Why are we still mourning the non-loss of the newspaper when it could be really easy to fix?
Look, I understand newspapers are having a hard time, but do newspaper publishers and lawmakers expect readers to think a newspaper will report objectively on a government that funds it?
Pentagon Papers? You want to run those? Well, we'll be taking back that $5 billion check. Good luck!
But newspapers are facing a stark reality right now: Readers are buying fewer papers, advertisers are fleeing, and the costs of newsprint, payroll, overhead (rent, utilities, etc.) and distribution are mainly on the rise. One major national newspaper, the
These may not be happy times, and while it may be the end of the newspaper as we know it, that's not a bad thing; it's just a change. It's not even the first one newspapers have undergone – I wasn't around when radio and TV were born, and I was in high school when CNN showed up, so I don't know what the panic looked like, but this new Web thing is no longer new, so stop whining and start listening.
Your newspaper's Web site is not your trained circus monkey. Learn how to make it work not only for, but also with you. Most newspaper-affiliated Web sites – including the
Journalists vs. bloggers is a myth. Get over yourself. You've been on your beat 25 years. You have a shiny laminated press credential with a 2x3 photo of you on it. Big deal. That gives you historical background and access. It doesn't make you any smarter than anyone else. If a die-hard college basketball fan happens to be younger than you, it means her institutional memory doesn't go back as far as yours does, but her knowledge of the current team runs just as deeply as yours does.
While you're running around getting quotes from coaches and players she can't get, she's reading their Facebook and MySpace pages, chatting online with other fans, and reading 20 different sources about the team, some connected, some not. Yes, she's reading your stuff, but she watched the game, so she's skipping your game story and going after the anecdotes and analysis you had to put in your blog, since you could only get 22 inches into the paper.
Sorry, but as a fan who pays a lot of attention – and who maybe happens to be a lawyer or an accountant – her analysis of the team is probably as valid as yours.
A blog is just a publishing platform – and it's a good one. Plus: it's bottomless. Let's say your a columnist for a newspaper. You write four columns a week, each around 25 inches. If you're a good columnist, you could probably take November and December off and have the paper run 100 inches a week of stuff you had to cut. But you can't do that, because the stuff is no longer relevant, and given the state of the industry, you're worried that if you don't show up for a couple of months, you won't still have a desk in January.
Enter the blog.
You have a pretty much "bottomless," interactive publishing tool. While the newspaper is essentially one-way communication – sure, you print your e-mail address and phone number, but of your paper's 300,000 subscribers, what do you get, 50 calls a week, maybe 100 if it's a touchy subject? – people can read your column online and comment on it immediately. You can then add your replies in another comment, and then you have...oh my, a discussion!
And you're not limited to the 25 inches you get in the paper. While newsprint, ink and distribution costs are increasing, server space is cheap as heck. Write all 100 inches you put together. Post all 50 photos you took, not just the one they had room for in the paper. Got an audio recording you did for the column? Post it. People love that stuff. Video? Great. Can't put that in the newspaper, might as well not waste it as source material only you get to see.
Don't shun conversations. If you're writing for a newspaper, it's probably for two or more of the following four reasons: (1) you know a lot about something, (2) you're a good researcher, (3) sources trust you, (4) you can string a couple of paragraphs together. In fact, it's probably reason (4) and at least one of the other three.
This means there are a lot of people reading your stuff who could be doing your job if either they wrote better, or they wanted to take a pay cut and do something else.
That's not derision. That's just to say that while what you're doing is important, there are other people who know just as much as, or perhaps more than, you do, and you could enrich your writing, your career and your life by listening to them.
One of the things I loved about being a reporter was that if I had to write a story about a bakery, I had to rely on a couple of other people (and maybe a little bit on the Internet, an encyclopedia, and a dictionary) to tell me everything I needed to know. I don't have first-hand experience running my own business, I don't make bread, I don't have hungry customers to make recommendations to.
I might learn a lot about a bakery through writing a feature piece on it, but it shouldn't end there. If I post it in an interactive environment, other people with more intimate knowledge of different aspects of the story – being a business owner, being a baker, being a customer – can chime in, and not only will I learn something, my piece becomes more interesting because of it, and I may even glean some new story ideas.
Seriously, we're still talking about whether we should link externally, even if it's to a competitor's Web site? Chances are, you're probably not the go-to expert on your beat. You write about local bike paths? Know all about ISTEA and TEA-21? Know all about where funding is coming from for the local intermodal transportation projects? Great. You want to know why some unemployed 42-year-old shlub living in his parents' basement in suburban Nebraska is getting more page views on his Blogspot blog than you're getting on your newspaper-sanctioned (and, let's face it, employer-required) blog?
It's because that shlub looked around the Web and linked to almost the exact same piece you wrote in 30 communities across the country, where it's also happening. It's that person who looked for other people who think they're experts but only fit that description locally, and found a national pattern – or even better, found a solution in St. Louis for a problem in Portland.
At the same time that you might need to realize you're not the only person who knows a lot about your beat, have some confidence that your voice is important. If it means linking from your piece to some seemingly far-off Web competitor like the
If you got your story idea from a local competitor, so be it. Build on their story, then credit them via a link with finding it first. Local readers are also paying attention to other local media. They saw it there first, and you're not fooling them. But crediting the competitor could lead to collaboration, either at the reporter level or at the institutional level, and collaboration leads to great things. One of the tips
Listen to your readers. They know something. Don't tell your readers what they should think is important. Work with them to find out what they think is important.
In their book
There are, of course, some culture differences, particularly among editors if there's some state control of media, but handed a list of assignments or headlines, pretty much everyone recognizes important stories when they see them.
So when you rank a story highly – putting it on top of a Web page or on A-1 – and your readers slam your news judgment, work with them on it. Don't pretend you know better. Also, if they stop reading, you don't have a paycheck, so sometimes you have to give them what they ask for.
Revise your publish schedule – and definitely don't sit on stories until they come out in the paper. This might be the single most important thing newspapers can do with the Web. The first newspaper Web sites were entirely "shovel-ware" – reporters would write stories for the paper, and after they made sure the paper went to print, they would just copy and paste their stories onto the Web.
That would doom your Web site now – and if you're still doing it, stop.
Unless either it happened two seconds before you were going to press or you've been the only news organization working on the story for three months, by the time they get their paper, most people already know about a story. When you run a banner headline about Israel and Hamas going to war in Gaza, you need to recognize that people probably have already heard about it. If they didn't see it on the Web at work, they saw it on the evening news, or heard it on the radio on their commute home.
Don't think the morning newspaper is the first people are hearing of it; you don't need to give them the bit they've already read or heard. Give them the local angle. And don't wait until tomorrow if you have it today: if you put it on the Web at 4:00, people will read it, and they'll say, "thanks, newspaper, for being first with that." Tomorrow, it's, "gee, thanks, newspaper, but I knew that already."
You can take what you put online, refine it, cut it to fit the newshole, and run that in the paper for people who have a morning routine of sitting with the newspaper over coffee, or who read it on the bus.
And then there are feature pieces of general interest that maybe someone else is working on. If an athlete sat out injured last season and the new season is approaching, you're probably working on a piece on that athlete, but so are all the local TV stations and any bloggers who happen to cover your beat (even if you don't put much faith in them).
So, you've written your piece, and it's slated for the newspaper in three days. Well, why are you sitting on it for the Web? If a TV station runs it first, or a blogger runs it first, and the staff at your affiliated Web site picks it up, they'll link to that TV station or credible blogger, and you'll be mad because you got scooped.
Well, you would have been first, but you decided to sit on it, because of a production schedule. Boo-hoo. People who get the paper are going to read the story when it comes out, but if you can get the story (in some form) online now, you can be credited with being first, rather than with being three days behind everyone else, even though you had the story.
This post came out sounding a bit on the negative side, but it all leads to me wanting to see newspapers succeed, even if they're not doing it in paper form. A lot of TV stations aren't being watched on TV anymore, and people are listening to many radio stations over the Internet, since they have high-speed Internet connections but not radios at their desks or in their home offices.
The great thing about newspapers is deep resources – very few TV or radio stations, or Internet-only news sites have large staffs covering a region. And it takes very little extra work to put good work from those staffers on the Web in an attractive and useful manner, and more quickly than their competitors – both local and national – can get the news together.
Here's to a great 2009!