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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.