Will dark times lead to a renaissance?

After judging the video categories in this month NPPA Monthly Multimedia Contest, I am disheartened at the overall quality of the storytelling being entered. Entries are down by a third. I’m wondering if it’s because of the recent layoffs sweeping our industry? Or maybe other producers, like me, are being asked to focus on more traditional photojournalism for the newspaper.  It could also be everyone is too depressed to do good work.

These are dark times. The best and the brightest are being forced out on the street daily. But what of the rest of the journalists who, with some luck, will be the last few standing in their gutted newsrooms? I, for one, didn’t spend the last five years learning multimedia skills to just roll over and die.  I keep telling myself to look at the big picture. The media pundits have been predicting the collapse of newspapers for years. And now that it’s here, we are all feeling the pain. The key to survival is being able to make it through this slow transition from print to online.

The mass slaughter will continue for some time, but when it ends-and it will end, publishers will have to make some pretty tough decisions.  I think everyone is in agreement that the future journalism is primarily online. Great journalism is not about the delivery method, but it’s embedded in the words, pictures and videos that reach out to our communities and the world.

Beyond being terrified of my short-term future, I am also cautiously optimistic. Hopefully, I will be allowed to be a part of the reimagining of journalism.  It is still pretty fuzzy about what form it will take. Everyone left will need to be an innovator. If we can find a revenue model that works, then I hope a journalism renaissance will take place.  Freed of the legacy chains of the past, new opportunities will surely germinate.

S-R web producer says goodbye to the newsroom she loves

Spokesman-Review Web Producer Thuy-Dzuong Nguyen was one  of 21 young staffers laid off last week. Thuy just wrote this goodbye to the newsroom she loved working in. She posted it to her friend’s network on Facebook, but I thought I’d share it (with her permission) with everyone. Tinged with sadness, her message still finds hope for the journalism profession she leaves behind and for her co-workers left to pick up the pieces.
I cried today when my assistant managing editor, Carla Savalli, said goodbye to everyone in the newsroom.

She told about growing up in a family that subscribed to both Spokane newspapers, when she decided she would start her own neighborhood paper at the age of 10. The first page was news, and gossip about neighbors. The second page was art from coloring books. The third was filled with recipes, the first ever being her mother’s zucchini bread recipe.

Savalli’s biggest dream while growing up was to be the editor-in-chief of The Spokesman-Review. Things didn’t happen that way (she was the No. 3 position when she resigned), her resignation was her own decision, but she is not abandoning this industry.  We all know this industry is really a religion – of journalists – of storytellers.

The S-R has always housed great storytellers. I admire everybody I’ve had the honor to work with. We celebrate everyday people who do phenomenal things, as well as – like the iron sculptor making African mammals, the retired police officer caring for his paraplegic dog, the record producer multi-instrumentalist who dropped out of high school and started his own studio, the twin brothers from Hauser Lake sent to Iraq. We also witness things we never wish we’d have to witness, like the Spokane mayor recalled after a sex scandal.

But then you poke around on the inside and newsroommates are also good storytellers in-house. Christmas parties, funerals, potlucks, people bringing babies into the newsroom and sharing good news, talking about recipes, going fishing, sharing tomatoes, staying late for election night when some of our families probably think we ought to be at home. Spending all day trekking around at political conventions, forgetting to eat, excited to be witnesses to a ridiculously amazing process (or is it amazingly ridiculous?).

We spend more waking and bonding hours with our coworkers in this weird environment of nasty negative things. Bizarre murders, car crashes, house fires, building fires, Taser incidents (I remember being the producer in the hot seat when surveillance video contradicted officers’ accounts of Otto Zehm’s death. The most stressful work day), writing and posting news on deadline, relying on each other to not just be accurate and fair but to call out each other’s mistakes, of which I made many, and they forgave me.

Storytelling is then a collaborative activity, a collective consciousness, bringing formless data to a higher plane, like prayer. Ask around in a newsroom about how people feel about their job, and most of them will tell you it’s a religious calling – The way anybody would choose to be a priest or a nun, somebody chooses to be a storyteller.

Until I join another newsroom, I will miss having front-row seats to everything that happens. I will miss following the senior political reporter to events – I would follow him to the end of the world and would have missed him when he retires in several years. I will miss video training, usual staff meetings, blogging about ethics in our Transparency Initiative and explaining to the public how our news decision-making process works.

I was given a blog and was trusted to write what I saw fit about news decisions and internal affairs. I was given a camera and was trusted to shoot, to essentially invade other people’s lives at interesting times. I was trusted for journalistic sensibility, audiovisual perfectionism, trusted to capture reality and present it as realistically as could be done. They trusted me with such big responsibility and for a long time, it baffled me that they did.

I will miss the honor of being able to say to someone, “I work for The Spokesman-Review” When we got the announcement that 21+ people would be laid off, including myself, I wondered who would be without the Review. The sensible answer is that I wouldn’t change as a person – I would retain all the skills gained and life would move forward, eventually. I’d find the next thing, just like when somebody gets a divorce they (might) move on.

But that doesn’t negate the value that the S-R has in the community among its readers – A newspaper will always be a big deal, and it will always be a big deal to have that honor of reaching out to readers who wake up in the morning and get crisp warm newspapers on their doorsteps, welcoming us into their homes and exposing us to their children – or in this day and age, opening up the computer and exposing their household to our video stories on the web. I get butterflies in my stomach not just when nice guys hold my hand, but when little old ladies tell me how long they have been subscribers and how much they wait for it in the morning.

Counting this layoff round and last year’s, the newsroom is down 35 percent people. That’s 35 percent fewer content makers. This will be a smaller group, but I just like hearing people say, “Things will be better – I promise.”

I don’t want this industry to die. But I also wish I knew how to save it, immediately, instead of doing my thing and hoping it will help, wondering if I’ll “recognize” journalism in twenty years. Probably.

But for now, this is everything I have loved about what we have been doing. If the universe permits, I would like to do it again – Even if it’s somewhere else, in that newspaper in the sky where all the good journalists go when they die off.

Meanwhile I really want to cuddle and watch Cinderella.

Layoffs hit The Spokesman-Review hard

It has been a trying week at my newspaper The Spokesman-Review. It didn’t start out that way. Last weekend, co-worker, Multimedia Producer Brian Immel and I drove down to Portland, Oregon to give a couple of presentations on multimedia storytelling and editing at the NPPA’s Flying Short Course. On the six-hour drive home, conversation turned to innovative ideas about how we could improve our new website that was just about to launch. As the sun set in my rearview mirror, Brian said to me, “Attending a conference like the Flying Short Course makes me appreciate our situation at The Spokesman Review even more.” That workshop glow didn’t last long. By Monday there were rumors and rumors of rumors regarding layoffs.

Like every newspaper in the country, the economic fundamentals are in freefall. On Wednesday, my editor Steve Smith gathered the entire newsroom together and read off the names of twenty-one of my co-workers, which including Brian Immel, to be laid off. Audible gasps could be heard with each name called. Then Smith promptly resigned. He said he simply had had enough.

Four to six managers are also going to get the axe in the next two weeks. Until someone tells me for sure, I could be one. By my best guesstamate, we will have lost roughly 35 percent of our total newsroom staff in the last twelve months. This is the forth round of layoffs in seven years. I have to wonder if it will ever stop. I am beginning to feel like that frog in the slowly heating pot. Will I get out before boiling myself to death?

I am trying to understand the economic reasons for continued layoffs within our industry. Blame happens. That is a constant. We are one of the only industries I know that believes it can get away with giving the customers less while at the same time charging them more for a diminished product. That model, my friends, is so broken.

Most newspapers are clamoring to change their newsrooms from a print centric model to a web centric workflow. In the past year, with support of a sizable capital budget, I trained and outfitted a dozen newsroom personal with video cameras, computers and audio recorders. All learned to edit video in Final Cut. A newsroom reorganization plan was just put in place. A brand new multimedia centric website was ready to launch this week. Then the layoffs hit. A sizable portion of those new reporter/video uber journalists ended up on the layoff list. Most were twenty-somethings who had little seniority.

Now faced with this new newsroom reality, I personally plan to refocus my creative energy on what I do best. Telling compelling stories for our readers and viewers of our website and newspaper. If needed, I will train the next wave of video journalists—god knows there will be lots of spare computers and video cameras available. Still, I just have to think of the lost opportunity of what could have been. I grieve the lost of these young co-workers who were not given the chance to make a full impact with their video storytelling skills or innovative ideas. Even sadder, many say they will never return to newspapers. The bitter pill of their short newspaper experience has left such a bad taste that most have rinsed and are mentally ready to move on.