Weather report: damp
It’s not raining on you. It’s just raining.
It’s not just newspapers, we all know that. Think about Ford. Northwest Airlines. CBS.
It’s all about changing, or losing.
Our jobs and the roles we play are in transition, and there’s nothing any of us can do about it. But we can control how we react and – if we’re smart and maybe a little lucky – we can shape the results.
To do so we must consistently deliver compelling, superior products. Yes, products, including but certainly not limited to traditional journalism. We have to serve users, entertain audiences, and empower citizens. None alone is enough to ensure success in the emerging world.
Users want maps and directions; chats and calendars; listings and schedules. Searchable databases of school test scores, by neighborhood. Mostly online, ubiquitously available, tailored, customizable, deep, layered.
Audiences want to know who’s pregnant in Hollywood, what’s the hottest dance club in town, why that likable teenager had to die, how to win at poker. They want emotion, distraction, inspiration: something to talk about, and an online place to do so.
Citizens need to be empowered, to have the tools and information they need to hold government accountable. They need us to investigate, to advocate, to comment, to enlighten. They need help, and they need to know we’re on their side.
And all these demanding audiences want everything available all the time, updated 24/7.
Q: How can we possibly do all that?
A: One piece at a time.
The key words to remember as you contemplate this are transition, migration, evolution. You can’t abandon everything you’ve been doing to embrace all these new demands – but you can’t keep doing everything, either. I can send you a checklist of what to be thinking about (and I intend to), but the best way to figure out where to go and what to focus on is for you to be experimenting and testing in your own community, based on what you know about your audiences, your newsroom, your capabilities.
Grand schemes, expansive pronouncements and elaborate structures can be the enemy of progress at this stage. Because we’re building on the top of successful, continuing operations, we’re necessarily going to be adapting and adjusting, not turning everything upside down and starting over. A story on Yahoo in Sunday’s NYT Business section talked about old media companies that are “heavily invested in and dependent on preserving existing relationships based on controlling both their content and the way it moves to people.” That’s us.
Say you need to get more community voices into the paper (and you do). Instead of waiting six months to work on a sweeping Community Publishing & Citizen Journalism Program, how about just taking half a page of metro, soliciting readers to send in news that’s important to them and asking a copy editor to ]wrestling submissions into publishable shape? (Read how they do this at Korea’s wildly successful OhmyNews on page 17 of the new Nieman Reports (http://www.nieman.harvard.edu/reports/contents.html). Maybe it’ll work and you’ll get so many submissions that you publish the overflow online, inspiring even more people will write in, and you take the best 10 percent of those and put them in the paper …
Or maybe that won’t work. In which case, you’ll need a plan B.
Believe me, I know it’s easier to sit here and write about this than it is to walk out in the newsroom and push people in new directions. There’s no tougher work, but finding the capacity for continuous and sustained change is essential in creating the 21st century news company.
We’ve talked before about our advantages as respected, profitable, well-established organizations with more reporters and more salesmen than anybody else. These advantages absolutely can catapult us to success, but only if we discover how to employ them in meeting audience needs. Our ability to start and sustain that effort will determine our success, and we need to be busy at it right now.