Saturday, April 28, 2007

Click this cartoon

(Thanks to Kathleen for noticing this first.)

Memorial to fallen correspondents

From the Times Literary Supplement (via 3quarksdaily):

On Shakespeare's birthday, April 23, Buckingham Palace announced the award of the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry to James Fenton.

On February 17 last year, the TLS published three poems by Fenton, including "Memorial", which was originally commissioned by the BBC to honour journalists and their colleagues killed while covering wars. As a young man Fenton was himself a foreign correspondent, and was present at the fall of Saigon to the Vietcong in 1975. His experiences in Cambodia lie behind the long poem Dead Soldiers (1981).


We spoke, we chose to speak of war and strife --
A task a fine ambition sought --
And some might say, who shared our work, our life:
That praise was dearly bought.

Drivers, interpreters, these were our friends.
These we loved. These we were trusted by.
The shocked hand wipes the blood across the lens.
The lens looked to the sky.

Most died by mischance. Some seemed honour-bound
To take the lonely, peerless track
Conceiving danger as a testing-ground
To which they must go back

Till the dry tongue fell silent and they crossed
Beyond the realm of time and fear.
Death waved them through the checkpoint. They were lost.
All have their story here.


Widgets, etc.

Chris Krewson & Co. at The Morning Call keep pushing ways to distribute information with widgets and other techniques, and I keep thinking there's good reason to do so.

You may remember we had an interesting exchange in some comments to a post on this blog back in March about using widgets. I had pointed to a Sarasota investigative project and its associated database, wondering why it wouldn't be a good idea to make that widely available as a widget people and organizations could install on their own websites. The Morning Call did just that, with a widget that let people search for dogs.

Now they've introduced another. You can easily install a Morning Call widget that updates the results of Pennsylvania poll results from the presidential campaign. If I wrote a political blog in Pennsylvania, I'd love to install that on my site. Done right, it could build both brand and traffic for the Call.

You should be thinking of ways to use this technique. Other people are.

Working with the audience

Jeff Jarvis makes an excellent point at BuzzMachine in this post and others, arguing that it's wrong (as well as counter productive) for MSNBC to insist that nobody can use their debate video except them.

This situation demonstrates how fundamentally the media landscape has changed.

  • You can't really control what people do with your content.
  • So what? The public good is better served when it's widely available.
  • And, finally, if you recognize that fact and work with it, you can turn it into a benefit.
Of course there's nuance. I wouldn't advise you to roll over and accept wholesale appropriation of the content you worked hard and paid dearly to create. We shouldn't let people misreprsent or misuse our work if we can help it.

But when people demonstrate that they value what you're doing by using it – quoting, reassembling, linking – for God's sake work with that, not against it.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Liking Alaska's "Newsreader"

I've got a little history in Alaska, so news from the Great White North is certainly more interesting to me than the average reader. Even discounting for that, though, I have to tell you I am really enjoying the "Alaska Newsreader" feature at the Anchorage Daily News.

I mentioned the projec t when it first debuted. The newsreader is the daily brainchild of veteran ADN reporter and editor David Hulen, and he explains the product better than I can. I'm told The Oregonian has recently introduced something similar to aggregate Northwest news. It seems to me like an idea that could work well elsewhere.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Complexity is maximal

There’s a lot of pessimism out there about newspapers. Maybe you’ve noticed.

Let’s get it all off our chest at once: The latest round of quarterly earnings reports from public companies ranged between disappointing and disastrous. Credit ratings, reflecting perceived industry prospects, sank. The kind of investors who pushed Knight Ridder and Tribune into selling are now pressuring the two-tier stock structure at companies like the New York Times – McClatchy has that, too – and stock prices are down across the board. Journalism websites predict another round of dismal circulation reports when the new ABC numbers are released. There were more layoffs at Tribune papers and others.

It gets discouraging, yes, but that’s not the whole picture. You often hear people caution against managing a company for the short term, and there’s never been a clearer instance in our industry of why that matters.

We’re in the midst of the short run right now. But this is not where we’ll end up.

Folks in McClatchy newsrooms have heard me talk about the “phase transitions” common in thermodynamics – the place where something changes from one characteristic to another. The easiest example is watching water in its solid form (ice) melt and turn into a liquid. That’s a phase transition; it happens again if you heat the liquid water to the boiling point and watch it turn into a gas. (In this photo, frozen argon is being heated, melting and turning to gas – a phase transition trifecta).

America’s newspapers (like so many other institutions) are definitely in a phase transition right now – and, as physicists will tell you, this is where the really interesting stuff happens. In chaos theory, we're on the turbulent edge, described as “a region between order and complete randomness or chaos, where the complexity is maximal.”

That would make a good t-shirt, don’t you think? “Complexity is maximal.”

In the meantime, we have to live through this. We will.

We are doing a great many things right. Like all companies, we’re working hard to restructure costs and operations to make them affordable within new revenue realities. Unlike some, we’re trying to do that without throwing the baby out with the bathwater: keeping as much staff as we can in newsrooms and sales departments, emphasizing growth online to backfill eroding print revenues, sustaining the print franchise as much as possible, launching new products, learning new skills, and above all focusing on total audience growth as the best hope for both our finances and our community service mission.

We could manage in ways that might boost the stock price at the moment, or satisfy some analysts quicker, or raise more capital. But we’re managing for the mission, and with the perspective of a 150-year old company: for the long run.

We can’t control everything, and won’t do everything right anyhow. But we have great confidence in our ability as a company to chart a steady course through the changes and emerge as a mission-driven, public service news company. As long as we all stay focused on the mission and execute well every day, we’ll move steadily toward that.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

McClatchy's 5 EPpy finalists

Finalists have been named for the 2007 EPpy Awards, sponsored by Editor & Publisher and MediaWeek magazines. Congrats to the McClatchy nominees:

Best Media-Affiliated Sports Blog
Seahawks Insider (The Tacoma News Tribune)

Best Media-Affiliated Entertainment Blog It's All About blog (Herald-Leader)

Best Spanish-Language Newspaper Web Site

Best Special Feature in a Web Site - News or Event, more than 1 million unique monthly visitors
House of Lies (

Best Special Feature in a Web Site - Enterprise, more than 1 million unique monthly visitors
The Weight (, The Sacramento Bee)

If Doyle can blog ...

You get a pretty clear sense from this Q&A in the "newsroom note" to staffers in Anchorage that sportswriter Doyle Woody isn't the most technically proficient guy in the place. Could be true; I knew him so long ago that we didn't even have technology.

But the guy knows hockey, and he's in the blogosphere now. If you're thinking about bloging yourself, I thought you might find this illuminating – or entertaining, anyhow.

Aces blog: Renowned technophobe Doyle Woody has been dragged kicking and screaming into the blogosphere, and to no one's surprise, he has turned Woody on Hockey into the definitive source for Alaska hockey. Here's a quick Q&A on his expanded role at the Daily News, brought to you by Daynote correspondent Casey Brogan.

Q What do you like most about it?
A It gives me something fresh to bitch about because, you know, my usual host of complaints were, frankly, getting kind of stale. On the upside, it gives me a place to give puckheads news about various Alaskans we otherwise would not have room for in the paper made of trees. And I'd like to correct that introduction. I was not dragged "kicking and screaming into the blogosphere.'' I distinctly remember I was bitching and moaning.

Q Least?
A When the brutal %^$#@*&$#@! wireless at Sullivan Arena cuts out right in the middle of posting a blog. Or every couple months when I am denied access to my own blog and I think, 'OK, I know the blog's lame, but it's not that lame.' Then I have to call Human Resources to check whether I am still actually employed at the ADN and I get that uncomfortable "We'll have to get back to you on that one'' response. Also, knowing there's probably no end to the damn thing in sight now. Remember, kids, this is what happens when you say 'yes' to an editor without thinking it through. This is what happens when you enter unarmed into a battle of wits. Plus, I feel like I should post frequently, so I find myself doing it at home, at the office, at rinks, which sends a terrible message to the kids out there, being all co-opted by The Man. There's gotta be some kind of 12-step program for this.

Q How disturbing do you find it to see yourself staring you in the face when you go to the blog site?
A Slightly less disturbing than if my burgeoning bald spot was evident in the mugshot. Of course, one of my "best friends'' says my blog picture looks like the "after'' photo of Nick Nolte, which I don't believe is a compliment. And probably not quite as disturbing as it is to fans who sit behind me at Sullivan Arena, see the blog up on my laptop, and probably think I'm such a self-absorbed tool that I'm re-reading my own stuff for pleasure.

Q. Have you found it technically daunting to produce?
A Not really, because my blog is pretty modest on that front -- no pictures, no video, no audio, no bells, no whistles, though I will occasionally link to video of a hockey fight for kicks. Plus, Brian Stone gave me a pretty by-the-numbers tutorial quickly and Josh Niva set up a bunch of my hyperlinks (I think that's what they're called). I'm still kicking myself for not using Josh's suggested name for the blog: "Jaromir Blagr.'' Granted, that name would have been very 'inside' hockey, but, c'mon, Woody on Hockey? I didn't exactly use up my cleverness quotient with that one, although the ego quotient looks pretty used up. The only ADN blogs with the author's name in them, I think, are mine and Andrew Halcro. I'm not sure what that says about me or Hair Boy, but I'm fairly certain it's not flattering.

Q Tell us a story too good to put in the blog.
A Oh, it's the usual mundane stuff, like the time I visited the home of a pro hockey player, went to use the spare bathroom and discovered an entire four-foot countertop covered by (unused, thankfully) condoms. I thought, 'Man, I knew this cat had a good life, but I never knew it was this good.'' Or there's the time recently I watched an Anchorage TV crew taping an interview with a pro player in an empty Outside rink while some of the player's teammates stood behind the cameraman and made faces, trying to get their teammate to crack up on tape. Both interviewer and interviewee maintained their composure -- well, until one of the player's teammates raced naked out of the nearby dressing room, stood behind the cameraman and began mock-pleasuring himself. That's hockey -- Sport of Kings.

Partnering with readers

The News & Observer made a big splash this morning on the metro cover, asking readers to help the paper report a big new project about speeders on the freeways. They're looking for anecdotes, personal stories and even on-the-scene reporting to help amplify a staff reporting project.

Here's what DME Dan Barkin had to say about the effort in a note to staffers today:

One thing I have learned in the two months that I have been in my job is that you can't be subtle and get readers to participate in what we do. In for a dime, in for a dollar. That shouldn't be surprising.

Stories with large headlines and a bold presentation get more readership, more often than not, than items that we tuck away somewhere. That was the thinking behind today's City & State display. Without giving away the store, we wanted to tell readers what Pat Stith and Mandy Locke and David Raynor are reporting and
enlist their help.

There's a risk here. We have tipped off any other competitors that we are working on this story. But I haven't figured out a way to get input from readers any other way.

This morning, we got an email from a woman named Lynn Carter who said "I have always wanted to tell my story." A fellow named Bruce White emailed us and recounted his experience recently in court in Orange County: "The judge starts out by saying “no one here will receive any points on your insurance today”.

The typical model that we have followed since Moby Dick was a guppy is that we publish our stories and then we get feedback -- emails, phone calls, letters to the editor -- from people who have lots to add from their experiences and knowledge.

At that point, we're typically done with the story.

Thanks for calling, we say.

That is a frustrating model, because we wish we had been able to find these folks before publication. It doesn't tap into the intellectual capital of the community, and as you know, we have intellectual capital here in abundance. Drilling a well into it is difficult. Even the best source-developing journalists only tap into a fraction of
the potential, and only through the most labor-intensive effort.

More importantly, perhaps, it also doesn't give the public a stake in us. They are passive recipients of our labors.

The reader participation model is different. It tells the public -- intense readers, casual readers, non-readers if they hear about it secondhand -- that we're working on something that they may know something about, and asks them to share their knowledge with us and the community.

What will we do with this knowledge? In some cases, it will give us leads to follow up. Surely, if there is a judge in Orange County who routinely proclaims that it's no-points day in court, that is something that we probably didn't know, but it sure is interesting.
In some cases, we can publish selected excerpts of comments. I am learning today through phone calls and emails what people think the "real" speed limit is.

Stripped down to its core, reader participation..citizen journalism, whatever you call it, relies on the fundamental truth that people like to be asked. We live in a world of disconnected, alienated citizens who feel powerless. While we may not feel like we are in Fortress McClatchy, we are to those who don't have the access that the powerful and the advocacy groups have. The popularity of social networking in cyberspace, I'm convinced, is because it makes people feel connected, part of a community. But there is something unfulfilling about most social networking, because it goes to no end most of the time. The journalism that we do is connected to a purpose -- to make life better in the community.
Potentially, this is a very, very powerful force that can transform us in the eyes of the community.

It won't happen overnight, but it can happen.

Thanks to Adelaide Nash for the presentation, which makes a big difference.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Check local listings

I noticed that the Bill Moyers Journal special on "Selling the War" will air at 10pm in Sacramento on Wednesday, not the 9pm slot mentioned nationally. You'll want to check locally.

Here are links to some reviews of the program:

Hartford Advocate: Bill Moyers' New Documentary Exposes How The Government, The New York Times And The Mainstream Press Sold Us The War.

USA Today: Moyers hammers the media for 'Buying the War' in Iraq

Editor & Publisher: 'Devastating' Bill Moyers Probe of Press and Iraq Coming This Week

Variety: Bill Moyers Journal: Buying the War

Rocky Mountain News: Moyers skewers media

Seattle P-I: On TV: A strong return for Moyers

A liberal lion roars about war

David Halberstam, RIP

Does anybody else remember this story about David Halberstam? I'm pretty sure it's from Gay Talese's book, The Kingdom and the Power.

Shortly after Halberstam's return to the New York Times newsroom after a spectacular performance in Vietnam, another young reporter about his age, R.W. Apple, walked up and said, "Oh, you're David Halberstam. I thought you'd like to know I was at a party with Punch this weekend and he speaks very highly of you."

Halberstam looked up and said "Fuck off, kid."

Monday, April 23, 2007

'Buying the War' on PBS

David Westphal writes:

See if you can’t find yourself a TV this Wednesday at 9 p.m. Bill Moyers returns to PBS with a 90-minute special called “Buying the War,” and it features prominently the work of the Washington Bureau in the run-up to the Iraq war. Producing journalism that raised doubts about the war’s rationale, or about the country’s planning for it, was a lonely place to be in the months after 9/11. But that’s where the reporting of Knight Ridder’s Warren Strobel and Jonathan Landay, and bureau chief John Walcott, squarely took them.

The Moyers report provides a very interesting narrative about the signals missed by many reporters as they weighed pre-war evidence. Our colleagues Landay, Strobel and Walcott weren’t missing. Here’s Jonathan speaking on the show about a story in the New York Times, which cited an Iraqi Kurd’s assertion that Iraq had hidden chemical and biological weapons:

“There were some red flags that the New York Times story threw out immediately, which caught our eye immediately. The first was the idea that a Kurd, the enemy of Saddam, had been allowed into his most top-secret military facilities. I don’t think so. That was, for me, the biggest red flag. And there were others, like the idea that Saddam Hussein would put a biological weapons facility under his residence. I mean, would you put a biological weapons lab under your living room? I don’t think so.”

Are we proud of their work? Damned right. It came about through smart and dogged reporting but also because of a big ration of courage. It sure as heck looked like there was a right side and wrong side in the run-up to the war, and darned if it didn’t seem like Walcott, Strobel and Landay must be on the wrong side. They were not.

One of John Walcott’s favorite questions at news meetings is, “But is it true?” This show is a quite good reminder that we journalists, no matter how “slam-dunk” the assertion, must never fail to ask it.

Here's the link
to PBS, and a clip.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Quote of the day

"It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change."
–Charles Darwin

Well, some good news at last. We don't have to be the smartest OR the most intelligent -- just the most adaptable. Now all we have to do is make sure we are.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Talking with the audience

The Modesto Bee had one of those days Wednesday; the press didn't get started until 4:52 am, the last papers didn't leave the building until 6:50 am, and so on ...

One bright spot: the paper wisely sent email alerts to about 100,000 registered users at to let them know about the troubles -- and had a heartening response.

Here's the email from Eric Johnston, VP of Interactive Media there:

To say it has been an unusual day would be an understatement. I can't say I have ever experienced this kind of event in my newspaper career (admittedly short compared to my peers).

At any rate, we sent out around 100,000 e-mail messages to our registered site users this morning explaining our delivery delays. While all of those haven't been read - and many of our online users don't subscribe to the print edition - I was pleasantly surprised to receive some nice notes from folks.

I wanted to share the comments with you to let you know how appreciative our readers are of the work we do and the honesty we have expressed today.

How wonderful to have an e-mail from The Bee explaining the paper delay. Thank you!
I appreciate this notice. I tried calling this morning for my missed paper and could not get through. I completely forgot about calling in once I arrived at work, but forgot to, until I read your message, so now I don’t need to. Thank you very much for the information.
Thank You for your concern this is very personal in a society that has become very impersonal. It is nice that businesses still do business with old fashioned ideals. Meaning a real concern for their customer.
Thank you for the email...I was wondering what happened to my morning paper!
thank you so much. i really appreciate you and the modesto bee staff in all that you do to get out a quality newspaper each day. you all are totally awesome!
Thank you. I received my home delivered paper in Oakdale at 7:15 am this morning. Pretty good comeback on the Bee's part!!
Thank-you for the email .. I did worry about my newspaper this morning !! I also wanted to say thank-you to our delivery person..he this person new ?? My paper is always on my door step now .. this is great..
Thank you for the notification -- I MISS my Bee and will eagerly await its delivery.
Thank you for the information. I would sure hate to see the Bee encounter serious problems and not produce a newspaper!!!
Thank you Eric! I was checking to make sure I had paid my bill....
what a nice way to notify me, thank you!
Thank you! We thought maybe our ferocious dog scared the delivery person off!
Thank is hard to work through when the Plan B goes out, too.
I trust all will be resolved as soon as possible. What a way to start the day, no? Take care,
I applaud your swift action. This is great customer service!
Thanks for the heads-up.
Thank-you for the notice. I would hate to think badly of my delivery man....
I'm so impressed with this email. What an incredible service. I called last week and complained that a requested stop had not been honored. While I got a phone call with an apology I was satisfied but not happy. This morning with no paper on the porch and then finding this, I am so impressed. Thank you Modesto Bee for the efficient customer service!!!
Thank you for your explanation of the delay in the delivery of the paper. I appreciate your concern in notifying everybody and saving all of those telephone calls. It is truly amazing to me the way in which communication can be disseminated so quickly to so many in this age.
Thank you for the professioinalism of letting us know what happened. It is rare to be informed with out having to research and spend time finding answers myself.
Not all the newspaper subscribers are registered at, of course. This could have been even more precise and mroe effective if we had a comprehensive email address list for all subscribers. Your paper should be capturing that information now. Is it?

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

How many Pulitzer couples?

Sac Bee's Reneé Byer, who won the Pulitzer Prize for feature photography yesterday, is married to shooter Paul Kitagaki, who shared a Pulitzer at the San Jose Mercury News for earthquake coverage. Anybody know of other married Pulitzer couples?
This photo: Sacramento Bee/Brian Baer

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Newspapers and Yahoo

When you read today about McClatchy joining a consortium of newspaper companies and Yahoo, keep this word in mind: strategic.

We think there are a lot of operational advantages for us; we wouldn’t be doing it if we didn’t. But at least as important from my perspective is what the decision says about our strategic direction.

There are a lot of moving parts on the operational side. As the press release and stories have pointed out, separate parts of the plan deal with advertising, search and content. Each revenue model works differently; some parts of the agreement can be implemented almost at once, while others will take longer to emerge.

For those of us on the news side, the opportunities are apparent. When Yahoo spots a reader from a zip code in our coverage area, links to our stories (on our websites) will be featured in local content listings. This will be true on Yahoo news pages, sports pages, in the content boxes on Yahoo Mail and even the little scrolls under Yahoo instant message windows. Selected content will also be featured on non-local Yahoo pages like Finance.

Remember, these are all links: readers who click become unique visitors at our websites. For journalists, that means great reach and more chances to have your stories read. For ad staffs, of course, it means more traffic to sell. (The Trusted Voices deal we announced a month ago works somewhat differently; a small part of our content in that deal will appear in whole on Yahoo. But there, too, we will be using exposure to Yahoo’s immense audience to drive folks back to our site for more.)

Yahoo’s capacity to identify users by location helps place links to our local content in front of the people most likely to want it. Similar, far more sophisticated technologies can target advertising with precision that makes it more relevant and attractive to users and, of course, more valuable to advertisers. We get to sell that capacity to local advertisers.

This is a simple illustration of how partnering with a technology company like Yahoo can advantage us. It’s a simple refutation of those who see the world as us/them; MSM vs. the internet; win/lose zero sum.

We can reach a lot more people with our journalism; in my world, that’s unmitigated good. It looks to me like we can make a lot more money this way, too – and we all know that’s what it takes to sustain the newsrooms that make it worthwhile.

I like where we’re heading.

Proud of Reneé and Debbie, our Pulitzer winners

Everybody at McClatchy is proud today that two outstanding colleagues were recognized with Pulitzer Prizes for their work in 2006. Debbie Cenziper at The Miami Herald won for local reporting, and Reneé Byer of The Sacramento Bee was the winner for feature photography.

Each was the kind of superlative public service journalism that defines our mission.

Debbie’s authoritative, detailed reporting explored the shadows cast by fraud, malfeasance and corruption involving millions of dollars in public funds at the Miami-Dade Public Housing agency. See her winning series, House of Lies, here.

Reneé produced an intimate portrait of a mother’s year-long struggle with the approaching, inevitable death of her 11-year old son. You can find the stories and extensive galleries of Reneé's photos from a year-long assignment on A Mother's Journey here.

Have a look at this great work, and join us in raising a glass to two fine journalists, and to the work great journalist do everywhere to help chronicle life in our communities.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Seismic changes in opinion journalism

Perhaps you saw this link to the New York Observer from Romenesko recently, detailing expansive efforts to promote more points of view and diverse opinions at the New York Times. Some of you know we have a new focus on these questions at McClatchy, too.

We have two initiatives underway, neither yet in full flower but each aimed at making us far more inclusive in how we solicit, manage and display community conversations. One is to make sure the redesigned Washington bureau site we launch in a few weeks engages its audience on all kinds of Web 2.0 levels. I'll talk a lot more about that here as we get closer to fruition.

We've also asked newspapers to look at how traditional editorial pages need to expand to reflect the seismic changes that have transformed opinion journalism. Different papers will take different paths on the way – that's generally how we do things – but we're all working from a shared starting point. Here's an edited version of some thoughts I sent to editors and publishers last week:

Here’s the short, executive summary of my thoughts about why we need to change the way we do opinion journalism:

"You’ve got to go hunt where the ducks are."

Over the last decade, no area of American journalism has seen its subject more profoundly transformed than has opinion, yet almost no area has done less to evolve and respond. It is past time for us to do so.

Opinion was once the most interactive part of the newspaper, offering letters to the editor, face to face discussions at editorial board meetings, op-ed columns solicited from community members and the like. Compared to news, the opinion pages offered a welcoming, open door.

Even then, however, the process was always essentially hierarchical, and nowhere has the notion of editor as gatekeeper been more jealously preserved. This was not without its benefits, and many of us worked diligently to be trustworthy gatekeepers who tried to serve and benefit our communities. Newspaper editorial pages at their best exert a moderating influence on divisive topics fraught with heated community passion, offer leadership when other institutions prove too timid and proudly speak the truth to power.

There’s much to be said for the stable, institutional voice the newspaper editorial brings; because it represents more than a single person’s opinion, and because it reflects and is shaped by the paper’s traditions rather than just the most recent publisher or editor, it is more stable and less quixotic. Like the Supreme Court, in some ways, it relies heavily on precedent, changing basic tenets only when there is powerful reason to do so. It has the strength and heft to stand up against powerful interests when individuals might not.

(There was always a danger that we could become too moderate, of course; an editor I know, asked to describe his paper’s editorial philosophy, once replied, “Further study.”)

The editorial voice at newspapers originally was that of the editor – who was usually also the publisher, and the owner. It had an obvious, unified vision and it was easy to assign accountability. (Molly Ivins once told me her favorite journalist of all time was a Texan named William Cowper Brand, editor of The Iconoclast in Waco. After being shot by an outraged reader – how’s that for accountability? – he drew his pistol and killed his own murderer before he died.)

Over time, however, that distinctive, passionate editor’s voice has been replaced by an editorial board: passion by consensus, shall we say, too often producing just about as much success as you’d expect from a committee process. In the meantime, the world of public debate and opinion has exploded all around us, leaving traditional newspaper editorials and our process far out of the mainstream.

Consider just the impact of talk radio and blogs. Between them, public debate and commentary have expanded many thousand-fold. Our readers are deeply engaged with both, and as a result they come to our pages with a changed set of expectations.

People used to ask me how the Anchorage Daily News managed to beat the Anchorage Times when our editorials and opinions were often more liberal than most of our readers. One secret, I believe, was that we listened better. Most Americans don’t care if you have a different opinion than they do, as long as they get to voice theirs, too. Throughout the 1980s the ADN published twice as many letters to the editor as our opposition (especially from our critics), solicited community columnists who disagreed with us (my favorite was a local gunshop owner), held community forums, had a Reader Advisory Board and hosted an annual “Letter Writers’ Ball” where we invited everybody who had written a letter to come to a party with prizes (shortest letter, funniest letter, etc.) and even an open microphone segment. The Anchorage Times, meanwhile, just continued to roll the truth downhill, and was well-known for refusing to run letters that took them to task.

We need to bring that spirit of engagement and robust, pluralist debate into the modern era, using powerful Web 2.0 tools to enable debates where we are the convener and referee, but not the sole authority. You hear a lot these days about the need for news to become “a conversation, not a lecture.” That goes double for editorial pages. This doesn't mean we back down, or back away; far from it. Our own views must be clear, powerful, well-grounded and well written. But we should also invite as much reader participation, feedback and engagement as humanly (and technologically) possible. Readers should be able to attach comments to every editorial online; letters should be posted in a way that allows a “threaded conversation,” meaning that subsequent comments, rebuttals and reposts can be linked together; we should solicit and display video opinions from readers (even offering to videotape them if they come by to read their piece); we should aggregate all the opinion blogs from our region on our website, so that we become the clearinghouse for anybody who is interested in public policy debate; we should hold public events, debates, lectures, opinion book club sessions, screenings of political movies … anything we can think of that positions us in the center of the community discussion.

Our job isn’t to become talk radio hosts, providing what an Anchorage columnist once described as “a place for people to get together and pool their ignorance.” Far from it; the growing, unmet opportunity for us here is to be trusted guides that help readers navigate through the data smog engendered by a thousand talk radio stations and a million blogs. No less than the news department, our editorial pages must practice “the journalism of verification.”

In a chaos of complexity and choices there are opportunities for those who screen and sort and filter. A barrage of constant spin and ubiquitous marketing creates a market for integrity, transparency and accountability. An arena filled with strident partisanship creates a climate ripe for independence, fairness and moderated tone.

All this will require editors with energy and imagination and publishers with nerves of steel. All will need a high tolerance for ambiguity. We will screw up from time to time as we learn to navigate new pathways. We won’t always like what readers have to say; some of the debate will indeed be out of bounds and need to be reigned in; and established constituencies (inside the paper and in the community) will object as new voices are heard and new constituents empowered. So be it.

You also realize, of course, that you need to do all this without adding any people or spending any extra money. That again.

What that means, of course, is that we will have to stop doing some of what we do now, and find ways to do other things differently. The notion of always needing two or three locally written editorials, filling exactly the same space as those we produced yesterday, seems outdated to me. Maybe we should husband our staff research and writing resources for occasions when we clearly have something special to add to the debate, meanwhile devoting staff and energy to some of these other embracing activities. Maybe we can enlist dedicated citizens and readers to help us manage and police the online forums we create, or to help us monitor the behavior of all the local water boards and fire districts (or whatever those are in your states). (Maybe you will have better, more creative ideas than me.)

I’m not naïve about how difficult it will be to change the orientation of some traditional editorial boards, or how difficult it will be to achieve some of these objectives even with willing participants. But the only solution is to make a start and keep moving. The stakes are high; we risk irrelevancy if we do not.

I'd love to hear what you think about these questions. You can comment here, of course, or send me thoughts at hweaver (at), and I'll report back on what I learn.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Standards for online content

Dan Gillmor has a thoughtful post today – In Blogosphere, Honor Should Rule – that offers some very practical guidelines and links for helping establish and enforce standards for online commentary. As we ramp up for more and more conversation and interactivity at our sites, these issues will become even more important.

I was especially interested in the set of "community guidelines" available online at blogher, an association of female bloggers.

And I've always liked the metaphor that suggests moderators of online forums should think of themselves as saloon keepers: you want people to come in, make noise, argue and even get rowdy – but when they start spitting on the floor or hurting people, throw 'em out.

P.S. Apologies for lack of posting in recent days. It got busy around here. (Still is).

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Memorable remarks from Stan Tiner

One of the best moments of the recent ASNE convention for me came at the very beginning, when I sat with editors of smaller newspapers at an opening luncheon to hear Biloxi's Stan Tiner deliver a rousing, stemwinder of a speech. I got a copy and posted the whole thing here, and I recommend it.

Here's a sample:

If you come here today expecting to hear more depressing news, I suggest you have come to the wrong place – for this day we are going to cast off the sackcloth and ashes, we are going to forget the four horsemen of the apocalypse, and the voices of gloom and doom, and we are going to celebrate the wondrous past, present and future of journalism and the opportunities for public service that we are blessed to have as editors of American newspapers, with the emerging power of our websites, and all other platforms available to us, which extend our reach and possibility far beyond that of any preceding generation.

Are we challenged as never before, have we had to learn to multi-task and to carry heavy loads we never thought possible, have we had to learn new technology, and have we had to do more with less than editors in the recorded history of our profession – you betcha. But there is something liberating in knowing that not only have we survived all of this, but for those who have survived, we are smarter, more capable, and more nimble than we thought possible. That which does not kill us makes us stronger, and all of we brothers and sisters of ink on paper and the internet, video, podcasts, and niche publishing are powerful managers of news content and information. Never forget that!

Bill Moyers Journal and the Washington Bureau

Here's a YouTube preview of a forthcoming PBS report that once again notes the outstanding work Knight Ridder Washington did in covering the prelude to war in Iraq. Bureau Chief John Walcott appears at about two minutes; reporters Warren Strobel and Jonathan Landay follow. Personally, I can't wait to see the whole thing.