Tuesday, June 17, 2008

What we will not do is quit

In the comments following my post yesterday you’ll find an especially thoughtful criticism from Jim Richardson, a longtime colleague who left The Sacramento Bee and the business some years ago. (A gifted political reporter and author, I can’t even say Jim “went over to the dark side,” since he left here for divinity school and is now a priest.)

You can find his remarks in the comment thread from yesterday, but here’s the nut graf:

What I find lacking is a conversation about journalism. How will this impact the core mission of the newspapers to cover our communities, states, the nation and the world? It is fine to talk about strategy and revenues, and the economics of the news business. But that I expect from Gary Pruitt. I especially want to hear you of all people talk about journalism in this environment. How will reporters and editors do their jobs? What's your vision for journalism is this environment? It is fine to say the survivors who are left should focus on their jobs, but how? Doing what? What will not be covered? What beats are going by the boards? And I ask this as a member of the Sacramento community who depends on my newspaper to cover the community and the state. The Sacramento Bee has 151 years of credibility. What are you going to do with it as journalists?

First, I’d say that while yesterday’s post wasn’t much about journalism, this whole blog is. We’ve been talking since 2006 about precisely these issues -- more questions than answers, as a rule, but that’s the nature of reinvention, isn’t it? We truly are going to have to do things differently.

Secondly, let me follow the old city desk advice to be specific rather than general. Hours after the layoffs were announced yesterday, newsrooms in Raleigh and Charlotte made another announcement: the two are, in effect, combining sports staffs, N.C. capitol bureaus and libraries and will be coordinating features coverage. This means fewer editors and more reporters, less duplication, more coverage. In N&O Editor John Drescher’s words to me, “We’re going to be breaking more news and producing more enterprise.”

The memo to staffs there included this summary:

These are bold moves for two outstanding newspapers. We believe that they will help ensure that these papers continue to set the standard for excellence in journalism across North Carolina for many years to come.

We also have many details yet to work out. For that, we’ll need your full support, talent, patience and problem-solving skills. So, please join in and help us now build on these ideas and make them a success.

In an era of stretched resources, our newspapers are very fortunate that we have this opportunity. There are few places in the United States where sister newspapers are as naturally aligned in terms of journalistic values and geography. We want to take full advantage of it for the benefit of all of our readers.

This is part of the way we’ll do it, Jim. McClatchy’s new scale helps with content sharing, allowing papers to stop covering some traditional stories, using colleagues’ work instead and devoting scarce resources to other, unduplicated efforts. (Technology makes this much easier.)

You may remember times when the Sacramento, Modesto and Fresno Bee papers all had separate staffers at the same event. For good (mostly) and ill, that’s over.

I recall a day not long ago when the Sacramento Bee ombudsman criticized his paper for sending only about a dozen staffers to cover some Southern California wildfires. I thought at the time that was misguided; if it happened today, I’d be furious. While there will always be good reasons to send special talents to remote events – a great photographer, perhaps, or a compelling columnist – I flatly dispute the logic of sending a dozen Bee staffers hundreds of miles simply to have staff bylines on a story being covered by hundreds of L.A. Times and other local journalists whose work we can publish and link to. We’re doing things differently now.

McClatchy’s new scale also allows us to share the robust, original journalism of national and international staffers overseas and in Washington. I’ll point with great pride to the series currently featured in our papers and online, Guantanamo: Beyond the Law, as a splendid example of public service journalism that only a committed professional news operation can support. These stories spanned eight months reporting in 11 countries, tracking down more than 60 former detainees who didn’t necessarily want to be found. And they told Americans something they very much need to know.

Finally, I’d point to other efficiencies we’re actively pursuing in order to sustain resourses devoted to journalism. Here’s one: yesterday we also announced a strategic partnership intended to take advantage of upgraded printing capabilities at Pioneer Newspaper facilities in Washington and Idaho to print two of our papers there. Similar discussions naturally are underway elsewhere, as are deals to share distribution forces with neighboring (sometimes competitive) papers, to outsource work outside our core mission, to expand into growing, profitable niches like speciality magazines, and so forth.

Honest to God (sorry, Jim), it really is about reinvention. We’re not just saying that. We’re doing it. Seminars and conferences and workshops aren’t the answer. We need to produce. Asked about some of this by Editor & Publisher today, I said "we are at a place where we have to demonstrate that our plan will work -- we have to perform ..."

We won’t get it all right, certainly not the first time around – and when we screw up, as you see here, we have friends, colleagues and others readily at hand to help point that out.

What we will not do is stand still, and we won’t quit. The work we do is too important, and our commitment too deep for it to be otherwise.


  1. Anonymous2:04 PM

    No matter how you try to dress it up as reinvention of journalism, it is really nothing more than journalism on the cheap, and readers aren't fooled by these economies. It's not even journalism in the argot the American Press Institute peddles today, but demoted to some new class of "content" with reporters being downclassed as "content providers." Strip away the bold words "strategic partnership" and what you find is sharing resources with neighboring papers. That obviously means your feature content is no longer unique and exclusive, and so is discounted, used goods. Is reinventing the newspaper just another way to turn the Bee papers into the Goodwill Industries of journalism in 2008?

  2. Happy to include your prescriptions. Criticism is cheap, too.

  3. I think the problem is that newspapers are cutting journalists while investing in dying manufacturing plants. I think newspapers see their core competency as printing, not journalism. I'm not bashing McClatchy. In fact, the D.C. bureau is the best in the business, as are many of the papers.

    I also agree that papers do a miserable job of allocating their resources, but to me the solution is to increase local coverage by doing a better job of allocation, not to reduce staff and give readers even fewer reasons to subscribe.

  4. Anonymous3:32 PM

    Dear Howard,

    Thank you for your kind words and the introduction. I feel my earlier entry was a bit terse, so I want to elaborate more on this thread. Let me begin by saying I greatly appreciate your willingness to engage in this conversation.

    I understand your points about needed efficiencies in the newsrooms and how duplication of effort is a luxury newspapers can no longer afford. But it reminds me a little of those who say there is huge government waste. Yes, there is. But those are the easy cuts. It seems to me you have moved past the easy cuts and you are cutting into the core mission. You asked for specifics, so I will list a few.

    I am at heart a beat reporter. What I see happening at The Sacramento Bee is that beat reporters are leaving the newspaper, most recently Nancy Teichert, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist who specialized in social service reporting; Dorsey Griffith, the medical writer. Yes, each had personal reasons for leaving. But they are a major loss to The Bee and to journalism. They spent years building their expertise and contacts, an asset that may not show up on McClatchy stockholder statements, but a enormous assets nonetheless.

    Maybe those beats will be covered by others, but apparently with the elimination of the science beat (once held by Deb Blum who won a Pulitzer for The Bee) and the energy/utilities beat. My point here is that significant topics are not being covered, or are being covered more superficially by being folded into the beats of others. If the newspaper is going to become “hyperlocal,” what will that cost in terms of lost coverage? What won’t get covered? The cost isn’t just fewer reporters covering wildfires. Right now it shows as a lack of coverage of University of California Regents meetings; a lack of coverage of the Sacramento River Delta politics and science; a lack of coverage of social welfare agencies; a lack of coverage of SMUD and the community college district. Those beats should be part of the core mission of the newspaper.

    You mention the reinvention of the newsroom, and I agree. Yet it all still feels like the same old top-down management by editors who are not in the field and who are not well connected to their communities (editors who, quite simply, need to get out more). What I would hope to see is more value placed on the ideas coming from journalists on the beats and editors/news executives more fully engaged in the communities where they live. Here’s an easy idea: Some years ago, Bee editors held a series of community meetings around Sacramento and they were well attended and well received. Lots of good discussion came from those meetings and editors and reporters actually learned some things from the people who read the paper. Maybe it is time to do it again.

    -- Jim

  5. Anonymous4:06 PM

    Right on, Jim. You hit the main points. Let's throw out this reinventing the newspaper stuff, and talk about the basics that made newspapers successful -- local beats. It wasn't meaningless features and news you can use, but old fashioned shoe-leather journalism that made newspapers must read products. Today, the Bee does a fantastic job giving reams of data on local crime which I can leaf through, but where are the stories I used to read about crime that had personalities and people in them. It's as if having made the technology available to readers, editors have said "we have that covered" and so forget about the human interest stories that used to come from having reporters at crime scenes or out with firemen in the streets. To add to the litany of missing beats Jim lists, where is the daily local court coverage, and I find local government coverage woefully inadequate? What happened to the colorful judges who screw up, or the dramatic court trials civil and criminal? I am old enough to remember when reporters covered local civic associations, so if reinventing the newspaper means returning to local, basic coverage, then count me in as a supporter of this project. Get editors out in the communties and ask people what they want to read, and I think you will find honest opinions that will help you. But if reinvention means features on new shopping centers, or teachers-of-the-month, or top 10 things to do Friday night in Sacramento, or pretty pussy cat pictures, then this fight is lost.

  6. Anonymous7:59 PM

    Amen to Jim and the immediately previous Anonymous poster.

    Instead of true creativity and reinvention, what we have at the Bee amounts to shuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic. Those of us who've been there for a while just grit our teeth at yet another reshuffling of metro beats, yet another reinvention of the lifestyle wheel by people who don't have any experience with it and yet more patronizing talk by our new executive editor about how change is hard.

    Problem is, this isn't change. It's tinkering pretending to be change, accomplishing very little other than upsetting people just for the sake of upsetting him.

    And meanwhile, when we ask how we're going to cover more local stories and beats with fewer resources, what we hear from our executive editor -- hell, from almost all of our editors -- amounts to a corporate exercise in denial.

  7. What kind of real change would you suggest to reinvigorate the newspaper?

  8. Anonymous8:53 PM

    Real change? Here's ten ideas:
    1- Change the newsroom culture starting with the top editors. Stop calling yourselves managers. Create a listening process with your people. Do not assume that the higher the editor the wiser the mind. You hired these people. Ask them. Don't be defensive.
    2- Focus on the core beats. What are they? Cover the hell out of them.
    3- Get the editors and execs into the community. Join something. Get out of the building. Don't just talk to each other.
    4- Get the reporters out of the newsroom and off the internet. Go cover something. I haven't seen a Bee reporter in the state Senate in months. Don't tell me nothing is going on.
    5- Stop panicking. The panic shows in the summons of managers at 5 am Monday. A little non-anxious presence with your people will go miles.
    6- Talk to the readers. Hold community meetings (not focus groups). Listen. Listen. Listen.
    7- Cultivate journalists. Trim managers.
    8- Show confidence in what you do and how you do it. You guys are journalists. Really good journalists. Get your swagger back.
    9- Let the business guys deal with strategery. You guys do the journalism. Focus on reporting and writing.
    10 - Don't look for a quick fix. It ain't there.

  9. Anonymous9:48 PM

    Agree with Jim. You're top heavy, too many managers...so...more managers in newsrooms should be given SPECIFIC productive tasks that benefit coverage, or sadly, let go -- new, versatile job descriptions will be required for accountability -- whether that's updating the web site with content, manning the copy desk, or becoming a full time reporter for a lost beat. It should be crystal clear what each employee's role is in producing and distributing content. The key is participating in production, and quality and accuracy is still important, as is presentation. You said it yourself. News gathering journalists know what a challenge it can be working with the public - in person - day in, day out. Writing a story with a phone doesn't count. Not knowing how to update the web site while sitting in the newsroom all day is frankly, comical. Hit the streets and gather compelling content. Walk it like you talk it. Lastly, put more text links -- simple, blue, text links -- on your badly-designed web sites. Just a bunch of text links on the homepage so content is easier to find will do. No more digging. Think Drudge. Or copy Google news layout, or such.

  10. Anonymous10:18 PM

    "Let the business guys deal with strategery. You guys do the journalism. Focus on reporting and writing."

    Hear, hear - someone needs to tack that onto a bulletin board on the 2nd floor.

    The talent in our newsroom is great, we just need to focus on what it is we should be doing, instead of trying to stick all 10 of our fingers into as many different pies as we can.

  11. Anonymous6:38 AM

    Real change?
    1. Get rid of managers.
    2. Only one office meeting per month. Meetings with community leaders/reps in the field is great. Office meetings produce nothing but paper shuffling.
    3. Stop wasting time and effort searching the Internet. It is a repository for stale news. On the street, and back to beats to find what is going on.
    4. Make the content for the Internet, not rewrite the Internet. If it is there, readers will find it and reporters don't have to waste time on it.
    5. Cut the office overhead drastically.

  12. Anonymous7:42 AM

    We've become way too meeting heavy in the Bee newsroom. Meetings solve nothing. They allow managers to schedule their days in tidy blocks and act like they're doing something. Enough with the endless meetings.

    We really do want action, Howard. We're sick of talk about how important our mission is and how we have to plug away because times are tough. We know that.

    We'd just like something beyond the talk.

    And yeah, Jim's right about the panic. Stop panicking yourselves, for God sake, and stop broadcasting your panic downward through the ranks. You're only driving good reporters away to seek jobs in other fields.

  13. Anonymous7:58 AM

    "Let the business guys deal with strategy. You guys do the journalism. Focus on reporting and writing."

    That is the wrong idea. We're all in this mess together along with the ad reps and the truck drivers. The ideas need to come from every corner of the news operation. Sitting with blinders on just focusing on doing what we've always done isn't going to help get us out of the mess. Let's aggressively do whatever we can to save journalism. No one I know has the "right" answer, but we all need to look together; everyone is responsible for the outcome.

  14. Anonymous8:19 AM

    I work at that former McClatchy paper known as the Minneapolis Star Tribune. For much of the past 18 months, I was disappointed that MNI sold us literally on the day after Christmas to a private equity group that doesn't know jack about newspapers.

    Monday was maybe the first time that I was glad we're no longer owned by MNI.

    Howard, you guys are not going to win the perception battle with the people working in the newsrooms. Not as long as Pruitt collects the big bonuses. Not as long as you stay in the swank hotels in Raleigh. The perception is that the corporate suits don't give a damn about the people busting their butts to get news into the paper and present it in a way that is easy to digest.

    While my newspaper has a lot of problems, it some ways it's kind of liberating to know that we're owned by some dudes who simply want to make money. In some ways, they aren't much different than the MNI guys. The only difference is that they don't pretend to care about journalism or the people who work for them.

    And Howard, say hello to Anders for all of us. I'd like to feel sorry for him for what he has to deal with in Miami, but he probably has it coming the way he left Minneapolis knowing what was going to happen to the rest of us. But I'm guessing Anders is doing just fine. I'm sure he's sitting in his office, talking only to his small group of newsroom bosses and not talking at all to anyone actually doing the work.

    Good luck to the folks in the MNI world who are busting their tails each day to put out a good newspaper. And I hope you all sold that stock when it was at $70.

  15. Anonymous9:42 AM

    I agree a lot with what Jim has said:

    1- Change the newsroom culture starting with the top editors. Stop calling yourselves managers. Create a listening process with your people. Do not assume that the higher the editor the wiser the mind. You hired these people. Ask them. Don't be defensive.
    My first manager always told me to hire people who are smarter than you, give them direction, remove their roadblocks and then STAY OUT OF THEIR WAY. As a manager I found that this takes an enormous amount of trust but pays off HUGE. I just wish we did more of this -- it's a business, but we're also a team and teamwork means everyone plays their position. We, as newsroom leaders, should trust that they'll do the best they can if we treat them with respect and make sure they have the right training. When anyone makes mistakes, the important part is to learn from it and never make that mistake again.

    An example of how we don't trust: I'd love not to post as Anonymous, but I know if I don't that my boss will come tell me how I should have posted or not. How do I know I'll get the lecture? 'Cause it's happened the other times I've posted here.

    6- Talk to the readers. Hold community meetings (not focus groups). Listen. Listen. Listen.
    I would change this to talk WITH your readers. We need to trust our readers more now that they've also become self publishers. No, they're not trained journalists, but they're the ones who know what's important to them. Yes, there is news that you should know to be a well-informed citizen, but there's also news you WANT to know. The bigger a paper gets the further it moves away from that type of neighborhood news.

    And I'd add: Find those people in your newsroom who are open to change and let them lead. I'm amazed at the people I work with throughout the company who have wonderful ideas but can't work on them because they're (the ideas or the people) not understood. Sometimes that's because resources aren't available, but it's amazing what people can do when they're challenge with interesting work instead of just too much work. A lot of us just end up doing our "cool" projects in our free time or for personal projects. Shame we're not harnessing that energy for our workplace.

  16. Anonymous10:16 AM

    Sharing content is fine for creating efficiencies in coverage. That's good news.

    There's little reason you should have two properties in a company covering the same event with essentially the same angle when you could flatten the workload and focus some attention elsewhere.

    New content drives traffic. Traffic should generate money (but you must have a solid plan on that end, which, frankly doesn't exist at many newspaper companies). It's pretty simple.

    I cringe when media companies cut news staffs, because they are essentially cutting their lifeblood.

    Shared content does not mean NEW content, which is where your value comes from. Thus, no new money.

    Don't mistake cost cutting with generating revenue.

    If anything McClatchy (and other groups under pressure to cut staff) should be cutting business departments and ad staffs which can be replaced by robots and credit card Web forms (I don't mean to be so harsh, but it is the truth for much of the Web).

  17. Many great ideas and much passion here. Thanks for participating.

    I'm working on a related post that will (presumably) make some of you mad enough to comment again.

    Please do.

  18. Anonymous6:19 PM

    "it really is about reinvention. We’re not just saying that. We’re doing it."

    Some initiatives are very positive: the moms sites, the miami.com site; the continued drum beat in the newsroom to serve the web first. It's clear that your message is coming through loud and clear.

    But here at the local level, in some ways, we seem to be working harder on the appearance of doing than the doing itself.

    Years after identifying it as a problem, our paper's web search is still useless. We still lack static url's. Our top page view every day is 404 not found. We're getting everyone in the newsroom to create 'content' for the web but we have no producers to package it - so our good stuff disappears in hours if not minutes. No long tail here. In fact, no tail at all.

    We have even more layers of management: "multimedia" coordinators from every department - most of whom are strangers to the web culture; all of whom are non-visual, non-creative types.

    We have many managers involved in video initiatives; none are experienced in web video. The guy recently put in charge of news video is not only video illiterate, but computer illiterate as well.

    Our promised - and essential- newsroom tech upgrades won't happen with the budget cuts. Our IT staff is being cut just when we need more. And the dinosaurs in charge of IT will remain, maybe along with our decades-old text system.

    One foot forward, the other back. Some day we'll stop going in circles. Probably when we drop.

    Thanks for letting me be an anonymous cynic.

  19. Anonymous7:09 PM

    Wow, when I started reading that comment, I thought for sure the last Anonymous was talking about Sacramento.

    My question is: If we're so intent on reinvention, why haven't we upgraded the site yet?

    I know. We're working on it. We've been working on it for years. Why hasn't it been done yet? Why does this stuff take so long? Where's the sense of real urgency beyond talk?