Quit bellyaching and get to work
With readership, advertising, staffing, newshole and public esteem declining, the industry has plenty to be worried about. So, yes, these are tough times, challenging times, even scary times.
But they could turn out to be the best of times, if journalists quit feeling sorry for themselves and start working on winning the hearts and minds of readers with creative, captivating coverage.
People in the newspaper business today have an unprecedented opportunity to overhaul an 18th Century, Rip Van Winkle-like institution that suddenly woke with a start to find itself smack dab in the middle of the Internet Age. Because the newspaper model has not changed appreciably since Benjamin Franklin was a lad, today’s journalists are in the right place at the right time to remake this vital institution in their own image.
Thanks to the explosive technological developments that have occurred since I started pounding a manual Underwood for living three decades ago, journalists are wondrously equipped with resources that were unimaginable in 1970.
Today’s journalists can locate information and research massive databases instantly via the Internet – a capability unheard of just 10 years ago. They can analyze and process information with enormously powerful computing technology that gets better by the year. They can gather and communicate information in real time with digital cameras, cell phones, computerized graphics, laptop computers and pagination systems – all powered by wireless connectivity that makes it possible to do anything, anytime, anywhere.
The product can be delivered not only via print but also to new audiences around the globe by web, mobile phone, podcast, video blog, CD, DVD, television and radio. New readers, listeners and viewers can find and acquire digital content via ever-improving search technology and broadband delivery systems. Information can be sliced, diced, catalogued and recombined infinitely -- by either editors or consumers themselves -- to create custom products that inform, entertain and, significantly for advertisers, make it easier than ever to spend money.
Thus, newspapers, unlike the ones where Benjamin Franklin and I worked, can operate without regard to time, space or geography.
Thanks to improved reporting and production technology, journalists have gained the gift of time to think about what to cover, how to cover it or when to deliver it. With headcounts down and newsholes tight, journalists will argue that they are too busy to think. But that’s exactly what they have to do, if they are going to reverse the cascading crisis of confidence among readers, advertisers and themselves.
To appreciate their opportunities and grasp the vast opportunities that lie ahead, journalists have to un-embed themselves from routine thinking, rote reporting and canned presentation. This is a decidedly low-tech exercise that merely requires reporters to get out of city hall, the cop shop and school board meetings, so that they can identify stories on these beats that resonate with their readers.
Although journalists will and ought to be the primary information gatherers, newspapers can open their print and web pages to articles and commentary by outside experts and ordinary citizens. Blogs are nice, but they alone are not the type of mainstream assets that will save the day.
The people presenting information for print (and other products) need to take their cues from other media, emphasizing eye-catching, at-a-glance appeal. As the Readership Institute at Northwestern University has found, readers are looking at multiple points of entry to a story. In-depth reporting, good writing and great photographs have to be combined with imaginative and informative graphics, pull quotes, Q&As and more.
Content has to be pollinated across media platforms, so newspaper articles reference podcasts, transcripts, blogs, additional online video and websites containing original source material. Turnabout being fair play, the digital manifestations of the newspaper shouldn’t be coy about touting the print product.
It is fair enough to argue that the industry spent too many cycles trying to defend and preserve an old, decaying and increasingly irrelevant model. Because almost everyone now agrees radical change is inevitable and mandatory, this is the ripest possible moment for creative, passionate and agile thinkers to bring their vision to reality.
Far from being one of those former journalists who is glad to be out of the business, I envy each of you this extraordinary opportunity. So, with all due respect, quit bellyaching and get to work.
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