’t know what it would be, but I think that if newspapers pool their smartest, most computer-savvy talent and figure out what this application would be, it could help us all thrive. Could newspapers invent the next Facebook or Twitter? Maybe; maybe not. But they sure won’t if they don’t try. A good example is a search engine that academics at Syracuse University and the University of Washington are creating where the weight of the search results aren’t determined by an algorithm that Google, Yahoo and others use, but instead relies on the judgments of librarians around the world. In other words, a search engine that doesn’t judge a news story based on its search-engine optimization compliance alone. That would help newspaper stories show up in a lot more searches. Imagine if newspapers created something like this and tailored it to reach their audience best?
  10. Ask readers what they think and really listen to them: Sure, we think we know what readers want. But do we ever ask? Do we really listen when they pitch and ideas, or just explain in the robotlike tone why their idea isn’t really news or is only worth a calendar listing. When we say “we’re thinking of the reader,” are we sure we’re not thinking of ourselves and what we find interesting. Remember, us journalists aren’t identical to our typical readers. In my community of Syracuse, for example, most journalists are more affluent, more educated and more liberal than many of our readers. We need to engage readers in ways we never have before and write stories and blogs that resonate with them. Now I’m not saying cater to the lowest-comment denominator and throw pictures of scantily clad women on your Web site; but I am saying really listen to readers. They have some of the best ideas.

What are your hopes for journalism? I’d love the hear them. Post a comment and feel free to pick apart my ideas. I’m always learning, too.

Gina

34 thoughts on “My hopes for journalists in the future

  1. These are all great ideas. I do disagree with your third sentence, though. Not only do you have the power to help make these hopes come true, you’ve already stepped up with this blog and offered specific, attainable advice to help others move closer to those goals.

    To add to the list, I think if I got only one vote, I’d return to the drum I’ve been beating for the past year:

    Reporters – Think of yourselves as curators or DJs for your beats.

    It’s no longer sufficient for a reporter to remain plugged into the happenings in his or her beat but report only the most significant. The reporter as curator takes on the role of the the most plugged-in person in the room about a particular area of interest and uses that knowledge in multiple ways:

    * Report, of course

    * Blog and tweet on their beat. All beat reporters should maintain a blog and Twitterfeed that becomes the most reliable source for information and discussion around their topic area.

    * Be an active participant in communities of interest, online and off. This means real-name participation in blogs, user groups, Twitter, FriendFeed and discussion threads online and participation in real-world organizations and events.

    * Point readers to the best of the rest. As good as our reporters are, they’re not able to cover everything. Linking frequently to other coverage of their beat is essential, as is asking readers to share their recommended links.

    * Ask questions of readers. Chances are, many readers know a whole lot about the topic area, too.

    * Embrace crowdsourcing as a reporting tool.

    * Participate in the conversation. Every story that’s published has a comments thread. This is an opportunity to connect better with the audience and to cement our roles as the go-to source on the topic.

    * Maintain an “about me” page that lists all recent articles and blog posts and relevant background and links out to related areas of interest.

    This requires an investment in time, but the payoff in reader engagement will be worth it.

    I’ve touched on this topic frequently on my blog. This search will get you there: http://timwindsor.com/?s=curator

  2. As a former print journalist working in online-only media, I say amen to all your ideas (and to Tim Windsor’s “DJs” idea as well).

    I would reiterate point No. 9. I love newspapers with all my heart, but they have collectively frittered away all their dominance in the world media scene, and they’ve let Google, Yahoo and the like pick up the crown. Problem is, Google and Yahoo are great at getting information to you, but newspapers are (often) still the best at creating the meaningful stuff that people actually want to read and can use — only no one can find it. If newspapers/The Newsgathering Entities Formerly Known As Newspapers can just find ways to be both the best content-creators and content-conduits as well, they’ll regain some of their prominence.

    Jennifer Peebles
    Houston, TX
    Deputy Editor, Texas Watchdog
    http://www.texaswatchdog.org

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  4. Tim,

    Great ideas to add to my list. I especially like your idea about reporters being curators or DJs of their beat. That a fabulous way to look at it.

    Also, I agree that newspapers shouldn’t be afraid to promote content from elsewhere on their Web sites that they didn’t generate. Readers need to think of us as “the” source of news, even if we compile it from several places.

    Jennifer,

    My hope in newspapers is summed up in what you said: “Google and Yahoo are great at getting information to you, but newspapers are (often) still the best at creating the meaningful stuff that people actually want to read and can use.”

    We can fix the delivery system issue if we really want to. I really believe that.

    Gina

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  6. All good ideas. Just wanted to add my 2 cents from the Print viewpoint. To be clear, I’m neither a journalist nor involved in a newspaper. I’m a semi-retired blogger who spent 30 years running a Print business and then a stint teaching in design school.

    The web is awesome for search, conversations and communication to a niche audience. The problem is that the emerging culture is “read for free, pay for print.”

    I would ask folks to consider the potential reach of Print publications that could be very cheaply produced on excess print capacity and very cheaply distributed to subscribers. Either on line through Amazon, etc. or on the ground piggybacked on a newspaper delivery system.

    Here’s an example of what I mean.

    Suppose a “newspaper” or more likely an independent group like Politico or Huffington Post, offered a paperback book that was a curated version of the latest and greatest about the Madoff situation? Or a little later this year a series on the reorganization of the health system? Or in any local area whatever the emerging infrastructure is going to be?

    Given the new realities of printing, a curated version could be done with very little overhead, very quickly.

    Once the Printed product exists, it could be either sold or offered as a subscriber benefit. For some books, I bet school systems would purchase them to supplement and maybe some day replace textbooks.

    I would be curious if folks thought this is just the rantings of a baby boomer print addict or a plausible approach to monetizing the long tail of content.

    If anyone thinks this is useful, get in touch. Doing this is not atomic physics and I would be glad to share whatever I know to get this out there.

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  9. Michael,

    You have a novel idea I think. I just don’t know enough about that topic to know if it would work, but I do agree that one of the big issues with the Web is that people don’t pay for it.

    Seems worth exploring any avenue.

    – Gina

  10. My hopes:

    1. That the theme of Throwing Things Overboard To Cut Costs is replaced by the theme of More News, Less Paper. Even the news”papers” that are struggling provide more news than ever, more ways than ever, with video, photo galleries, databases, blogs, and even the stocks and TV listings … it’s just that less of it is on paper …

    2. That what’s still on paper is either essential or compelling … what you can’t start your day without or what you can’t put down once you’ve started reading …

    3. That laid-off journalists who live in state capitals create a network of free-lancers, which becomes a news service for communities who have lost their statehouse reporter …

    4. That newsrooms know who the top independent bloggers in their communities are and reach out to them …

    5. That someone starts a Web site that showcases the great investigative work that local reporters and bloggers are doing …

    6. That newsrooms learn to link generously and ethically …

    7. That mobile broadband wi-fi gets strong enough to do decent live video from my mobile phone (everything is in place but the signal) …

    8. That journalists find the great stories that lurk among the demons in the comments of blogs …

    9. That we look back some day and think, “Wow, why didn’t we think of that sooner?” …

    10. That nobody ever again spells “lose” as “loose” …

  11. Brian,

    Love your list … especially — “That what’s still on paper is either essential or compelling … what you can’t start your day without or what you can’t put down once you’ve started reading.”

    We can be compelling; we need to be compelling all the time. I really believe we have so many talented journalists that we can weather this storm.

    Gina

    P.S. Hope I’m not the one with the lose, loose typo. Yikes.

  12. Gina,

    I am not a journalist, but a reader who wants it to survive and flourish. I do not have the answers, but here is my two cents.

    I throughly agree that Media is still stuck in the denial phase. How many millions of dollars have they wasted getting thousands of journalists to the Olympics, RNC, DNC, World Series, or Super Bowl? Just think about how many journalists will be at the Obama inauguration? How many local stories will go unreported because of this herd mentallity? How many journalists do we need at celebrity trials?

    It would be interesting to see some actual data of how people read, how long they read, and what they read in a newspaper. This is pretty simple marketing data. If newspapers have not done this, shame on them! The first rule of selling is know your customer. An advantage of the web, is that the newspaper can get this information easier. However, right now five of the top eight stories based on views for my local (Indianapolis Star) are sports stories. Sigh.

    There is also way too much empty space in the newspaper. As a reader, why should I suscribe to a local paper? The first section is usually national and world news that I generaly already know about. In fact many of the stories I know more information than whats in the paper, because on the web I can dig much deeper on issues that I really care about.

    Information in the sports section is also old. Business and Opinion section. I get better and more diverse info online. Lifestyle…I am a guy, enough said. Which leaves us with the only revelant section, the State and Local. I can finish the local paper in 5 to 10 minutes flat, if I actually get around to reading it.

  13. Jeff,

    Thanks so much for your ideas. You are so right — newspapers have to listen way more than they do now to readers.

    Most newspaper do lots of readership surveys, but they don’t always tell the whole story, I think. And they do focus groups. I think newspaper are really trying to hear what readers want, but some habits are so ingrained they are hard to break.

    I think comments like yours are so useful for journalists like me to hear and remember, so I’m glad you jumped in, and I hope you’ll continue to keep me honest.

    I’m intrigued by what you describe as too much empty space in newspapers? Do you mean — too many ads, or do you mean just white space between stories. If you check back, please expand. I’d love to know more about that.

    – Gina

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  16. Hi, Gina. I found you via Twitter and love what you’re doing here. Great post, and I especially love #9.

    A big — if not *the* big — cause of problems (and lost opportunities) is the assumption that we already know how things ought to be done, or that someone else has it figured out for us.

    Anyone who doesn’t appreciate this yet should consider this quote from the book Orbiting the Giant Hairball (via bobsutton.typepad.com)… “Orville Wright did not have a pilot’s license.”

    It’s regrettable to lose the awesomeness of the future will more than make up for that — as long as we keep making it.

  17. Brian Frank,

    That fact about Orville Wright not having a pilot’s license … I really like that. I’m going to remember it.

    It actually goes to the point of why I started this blog. I felt that some journalists are afraid to venture into Web 2.0 because they weren’t trained in it, they don’t want to look stupid, they don’t know what they’re doing. That can be an uncomfortable place.

    I had hoped this blog would be a user-friendly way to get people on the brink to jump right in to Web interaction.

    Your comments are encouraging.

    – Gina

  18. Gina,

    Empty space may have been misleading. What I meant was for your fairly well informed person who reads news several times a day online, there is not much new or useful information in it. I already know about much of the breaking national, world news and current issues. In many instances, I know more than whats said in the paper.

    I used to love sitting down and reading the paper, particularly the Sunday paper. If it was a nice morning, I would head out to the back porch with my coffee and newspaper and spend an hour or two. I have not done that in years. I love reading news online. I do not plan on going back to paper.

    I will pay for news, but it has to have value to me. Since I only was taking the Sunday paper, our local paper used to provide a few months of daily delivery for free. Rarely read them. It has to really hurt to spend all that energy and time for something you value, but people like myself did not.

    Local news may be the one killer app for many newspapers. I do not think there is enough of it. Thats what I look for when I read a newspaper. Ditch the national and world news. Collaborate with other newspapers for state and regional news. Ditch most of the sports and lifestyle news. Find out what people read and what they want.

    Journalism will survive. We need it. It will take innovative and hard working people like you to get to the next level. Good Luck!

  19. One more thing. I do not know if media understands the issue of varying readership engagement to varying issues.

    20 years ago, people had little choice but to watch tv and read newspapers and magazines to stay informed. Now there are all sorts of options. I can CHOOSE which issues I want to read about. I can also CHOOSE the level of depth or understanding of each issue. This to me is AWESOME. I read newspapers, blogs, special issue sites from people from all over the world.

    These are some of some things that will lead to the fractionization of news. How can a large newspaper address the needs of their readers?

  20. Jeff-
    Good points abour CHOICE. But….

    People are always on the alert for “tell me something that I don’t know that is “interesting.” The hard part is what the heck is “interesting” to a diversified audience of individuals. The web is very good to find what you are already interested in. Not as good to find new things (that you have the time to consider.) One approach is to store them in a RSS or a blog or ….

    Print, on the other hand, is a media that has evolved over 500 years to be the perfect place to scan for “something I don’t already know.”

    So, just to get up on my little soapbox again…
    News organizations should make a Print edition an integral part of their strategy. 16 to 24 pages, tabloid or broadsheet. 3 pages of blurbs with connections to the web. 3 pages devoted to a one or two longer stories. 10 pages of advertisement for local business.

    The printing tech is there to customize content for neighborhoods. Then attach to the Cloud, blogs and wikis to help figure out who is interested in what.
    Then a very easy way to put in local ads (check out Printcasting. and Terry Heatons blog about reinventing local media at http://www.thepomoblog.com/

    Then use the excess print and delivery capacity of newspapers to print and deliver other stuff. Then encourage the formation of expert teams of beat reporters connected to each community. Maybe set up a good apprenticeship and intern program. Best would be to get some of the money that is now going to “formal” journalism programs.

    Try as hard as I can, I don’t see why this wouldn’t work.

    Thoughts any one?

  21. Jeff,

    Thanks for the clarification on white space. I see what you’re saying, and I think you’re right.

    You say: “I will pay for news, but it has to have value to me.”

    That’s really the crux of the newspaper crisis. I think much of it comes from a failure of the newspaper industry to realize that mass media isn’t its goal anymore — it needs to reach splintered niches in a meaningful way, as the Web does well. But magazines do that really well too. I subscribe to Running World, and all I get there is running news, and I love it.

    Newspapers, or newspaper organizations, can do this. They just need to change their mindset A LOT.

    As Michael notes: “People are always on the alert for tell me something that I don’t know that is ‘interesting.’ The hard part is what the heck is ‘interesting’ to a diversified audience of individuals. ”

    My answer that this is we can’t. There are only a few topics that are so compelling that everyone finds them interesting — maybe a tsunami, a terrorist attack the size of 9/11. (And I’m not recommending more disasters, please.)

    I think newspapers have to think more about reaching niches, and less about being something for everyone all at once. That may be on the Web and, I hope, in print, as well.

    Thanks for adding your ideas to the mix.

    Gina

  22. Gina-
    To the hard part of what the heck is ‘interesting’ to a diversified audience of individuals. ”
    You said, “My answer that this is we can’t.”

    Actually I think if we keep a close eye on social media, what’s the focus of the conversation, we can get a clue. The other thing that has always worked are juournalists and especially editors and publishers who came from the same population as their audience.

    The real value of the great editors is that they could often tell in a blink what was right and what wasn’t.

  23. Michael J.,

    I agree that social media can help. What I meant is that I think the days of looking at the audience as one huge homogenous group that we have to satisfy are over. We need to find ways to serve the diverse audience, but I think how we do that is by tailoring to their niches.

    Totally with you on the idea that we need to get a clue on what the focus of the conversation is through social media.

    Good points.

    Gina

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  31. I agree 100% on number 10. As journalists we have to listen to the readers. Isn’t that who we are writing for? So don’t you think we should write what they are interested in too?
    And I also like number 5. I think it is also important for the future of journalism to be able to combine both. That way both print and online media can be used, instead of picking one or the other.
    I found this site that you might find useful. It has interviews with professional journalists on the future of journalism. http://www.ourblook.com/index.php?topic=future_of_journalism

  32. All good ideas. Just wanted to add my 2 cents from the Print viewpoint. To be clear, I’m neither a journalist nor involved in a newspaper. I’m a semi-retired blogger who spent 30 years running a Print business and then a stint teaching in design school.

  33. Great article. I agree with author totally, especially last section. Keep writing posts like this one.

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