Happy 2010, readers! Wow. We survived what was quite the troubling year in journalism, and, I think, really, that journalism is better for it. Yes, there’s been too many layoffs, pay cuts, buyouts. But I think the economic woes have forced news organizations to rethink how they gather and deliver news — and that’s a wonderful thing.
A year ago, I came up with my 10 hopes for journalists in 2009. As part of the introspection that comes with the passing of a year — and a decade — here is my list of 10 hopes for journalists in 2010. (And, by the way, my hopes for 2009 still hold true.) Please share your own hopes in the comments. And here’s to a better year for journalism!
1. Realize it’s not just the economy: I hope in 2010, as the economy improves, journalists will realize that the downturn for newspapers wasn’t just from recession-induced lagging ad sales. Yes, that hurt. Yes, that hastened the pain for newspapers. But it would be a mistake to think that once the economy improves, everything will go back to normal. It won’t. See the recession as the wake-up call that is should be.
My parish priest told a story at Mass a few weeks back that, I think, explains what I mean. He told about a man who was stranded on a desert island with no hope of rescue. He made a life for himself, built a hut and struggled to survive. One day, the hut caught fire and burned to the ground. He thought: Why? Then a rescue helicopter arrived. If it weren’t for the smoke from the fire, the helicopter pilot would not have seen him. The moral: Sometimes our hut needs to burn down, so we can move onto where we need to go. Newspapers, your hut burned down for a reason — so you’d change your business. So do it.
2. Remove the sneer: All too often I read newspaper stories about people using social media that seem to portray the people as oddities. I know that’s part of journalistic routines: The odd is more newsworthy than the every day. But if newspapers continue to subtly portray social media users as exceptions to the norm, the weird techies, they will miss out on understanding what social media means in people’s lives. Yes, we’re in the minority in the general American population, but we’re a minority that going to grow and grow, as social media evolves. And then, dear newspapers, won’t you look silly?
3. Lead don’t follow: This is a corollary to my point in Number 2. If you’re treating social media use like this weird techie thing, you’re not embracing it. You’re not figuring out how to use it for journalism. That’s a shame and a missed opportunity. Journalists should be leading in how to use and explain social media to readers, not sitting on the sidelines bragging that you don’t get social media as if that’s something to be proud of. It’s not. It’s like the reporters who argued in the ’80s that they’d prefer a typewriter to a computer. It’s just silly. News organizations need to make sense of the world for readers, so they should figure out how to use Twitter or Google Wave and explain that to their readers. Granted, some newspapers are doing a fabulous job of this. Far too many are not.
4. Changing your news-gathering: In the old days, the news gathering followed a pretty simple pattern. Source > Journalist >Reader. This has all changed, and news organizations’ methods of gathering and disseminating news must change with it. Some stories might be Reader>Journalist>Reader. Others might be Source>Reader>Journalist>Reader. Others might drop the linear model altogether and end up with multiple readers offering multiple ideas to multiple sources, and then a journalist uniting it. I’m talking crowd-sourcing here and curating. But I’m also talking more creativity even when the journalist is doing the gathering. (Stayed tune for a specific post on this later this month.)
5. Add some new blood: I know economically news organizations are really strapped, so it’s hardly the time to hire young people. But you must find a way to do this soon. I believe newspapers cannot truly transform themselves without adding some young voices to the mix. It’s not that the old-timers don’t have value. They do. But you need both. It’s unhealthy for an organization to go years and years without hiring new people, especially in an industry that is trying to reinvent itself in a rapidly changing world. If you don’t do this, these smart, young, recent journalism graduates will get jobs elsewhere for digital news operations that kick your butt. A quote from David Carr on BuzzMachine sums up well the value of young journalists: They don’t have to think out of the box because they were never in one to begin with.
6. Don’t play lip-service: I find that many online news Web sites from traditional media outlets offer innovation, but way less than people are growing to expect from interactive news. Having the capacity to comment or vote on stories isn’t enough anymore. That is, as my kids would say, “So 30 seconds ago.” The interaction must be intrinsic to the whole information experience. News organizations need to offer multiple options for receiving and interacting, but they must — and this is key — explain to their readers how to use them. Letting folks vote on stories, but giving no obvious guidelines on how they do this means it will fail. Simple. Only the diehards will try. The regular readers won’t. So you’ll end up with little meaningful interaction and just a lot of flaming.
7. Learn the lingo: Nothing makes the legacy press seems like the ancient, out-0f-touch press than not understanding the current technologies. I’d argue that pretty much any paper of any size today should have someone covering technology, blogging about it, and explaining it to readers. As I said in Number 2, being out of the loop is nothing to be proud of. It’s not a sign that you’re a true journalist fighting for a return to the old-time newspapering in a world that has gone all crazy 3.0. It just makes you look out of touch. Journalists are supposed to know how to explain things in which they are not experts. So do that. (And I don’t just mean the one or two people on staff who are into the new stuff; I mean everybody.) Read blogs, not just news sites. Experiment. Find out the buzz. Get educated.
8. Market yourself: At newspapers, the advertising and marketing folks are often on a separate floor from the newsroom. It’s a physical split that follows a philosophical division between those who gather the news and those who sell it. I believe this split is still important. However, journalists need to learn a bit from their marketing colleagues about selling themselves. Marketing works. If you’re doing something amazing or innovative, you need to let your readers know that loud and clear and more than one. If the print tells of a great interactive graphic online, but the reader can’t find it, you’ve lost. So many newspapers are doing wonderful, creative experiments, but readers need some help in finding these things. They spend seconds on your site, and if they can’t find what they’re looking for, they’re gone. You can change that. Make things easy to find, and shout it. Don’t feel like you’re breaching some journalistic ethos by bragging. If you whisper, no one will hear you.
9. Brand yourself: It used to be that journalists, at least at newspapers, were anonymous almost. Sure, they had a byline, but who read that expect pundits, other journalists, and angry government officials. TV reporters got recognized on the street, but those with a face for newspapers didn’t have to worry about that. Today, journalists must create their own persona online. They need a blog, a Facebook page, a Twitter account. They need to use their real name and picture. Yes, support the news organizations’ brand, but journalists also need to develop their own brand on the Web.
Why? The Web is based on what Wired editor Chris Anderson calls “reputational currency.” People gain believability on the Web as they build their own personal reputations. (Not just the reputation of their employer.) R. David Lankes, a Syracuse University professor, writes the people view others as credible on the Web today based on reliability, not authority. So you believe blogger A because she says the same thing that four other bloggers you like says, not because she’s a bonafide expert. Tom Kelleher and Barbara Miller, professors at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, found that the people see online communications that use the “conversational human voice” as more trustworthy than more static communication.
To me, these concepts converge. To be seen as credible, journalists need to have their names out there so they can build a reputation. They also need to use the conversational human voice and fit their message into the context of online communities. If they do that, people will feel like they kind of know them, so they’ll trust them more.
10. Have fun again: It’s been a tough year. It’s understandable that journalists feel beaten down, bewildered, angry, confused, bitter, ambivalent. The list could go on and on. But being a journalist is, as a friend’s father told her when she choose the career two decades ago, a noble profession. It still is. And it’s fun. There’s nothing like the adrenaline rush of breaking a big story, beating your competition, standing up to authority and making changes. I know in the past year, it was hard to remember this as it appeared the floor was collapsing beneath you. I know because I lived it, too. Newsrooms are full of sadness today, for lost colleagues, a lost way of life. That’s normal. But, please, remember why you got into the business. Rise to that occasion. Have fun again. Your readers need you.