Don’t change the paper. This is your final warning

finalwarning

This comes by way of a friend who works at a Florida paper.

Let’s not forget that as much as we think newspapers and news organizations need to change, we as journalists live in a bubble. It’s wrong to assume everyone of our readers is like us. Readers don’t tend to get pissed off about laying off the copy desk or taking away an inch or two of width.

What they will send letters that could get them arrested about is removal of particular comic strips, changing crossword-puzzle syndicates or changing of the TV guide.

Metaphors for the state of news and its future

Update: This post has grown long enough that new metaphors and similes are going into new posts.

There are lots of metaphors being thrown around for the current state of the news industry. On a suggestion from Steve Buttry, I’m collecting as many of them as possible. Add your suggestions in the comments, or @reply me on Twitter, with links if you can, and I’ll add them to the list. I should say that similes, analogies, parables and the like are fair game, too. We’ll see how far this goes.

You can also contribute using Publish2. Just tag any link with “newsmetaphors” and will show up at the bottom of the post.

Humpty Dumpty
The American Press Institute’s Newspaper Economic Action Plan, available from Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab

Then, the emergence of Google, an Internet search company that was launched without a business plan, soon blew up the content business into millions of “atomized” pieces, each piece disassociated at some level from its original context and creator. Like all the king’s men, news enterprises were left to put the Humpty Dumpty of editorial and commercial content back together again, restore their original integrity, and finance the costly operation of being the trusted curator of news and transactions.

Lemmings
Steve Outing’s Alternatives to paid-online-news cliff jumping
(Mr. Outing has an addendum clarifying his lemming metaphor since it was first posted.)

The point is, there are alternatives to joining the lemmings headed for the cliff who want to lock down their news content online. We’ll either see a lot of blood on the rocks, or the lemmings will come to their senses and start to take different paths.

Crystal Ball or a Café
Fast Company’s News Flash From the Future: What Will Journalism Look Like?

Crystal-ball culture: Predictive analysis follows us everywhere, and it’s created by more than the major data crunchers (Google, Microsoft, and government agencies).

Tomorrow’s newsroom resembles today’s café–but look closer. From your perch, you see that the woman near the door is commenting on a story that a blogger just posted. Market St. Beat, as the blogger’s handle reads, is one of the most popular and trusted journalists in the city–but she’s never set foot in a traditional newsroom.

The Tectonic Shift That Created Bryce Canyon
Steve Buttry’s Embrace the beauty and opportunity beyond upheaval

I visited Bryce Canyon, where centuries of sedimentation followed by tectonic upheaval followed by wind and frost erosion left the earth in fascinating, massive columns of sandstone called hoodoos. … The current upheaval in the newspaper business is not cyclical. It’s tectonic. … We don’t know what kind of hoodoos or canyons this massive shifting of ground is going to bring to our industry. But anyone who thinks a cyclical upswing is going to bring back 30 percent profit margins and higher revenues for print advertising and circulation might as well be waiting for the return of that massive lake that once covered the southern half of Utah. Or for the return of the Columbus Citizen-Journal.

Pre-Gutenberg Monks Who Made Handcrafted Bibles
Steve Buttry’s Google’s no threat to press freedom

Remember that darkened room I told you about in the Gutenberg Museum, where I saw three original Gutenberg Bibles? Off to the left, in another case, were even older Bibles, handmade by monks in the centuries before Gutenberg developed movable type. They were beautiful works of art, passed from generation to generation as family treasures.

I think newspapers today are living in a similar time to those monks in the time of Gutenberg. If their product was that beautiful handcrafted book, then its days were numbered. But if their product was a message that they believed in their souls was the word of God, this new technology was going to take that message to untold millions who never had a chance to own one of those precious heirloom Bibles.

The Titanic (and Rearranging its Deck Chairs)
Nearly 4,000 Google hits for the search “rearranging the deckchairs on the titanic newspapers,” not all referencing media. The news-related entries include:

Gannett Blog’s At Gannett headquarters, the band plays on

I started Gannett Blog a year ago because I expected big changes at the nation’s No. 1 newspaper publisher. A powerful media conglomerate with 50,000 employees was steaming deeper into treacherous waters, and there didn’t seem to be many bloggers writing about the outcome. What piqued my interest: CEO Craig Dubow‘s newly announced Information Center model, a cornerstone of Gannett’s strategic plan. I was skeptical. “This looks an awful lot like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic,” I wrote.

Mark Potts’ Rearranging the Deck Chairs

I was just saying to a friend that the appointment of Bill Marimow as editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer and the replacement of Dean Baquet at the L.A. Times by Jim O’Shea were the latest in the musical chairs in the newspaper business.

Then I realized I had the wrong chair metaphor.

What happened in Philadelphia and L.A. (and at other major papers before them in recent months) isn’t musical chairs—it’s rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

Jason Preston’s Deck chairs

A popular line in newspaper criticism right now is that redesigns are like “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.”

Of course that’s a false comparison because changes in design amount to substantive changes in your product, whereas changing deck chairs really is a useless exercise when you’re trying to avoid an iceberg.

Tim Windsor’s Will paid content work? Two cautionary tales from 2004

At the very least, ideas are bouncing around and occasionally creating new synapses. (At the very worst, of course, we’re polishing the glassware behind the bar on Deck Three of the pride of the White Star Line.)

A Butterfly
Brian Boyer, on Twitter

Journalism will emerge from its gray paper chrysalis.

Railroads
Martin Langeveld’s Bankruptcies: What kind of changes will they force on newspapers?

We’ve seen this before in other legacy industries, most notably U.S. railroads.  In 1920, trains carried a total of 1.2 billion passengers, the peak year for rail travel in this country.  Despite a few upticks during the late 1930s and World War II, it was all downhill after that as personal automobiles, buses and airplanes siphoned off traffic, and as government policy failed to encourage rail travel as it did in Europe.  For five decades, railroad companies struggled against the tide but failed to adapt.  By 1970, much of the industry was bankrupt.  Today, the government-owned Amtrak system carries a grand total of 29 million passengers a year, about 2.4 percent of the 1920 level.

King Kaufman’s 1904 blog post: Future of transportation (blogs, in this metaphor, are automobiles)

But these automobiles are a grave threat to the American way of life and commerce. We must put the brakes, if you will, on this burgeoning phenomenon before it’s too late.

A pair of goggles, a set of gloves, and the turn of a crank make any man an engineer, a brakeman and a conductor rolled into one. Only there’s no need for a conductor because the ride is free. And therein lies the problem.

A Boxer
Martin Langeveld’s Bankruptcies: What kind of changes will they force on newspapers?

The rest of the industry is on the ropes.

Bill Keller, quoted in Editor & Publisher’s Keller on ‘NYT’ Pulitzer Sweep: ‘Here’s Why We Matter’

It comes in a year when a lot of newspapers are on the ropes, it is a reminder of what newspapers can do that others can’t.

A Protection Racket
King Kaufman’s Newport Daily News strategy: Extort customers

If you live in Newport and you want to get the paper delivered, it’s $145 for the year. If you want the paper and the Web site, which has been redesigned and now includes the entire print edition in a format that mimics print, it’s $245.

OK, fair enough. Added value. You pay more for two things than for one. Wouldn’t be interesting to me as a customer but good luck, all the best.

But if you want to read the Web site without getting the print edition, it’s $345 for the year.

“You’ve got a real nice house there,” the Newport Daily News is saying to its subscribers. “I’d hate to see it littered up with paper every day. Know what I’m saying? A hundred bucks a year will keep your front yard niiiiiice and tidy. Get me?”

A Bus Company
King Kaufman’s We Need a New Bus Company

If we wanted to take the bus across town this afternoon, and the bus company said, “We can get you across town, but it’d work out a lot better for us if we did it a week from Thursday,” wouldn’t we be demanding a new bus company?

David Leonhardt’s fantastic interview with President Obama appears in today’s New York Times Magazine. Leonhardt writes that he interviewed Obama on April 14 after the president gave his speech on the economy at Georgetown University. To help readers better picture what day that was, Leonhardt notes it was the day White House dog Bo was introduced.

The magazine article is, Leonhardt writes, “a lightly edited transcript of that interview.” So unless Leonhardt edits by hammer and chisel, the entire reason for the three-week delay is the lead time for the magazine.

Why are we, the great unwashed readership, mourning the passing of this model?

The USSR or Used Bathwater
King Kaufman’s Newspapers increase drain-circling velocity

The only news event in my lifetime that I can compare this to is the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late ’80s. I remember reading the stories coming out of Moscow in 1988 and ‘89 as the USSR dismantled itself and thinking, “I’m watching the end of something I never dreamed would end in my lifetime — and I’m not that old!”

I’m saying that again, though the not-that-old part is quite a bit less true.

Bottled Water (or Gasoline)
Tim Windsor’s Could one answer to paid content be found in a bottle of water?

The growth of bottled water in the past decade — a commodity available free pretty much everywhere in the developed world — is the story of consumers willingly shelling out real dollars in exchange for convenience and branding. Can the news industry — which also sells a largely commoditized product — learn anything from the success of Aquafina and its ilk? Why is it that consumers cheerfully pay more for thirst-quenchers than we do for the fuel that moves our vehicles and our economy?

Horse and Buggy (or Buggy Whips)
Leon Gettler’s Buffett says newspapers have no future

As reported here, Buffett implies that newspapers are going the way of the horse and buggy. “They have the possibility of going to unending losses. They were essential to the public 20 years ago. Their pricing power was essential with customer. They lost the essential nature. The erosion has accelerated dramatically. They were only essential to advertiser as long as essential to reader. No one liked buying ads in the paper – it’s just that they worked. I don’t see anything on the horizon that causes that erosion to end.”

King Kaufman’s  Pulitzers prove papers’ viability

The New York Times winning five Pulitzer Prizes is proof that newspapers are still relevant despite the industry’s losses and the growing influence of the Web, the paper’s executive editor says.

In related news, the chief executive officer of the National Buggy Whip Company said his firm’s strong showing in the 2009 Buggy Whip Awards proves the continued viability and relevance of buggy whips

Libraries
Gina Chen’s What journalists can learn from readers, railroads and libraries

No, wait. Newspapers are just like libraries: R. David Lankes, an associate professor at Syracuse University’s School of Information Studies, offers an impassioned blog post at Virtual Dave about how to save libraries that I found so inspiring, I wanted to mention it here. Lankes and I are friends, and we’ve chatted (by e-mail) about the similarities between the struggling industries we both respectively care about. They both relate to reading and technology; they both are mired as the dinosaurs in the field face up against the innovators. I think his message of hope is relevant for all of us trying to change journalism who feel frustrated by those in our industry who refuse to budge. His best takeaway:  “How do I get inspired to face (intransigence), or laziness, or ineptitude? I look right past them at the real goal, and those who really need me. Block me, and I will go around you. Build a wall, and I will build a door. Lock the door, and I will break a window.”

The Mob or Yalta Conference
James Warren’s Shhhh. Newspaper Publishers Are Quietly Holding a Very, Very Important Conclave Today. Will You Soon Be Paying for Online Content?

One hopes it displays the same sense of purpose as, say, troubled world leaders did at Yalta in 1945 or, in a rather less respectable sector of the economy, beleaguered mob bosses did at a legendary Apalachin, New York, confab in 1957.

Dinosaurs
About 706,000 Google hits for the search “dinosaurs newspapers,” not all referencing media. The news-related entries include:

John Fine’s Life Among The Dinosaurs, in Business Week

At every NAA convention, these men attend nightly parties in the host city’s grandest public spaces. This year’s opening event was at the magnificent Field Museum, on a large open floor bookended by two massive dinosaur skeletons. Many attendees joked about this. To the executive to whom I said such an obvious metaphor would never, ever, appear in this column: I lied.

Nick Bergus (that’s me) and John Goodlove’s Is Gazette chewing off own leg to save itself?

In the land of media dinosaurs, newspapers are the lumbering beasts most vulnerable; nipping at their heels are readership declines, advertising losses, rising expenses and changing habits.

Jonestown
Steve Yelvington’s Let the bad ideas flow

With all the hyperbolic, ill-sourced and often self-serving End of Days coverage of the newspaper industry lately, we shouldn’t be surprised to see any number of really bad ideas surfacing — and I don’t just mean paywalls.

I say: Let the bad ideas flow. Sometimes bad ideas spark good ones. Just don’t drink the Kool-Aid.

The Apocalypse (or Buggy Whips)
Nicholas Carlson’s 10 Newspapers That Will Survive the Apocalypse

Believe it or not, there are investors who still want to buy local newspapers.

Our favorite person of this stripe is an investor who has already plunked millions into the industry and is in the process of spending much more.

“I might be running head first into the buggy-whip business, but I’m not sold on the death of print quite yet,” he tells us.

Golden Goose
John McQuaid’s On newspapers and paywalls

The API report makes some gestures toward innovation – but only after enumerating ways to monetize content. Its basic approach is, we’ve already got a golden goose here, people are stealing our eggs, and we want them back.

George W. Bush or Marx
John McQuaid’s On newspapers and paywalls

Then I read the American Press Institute’s Newspaper Economic Action Plan. It’s the same point of view I ran into on Facebook, only systematized and turned into a business strategy. The problem with this “we produce something of value and should be paid for it” attitude, though, is that it is just an attitude, one shaped by a sense of grievance and a gut feeling about what is – must be – right and just. This is a terrible way to formulate any kind of complex strategy – George W. Bush made decisions the same way. In this case, the API ignores the real world conditions of journalism, the Internet and e-commerce. Thus this strategy, if pursued, is unlikely to turn out well. I’m a former newspaper reporter – I want newspapers & journalism to survive and thrive. And I’m not against charging for some content if it’s done right. But even I can see this is crazy.

Start with the API’s first recommendation: “Establish a true value for news content online by charging for it.” This is a strange formulation. In a market, prices are set by supply and demand, not dictated by producers. The declaration has an anachronistic, command-and-control, almost Marxist feel to it: we control the means of production, we will set the prices. It assumes a kind of monopolistic position that newspapers no longer hold, as much as they might want to. If your starting point is the assumption your product has “value,” you’d be wise to take a hard look at exactly what that value is on the open market. But the API evidently has not conducted that kind of clear-eyed self-assessment. It sees the economic value of newspaper content as self-evident, of a piece with its perceived social value, and something that must be preserved first, improved upon later.

Naked Emperors
Dan Conover’s The newspaper suicide pact

This spring and early summer has been a continuous parade of naked emperors and specious arguments. There’s the Cable TV argument. The iTunes argument. They’ve argued the Watchdog Case and the Piracy Case. And as the combined knowledge of the network ground each of these quickly down to dust, the salespeople moved on to the next one. Did the “blame the bloggers” approach flop? OK: Blame Google.

The Movie Groundhog Day
Tim Windsor’s Will paid content work? Two cautionary tales from 2004

For those of us who went down these paths previously, there’s definitely a bit of Groundhog Day to the increased media thumb-sucking, but at least this time some of the people doing that thumb-sucking are in better positions to make actual change.

Tinkerbell
Steve Buttry’s Seven reasons charging for content won’t work

I hope the newspaper tycoons meeting secretly in Chicago this week come up with a clap-your-hands plan.

Because clapping our hands to save the newspaper industry, like we saved Tinkerbell at the movies when we were children, has more chance of succeeding than the paid-content-cartel approach that newspaper executives are dreaming and talking about but being careful not to conspire about.

An Elephant (or is it The Elephant?)
Ryan Sholin’s The business model is still the elephant in the room

As much fun as it is for me to make clever lists and shout from the hilltops about what I think your news organization should be doing, how they should be doing it, and why they should be doing it, no matter what argument I (or anyone else) has in favor of a certain technology or against a certain methodology, the broken business model of newspapers remains the giant elephant in the room.

A Sinking Ship
Daniel Bachhuber’s Open memo on how to right a sinking ship

The future of journalism is a bright one. It’s time to take the incredible opportunity that the internet presents for improving the entire process of news and capitalize on it. When the internet is the default platform of choice, however, the barrier to invent and reinvent drops to the floor. This is why newspaper companies should’ve applied more resources to innovating ten years ago and will need to work double-time now to remain relevant. Many won’t make it.

Hemorrhaging Blood
Steve Buttry’s Attributor’s plan is a tourniquet on newspapers’ hemorrhage of ad revenue

Sure, save that $250 million if you can. But that’s a tourniquet, not a plan for a healthy future.

A Moated Castle
Steve Buttry, on Twitter

@jdland Free sites like yours will thrive if/when newspapers dig pay moats around their content.

White Elephants Wondering the Desert or Terminal Patients in Need of a Convalescent Home
Crosbie Fitch’s Not Suicide, Terminal

I’d say it was more like a group of similarly afflicted purchasing a retreat in which they can end their terminal illness away from the public eye.

Newspapers are white elephants in a barren desert of their own making, desperately wandering from watering hole to watering hole, but the revenue flowing from each tributary of their 18th century monopoly on the sale of copies is drying up. Neither fencing off the copies nor reinforcing the monopoly will help. Their business model faces absolute drought. So they collect, not to commit suicide, but to assemble their graveyard.

Water
Eli Lipmen’s News Is Like Water

Information in the internet age is like water – you try to control and package it as a commodity to be sold, and the information will find another route to reach its destination.

A Joke or Incompetent Painters
Jeff Jarvis’s Decency is the new ad

So here’s the real punchline: Advertising ends up having nothing to do with media. They become decoupled. Audience no longer yields advertising. Hell, advertising isn’t advertising. It’s relationships. Media only get in the way. There’s the corner we’re painted into, the chaos scenario, perhaps the doomsday scenario for media.

A Hurricane and Climate Change
Steve Yelvington, on Democracies Online’s News Online group

The newspaper industry is in the middle of a hurricane that’s hitting
all businesses.

Like a hurricane, the global economic crisis will end. In its wake there
will be a profitable business for many surviving newspapers.

But in the background there is climate change: the long downward march
of print readership, the constant emergence of new competitors, the
disappearance of the scarcity on which newspapers evolved.

Gay-bashing Bigots
Steve Yelvington, on Twitter

Maybe blog-bashing journos are like gay-bashing bigots: Inside, there’s a fear they might not be as pure as they pretend.

A Ready-to-Spew Dike or Carole King Song
Staci D. Kramer’s Let’s Try The Craigslist Model Again Or ASCAP Or …

Some people could see this as putting a finger in a dike that’s about to spew. Fair enough. It also wouldn’t be hard to go the clueless route or the Carly Simon Carole King route—as in “it’s too late, baby.”

Carly Simon
Steve Buttry, on Twitter

Carole King & Carly Simon confused by @sdkstl in this post. But Simon works, too: “You’re So Vain.” http://bit.ly/o67AY via @jayrosen_nyu

Completed Mixed (and, because it links here, completely meta)
David Carr, on Twitter

metaphorically spking, the news biz is on a sleigh ride down a slippery slope over a waterfall & into the ditch.

The Big Die-off
John McQuaid’s The big die-off

A massive asteroid has struck, sending shock waves through the media ecosystem. Old species disappear very rapidly; meanwhile various mutations emerge but most of them die off too. Only a few new species will actually thrive, then diversify and take over. We don’t know yet what they look like.

An Ecosystem
Steven Berlin Johnson’s Old Growth Media and the Future of News

The metaphors we use to think about changes in media have a lot to tell us about the particular moment we’re in. McLuhan talked about media as an extension of our central nervous system, and we spent forty years trying to figure out how media was re-wiring our brains. The metaphor you hear now is different, more E.O. Wilson than McLuhan: the ecosystem. I happen to think that this is a useful way of thinking about what’s happening to us now: today’s media is in fact much closer to a real-world ecosystem in the way it circulates information than it is like the old industrial, top-down models of mass media. It’s a much more diverse and interconnected world, a system of flows and feeds – completely different from an assembly line. That complexity is what makes it so interesting, of course, but also what makes it so hard to predict what it’s going to look like in five or ten years. So instead of starting with the future, I propose that we look to the past.

A Tanker Ship
Paul Bradshaw’s In defence of paywalls

When you’re driving a tanker and you see a big rock ahead – do you ask everyone on the ship to rebuild it as an aeroplane? Or do you start steering away in the hope that your part of the tanker will somehow avoid the worst?

Feedlot Cattle
Mindy McAdams’ Social journalism: Back to the future

Some newspapers still put these things front and center, focus their resources on these, and perhaps hold their circulation numbers steady. It used to be the way newspapers were structured, and it’s part of what changed as newspapers were bought up by big corporations and clumped into feedlots like so many over-doped beef cattle.

More metaphors via Publish2

(More Links on Publish2)

What are your favorite metaphors? Share in the comments, by e-mail or on Twitter or Publish2.

What “new-media journalism” skills do you need, anyway?

Combing through my RSS feeds earlier this week, I came across a post from Rob Curley looking for interns. I posted a link on Twitter, which then goes to FriendFeed and Facebook (which, sadly, still makes it impossible to find permalinks), since the Las Vegas Sun is doing really cool things and thought my students would do well to apply.

One of my current multimedia students shot me a message:

Read the description of his internship openings in his blog and I definitely feel like the student he’s talking about, that can write but has no other “new-media journalism” skills. In your opinion, aside from what we’re doing in your class, what more can I do to get up to speed with what’s going on in the profession currently and make myself more marketable after graduating? Any pointers would be appreciated!

It’s a good question, and one that a few years ago wouldn’t have been asked. (I think there are fewer students who go into journalism because they want to be “a writer” these days, but I have no hard evidence to back that up.) I though it would be worth posting my answer here.

This is a tricky question. A few years ago, knowing how to do a little bit of everything — writing, video, audio, photography, coding — could land you a job at a pretty plum news organization (I remember seeing a multimedia job at The Baltimore Sun a few years ago that was an entry-level position, for example), even if you weren’t great at any one thing. But multimedia production has become more specialized. Photographers tend to be the videographers and audio gatherers and SoundSlide producers. Lots of organizations have specialized data teams that include some heavyduty coders (and talented journalists in their own right). But there is no such thing as “just a writer” anymore, for better or for worse, except for people such as The New York Times‘s re-write man Robert D. McFadden.

I think you’ll want to practice, hone and refine the skills we’re teaching in multimedia introduction (a five-week, 1 credit-hour course required of all majors that touches on HTML, video and audio collection and editing, blogging, social media, writing for the Web and multimedia packaging). You’ll want to understand cross-platform news production, how to package and re-package news for different platforms and products. Knowing how to code HTML/CSS/JavaScript would be helpful, too, as would learning how to put together an audio slide show. Understanding social media and how to use tools like Twitter and Facebook to find sources and stories — as well as promote your own work  —  is important.

J-schools don’t have the resources to teach all the new media skills you’ll need, so willingness to learn on your own will be key. But much of what you learn in school will be obsolete in a few years, anyway. Things will continue to change as technology changes. The move to mobile phones as the main news delivery device is getting closer and with that will come more stuff to learn.

So keep learning. Read industry blogs and follow interesting journalists and professors and college students on Twitter (and maybe even the crazy ones). Read, watch and listen critically. Be hungry. If you want it, you’ll find a place in this new media landscape.

Of course, a lot of it depends on what, exactly, you want to do. Photographers don’t need to know how to code in ActionScript, but some do. And the more you know, the easier it will be to get a job that you actually want when you’re finished school. But don’t forget the basics, the foundations. You’ll still have to know how to report, how to interview and how write. That’s not going to change.

Poor Doub Roberson

doubroberson

It this week’s Hoopla, Gazette Communication’s weekly for “young adults,” there is a short interview with Doug Roberson, longtime booker and bartender at Gabe’s and the Picador. After the interview, Mr. Roberson was laid off. This sucks.

But to make matters worse for Mr. Roberson, when the story appeared online, it ran with this editor’s note:

Shortly after this interview The Picador’s owners downsized and Doub Roberson was let go. He’s hoping to become an independent concert promoter in Iowa City.

Two pieces of corporate-speak and a butchering of Mr. Roberson’s first name. And while the paper for young adults (and I assume from the drink-special ads they using the psychology definition and not the library definition of young adult) is full of trivial fluff pieces, it really pains me to see a name — a simple, common names — make get past the “editors.”

(Disclosure: I met with the team developing Hoopla last fall to do some training on WordPress as a content management system.)

The Gazette’s reoganization

In Monday’s Corridor Business Journal is the first of what we plan to be a monthly media column that I will write with John Goodlove. In this installment, we wrote about the recent announcement that The Gazette is restructuring its newsroom, and the following staff uneasiness.

Mr. Goodlove is a grizzled newspaper veteran while I’m younger and more interested in multimedia and online news; co-writing the column forces us to question each other’s assumptions and temper our emotions, particularly important this time around considering John’s status as a former Gazetteer.

But while the column is the two of us, this blog is just me and  I want to expand a little.

First, some basic information: The Gazette is separating its content production — reporters, photographers and a few editors — from its product planning and production — copy editors, designers and, now, some business types to help focus products on audiences. (The jobs and titles will be different than they are right now and, Gazette Managing Editor Steve Buttry says, the roles will be different.) Reporters will be asked to break news and build audiences on their individual blogs and will have yet-to-be-defined incentives to do so, but pay might be based on metrics such as page views, Twitter followers and superusers recruited. The idea, it seems, is to transform the newsroom from one centered around print to one centered around the Web’s immediacy and audience interaction.

In the Journal piece, we suggest that these incentives could lead to sensationalism, link baiting and the ignoring of important-but-not-glamorous news if The Gazette isn’t careful. I still believe that, but I’m also very excited to see this newspaper take necessary steps to redefine itself.

News traditions need to change, and the only people who don’t believe that are in denial. Clearly there are problems with the traditional business model (it feels like I link to this depressing map, now up to 2,308 lost newspaper jobs, in every post). While the recession isn’t helping, the problems aren’t simply a cyclical thing that we need to weather.  The Internet has changed the way much of our audience gets information; news can no longer be a broadcast. News now requires real, meaningful interaction with, to use Jay Rosen’s phrase, the people formerly known as the audience.

Radio and television have the ability to interact with users in real-time. Print doesn’t. And while the death of print has been greatly exaggerated, this is a significant disadvantage for the medium. Newspapers that stick their heads in the sand and refuse to acknowledge their readers will perish.

Is The Gazette taking a risk? Sure. It’s angering its employees, it might produce worse journalism and it could end up killing the entire news organization. But it’s a choice between adopting a model that might not work and sticking with a model we know won’t.

I don’t think the organization is going to lose sight of its duty to serve a watchdog function in eastern Iowa; what I see are thoughtful, forward-thinking people throughout the organization. Others, with inside perspectives, may see if differently. This reorganization will allow the company to find ways to serve its audience and the community — beyond some it already has — by creating new outlets for its reporting while sustaining the newspaper that has been its focus for so long.

Where have all the reporters gone?

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When The Des Moines Register isn’t firing its high-profile staffers, they’re quitting. David Yepsen, the Register‘s senior political columnist, is expected to leave to become the director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University, the paper reported. (The New York Times‘ political blog The Caucus sounds pretty convinced that that he is leaving journalism.)

It’s hard to blame Mr. Yepsen for leaving. The Iowa Public Television Iowa Press regular is 58; his employer, Gannett, is forcing the employees it hasn’t laid off to take unpaid furloughs; and, if you haven’t noticed, the journalism trade isn’t exactly a cheery place right now, what with 2,118 newspaper layoffs since the beginning of the year.

Sure, it’s a loss to the state and the craft: Mr. Yepsen had access to the Big Boys and Girls every four years when people cared what Iowans thought about politics and the intelligence and care to not abuse it. It’s sad to see a prominent journalist and native son of Iowa (Mr. Yepson was born in Jefferson) give up on both the trade and the state. (Update: Steve Buttry, editor of The Gazette and a former Register editor, has some kind things to say about Mr. Yepsen, too)

But here’s the thing: when Mr. Yepsen and hundreds of other smart, skilled reporters leaving journalism, they create openings for other smart, skilled journalists who want to help redefine journalism. And the people and institutions that will take those places are starting to crop up.

Yes, it’s a scary, terrifying, exciting time in the world of journalism, folks.

Mindy McAdams is right, as always

I missed this because my feedreader is purpetually at 1000+ unread items, but I would be remiss if I didn’t link to Mindy McAdams’s reponse to Dan Conover’s 10 reasons why newspapers won’t reinvent news. I was overly optimistic when I took issue with some of Mr. Conover’s assertions.

Ms. McAdams is, of course right. She writes:

Yesterday a journalist who (still) works at a big Florida newspaper told me, “Last year we were trying to shoot as much video as possible. This year, we’re trying to save the paper.”

That’s not one of Dan’s reasons, but it could be. I mean, if the people who run newspapers had realized that it would come to this — to trying to save the paper — more than a year ago, there might have been something they could do.

So Dan’s larger point (that we can’t expect these guys to turn it all around) rings true for me — even though I’m sad about it.

It makes me sad, too, though I know she’s right.

10 reasons why newspapers might reinvent news

On Xark, Dan Conover lists 10 reasons why he no longer believes newspapers will be significant players in the reinvention of news. It’s a pessimistic piece and I can’t say that I fully disagree with him. I think I’m just more hopeful (some might say naive). First are his reasons; my responses follow.

1. Newspapers’ core audience still doesn’t want change, but they’re aging and they like a product that nobody else wants.
We’ve already seen the truth to that. In The Tampa Tribune‘s case, which Mr. Conover cites, it was a dramatic change the readers rejected: a reduction by three sections and dozens of pages. But if newspapers can keep their loyal print readers buying papers, papers can subsidize their experiments in new media to attract younger readers.

2. The culture of newspaper management is a dysfunctional relic of a low-bandwidth, monopoly era.
It is true that many papers are owned by large, publicly traded companies. But there still papers that are independently owned, either in whole or in part. The problem is that the old guy-in-his-bathrobe-sitting-at-a-computer can compete and actually use a paper’s own resources to compete with the paper; it’s called a hyperlink. The sooner papers realize that linking is vital to Web success, the better. Also, innovation needs to be able to able to worry about long-term success over short-term profits.

3. The culture of newsroom leadership contains a fatal 20th century flaw: A fundamental belief that equates all new trends with dangerous “fads.”
It’s disturbing that newspapers see their use of Twitter as putting them on the cutting-edge of social media. It’s a start but it isn’t the end-all-be-all. Still, there has been a greater willingness to put resources into trends. While it may be too little, too late, it’s encouraging.

4. No budget for research, development or training means most newspapers can’t see what’s coming, don’t have the necessary tools for survival and couldn’t use those new tools effectively anyway.
This is about time. The newsrooms I’ve been in are amazing inefficient places where reporters and editors spend lots of time doing things that don’t end up directly in the paper. Encouraging reporters and editors to spend some of that time experimenting and figuring it out on their own is doable. Reporters should be an inquisitive bunch by nature and should work to learn some of this stuff on their own.

5. Newspapers don’t “own” enough creative technological expertise to constitute a viable tech infrastructure.
J-schools aren’t exactly producing these people, either. Medill is just now getting ready to graduate its first two programmers-turned-journalists. People like Rob Curley, Adrian Holovaty and Matt Waite are rare and expensive. But the hurtin’ that has been put on newspapers means that papers are willing to open themselves up to crazy experimentation (hell, Gazette Communications is letting those Medill students play with its paper, Web sites and television station). That might be enough to attract more of the right kind of people to newspapers.

6. Inertia, uncertainty and toxic paralysis rule most newspaper companies.
Those rule most companies, but it is particularly understandable in an industry that seems to be quickly crumbling. Still, the people coming to newspapers right now are, typically, more passionate. They’ve have to be because they’ve fought though the doom-and-gloom to choose their new career. They sure as hell aren’t doing it for money or job stability.

7. Individual ad-reps still make more money selling print ads than Web ads.
This is a valid complaint; papers have been very slow to switch to a real online ad rate model. (I was shocked — SHOCKED — to hear at a job interview a year ago that the Gannet paper was just switching its online ad rates from a per-month model to a CPM model.) The excuse I’ve heard is it is harder for the ad department to make the switch to online first than it is for the newsroom. Bullshit. Online ads can be sold as reaching the niche audiences that advertisers love. And the ad people need to think hard about what they can slap advertising on (how may newspapers are producing podcasts that aren’t sponsored?).

8. Newspapers have already lost one of their key selling points: Social currency.
While this is mostly true, papers still do have it. How often do you see links to newspaper stories on blogs, Twitter, Digg and the like? All the time. Papers can regain some of their influence when they show a willingness to curate the world for their readers, including linking to the competition.

9. The connection between quality and profitability has been broken irreparably.
Papers have lost sight of quality, but the slashed newsroom sizes actually enhance the chances that newspapers will innovate. They have to reorganize and redefine roles when thousands of jobs are eliminated (at least 11,777 so far this year, Erica Smith figures). Smart reporters and newsrooms are going to be looking for new ways to report and deliver news.

10. Finally: Newspaper companies hate modern journalism.
I’m not sure hate is the right word, but they certainly don’t get the New Media World Order. If I hear “use Facebook” offered as a real solution one more time, I’m going to flip. But while management is generally clueless, there are a lot of sharp people who work at newspapers who will get a chance when everyone else jumps ship because there just ain’t money in news any more.