The strum und drang around here and on our new wiki McClatchyNext might sound to some like an unruly chorus of confusion about editorial direction at McClatchy. It doesn’t sound that way to me.
As I’ve said many times here and elsewhere, our newsrooms are leading the way into the new media landscape -- growing audience, mastering new techniques, exploring new relationships with audiences. Yes, we have a lot to learn and some disagreement about how to go about it, but the simple, bedrock fact is that more people are reading our work and using our information than ever before.
By the most recent measurement -- first quarter, 2008 -- McClatchy’s online audience growth is up more than 40% from the previous year, which was itself a record. We learn and quickly embrace one new tool after another – most recently, rich, deep databases filled with local information began to appear across the McClatchy network. Yes, we’ve struggled with formats and had some failed communications, but video, alerts, mobile platforms and continuous news are all the norm nowadays. Our somewhat punctuated progress in applying social networking tools to news and community cohesion is about to get much better.
You are manifestly not failing.
Everybody recognizes the challenges we face. Most immediate, at the moment, is revenue. I’ve written a great deal about that in this blog of late and don’t want to rehearse it all again, but the short version is that the shifting competitive landscape (the web, mainly) and cyclical economic downturn (especially real estate, auto sales and hiring) are reducing newspaper company revenues dramatically. We’re making much less than we counted on, so we’re forced into dramatic cost savings, like layoffs.
That hurts, and it’s doubly painful when it also comes at a time when we need to be doing more, not less, for readers and other audiences. Shrink the newsroom staff while we demand more productivity? How can that be possible?
At the same time, enormous opportunity beckons. For the first time in my life, newspaper newsrooms can compete and win on breaking news. We’ve got video capabilities, access to vast realms of electronic research, pocket-sized cellphone cameras in every pocket. We can survey audiences, update stories continuously as events dictate, post reader comments seconds after articles have appeared.
We can’t go back – and I wouldn’t if we could. I’m not willing to give up what the internet, digital cameras, laptops and smart phones mean in my life. Nobody else will, either.
Utopian or distopian? At the moment, things feel precisely like the condition social theorist Fredric Jameson described as “the postmodern sublime” – the simultaneous apprehension of dread and ecstasy. Will CareerBuilder’s trustworthiness and value-added features be able to compete with the fraud-and-freebies world of Craigslist? Will readers value verified and edited stories more than group-sourced wikinews? Can somebody figure out how to pay for the professionalism we think these tasks demand?
And will somebody discover a cure for baldness and aging before the terrorist biologist brews up a virus that eats us all? Stay tuned for the conclusion in a future episode.