Stand and fight!

As my restless vacation continues into its second week, my mind reels with the prospects of an uncertain future. Like most newspapers across the country, steep revenue declines are disrupting any semblance of job security for print journalists. Media companies seem to be in a race to tear down their brick and mortar operations and reinvent themselves as digitally delivered platforms. In my own newsroom, a large radio production studio has been built where hourly news broadcasts are being produced.

In September, our new modern website will debut. With it will come cutting edge tools for social media integration, an enhanced navigation that will break paradigms and a clean, airy, low-contrast design that will forever free us from our stodgy past.

The Spokesman-Review, like most newspapers, has begun to fully embrace change. The 700-pound gorilla on everyone’s back is the, “is it too late?” question.

Under the duress of a deepening recession, media companies are making rapid changes to their organizations. We are now in a war of transition, where the bodies of thousands of laid-off journalists line the road leading to their former newspaper’s digital future. The diminishing relevance of the print product, for some, relegated to the status of niche; weigh heavily on the minds of many.

At a Spokesman-Review newsroom staff meeting last week, my editor, Steve Smith, laid out the sobering facts of how far and fast our decline has been. There were lots of charts with graph arrows pointing toward the carpet. Smith’s voice, tinged with emotion, filtered through the room with a heavy cast of “this is it folks.” “I want to save everyone’s job, including my own,” said Smith.

He and everyone in the room understood that his statement comes with no guarantees. The truth is there will soon be less of us to carry on the battle. Unless. Unless we quickly build out our digital platforms in a way that they can begin to generate a potential for steady revenue growth.

For this to work, Smith says a lot of mindsets have to change. The focus on the print product will be diminished. Instead a web-centric approach will be strengthened. A new newsroom structure is being conceived, one that is vastly different from the one in place now.

For all of these changes to be successful, I believe innovation, a catch phrase of the new millennium, will have to become the new DNA that drives the reimagined newsroom. Creative ideas will need to be rewarded. Grassroots innovation is where, I believe, that one brilliant idea that saves us all will emerge.

For many in journalism, the future doesn’t seem too bright. It is hard to be innovative without having job security. Many of us wonder what our futures would be like if we cannot be storytellers anymore. To be relegated to some job as a PR flack or a wedding photographer dealing with the bridezillas of the world would be sad indeed.

Instead, how about we all stand and fight for the profession we’re passionate about? Our jobs are already hanging by a thread, so what have we got to lose? This is a unique time to be in journalism. Yes, it is changing, but now we all have a chance to shape what those changes will be. The focus now needs to be on the future, not on the past. Accept the changes that have already occurred and then find a better way to implement the changes the future holds. The failed strategies of the past need to fall away.

Yes, it is time to stand and fight. Fight for the journalism values ingrained to our core. Stand and fight for our role as watchdogs and muckrakers. Stand and fight to hold those in power accountable. Stand and fight against the tide of backlash–because new thinking is sometimes perceived as a threat to our comfort zone. The reality is there are no comfort zones left. From now on, it is survival of the fittest. Game on.

Newsvideographer reviews S-R report

The buzz about the Gang of Eight, a group of young journalists who were tasked up finding a better way to streamline The Spokesman-Review newsroom structure, has been making its way around the blogoshere lately. Angela Grant with Newsvideographer.com has a thoughtful review of the report’s suggestions for handling multimedia better. You can view the Gang’s report here, or checkout the Nick Eaton’s blog for more info. He was on task force.

Ready, set, change!

As I settle into my first day of a two-week vacation, I find it a struggle to relax. I guess my first step at unwinding should be to stop reading Romenesko. Today had yet another parade of layoffs stories and paper doom scenarios. Then I caught this blog post by my editor Steve Smith, who is at a Knight Digital Media Center symposium in Los Angeles:

This Los Angeles conference has been both sobering and encouraging.

Sobering because the pace of change in our industry is faster and the nature of that change more extreme than any of us imagined. Hearing from specialists in electronic/digital media organizations other than newspapers has made it crystal clear that whatever we have done to this point is dangerously inadequate.

If we don’t change more dramatically and faster, there will not be an industry to support the sort of value-driven journalism that is at the heart of our craft.

The encouraging news is that the tools we need to make the needed changes are readily available to us and that our ability to deliver quality news and information can only be enhanced…if we make the bold leaps.

And there is the rub. Are we willing to make the bold moves?

In the SR newsroom, we MUST understand and then embrace the notion that print is no longer our primary focus. As advanced as we are in the digital delivery of news (and this conference confirms for me that we are ahead of the industry curve, as innovative and progressive as any newsroom), we are still too print focused.

We need to devote FEWER resources to print. Our editors need to spend far less time worrying about print. And all of us need to be focusing on how to improve and expand the scope and quality of our digital news and information (and that includes radio).

This is a huge cultural leap. The push back will be extreme. Work schedules will have to change. Skills will have to be refined or re-taught or learned for the first time. Many of us will have to fundamentally question what we do, why we do it and how it must be done differently.

Editors around the country are all facing the same dilemma—how hard to push for change and at what pace? I have a feeling my own newsroom will be a radically different place by next year. Right now at my paper, Editor Steve Smith has instructed task forces made up of newsroom staff to look at content and newsroom structure. The first report on structure by young members of the newsroom was well received. Now a new group, made up of mostly of newsroom veterans is looking at ways to improve the content produced for both online and the print. What Smith does with these recommendations is anybody’s guess. Hence the queasy feeling many in the newsroom feel right now. Fear of the unknown can be such a morale killer. At the same time this is really a unique time in history to be involved in the reimagining the newspapers.

At The Spokesman-Review, we’re about to launch a brand spankin’ new website built from the ground up. It will allow us to showcase content in ways our old failed site could never do. If we are to truly become a web-centric newsroom, then a systematic shift of how we produce content will have to take place. That means everyone in the newsroom will have to master online skills such as:

  • Ability to post content to the web from the field.
  • Gather and edit audio, with the ability to send from the field
  • Reporters will need to learn to shoot and edit basic video.
  • For visual journalists, advanced video storytelling (writing narration scripts) and editing will be the norm.

What all this really means is that word people will need to be more visual and visual people need to master words better.

For all this change to take place, there has to be a solid plan to retrain the newsroom. I was talking to a director of multimedia at a large paper recently and he said that training has become a huge part of their newsroom culture. Everyone was mandated to take three classes a year to learn something new. If my own newspaper’s newsroom is to evolve, then mandatory training has to be provided. There also has to be a change in the tools each journalist has in their toolbox. Right now reporters are chained to their desks working with large desktop computers. That’s so last century. Transition them laptops with cell phone data cards and get them out of the newsroom and into the community.

Our newspaper photojournalists will need to change too. Right now, they shoot mostly with the print product in mind. With our new site, visuals will become a huge part of the content. The way a photographer approaches an assignment will have to change. No longer will they shoot for that one decisive moment, instead, they will need to capture a variety of images that can be showcased as a well-edited online gallery.

Some of these changes are about to take place in the coming weeks. In my office sits boxes of video cameras and accessories. Four newsroom reporters, who volunteered to make a radical change in their job descriptions, are about to undertake a brave new journey into the multimedia universe. Each is being equipped with a video camera, Macbook Pro laptop and Final Cut Express video editing software. For three days, I will train them in the fundamentals of video shooting and editing. After that, their success will rest in how well they integrate video into their present word driven workflow. I have high-hopes for these mobile journalists. They will be riding on the crest of a huge tsunami of change.

Going old school

Yesterday, after driving 280 miles round trip to shoot a video on some maggot farmers—yes maggot farmers, I spotted a plum of smoke in the hills along Interstate 90.  It wasn’t much, but the winds had really kicked up. I called it in and by the time I got back to the newspaper twenty minutes later the small brush fire had bloomed into a raging wild fire. I had already put in 12 hours on the maggot story, but that little voice told me this wildfire was going to be big news.

Because it was so late in the day, I left my video camera at the office and just went old school with my dusty still cameras. Thank god I’ve kept the batteries charged up.  I quickly went home and changed into my fire resistant gear and headed to the front lines of the fire, which was now threatening a large sub division.  Dressed like a wild land firefighter, I pretty much walked past the police roadblocks.

The fire was about a mile walk away. I could hear the propane tanks exploding and gun ammunition popping from one of the 13 homes that burned to the ground that day.

I ran across an elderly man whose house had become a raging inferno. He was searching for his missing blind and deaf dog. I walked with him and as he approached his burning house, two firefighters ran up and asked him to leave because of the ammo was still popping off. Just then, a neighbor lady came and gently walked him back to his car. I made photos of the moment and headed back to the paper to move the pictures on deadline.

The fire had taken out several cell phone towers, which disrupted my and other photographer’s ability to transmit photos from the scene. My photo of the man and neighbor ran six columns across the front page. Today for online, I produced a Finding the Frame multimedia look at the story behind the photo.

Having long ago transitioned to doing mostly video storytelling and multimedia editing, I had almost forgotten that spot news rush, which comes from covering a rapidly developing story with still cameras. It is hard for online to compete visually with a six column monster photo on page one. Even my mother called me when she saw it. I miss seeing your photos in the paper,” she said.  My only response I could give her was, “So do I, so do I…”

Here is a link to other Finding the Frames that I have produced.

The message is clear: Change or perish

Black Monday seems to be striking American newspapers on a daily basis. With almost a thousand journalism jobs lost last week alone, there seems to be a concerted effort by everyone in the industry to reinvent the medium. While noble, it’s sad these changes didn’t take place sooner. But hey, we had a good gig going for the last 150-years, why mess with what works?

It’s strange how the people running newspapers have been talking about changing for most of my 20-year career. Yet, all they’ve really done in that time is tinker under the hood a bit. Now as the revenue crisis deepens by the day, publishers and editors around the country are willing to start listening to their content producers for fresh ideas. The reimagining of our industry, no longer a covenant of the suits, will probably be shaped by those of us who have the most to lose-reporters, photographers, editors and online producers.

Yesterday at my newspaper, The Spokesman-Review, we had our annual come to Jesus meeting. My editor, Steve Smith gave all of us the gloomy news: Revenues are way down, the cost of doing business is way up and cuts need to be made. Luckily, the layoff demon has been held at bay—at least until the next round of dismal revenue projections hit. Smith asked the newsroom to just do what we always do—produce good journalism. He also let the room know that we can’t do things the way we have in the past. I, and pretty much everyone in that deadly quiet meeting got the sense that we are now done talking about change. If we are going to protect our jobs, then we need to find a way to reinvent the newsroom on a completely different multi-platform model. No job, or job title is secure. The message is clear. Change is now baring down on The Spokesman–Review newsroom like a runaway logging truck without brakes.

A few days before the newsroom meeting, editor Smith quietly invited eight of our newest, young journalists into his office. He asked each of them, who basically have no stake in the processes of the past, to suggest ways to streamline the newsroom operation. He wants them to find a way to make it more efficient, thus letting people spend more time on developing quality journalism instead of just shoveling content.

The “Great Eight” as I call them, are meeting daily to share ideas and work up a plan. What they come up with is anybody’s guess. They have been given boundaries with which to operate. No suggestions to stop publishing the print newspaper, no downsizing or upsizing the present newsroom staff. Whatever they come up with, the challenge is for management and older co-workers to really listen to what they have to say. They are the future of our business. If we don’t change fast, they won’t stick around for the sinking of the ship.