Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Saddle up and ride to the sound of the guns

Lots of your comments Tuesday and Wednesday suggested intriguing possibilities for customization and targeting, and I think learning to produce “my pages” will definitely be essential. Most of the time I spend online nowadays involves my bloglines page, which is a customized RSS aggregator that sends me constant updates from the feeds I have selected (60-some at last count). I get your front pages and opinion pages, political blogs from left and right, Macintosh gossip, all the journalism critics and commentators and a couple of things I’m not telling about.

So yes, I think customization will be huge. I’ll think hard about how to distill some of these ideas into action items. I’d like to connect some of you to work on beta projects. And in the meantime, charge ahead on anything that feels right. As the volunteer militia used to say, “Don’t wait for orders from headquarters; saddle up and ride to the sound of the guns.”

That said, we must also maintain focus on our essential, central product, and how to keep it fresh and focused. Our success has been and will be based on the foundation of broad, community service journalism – being the last place around where citizens can find and share information and opinion about issues that touch their lives. Where people learn the real reason that successful girls basketball coach got fired; get inspired by the teenager who raised all that money for cancer research after his grandma died; find out what really happens inside the jail. They need to know why the test scores are all so low, what the mill levy means, whether their surly teenager’s recent behavior is normal.

When I was editorial page editor in Sacramento, Gary Pruitt asked me what I thought our mission was. I told him I wanted the pages to be “an operating manual for civic life.”

“So,” he summarized, “we build citizens.”

Indeed we do. And the impulse to citizenship – the desire to belong, to be part of something bigger than ourselves – is an animating, basic human need. If we can meet those needs – and we can, we do – we will occupy a place very close to the center of our communities. There’s a pretty good business model there; far more importantly, there’s a mission worth devoting your career to.

That’s why we need to concentrate on compelling front pages, and sports fronts and features covers. It’s why we need to seize and nurture those stories that truly do cut across the demographic divides and economic boundaries.

Some of the things people cite as weaknesses of daily newspapers emerge as central strengths. In a world awash in facts and factoids (I’ve heard it called “data smog”) there’s real value in a summary or orientation that only happens once a day. Yes, you’ll still get breaking news on your Blackberry and follow the markets on CNBC and watch Sports Center on ESPN at the gym. But you’ll do all those things better on account of starting the day with a concise, thorough briefing put together by a bunch of smart people who spent all day yesterday figuring it out for you. (Another big plus: it’s also full of local material you can’t find anywhere else, and exclusive stories nobody else has).

There’s also great value in the fact that you and your neighbors shared that briefing. We talk all the time about the community’s essential need for a “common vocabulary,” and the mass medium newspaper is where you find it.

That’s why I see the printed paper – tuned and tailored, to be sure – at the heart of what we do for a long time to come.

The senior editors have already heard my lecture about how this one-two punch echoes the Allies’ successful WWII strategy in Europe; it’s all about Marshall and Patton. I can present it with maps and slides upon invitation .

But the big takeaway in 1944 Europe and for us today is the same: it takes both attacks to win. In our case: the daily briefing newspaper at the center and a constellation of specialized, customized information services in orbit around it.

1 comment:

  1. Talk about a challenge that has you simultaneously wanting to dig in the spurs and pull back on the reins...

    Making our papers more relevant, more urgent, more useful, more compelling, more indispensable... and, galloping full speed ahead into the new frontier... all at the same time ... and, all with the same number of horses and riders at our sides...

    How exciting! How invigorating! How daunting! How frightening!

    There's so much to do, so much to learn, so much to share with each other.

    I say, let's ride with The Weave 'til the cows come home!