Saturday, February 18, 2006

Missing some posts

If you've been checking in, you'll notice a couple of recent posts are missing here. For once, it wasn't my fault. Apparently blogger lost a database and wasn't able to restore everything. I'll reconstruct if I get time.

Here's their notice:

Saturday, February 18, 2006

We’re experiencing some problems with one of our databases. Some posts may not be saved, and other, saved posts, may not be visible in the app. Working on fixing this now…

Update, 12:44PM: This has been sorted out. We’re continuing to investigate the root cause and why our monitoring didn’t catch it sooner, but
Blogger is back to functioning normally. Posts made from now on will be saved.

I’m very sorry to say that, if your blog was on this database, posts and template changes made in the last 18 hours or so were not saved. They may appear on your blog now, but will disappear if you republish. If you made a post between Friday afternoon and now, we suggest that you look at your list of posts (“Posting” tab, “Edit posts” sub-tab) and compare it with what is published on your blog. If posts are missing, copy them from your blog pages before you republish.

Major apologies to those of you who were affected. We work hard to maintain Blogger as a trustworthy place to keep your writing, and we really hate to let you down.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Stop sending email

To introduce you all to this blog, I set up an email rule that forwards to you all the notifications I get whenever anybody posts a comment here. (That's why any message with the words "Etaoin Shrdlu" in the subject line got forwarded to all of you; sorry, Dan.)

On the theory that folks who are interested will now be checking in here from time to time on their own, I'm going to turn that feature off. If any of you wish to continue receiving notices, send me an email at and I can make a list based on individual names, rather than groups (like mcc managing editors, etc).

How old is too old?

I made a quick visual survey of your front pages today and noticed that almost all of them had a story with a headline like Cheney Victim Has Heart Attack.

But didn’t nearly everybody in America – or at least the ones smart enough to read newspapers – know that the day before they saw your papers? As I recall the news arrived here before lunch. It was on cable and all over the internet immediately. It was on all the netwoirk news shows. And for those who missed all that, it was the lead item on Letterman, Leno and The Daily Show, too.

One paper took a slightly different tack: Hunter’s heart attack/ adds to glare on Cheney. That advances the story into the new day and seems much more appropriate to me.

One editor expressed concern that stories where we rely on wire or Washington reports often don’t offer choices to make that feasible. What’s your experience? Should we have handled this story differently? If so, did you have the tools to do that?

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Confusion to our enemies

A favorite toast in the British navy used to be "confusion to our enemies." With that in mind, this:

Just a suggestion

When I moved into the corporate offices here in 1995, email was an afterthought. Chris Hendricks and I were the only people in the place who used it enough to care much about whether it worked, and it wasn't unusual for us to go a couple of days waiting for somebody in IT to fix it. Obviously, it took root, and an email outage now is treated like the phones being down.

I want to suggest a further iteration: that you need to get comfortable reading and managing blogs and other RSS feeds. It can be a pain, particularly if you oversubscribe or find the email notifications bothersome, but there is a hell of a lot of valuable information available that you won't get any other way.

My advice: find somebody at your place who knows the ropes and ask him or her to set you up with a user-friendly RSS reader -- one they can help you master. They come in all flavors – Windows, Mac, standalone, web-based, you-name-it. Find one you feel comfortable with and start slowly. Identify and use a few sources that are providing info you really care about. Try it for a month before you decide whether or not to stick with it.

Your "blogroll" – the list of blogs and feeds you monitor – will be different than mine. But you can look at mine and pick some blogs as starting points if you want at


Sunday, February 12, 2006

Making things simpler

I want to call your attention to an engaging story in the Business section of today's New York Times, a profile of advertising innovator Robert Greenberg. He's a fascinating guy and the story does a good job describing how and why he thinks advertising is changing fundamentally.

But specifically, I'd like to encourage you to think about the central thesis of his argument, because I think it speaks as much to what we do as to the advertising side of the house. As I read it, the money paragraph is this:
The background music in Mr. Greenberg's little symphony is, of course, the Internet and other technological leaps like the cellphone, which are upending the advertising and marketing industries in much the same way that they have begun to turn businesses as varied as media, entertainment, retail and communications on their heads ... "I think things are going to get infinitely more complex," he adds, "and the challenge is about taking things that are infinitely complex and making them simpler and more understandable."
This has application to what we do on every platform, but it's especially true about the newspaper. I wrote Wednesday about the paper's emerging role as a daily briefing that helps orient people awash in the data smog of modern life. You're adopting crucial techniques like the Five-Minute Bee, front-page summaries, rails, layers of information and the like. The questions embrace design, story selection, types of content.

Have you seen The Week magazine? It's positioned as "Everything you need to know about everything that matters," and the print magazine is a good collection of overviews, sumamries, digests and the like. I'd recommend looking at a copy.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

More good reasons for editors to blog

I want to move Anders' secondary post from the “Sharing” thread up here to highlight it and make a related point:

Anders said: A second, somewhat off-point comment, has to do with editor blogs and the importance of attaching them to ongoing news stories. This week, as the cartoon dispute has played out, we've been running a blogs that gotten very strong response and some of the best, most thoughtful and also emotional discussion we could have hoped for. Here's the link:

This is a close cousin to a point I wanted to make, as well. Namely, that nearly anything you do now is liable to get much closer and more critical attention than ever before. Sometimes it will be fair, sometimes not, but it’s going to command attention and you need to be alert to it.

Editor blogs can be key in these situations, as well.

Many of you have already experienced the wrath of the blogosphere. Others will.

Here are a couple of examples of how partisan critiques can surface around what might seem like routine coverage to you. Two AP stories last Wednesday drew attention from bloggers: a report about Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid’s donations from Jack Abramoff, and another that suggested Libby had Cheney’s permission to leak some classified material in support of the Iraq invasion. The folks at PowerLine argued sourcing and emphasis and asked whether the Libby piece was “The Dumbest News Story Ever?” while commentary at dailykos was savage in dissecting how the AP story missed the point about Reid; they also called a number of sources involved and asked if AP had bothered to check with them. (Most said no).

That’s an interesting new development: the critics at kos weren’t just complaining about the coverage; they provided alternative reporting and made some telling points. Left unanswered (as, of course, they were) their critique left me feeling the AP story had missed something.

Maybe it did, maybe it didn’t; the point is, for thousands of partisan readers at the dailykos website, that was the lasting take-away.

It will take time to learn how and when we need to respond to attacks, what we can learn by reading our critics closely, when to join debates in outside arenas and when to just comment on our own sites.

Sharing your experience in such matters can certainly help smooth the learning curve for us all.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

How easy is sharing?

I spotted this post on the editors' blog in Modesto the other day, and it raised an obvious question: how hard/easy would it be for others to do this?
The traffic accident picture above appeared in The Modesto Bee in recent weeks, and it has a distinctive trait. It was taken not by a Bee staff photographer but by a member of the public. Someone happened onto the scene of an accident and, using a digital camera, took pictures. This is a solid news photo, and we were pleased to be able to offer it to our readers.
Since they obviously have the technical capacity to receive and use reader submissions like this, does that mean everybody can (or easily could) do the same?

I know some of you already do things like this -- the nightclub photos at ADN's "Play" site come to mind, and I know I have seen lots of reader photos on Heraldonline in Rock Hill. What I'm really asking is how much of this capacity/capability can be easily shared? What kinds of sharing (of tools, not content) do we do now?

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.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Our ride on The Long Tail

"If you can tell me where this is going you're worth a zillion dollars. I've never felt the need for a crystal ball as much as I have now," Twist and Shout owner Paul Epstein says. "Things are changing at such a breakneck rate. It's not just the technology. It's the financial underpinnings of that technology."

– From a Rocky Mountain News
story on declining music CD sales

Songs, movies, network TV shows – they’re all on the same slope, with “blockbuster” hits selling ever-fewer copies per capita, even though total consumption of media continues to rise. But as Chris Anderson notes in his continuing analysis of how growing consumer choice affects media production, “It’s not that people aren’t watching films and listening to music, it’s that they are watching different films and different music.”

Different, yes. More accurately, he would say “more varied.” His thesis – called “The Long Tail” – stipulates that once consumers can reach down into the back catalog and select books/movies/songs of their choosing for consumption on their own schedule, they will frequently make those selections at the expense of the mega-hit of the moment. He describes the theory like this:

The theory of the Long Tail is that our culture and economy is increasingly shifting away from a focus on a relatively small number of "hits" (mainstream products and markets) at the head of the demand curve and toward a huge number of niches in the tail. As the costs of production and distribution fall, especially online, there is now less need to lump products and consumers into one-size-fits-all containers. In an era without the constraints of physical shelf space and other bottlenecks of distribution, narrowly-target goods and services can be as economically attractive as mainstream fare.

Does this mean anything to us? I’d guess, yes. The question is, what?

We have profited from fragmentation in other mass media. As three omnipotent broadcast networks morph into hundreds of narrow-interest cable channels, thereby subdividing the audience into ever-smaller slices, our mass reach is amplified. Even as we decline, our lead over number two grows bigger; we’re declining, they’re in free-fall.

I think this makes our traditional role in providing the common vocabulary for the community’s civic conversation more important than ever. That’s the good news.

The challenge is that hanging onto that (relatively) mass audience is harder all the time. You’re competing not only with CBS and USA Today, but also the History Channel, Howard Stern on Sirius satellite radio and the latest PlayStation game. The proliferation of catalog that defines the Long Tail adds even more choices for busy people who were already too distracted to pay much attention to the newspaper.

Hence our continued insistence on making content more compelling. It’s competing against much stiffer competition and won’t win with one hand tied behind its back.

  • How interesting was the most compelling story on your front page?
  • How many days per week is the front page truly compelling?

The same imperative likewise explains our efforts at extending into continuous, multiplatform operations. We need every tool at our disposal.

  • How often was your website updated with breaking local stories today?
  • If a staffer wants to try something new, how hard would it be to get started?

The good news is that we're working with powerful tools. Add Star Tribune penetration to the unduplicated reach of and you’ve touched 62.2% of the adults in the Twin Cities. In Sacramento, the Bee newspaper and its three affiliated websites combine for 67.6%. Any other media company would kill for those numbers.

So, what's the single best thing you're doing that some of your cousins could easily steal?

Monday, February 06, 2006

Readers can’t wait to participate

If you’re like me, you watch the “comments” link on blogs and forums for some idea of how popular an item is, or how much it resonated with the audience.

Well, how about this feature on the Anchorage Daily News site, where the comments on the last four items totaled 56, 77, 84 and 77.

Not bad, huh?

The item is “Name That 'Toon,” featuring a drawing by ADN editorial cartoonist Peter Dunlap-Shohl for which readers submit proposed captions. Not only do scores of readers send in suggestions each week, they also read through the forum and comment on one another’s proposals.

A description of the process, from their website:

How this works: Each Wednesday we'll publish an Alaska-themed political cartoon that's begging for a caption.

Your mission: Supply a fitting punch line. Click on 'add new comment' at left to submit a caption and watch this page to see captions submitted by others. A panel of cartoon connoisseurs will select the winner. Judges will consider wit, aptness and originality. The winning caption and two runners-up will be published in Sunday's paper in the Opinion section and the winning caption will also be published online, along with the author's name. (Sorry, Daily News employees and relations, you're ineligible to win.)

What other features generate lots of reader reaction for you?

Saturday, February 04, 2006

What can we learn from the Post?

A McClatchy interactive journalist recently emailed to ask, “Given the recent Washington Post difficulties with unruly online users, have we lessened our resolve to offer more reader interaction on stories?”

I told him my take-away from the Washington Post experience is that we need more involvement with readers, not less. I think there are important lessons to be learned from that episode, to be sure, but retreat and isolation can't be among them.

Some of you are blogging, and many have bloggers on staff. Several of the websites allow reader comments and some let readers originate content. At least a couple enjoy the distinction of having blogs aimed directly at their paper. Everybody involved in these things is likely to know at least as much about this as I do, but I’ll start the discussion with these broad thoughts.

This issue is at the root of the changing relationship between producers and consumers of news. From now on, you’re going to be fact-checked and second-guessed and criticized all the time, from all quarters. You have some control over how this happens on your own sites, but none at all beyond that.

What we can control is the attitude we bring to it, our willingness to engage in the process and our ability to take a punch. My position is that while the exchanges won’t always be fair, they will almost always be helpful if we can handle things appropriately.

We do have a responsibility for content in our papers and on our sites. I don’t propose to abdicate that. There’s no value in letting people call us (or others) kike-nigger-nazi-fuckers. There’s much value in controlling against that sort of behavior and its ugly cousins.

But the perimeters of debate are much, much broader nowadays. If you want to insist on fact-checking every contention or rejecting anything that looks ad hominem, you’ll be missing much of the point. My editorial page editor in Anchorage used to look at some of the mail we got and say, “Well, stamps are cheaper than therapy.” That’s doubly true online.

More worrisome, to me, is the capability of a few trolls to completely hijack a discussion, moving it so far off topic and digressing into such a swamp that it simply loses utility for most readers. There are plenty of pixels elsewhere to waste of those digressions, and we need to find ways to keep our efforts useful for our audiences.

We will need to police against these ills, including extreme incivility and topic hijacking, and old favorites like libel. Doing so will involve touch as much as it does proscription. I can’t think of any way to learn except trying.

There seemed to be a couple of obvious take-aways from the Post fiasco.

  • They waited way too long to address complaints about the accuracy of Deborah Howell’s assertion, apparently because they had a policy of correcting column errors in the column itself, and were waiting a week for her next outing. Well, if I got 700 email complaints (and knew we were wrong), I hope I’d react quicker;
  • Her initial correction was grudging – narrow and, I thought, tendentious. Her fall-back (that Abramoff may not have given donations, but did direct them) didn’t really hold up well to analysis – which the blogosphere readily supplied. There’s no quick refuge, no easy out in this kind of firestorm.
  • The paper’s reasons for halting blog posts, then removing them, then putting some back were confusing at best. Even if you take each of the evolving explanations at face value (and, basically, I do), the lack of clear reasons and plain talk certainly added fuel to their critics.
  • The blogosphere has an incredible reach. The Post suggested that profanity played a role in deleting some posts; only hours later some blogger had found a transcript of a 1993 Howell interview where she said “motherfucker.”
  • An old pol in Juneau told me years ago, “Son, if you give your enemy a stick, he’ll beat you with it.” So true.
Here are some links if you want to read more about this.

One of the harshest, meanest critics is Jane Hamsher, who write at Huffington Post and her own site, firedoglake.

Jay Rosen has written a lot about this at Press Think.

There are links to a lot what the Post has written, and more, at this page.

I'm curious about what you think of all this, too.


Friday, February 03, 2006

Click the word "comments"

Anders spotted what the web guys would call a "user interface design flaw" on this blog: if you want to append a comment, you need to click the word "comments" and not the little envelope, which sends email.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Newspapers in drivetime

Somewhere recently I read a short item in which Robert Siegel said that every time he saw a photo of a long traffic jam on the interstate, he silently gave thanks for conditions that trapped all those people in cars where all they could do was listen to the radio.

What if they could listen to the newspaper, instead?

Particularly from our vantage point here in California, the idea of reaching people during commute time is mighty attractive. All our papers are honing production cycles and tuning distribution systems to get the paper on doorsteps by 5:30 or even 5:00 am. (Watch them closely or they’ll also want to push back deadlines, as if papers with late scores are a real win …)

So what if they could subscribe to a podcast that iTunes automatically downloaded to the home computer sometime overnight? (I already get a couple of newspaper columnist podcasts delivered this way; it's trivially easy). You could then transfer it to an iPod while the coffee brewed and then listen on the drive to work, couldn't you?

It would be great if we could produce a couple of versions – maybe one for a 20-minute drive, and another for a half-hour. I wonder how staff time it would take to produce something like this? Maybe a radio station that doesn't normally do much drivetime news would be interested in partnering, or a college class of some kind ...

Has anybody tried anything like this?
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 ( 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.
Managing creative destruction

Like me, you’ve probably heard endlessly about that 2004 Pew survey that found 45% of readers believe “little or nothing” of what they read in the paper. Outside critics and hand-wringers inside the industry repeat it over and over again.

But almost nobody mentions this result from a more recent Pew study, which was done a year later in 2005: people surveyed gave newspapers an 80-20 favorable/unfavorable rating, higher than President Bush, the Supreme Court, Congress or either political party.

We have strong reputations and widespread trust. But both are being attacked and eroded all the time, and we need to work actively to preserve and extend them.

We’ve talked about a number of ways to increase transparency and nurture trust amongst readers. Here are some that I can recall. I’d love to hear what else you think we could or should be doing:

  • Doing accuracy surveys, mailed questionnaires
    • You can report to readers periodically on the results
    • Inviting readers to join daily news conferences and editorial board meetings
    • One-week stints at each meeting would provide more than 100 local citizens with an inside look at how you do business
  • Writing regular columns about the making of the newspaper – decisions, incidents, feedback etc
  • Using “How I Got That Story” opportunities to show readers what goes into reporting stories
  • Encouraging appropriate staffers to speak at public events, classrooms, civic clubs and so forth
  • Thinking about an editor’s blog? (Ask Melanie and Mark how it’s going for them).
  • Minimizing the use of anonymous sources, and enforcing strict standards for those that do appear
    • Any anonymous sources in the paper should be accompanied by as much detailed explanation as practical: why they needed to be anonymous, what their motive for speaking was, what their interest in the matter might be
    • Making use of the web as a way to authenticate, annotate stories where appropriate?
    • This can include transcripts, links to original source documents, supplementary materials, alternative points of view
  • Opening up both editorials and many stories for easy feedback via email or an online blog/forum.
  • Opening up letters to the editor to more readers by publishing online those that don’t make the cut for the printed page.
  • Establishing a back-and-forth thread for comments on letters will increase both freuqnecy and intensity of readership
Managing creative destruction

From a note to McClatchy editors, October 2005:

This morning I listened to a long piece on NPR about the movie business, a fascinating examination of how it’s being fundamentally reshaped to reflect changing markets and technologies. The same story often is told about the music business, where I’ve watched with interest as first Napster and then Steve Jobs turned Sony and Disney on their heads.

It’s easy to see (and even kind of fun to watch) this process of “creative destruction” as it reshapes those businesses. My life got better when I could download songs from iTunes at midnight; that’s probably not so true for the guy who runs CD marketing for Sony Music.

Here’s something you already know as we approach the end of the 2006 budget season: it’s neither fun nor easy when this kind of change arrives at the newspaper. But arrive it has.

One of those ubiquitous Death Of Newspapers stories (this one at Business 2.0) described it this way: “With readers increasingly heading online to get their daily news, newspapers no longer generate the cash they need to reinvent their business models and retain their fleeing younger readers.”

Lucky for us that’s wrong.

In fact, it’s just about 180-degrees off true. We’re in a good position to “reinvent our business models” – and, more importantly, to preserve our mission – precisely because we are acting now, when we still have large audiences, powerful content, strong cash flow and the financial stability to do so deliberately. If we stick with business-as-usual on a path to the nightmare scenario at the S.F. Chronicle, that opportunity will continually erode. Playing this game from a position of weakness will be infinitely harder and less fun than what we’re doing now.

This is true because while we are still strong and financially healthy, our net resources are no longer growing faster than expenses, which makes choices imperative. We will be judged by how well we make the choices we are now forced to address.

That’s why we need your focus, intensity and execution now more than ever before.

Change is hard for everybody, everywhere, but it is particularly challenging to change a successful operation. We do indeed have a strong legacy worth preserving, and we’re not about to abandon the franchise newspapers that have always been our central focus. That makes sense in terms of our mission and our business plan.
But when coupled with the imperative for innovation and extension – as you are all discovering – that legacy frames hard choices. It’s easy enough to sit here and say, “We’ll have to give up some of what we’ve traditionally done.” It’s way different to figure out what to lose.

In Rock Hill, for example, editors have decided they can rely more extensively on art and graphics from non-staff sources (including the new McClatchy NewsDesk). They have devoted what was an editing position to ensuring that the newsroom extends its presence online. Sacramento has already done that. In Minneapolis, a number of assignments that formerly employed two staffers now have one, allowing them to reallocate and staff adequately for new tasks arising from the redesign. Raleigh has extended zoned coverage without additional staff. Many of you will discover that using wire or other non-staff coverage on certain topics frees up people you can devote to more strategic priorities.

None of those decisions would arise from our traditional way of thinking. All of them, and more like them, will be necessary as we learn how best to serve tomorrow’s readers.

There are no bromides, no pat solutions. We’ll have to work through this case-by-case and paper-by-paper. I have no higher priority than helping you do that, and I’m available any time.
Publishing, primates & pattern recognition

My fellow primates --

Alone in the animal kingdom, ours is the order that decided to bet its evolutionary future on the development of a large and complex brain.

As a species, we are not fast runners, our teeth are dull and our claws hardly useful at all, and thus it was evolutionarily critical for us to scan the African veldt and quickly determine whether that flicker of movement was the shadow of a cloud or a tiger lying in wait. As a result, our primate brains have evolved a notable capacity for pattern recognition. We are not only capable but absolutely hard-wired to scan multiple images; to make to distinctions; to select, sort and discriminate amongst items.

Happily for all of us here today, these are all activities especially well suited to reading a broadsheet newspaper. In spreading ink on paper, we ply a craft whose roots reach back to the fifteenth century, but it remains compelling today precisely because it is anchored at the very foundation of the human capacity to learn. We should not be surprised to find that a doubletruck newspaper page on the Iraq war with three stories, a large informational graphic and a couple of well-constructed charts yields a far richer and more satisfying information experience than the soundtrack spoken over a flickering satellite videophone image of the same bomb exploding over and over somewhere in the nighttime sky above Baghdad.

The human being’s physical capacity for pattern recognition also seems to be paired with a deep-seated psychological need for order. Newspapers are likewise uniquely situated to satisfy this primal need -- to bring coherence to a world that sometimes seems to be unraveling all around us.

Let’s think for a moment about how newspapers can capitalize on these two basic human traits: pattern recognition and the need for coherence.

I honestly believe that most of the persistent, misguided talk you hear about the inevitable demise of newspapers is based on one simpleminded fact: that the act of printing words on paper simply seems out-dated. Because these critics and naysayers do not realize that we’re appealing to basic human capacities and meeting basic, primal needs, they mistakenly conclude that the service we provide will be easily replaced by some flashier, more beguiling product -- any day now.

But the fact is that while text seems old fashioned, it remains by far the most efficient way to transfer complex information. As information specialist Edward Tufte delights in pointing out, we typically listen to spoken words at somewhere between 100 and 160 words per minute, but read somewhere between 300 and a thousand.

Add to that the fact that a well-selected picture or illustration really may be worth a thousand words, and you quickly realize that the good old-fashioned newspaper remains the best and fastest way to move information into your head. Satellite TV and the World Wide Web haven’t changed that.

Printed text enjoys others advantages, as well.

To put a fancy name to it, text is asynchronous. That means you don’t have to listen to the story in the order that I speak it, or watch the photos when I get around to broadcasting them. Think about how much easier it is to deal with 10 email messages – yours to scan, answer, delete or set aside at a glance – as opposed to listening to 10 voicemail messages on the phone.

Printed text is also permanent by comparison, which can also be a considerable advantage over what Tufte has described as “a small chunk of promptly vanishing information [appearing] in a relentless one-way sequence.”

Writing is a kind of magic. A freelancer once described his laptop as “a magic box,” showing observers the keyboard and explaining: “All I have to do is press these keys in the right order and people will send me money.”

Good reporting and writing enjoy their special potency for a very specific but seldom understood reason: writing transfers power.

Imagine that I spent 10 hours researching and writing an article that takes you 10 minutes to read. I have effectively given you the benefits of 10 hours energy expended for the price of 10 minutes energy spent -- a wondrous bargain if ever there was one. Fortunately for those of us on the writing side of the equation, this can work as a win/win situation because there are so many more readers than writers, and all those 10-minute expenditures add up ...

Thus it is that newspapers play to the human capacity for pattern recognition by harnessing the power of text and image. What about that other thing that I was talking about -- the need for coherence?

Here we bring out the big guns, the ultimate weapon: the power of storytelling.

I have become well known to some friends and colleagues -- perhaps tiresomely so -- for asserting that the four most powerful words in the world are these: Tell me a story. Our panelists want to take the occasion of our gathering here today to explore that idea with you, partly because good storytelling can be so valuable to newspapers, but also because it is essential to democratic society itself.

We know what it means to hear a daughter or a nephew look up and ask, “Tell me a story.” It is the same request each of us makes when we stand in line for tickets to the new Lord of the Rings movie, or buy that novel everybody's talking about.

But we may not realize that we’re all making that request, almost all the time.

“Tell me a story” is really what we’re asking when we go to church or temple and ask a spiritual leader to help us understand the world. We’re looking for coherence, for order, for tools to help us get a grip on the slippery reality all around us. You go to church with the unspoken request: Tell me a story.

We make the same demand of politicians and elected leaders, asking them to explain how they propose to organize the world affairs we have entrusted to them. In a presidential debate, we’re really listening to hear which candidate’s story resonates most with us. John Kennedy’s story about passing the torch to a new generation was powerfully persuasive; so was Ronald Reagan’s – It’s morning in America -- and Bill Clinton’s -- I believe in a place called Hope.

And you remember Al Gore’s story, of course?

Right. Neither does anybody else, and there is also a powerful lesson there for storytellers everywhere.

This is one of the most fundamental demands we make of our leaders: Tell me a story.

And it is also what people expect from reporters.

It is hardly unusual at journalism conventions or newsroom gatherings to talk about our allegiance to the truth, or the necessity of fearlessness, or the need for independence. All those things are true, and I hope you will consider me to have endorsed them all in the most vigorous possible manner here today.

But I want to end my remarks with a different observation, instead. Rather than talking about the protections and privileges of the journalist, I want to remind you of an obligation.

When he was asked why he brought along a choir and a piano player to the revival meetings, the circuit-riding preacher answered, “Son, you can’t convert ‘em until you get ‘em inside the tent.”

You need to be thinking about that at your newspaper every day. People who aren’t reading the paper are never going to know how well you covered the city council elections, or how insightful your analysis of the budget deficit might have been. You’re just not going to enlighten ‘em unless you get ‘em inside the tent.

And while that’s essential, it is not sufficient. After you get ‘em inside the tent, you need to be sure they believe what they’re hearing.

In January 1994, I was in Mexico City visiting friends when the confrontation between the Mexican government and Zapatista rebels in Chiapas burst into the headlines. None of the intelligent, educated, middle-class Mexicans I was staying with believed either their government or the press. They watched television news of the rebels mainly to look for what wasn’t shown; they disavowed newspapers, dismissed commentary, whether from Reforma or the New York Times. Their capacity for trust had been so fundamentally eroded that no argument from me could persuade them otherwise.

And in that encounter, I saw how the absence of credible media left them terribly crippled as citizens, how fundamentally helpless they were to engage the issues and seek the solutions their society so clearly needs. If they cannot agree even on the dimensions of the problems, they can hardly begin to shape solutions. Because they had no faith in their press to “speak the truth to power” they were left captive of gossip and rumors. To them the most credible information tended to be something like, “My cousin’s boyfriend knows a man who works in the ministry and he told them that …”

Watching them struggle to talk about their future when they didn’t even have a vocabulary for describing the present left me even more profoundly convinced about the vital role we play in America’s fourth estate. It reminds me – and should remind you – that we must not only perform honestly and fearlessly in our pursuit of truth, but that we must find ways of doing so that sustain and advance our credibility with the citizens who depend upon us.

Perhaps you have heard about the educator who said, “I was teaching, but they weren’t learning,” an assertion we can easily see is simply, axiomatically wrong. Let me warn you that the same logic applies to each of us: You can’t say “I was writing but they weren’t reading” without attaching much of the fault to yourself.

Yes, it is undeniably true that this is a particularly challenging time to be in the mass media news business. Audiences have fragmented as never before, lured by a proliferation of news sources and entertainments that provide variety and specialization, although often little by way of verification or credibility. Our readers and viewers are busier than ever, working more jobs, raising families singlehandedly, learning to speak English for the first time. Yes, it is hard to reach them. But we must.

If we do not, we will of course be failures. We’ll lose our audiences, our readers, our advertisements and our paychecks. But that will all be trivial compared to the loss society as a whole will face.

The simple truth is that without a common vocabulary, there can be no shared civic conversation – and without that engagement of citizens, there can be no democracy.

And that’s what makes our storytelling so important.

When I worked at the Anchorage Daily News, we used to talk about these matters in terms of what we called the “tribal fires.” The idea takes its origins from the notion that early humans in groups and tribes must surely have sat around and told stories while gathered at the tribal fire. They would have talked about the successful recent hunting adventure, or a raid by a neighboring village, or perhaps simply have listened to the wisdom of the eldest woman in the group. All together, those stories would have formed the basis of their community.

At the Daily News, we wanted to be Alaska’s tribal fire, the place where Alaskans gathered to tell the stories that defined themselves as a people. That same aspiration is alive and engaged at the newspaper today, and it is one in which you all can readily and profitably share. You’re the storytellers, and the power and the magic of a tale well told rests well within your grasp.

I can think of no more meaningful or rewarding profession, and I thank you for the opportunity to share these thoughts about it with you here today.