How to keep the fire burning- Guidelines for the future of newspapers

Leiam a versão portuguesa aqui

Photograph: Comstock

(Irony intended in the post title/pic relation)

It has been a recurrent issue lately around these parts, and every week we can read about in a more or less desperate manner, in blogs, industry websites, think tanks. Scholars, managers, professionals, students, everyone has thoughts on the reasons why the newspapers are commiting suicide, but it is as clear as the explanations available for the mistery of whales coming to die on the shore. There are lots of options, but if we knew what was the true reason, maybe we could solve the problem. That was the appeal of Richard Koci Hernandez in his post Conversations: Am I Missing Something? Help!, that he wrote as a reaction to Jeff Jervis post Newspapers are f’ed. So, my insomniac me decided to answer to Koci’s appeal and give my two cents on how we can help newspapers save themselves.

My purpose in sharing these ideas is to create more dialogue, instead of the odd comment, so feel free to juxtapose, complement,tear apart, even grin with contempt for my ideas. Let’s build a castle, burn it down, then build it better. Or just sit around it, and share your best frightening campfire stories.

Newspapers and newspaper people are in panic. Should they be? My question is: why are they the ones who fear the future the most? Newspapers are here for ages, and as media jurassic creatures they are, they have trouble to adapt to the undergoing technological changes. Radio and TV don´t seem that scared because technology is a fundamental part of the business. But technology is not the main issue in the future of the newspaper business, but still, that’s where so many freeze, and can’t take the next step in working out viable procedures to turn what will burn down to ashes into a phoenix. Here’s the wake up call: newspapers as sheets with ink are not enough. They will work fine for decades like they did before, if we apply some changes (even if we get another physical support different from paper, but with similar application, this can be used). These changes don’t imply only placing video on your website, or to teach your journalists to create multimedia packages, this is not changing, this is evolving, and if 50 years ago you “only” had to know how to write, now you also have to know how to create and produce. The more you know, the better you are.

The change needed is a paramount background operation, that will affect the structure of media organization and market, but also social and corporate fabric. Ambitious huh? Follow me.

Where newspapers need to change?

There are five keypoints where changes must occur. Maybe there are more, but i’ll leave the others to you:

Method -> newspapers need to change the way news are gathered and presented;

Posture -> newspapers must change their editorial guidelines;

Involvement -> newspapers need to interact with the audience, not only regarding them as users or readers, but as people;

Investment -> newspapers need to spend money to make money, and charge less to more;

Technology -> use technology to make better, faster, unique;

(Keep reading)

Part 1 – Method

How to devise a method for giving the news

graphical flowchart of the scientific methodOne of the main issues inside the newsrooms is the rivalry between print and multimedia. This can be healthy, because a little competition keeps a company alive, but not if the result is the splitting of the working force in two separate factions. Online and print are the same type of sport, but the rules are hugely different. And why? Lets understate the obvious (sometimes we have to): different mediums, timings, styles, audiences. Yes, print and online have different types of audience, so that’s why print won’t die, as long we know how to keep it’s audience. Print and online are closer than basketball is to football (soccer for US readers), because they share the same ball. Different ballpark, though.

Now that this is settled, let’s follow a news story from the triggering event to the moment i’m having coffee and reading about it the next day. The following is inspired in the suggestions given by a discussion group at JEECamp.

So, the bomb (figuratively) went off. The phone rings….tsk tsk, so last century…. the journalist at the scene (if any) tweets immediately what happened. If there’s no one at the scene, tweet away what you know. By now you should have created a community that follows your news on Twitter. If you’re on top of the events like you should be, that won’t be hard. Your reporter at the scene has in 5 minutes time pictures and audio to post on your website, or video – the statement, the incident, the fireworks, whatever medium suits each situation better. Ok, he can go home now. Not really. The editor will have to decide if the reporter needs extra help to treat the story: a image collector, formerly known as photographer, might join the first journalist (if he wasn’t already there) to gather video and audio, to follow up, illustrate, improve the story with better image, that’s why we still need experts in each area. By now, the reporter has further information that will be posted in the newspaper website, developing the story as it was promised in the first tweet. A call for audience collaborationis made. People will visit the website, comment the news, look again later because they know there will be more info, in text audio or video form, and more comments. We are narcisic creatures, so if there’s a space for questions and comments, they will come.

When the reporter has gathered all the information, and there isn´t much more he can do to upgrade the existing data, he uses his laptop – ok, let’s put him back in the newsroom- his desktop to write the story for print. While others might have worked the online version, because it was all about raw data, the journalist has now the responsibility to create literature in a hurry, like Hemingway Matthew Arnold put it. He was there, five senses and intuition at work, so he is the one who should give the mood, the details, the overall feel for the story, to prove he was really there, and that is not just a news wire take. This can happen, but then you’ll have to have in your team good inventive rewriters who are not afraid to research a subject to give more insight and background to the story taken from the agencies.

After he did that, the journalist meets with the multimedia guy/gal, the editor and the “media collector” who went to the scene, to decide – with the material available- if a multimedia package is needed, this in situations where no previous planning occured.

What do we have now, in content terms? A first, short, breaking news tweeted and RSS fed text; a developing text in the website, in a factual style, that stops growing when there’s no more information, but that still lives in the comments and external blogging – the journalist and the editor could join the discussion, if required- surrounded by soundbytes, pictures or a short video. Later, it can all be turned into a new article inside the newspaper website, as a multimedia package, with special graphics, edited audio and video, the things that are becoming household practices in a newsroom. A full experience text in print in next day’s edition, that has all the info, but that draws people to the website for extra media content.

All of this was geotagged, tweeted with (moving) images on a map, and asked for audience participation for extra data on the subject, in text, pictures or video. Oh, and rated: was it biased, was it explanatory, was it good?

Well, the process is not that different than it is now, it just involves more people, and some extra steps. But what it is still paramount is to get the news first , better, and to publish them better first.

Here comes the Editorial Line issue.

Part 2 – Posture

The shifting perspective on why we work to give the news

Orson Welles in “Citizen Kane” (1941) Movie geeks only.

Citizen Kane

I love to start an idea with a question. Why there are newspapers? Or another question: why there are journalists? This is the second oldest job in the world, and why? People want to know what is going on, because we have the need to know what can affect our lives. It’s a survival thing, if we control the surroundings we feel safer. Of course this has evolved to whole new levels, but this is the basic stuff. We need the news to survive( = live better). So, if people depend on information to live, who holds information holds some power. That’s why it turned to a business, just like the oldest job in the world: people want something they don’t have. But when you read a newspaper nowadays it’s hard to find the news, we are deprived of that vital information, and the fault is ours, as an audience.

When Charles Foster Kane/William Randolph Hearst decide to invent a war no one in their audience could do anything else but to believe that actually there was a war. And if they knew it was all a lie, what could they do? The magnifying glass has been, how shall we put this?, magnified. And it no longer hovers the politicians or the characters that make the headlines but also the media. News organizations had always been influenced or owned by major corporations, that were influenced or owned by political groups, that were influenced or owned by corporations. And the news are the greatest way to impose influence, right after a huge military arsenal. Goebbels knew it, and that propaganda helped to drag the whole world into war.

But now the game is different, we have easy access to a giant amount of information about the same subject, and if we feel we’re not being told the whole truth, we’ll find it someplace else. So our relationship with the media, that has always been based on our closeness in political views and our ability to reflect that we need to know more about oil prices than about Paris Hilton (why do they feed us with Paris Hilton?), now it has to be broken down to a relationship of trust. We must know that we are not being deceived and that the information that we access has no hidden agenda, and that the most important subjects for our reality are being treated in a responsible manner. Newspapers need to leave their biased views behind, leave the political pressures behind, and work for the creation of a well informed common sense, for the creation of a common good.

And to do that, they’ll have to let the people in. I raised the possibility of crowdbossing before, but there’s no need to go that far. All that you have to do is to let people “work” the paper to fit their needs, and make the agenda closer to their reality. This is not a shift in subjects only, the renewal of the editorial line must affect the whole structure of the newspaper. National outlets will have to work more the local subjects, a national newspaper website won’t be enough, so it will have to be subdivided in local versions, that will follow the specific realities of each region, breaking it down to the neighborhood level. Yes, the world begins in our backyard (you can use it as a slogan, just give me credit and some money over it). Citizen would have their local reality treated in a more equal fashion, which means that content is equally valuable, whether it comes downward from the national, or upwards from the local. The exposure of this content is adapted to the specific audience of each website version. The agenda setting would have to be re-created and re-scaled for different situations.

And the ombudsman figure should have a larger impact, working not as a single character but as a team, that would moderate, listen, create liaisions between management and audience. The newsroom should be already connected with the audience by now, via forums, online debates, comments.

But the goal is to make people trust on what you print. If you fail that confidence and show weakness and servitude to established powers you are history. Your independence is your power, so open space for different viewpoints, but don’t take any. Illustrate, tell, put your audience right in the eye of the hurricane of information, but never get carried away to wander off to the spiral. That will be when you lose it all.

Now you just have to know how to get people involved.

Part 3 – Get involved with your audience

In Trent Reznor’s words “We’re in this together now”

If you built it, they will come. What do you need to build? (this question thing is getting a bit annoying) A community. Like in the Field of Dreams movie, the ingredients were a place where people could head to, and a common interest. You provide the space, then feed the audiences interest in whatever themes they care about. And for each subject there’s a product, sold at who-knows-how-many local stores. There’s a group of people who likes to bake pies. Get them out of the website forum and promote a sponsored contest, at local level first then national, for the best pie in the country. Put it on print too. This sounds lame i know, but people need to feel they’re a part of something, and we all have the need to show our best tricks. This is an out-of-the-box type of action, but a community goes beyond pie contests.

Communities are all about sharing. And newspapers own that thing i said everyone needs to survive: information. So, if newspapers share information, it is most likely people will share their information: their news, or accounts on a certain subject, their profile as costumers. This sucks butt, because now we’re reminding those hedious questionaires when registering in a newspaper website: “where do you live, annual income, boxer or shorts?”. Usually i create a profile for an overweight 50 year old lady called Mathilda, when i see that the data i share won’t benefit me at all. The worst that happens is to be bombarded by adult diapers, and facial cream ads. Give them a blog account and teach them how to write better, and relate their content to the ongoing news.

But if you get to know the different communities that orbit your newspaper, you’ll easily find the right companies to spend money on you. Now we’ll take a leap forward: the companies are part of the community too, and they also generate content. So next time, instead of proposing a price per banner, or half-page, offer a hosting service. Oh, the banner will be there, but it will direct the reader to a website that is within your newspaper. And the content of that website is not only about the company’s contacts and services, but it also holds all the news related to the business that you ever published. A surf shop newspaper-embedded-website would have the coverage you did about the last championship, and also a link to the cd review of the surf rock band that appeared in the last cultural suplement issue. A hairdresser website could be filled with fashion week reports, bloggers thoughts on latest trends, own blogging space. They would pay more for that hosting service and for other special features, but not that much, because it would be a simple thing to do.

Create your own search engine for classified ads, just like your own home version of Craigslist , and learn from these guys: they went loco on local! And charge the same or less than you did for print. Open discussion forums, go out and promote real events with real people, take the discussion out of the web and into the street, specially when people feel they are out of touch with the institutions. This is public service, which has to stop being a bad word in the business. This will create a brand, a name that business and citizens would like to be associated with (check trust factor above).

Reward your most active users with discounts from your advertisers, give them the limelight when they deserve: highlight blog posts, search for talent amid your audience and hire them (or invite them for special features).

Use print newspapers to raise awareness, go green: if readers give back yestarday’s paper for recycling at the newsstand, they’ll get a discount on today’s issue.

In short, gather positive actions around your news company, focus on the audience, become the line that conects the scattered dots, and draw a community.

But you need the right people to do all this.

Part 4 – Investment

Don’t fire, hire

Yeah, that’s right, the major mistake in media has been firing people. It sounds like an easy way to cut losses, but it’s just a way to dig a deeper grave. And don’t think about replacing the seasoned staff with young trainees fresh out of college to substitute the guys they should be learning with. The goal is to make a better newspaper, not a ink-dirty bunch of sheets. Since were at it, use the paper for the really important stuff, no fluff. This means the best text must be in print, it could be entertainment, gossip, sports or politics, but make print a writers ground, not a medley of pasted reports. For that you need to have the best, and pay them for it. And as you might have noticed, you need a bigger team to deal with all the steps as explained in Part 1. But the management says there’s not enough money to hire more people: invest in local newspapers, use their staff and make them work for your newspaper with their local content. Come on people, TV networks have been doing this for years!

Cut the expenses by creating the richest content possible for each event your newspaper needs to attend. Use your community to reach the stories you just can’t reach, and set a high quality standard, which is: make your news available to and understandable by the majority of your audience. And use technology to explain the details or increase the understanding through your own wikis, and by inviting people to share their knowledge about it. But hire smart people, with a perspective in life that goes beyond than being a journalism star, those are the days that are really over.

“Companies aren’t schools”, this is a truism that never applied to journalism. Hire the best pros with the knowledge you need to make your newsroom evolve, and get them to teach and train the rest of the team, and fit the best where they are more proficient, invest in courses and workshops now and then, and as a reward for those who work hard. Respect their working rights, and make them feel comfortable doing the job they love.

Stop running backwards, it’s just a matter of time until you fall. Run for the leap across the ever growing gap between the old days and the future.

Get people who are into all of those things that are infecting good ol’ journalism, like comment moderation, multimedia, community building, and have specialists for specific areas, and multitasking journalists for most of your content. If this was a football team (there he goes again with sport analogies) you’d like to have the best players, so search them amongst your audience, spend time selecting the right profile, and respect the world by not going down nepotism road. Give your staff the right tools to work with.

Time for tech talk.

Part 5 – Technology

Make tech make better

Believe it or not, i truly think that technology is the less important part in this equation. Yes, there are new things happening, but as i will repeat to infinity, the goal is still the same. There must be investment on the companies side to have the gear needed for multimedia reporting, and personal investment on the journalists side to learn what they still don´t know, and be humble and share responsibilities with 20 year old geeks who are top notch media producers. Educate your staff to think beyond text, and to ask for help when needed. Don’t make those common mistakes and learn from other online businesses. Embark in proven methods, but these are times for discovery and experimenting, so take some risks.

Technology is a tool, not the substance.

And finally, a short wrap-up.

No end in sight

These are my incomplete thoughts about the way newspapers should take. There are gaps in this concept, but hey, i’m not a scholar nor a manager, i’m an unemployed guy who lives in his parent’s couch with a bad case of insomnia.

But what i wanted to show is that the future of newspapers is not about adopting this or that business model, but to reformulate their whole identity as companies and institutions, and to question if they are carrying out their role properly, nowadays. It all passes through creating synergies with other companies, the audience and inside the newsroom.

News aren’t a commodity, they are a service, and don’t you forget that.

Now you can lash your toughts out on me.

(written in 4 hours while listening to Miles Davis “Bitches Brew”)

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