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.


23 thoughts on “The message is clear: Change or perish

  1. Sad news indeed.

    While I’m glad to hear the management seeking out the thoughts of the younger crowd, I find it curious that they would put the impetus for change on their input.

    My experience with younger (fresh out of school) journalists is that they’re more conservative with industry change. Many pine for the old days in fact.

    I’d suggest seeking input from online startups outside the media industry; see what folks that have no ties to print journalism at all think.

    Also, do the “Great Eight” have any role with revenue? Or is this simply based on content?

  2. Patrick,

    For now, it is about content and how it flows through the newsroom. With this group, I don’t see a lot of pining for the old days. Four shoot and edit their own video, so they aren’t just thinking about one platform. From what I understand, my editor Steve Smith, will be looking at other groups for input as well. This could be an exercise in futility, but my gut feeling is that the Great Eight might surprise us with their report.

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  5. I love it that he’s seeking input from young journalists.

    If I worked there, I hope I would be in the group. I would have some ideas!

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  8. But today’s young journos are mostly unqualified for the positions they hold. Recent events, such as the Tampa Tribune intern debacle, are proving this.

    Merely shaking up the status quo is not a solution. Today’s newspaper execs, who would have trouble organizing a two-car parade, don’t understand this, though. All they know are bad hiring practices and the spouting of platitudes.

    A few months from now, the clueless execs will be rolling the dice on yet another endeavor with little thought and planning behind it.

  9. Wenalway,
    Perhaps you have a better plan? It is easy to criticize publishers and editors for their failures, but at least at my newspaper, they are willing to listen to the newsroom content producers for a fresh perspective. Yes, our young journalists do not have a lot of newsroom experience. What they do have is an understanding of the web that most middle-aged people can barely comprehend.

    These so called screenagers are never going to become subscribers to the print product. And why should they? The newspaper doesn’t have a search engine and it only gives them trivial amounts of stories and information that they can’t already find two clicks away on their keyboards.

    How my editor Steve Smith chooses to utilize the information from the Great Eight’s report is up to him. Something tells me Wenalway, this group is not who you think they are. And what they tell us will start a whole new wave of discussions in the newsroom. The most important result of this exercise is that a fresh dialogue is taking place.

    Time has run out waiting for someone else to fix newspapers. The near future is going to be painful for everyone one of us that has a stake in print’s survival. The sad fact is no job is safe and many of us are not going to be able to stay in the profession. For those who make it through this rough transition, our jobs and platforms will be modified from what they are today. Still, I am hopeful for a solution. As I stare at my glass of cold beer shimmering in the evening glow on my patio table, I see that it is half full.

  10. Here are some suggestions for the online SR – start aggregating good content from local blogs in to a Community Section. For example, I run both a high school and a middle school bands web site (as a volunteer) and this is where the bands toot their horn, so to speak.

    Act as an advocate for other organizations – schools, school groups, school districts, local government agencies, community groups, business organizations – to start using RSS/Atom newsfeeds for their press releases. This, in turn, will grow to encompass video reports (some sites already do this). Several high schools in the area have burgeoning video and media programs with some pretty good content being produced (and more are coming online). Most of our local colleges are doing a number of video projects. Ira Gardner at Spokane Falls Community College is doing a number of interesting things with online blogs about student productions – and will be doing more with video. There is a mass of content – and good quality content at that – being produced by many groups. Tie it in with newsfeeds (and evangelize the need for all these groups – especially government agencies – to include a newsfeed) and you’ve got a community report created by and for the community itself. Many of us would much rather be up to date on what is happening in our community than, say, reading about news from CDA and Boise in what used to be a Spokane-centric news section.

    Content already exists for this – but in some cases the lack of newsfeed from providers (e.g. Spokane County web sites) means we cannot yet stitch this together. Let’s make it happen! Let’s figure out away for contributors to submit their newsfeeds, giving you permission to synch up their stories in a new Community section.

    I don’t care if my content gets matched up with advertising that helps you – since you, in turn, are helping our organizations publicize our accomplishments. That’s a fair trade for many of us. And the SR web site becomes a local or regional portal to local, regional and other news and information. If you don’t do this someone (me?) will!

    This approach also brings local back to local news. As noted in a comment above, national news is typically well covered online anyway. And with the staff cut backs, local news has become less – may be we can free them up to pursue in depth investigations once again.

  11. Wenalway,

    We might be young and I’m sure not as qualified as some of the veterans, but as Colin points out some fresh viewpoints aren’t going to hurt any at this point in the game.

  12. Until you tell me who they “really are,” then I’ll stick with my beliefs. I have an open mind, but I listen only to facts, not concoct-and-chant stuff.

    That rules out most of the rest of your post.

    “(M)any of us are not going to be able to stay in the profession.” You’ll pardon me if I’m not too sympathetic after the events of this week, when unqualified young journos were rushing forward to cheer the layoffs in Tampa.

    If you don’t think the industry will last for you, then you need to be looking at other options. Otherwise, to use the words of a clueless and tactless intern, “stop whining.”

  13. so he wants a more efficient, streamlined newsroom staffed by young new journalists?

    more efficient = cheaper
    streamlined = cheaper
    new journalists = cheaper
    younger journalists = cheaper

    Sounds to me like your editor has lost faith in his ability to create a better product and is set on limping through to retirement by cutting costs…not a bad plan.

    The only real alternative would be to just sack him now and get someone in with the vision, talent and confidence to do the job….if such a person could be found.

  14. Peter Ralph:

    You hit the nail on the head. But newsrooms don’t want to admit to the “cheaper” part, even though it’s incredibly obvious. Instead, they make up lies about today’s unqualified young journos being smarter or having “the fire in their eyes.”

    Now the unqualified young journos have bought into the hype, and they have a deeply rooted sense of entitlement, even though they don’t have the skill set to match. It’s a dangerous combination for the future.

  15. Wow, your crowd is really taking a brave step forward these days. I hope things will be sorted out and that you’ll do good.

    I recommend the ‘Great Eight’ to take a look at an Economist article printed a couple of years ago: ‘Who killed the newspaper’. It’s mind provoking piece of writing on what media companies must to in order to survive:

    Humbly, I’d like to promote my own employer, a Scandinavian media group successfully running print and online newspapers across Europe. We’ve worked hard since the beginning of this century to enable journalists and readers to travel back and forth between print and online media platforms:

    Keep up the good work.

  16. I haven’t worked in a newsroom for many years so I have no dog in this race.

    Regional newspapers in the US do seem headed for extinction. But the message “change or perish” isn’t clear at all. What sort of change is needed?

    Stop wearing socks? Hire more short people?

    The notion that video will save newspapers seems far fetched. The same technological advances that allow print journalists to produce & distribute video – also empower high schools, police departments, non-profits etc. They are a few years behind is all – but they are catching up fast.

    Very exciting times just ahead – we are on the brink of the horse latitudes: true sailing is dared!

  17. Peter:

    Today’s clueless newsroom managers think the brand name above the news is still all that it takes. Many of these people are design dolts who have never read a newspaper in their lives.

    And no, this is not an endorsement of the young journos “saving journalism.” It’s a call for newspapers to throw out the charlatans and the frauds. Today.

  18. perhaps – but in times of structural upheaval many enterprises fail through no real fault of management.

    Regional newspapers earn their crust by distributing content – not by producing it. The distribution monopolies have been destroyed – so newspapers are in trouble. I can’t see how that could have been avoided, without totally reinventing the enterprise.

  19. Speaking as one of “today’s young journos,” I don’t believe that my generation is saving journalism. Just look at the reports, 40 fired in editorial, journalism unemployment lines. Journalism is not being saved, it’s morphing and adapting into something that better serves the public.
    I realized, soon after I stepped out into the real world, out from under the shrouds of internships and freelancing between college classes, that I would need more skills. These happened to be video and flash skills. Which only has helped me find and most importantly keep a newspaper job.
    I’ve been called naive, overly optimistic, and my least favorite photo-killer. But just because I’m young doesn’t mean I don’t know what I’m talking about. People in my age demographic (21-30) sadly rarely pick up a newspaper, so it makes sense for editors to consult journalists in those age brackets for advice on how to deliver news more effectively, does it not?

  20. No. So you think they should abandon their customer base for people who have no intention of ever getting the paper?

    And we’re not talking about newspapers “consulting” young journos. We’re talking about them claiming the young journos are the solution in themselves. Meanwhile, the same bad managers who sent newspapers plunging are still in place. Doesn’t add up.

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