How journalism can change

Today, I’m turning over my blog to a friend and colleague, Amber Smith, Health and Fitness editor at The Post-Standard in Syracuse. She and I share a love of journalism, new media and connecting with readers and often swap ideas. (Check out her Health and Fitness blog.)
She turned me onto City University of New York journalism professor Jeff Jarvis’ book, “What Would Google Do?” which I ended up blogging about last week. Now it’s her turn to interpret what being like Google means for the news industry.

Here’s Amber:

Three rules in the age of Google:

  • Focus on the user, and all else will follow.
  • Do one thing really, really well.
  • Fast is better than slow.

Source: “What Would Google Do?” by Jeff Jarvis.

As long as our industry evolves from newsPAPER to news ORGANIZATION, we’ll survive. And when you think about it, that should be easier for us to do than, say, turn “Dunkin’ Donuts” into a place for great coffee. If Jon Luther can position DD for the future, surely a bunch of passionate journalists can save our profession.

I’m 43, with more than 20 years experience writing and editing in newsrooms.  Every day I walk past the printing press on the way to my desk. Sometimes as I come to work, newspapers are being carried overhead on their journey to the distribution and ultimately the loading docks. It’s somewhat surreal, though, because I sit at the keyboard and hit “enter” when I’m ready to publish to my blog and “send” when I’m ready for newsletter subscribers to receive their latest issue. No printing press. No mailroom.

So mentally, even physically, I’m making that “leap” from newsPAPER to news ORGANIZATION. I still sought help understanding this new lay of the land, this future. I turned to BuzzMachine blogger Jeff Jarvis’ book, “What Would Google Do?”

“In the shift from physical to digital and mass to niche, the best way to exploit the legacy value of a paper is to use its old-media megaphone to promote and build what comes next. First, a paper has to decide what is next. It has to design and build its post-paper products – retraining and restructuring staff and sloughing off unnecessary costs – before the presses go silent. It has to promote the new products even at the expense of the old: Cannibalize thyself. Convincing audiences and advertisers to move to the future is better than following them there after they have discovered other sources of news.” (page 125).

Sounds sensible, I thought, and read on – about what a newspaper would look like once it’s no longer a newspaper. Jarvis describes “more of a network” with a smaller staff of reporters and editors still providing essential news.  “As a network, it could be bigger than papers have been in years, reaching deeper into communities, having more of an impact, and adding more value. To get there, it has to act small but think big – and see the world differently.”

That, to me, sounded encouraging. I read the rest of the book, using it to help me compare the newsPAPER and old way of thinking with the news ORGANIZATION and new way of thinking:

Old way of thinking

The newspaper was a product.

New way

News organizations provide a service.

Old way of thinking

Readers became known as “the audience” in the early days of the Internet, describing a one-way relationship wherein readers sat still to observe a performance.

New way

Readers/users are participatory.

Old way of thinking

Newspapers attempted to be all things to all people, serving a mass geographic audience.

New way

News organizations strive to serve a mass of niche communities that already exist, (some geographic, but most based on interests.)

Old way of thinking

Newspapers marketed themselves to a population.

New way

News organizations converse, engage and collaborate with the communities they serve; the population markets the news organization among itself.

Old way of thinking

Newspapers operated in a climate of “scarcity;” news space became tighter when ad sales diminished or the price of newsprint increased.

New way

News organizations have an abundance of space on line.

Old way of thinking

Readers accepted their newspaper because it was all they had.

New way

Readers find the news they want, regardless of where it’s located.

Old way of thinking

Newspapers that embarked on the Web sought a place to distribute their content.

New way

News organizations see the internet as a 3-D space of reciprocal links. “Every link and every click is a connection, and with every connection, a network is born or grows stronger.” (p. 28)

Old way of thinking

Newspapers spent money conducting focus groups to find out what readers liked/disliked, and analyzed the findings with skepticism.

New way

Through conversation, news organizations ask readers/users what they want, so the news organization can serve the communities better.

Old way of thinking

Newspapers gave readers what newspapers thought they wanted/needed.

New way

Readers land on news sites when they search (usually through Google) for information on particular topics — so news organizations have an opportunity to serve readers by writing articles that answer those questions.

Old way of thinking

Readers would search through the various sections of the newspaper for information they could use.

New way

Information is available through an easy search on line.

Old way of thinking

Readers got their news when the paper hit their doorstep, or soon after it rolled off the presses.

New way

Readers don’t wait for the presses to roll but expect the information immediately.

Old way of thinking

Deadlines were mostly daily with stories due at a set time.

New way

We’re always on deadline.

Old way of thinking

Newspapers experimented with various looks and styles, creative use of white space, various fonts, etc.

New way

Strive to be ‘Googley’ so that you’ll turn up in Google searches and readers can find you.

Old way of thinking

Editors were in charge, choosing which stories to provide to the readers/audience, based on what the editors thought the readers/audience wanted and needed to know.

New way

Readers are in charge. They read what they want, when they want.

Old way of thinking

Newspapers served each reader the same plate of information.

New way

Readers fill their plates with the things they like.

Old way of thinking

Editors decided which beats would be covered.

New way

“Beats” are based on niche communities that already exist.

Old way of thinking

Newspapers reported the news, but reporters weren’t allowed to make themselves part of the story.

New way

To connect with readers in niche communities, news organizations seek to put personal touches on news and information, often in the form of blogs.

Old way of thinking

Newspapers were hesitant to even mention competitors in the newspaper.

New way

News organizations do what they do best and link to the rest, as Jarvis says, and yes, that means even if the link leads to the competition.

Old way of thinking

Soon after the “nut graph” newspaper stories contained a paragraph(s) of background information.

New way

Articles on Web sites link to anything that’s relevant – background information, transcripts that back up interviews, photographs. “On line, content without links is the tree that falls in the forest that nobody hears.” (p. 124)

Old way of thinking

The “editorial we” separated the newspaper from the masses.

New way

People from news organizations respond directly to readers, solving their problems, learning from them and sharing the experiences with others.

Old way of thinking

Newspaper employees told readers with complaints to “write a letter to the editor.”

New way

News organization employees engage angry readers, so they don’t lose or alienate them .

Old way of thinking

Newspapers took national stories and “localized” them by folding local information into a wire story.

New way

The local story gets written because it has “unique value,” but instead of being folded into the wire story everyone has already seen, it links to it.

Old way of thinking

Newspapers valued employees who possessed writing skills, were inquisitive and assertive and quick.

New way

News organizations value writing skills, inquisitiveness, assertiveness and speed – but also “customer service” traits of friendliness and the ability to accept criticism.

Old way of thinking

Newspapers charged as much as the market would bear for ads.

New way

Charging just enough to break even for ads allows an audience to grow larger, eventually leading to more ad sales at higher prices.

Old way of thinking

Newspaper ad rates were based on circulation, how many people bought the newspaper, and advertisers had to hope readers would notice their ads.

New way

Ad rates can be based on the number of page views, or clicks, so advertisers know more precisely how many people see their ads; and, the ads can be targeted to those niche markets.

What do you think of what Amber says? Expand on it; share your ideas in the comment. (And follow me on Twitter.)

48 thoughts on “How journalism can change

  1. Amber’s assessment is spot on as applied to the unfolding reality of news media in general, not just print.

    I’ve been a newspaper reader forever. I still love holding the paper in my hands, flipping from page to page and being introduced to topics that I never hear about any other way. My fear is that, in this shift, I will no longer have a place to go that provides me with nuggets of news that I wouldn’t even know to seek out otherwise. They are not just interesting, but important, too. They provide me with my more global view of not just the world, but of information, as well.

    While I am very much a participant in the new, digital 24/7 reality and am considered an expert in my niche, I hope that this shift from PAPER to ORGANIZATION won’t also mean the demise of the bigger picture look at news and topics that a daily newspaper has provided me to this point.

  2. I wish ALL major newspapers would read this wonderful article! They especially need to hone in on local coverage. We have several local rags that I read ONLY because they’re the only ones who care about our suburban Houston community. We can get plenty of national, state, and big city news on the internet and TV, but we don’t get enough information about our small area where we need it: In the “Houston Chronicle,” our big-city newspaper.

  3. @Trisha Torrey

    Trisha,

    I agree. I’m pretty immersed in the Web world, but the real journalism that newspapers provide something that we can’t live without. It doesn’t have to be on paper, but we need it.

    Thanks for jumping in.

    – Gina

    – Gina

  4. @Texas Susan

    Glad you enjoyed Amber’s piece. I whole-heartedly agree with you. Local news should be a real focus for news organizations, especially those in smaller communities.

    – Gina

  5. Some good points made here. I think the big thing about the internet in publishing is that it will sort the wheat from the chaff and will expose unscrupulous publishers, particularly in the ‘business-to-business’ sector where, traditionally, advertising was sold based on the audience supposedly reached by the publication. In a lot of cases, of course, the magazines are not reaching those they claim to be reaching on media packs. This, of course, amounts to fraud but there is little that can be done unless advertisers only spend their money on magazines with audited circulations, ie ABC. That great phrase ‘content is king’ is key in the brave new world of the internet. Whereas business-to-business publications in the past were sent to ‘readers’ regardless of whether they wanted them or not (purely so publishers could say they ‘reached’ an audience of X thousand) with the internet the rules have been re-written, ie anybody can visit the site or blog in question and their motivation will be the quality of the information they find there. Audiences can vote with the feet, editorial is back in charge and, well, I could go on. I have written a piece on this on my blog (matthewmoggridge.blogspot.com). Do feel free to check it out, I would welcome your comments.

  6. @Matthew Moggridge

    Did check out your blog. Your Internet Revolution piece makes a lot of important points. The Internet is amazing — but it has changed so many businesses and hampered, honestly, how they make money, including, of course, ours.

    You make an important point in your comment above, a point that I think many lose sight of.

    Often it is seen as the Internet robbed newspapers of their advertising base. But really, as you explain, newspapers were reaping the benefit of using a medium (print) that didn’t allow people to accurately count how many read it. So you could sell an ad based on your whole subscription base when common sense would tell you all those people aren’t even seeing the ad.

    The Internet did give power back to the people, which is a value. It also made it possible for advertisers to quantify who is really seeing their ads. And, of course, those numbers lag compared with the old, inaccurate numbers.

    Thanks for joining the conversation.

    – Gina

  7. Amber’s piece is great reading…not just for “print” journalists, but broadcasters like myself. We also need to cannibalize the “product” we’ve been selling to audiences for decades and move them to the future–lest we be beaten in that process by newspapers (a fight we tv newsers cockily considered over and done with: “newspapers are dead!”).

    But the reality is the break between print and TV is erased in a web-based world where tv journs write for the web and newspaper pros shoot online video. It’s not medium vs. medium anymore, it’s who does it best–and first.

    Mark

  8. @Mark Joyella

    Yes, I love the “Cannibalize” term because it’s true. We, in print, will hold a breaking story because we don’t want the TV stations who peruse our Web site to “steal” it. We don’t want to open our news meetings because TV stations will “steal” our stories. (Baltimore Sun, bravo, is a notable exception and posts its news meeting online live.)

    That thinking just doesn’t make sense because:

    1. Leaves out the reader.
    2. As you say, the Internet has “erased” the break between print and TV.

    Thanks for adding your two-cents.

    – Gina

  9. Here’s a thought; repeal the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

    It’s hard to fathom a worse piece of legislation, in terms of degrading the competition in the marketplace of ideas. How did Orwell get it so completely right in 1938?

  10. We are journalists and the methods we use to gather the news is the same whether the form that it’s delivered in is on a screen or on paper.
    We’ve always been a service industry whether we wanted to acknowledge it or not.

  11. I personally LOVE that in the new age, we writer/editors can see how many readers read which stories. It can guide our coverage. We can find niches we did not know existed. No longer will stories get “buried” on an inside page. Also, in this future era, news organizations can REALLY focus on “the reader.” We’ve spoken of this my entire career, and now we have the tools to actually do it! I think it’s an exciting time to be a journalist.

  12. While I agree, Amber’s piece is on target and relevant, I’m an “old school” newspaper advocate who also likes to HOLD the paper and read, like Trisha mentioned in her comments. But, perhaps, most importantly, I worry that the general public does not have or take the time to “twitter” or “blog” or read countless internet postings to find out the news. And, without the news media, our government will be in even worst shape… especially at the local level.
    And, this comment goes along with Texas Susan’s comment about Houston. Dallas has a big problem… newspaperwise and othermediawise …and so far, the huge news void is especially felt due to the lack of local coverage.
    I’m not so worried about the 4th estate when it comes to national politics any more. While I think the media’s failings resulted in the Bush years…both in Texas and nationally, what I really worry about is small town journalism.
    WHO is covering what goes on in Richardson, Tx? No one! All we’re getting is locally written self-promoting stories and photos; but the serious problems and the political campaigns are not being covered. However, if I’m truly honest, I will admit that these things have not been covered in the past few years by any printed media either. The news reporters were released several years ago. Now, most of the genuine Dallas news comes to us from the columnist. It’s sad.
    And, during this time of “media” transition, I fear what is happening in small towns and even larger towns across this country because people don’t know where to go to find the facts. And, many don’t seem to want to know the truth. If we all look for the blogs and the information that we want, we will be even more uninformed…
    Perhaps Trisha said it best when she spoke of her fears of being unable to find those “nuggets of news” that she had no ideas of to begin with. It’s difficult to ask for those things you don’t know about, things that provide us with a more informed and global view. Will we lose all sense of perspective without major news sources? How long will this all take?

  13. @ambersmith: Good post. The analogies between old and new ways of thinkings were especially excellent. It demonstrates how journalism continues, and must continue to change, in the years to come.

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  15. Walter,

    Yes — good point. Journalism doesn’t just need to change now, but keep changing. What’s new now will be old in a year, 6 months. It’s evolving.

    – Gina

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  18. @slscotty

    You’re right — there’s so much out there, that’s it’s hard to find what’s important. Will readers go search for it? Some will; most won’t.

    I think journalists’ job will evolve more into a curatorial role, sorting through the plethora of information for the average reader.

    – Gina

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  20. An outstanding post, Amber – and the replies show you’ve really hit the spot. I’ve been working in newsrooms for a little longer than you, and echo many of the thoughts in your post.
    I know this is heresy, but I’m increasing questioning the term ‘news’. When asked to define it, I’ve always said the clue is in the first three letters. That holds true. But ‘news’, for me, has become a euphimism for packaged, often influenced/manipulated content that belies the power of what might drive a conversation across the garden fence, or on Twitter, or in a collaborative on/offline environment.
    I’m a believer in communities of interest driving local media forward in the future (rather than any organisation trying to impose the physical boundaries of ‘the community’. Many people, I suggest, have a perception of news which looks backwards, not forwards.
    The point I’m making is simply that we should just question as former ‘newspaper’ journalists whether what’s needed in the future is ‘news’

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  22. Amber makes a lot of good points. But let’s not pretend that we live in a binary world, where journalism in the Google era will essentially look opposite to the way it looked in the “newspaper era.”

    Things are not so black and white.

  23. @dan mason

    You’re right — much of what is “news” today is held for three weeks before it even hits the “newspaper.”

    The chat over the fence is a good image: What would your neighbor want to hear? Would that be news? That might not fit the conventional definition, but it might be a better idea of what news is.

    – Gina

  24. @John Temple

    True enough. Few things are ever black and white. But comparing the old and new does give a format for exploring change. At least that’s a first step.

    – Gina

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  34. Both readers and journalists already changed for the better. There the so called old school and new school now. As we are facing different problems around us, we grown and become more mature on weighing things. We tend to sick for more, reach for more. We are not contented of what we currently presented in front of us.

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  37. 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.

  38. I personally LOVE that in the new age, we writer/editors can see how many readers read which stories. It can guide our coverage. We can find niches we did not know existed. No longer will stories get “buried” on an inside page. Also, in this future era, news organizations can REALLY focus on “the reader.” We’ve spoken of this my entire career, and now we have the tools to actually do it! I think it’s an exciting time to be a journalist.

    Laura

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