Journalism needs you: A speech to college journalists

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When I was invited to deliver a keynote during the National College Journalism Convention in Los Angeles Feb. 28, I wanted most of all to encourage young people not to listen to dumb arguments against choosing journalism. We need good people in journalism. And while it’s not an easy business, there are jobs. In fact, it’s hard to fill some jobs in my newsroom and I hear the same from other news leaders. Instead of telling young people not to go into journalism, we should be telling them how to excel. Here’s the text of the speech.

Hello and thanks for inviting me to speak. I’m delighted to be here with people who’ll be running the news business in the years ahead. I’ll say I knew you when.

I’m not doing a slide presentation – just talking. But if you’re inclined I’d love for you to tweet responses or reactions to anything I say – I’m @melaniesill.

Like many of you I found my first formative newsroom experience in college. Mine was at The Daily Tar Heel in North Carolina, where I did reporting and editing and even got assigned to cover the 1980 presidential election in Washington.

I went up there with a colleague and we divvied up the election night celebrations. I got Ronald Reagan and John Anderson, who was an independent candidate. He got Jimmy Carter, who was the incumbent.

Reagan won, of course. I had a fantastic time shuttling between the two celebrations and got back at 2:30 am to my friend’s grandmother’s apartment. I shared a cab with a famous reporter from the Washington Post, and felt very big-time.

I was elated. But my colleague had left me a note about how sad he was that Carter had lost. I knew then I was bound to be a journalist and not a political partisan.

So yes, I’ve been at this work awhile. You’re just getting going. Yet we’re on the same quest.

We think journalism matters — and we’re seeking the path forward.

The fact that you’re here tells me that you’re optimists. You have to be, to tolerate all the people telling you to get out of the business before you’ve even gotten into it.

I can’t give you the magic vision for how this is going to work out financially.

But I want to seize this moment to cheer for your careers in journalism.

You’ll have other options, and good ones. These days, all kinds of people are looking for smart, hardworking people who know how to tell stories. Product companies. Health insurers. The government. Political campaigns. Public relations. Marketing.

So yes, your skills do transfer. You’re smart enough to go to law school or technology or politics and probably into many other fields as well.

But back to my message: Don’t do any of that, at least not right away. First, if you love it, choose journalism.

Journalism is a thing. It’s a thing worth doing. It’s a service that’s needed in our society and in our democracy.

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Take it from former editors: Newspapers need bolder change

In a recent post to his Media, Disrupted blog,  John Robinson argued that newspapers should start doing some basic things differently — from having a real person answer telephones to punching up editorial commentary — to restore their communities’ sense of  ownership and trust in their local newsrooms. Then Robinson, who left his job as editor of the Greensboro News & Record recently, added a P.S.:

“I know some of my former staff are saying, ‘Where the hell has this guy been,’ ” he wrote. “I apologize for that. It’s amazing the clarity of purpose that comes with having time to think about things.”

I knew John for many years in North Carolina journalism (I worked at The News & Observer for 25 years, and John at the News & Record for 27) and we have something else in common: We both left top newspaper editing positions recently. (I left the Sacramento Bee in May 2011, John stepped down in Greensboro at the end of the year). And like John,  I’ve found great benefit in “having time to think about things” as I consider journalism’s future and my own place in it.

The biggest threats to newspapers aren’t just their familiar revenue problems and ever-proliferating competitors, but also the opportunity costs of failing to innovate more boldly — to be transformative, not incremental, in moving forward.

That’s why I was a bit disappointed when the new Tampa Bay Times landed on my doorstep, sent to me in Sacramento because of my role on the advisory board of Poynter, which owns the newspaper formerly called the St. Petersburg Times. The name change, announced last fall, took effect Jan. 1 in a handsome edition including extensive tribute to the 113-year history under the St. Pete name.

I thought the name change was a bold and smart step reflecting the Times’ role in its region, the market’s changes and the company’s ambitions. Looking at the new model, though, I wondered: Why didn’t they change more? Why not underscore the new name’s symbolism as a move to the future by leaving behind the 19th-century typography in the nameplate and bringing more 21st-century thinking to the print edition with some content and format shifts?

Turns out famed design leader Mario Garcia thought about this, or at least the nameplate, back in November after hearing about the planned name change for the Times, which is his local paper. Garcia even mocked up some different nameplates gratis on his blog, though he noted that the Times would probably stick with the Old English typeface used by the St. Petersburg Times  “and there is nothing wrong with that.”

As the Times changed its name it told readers it was moving affirmatively into the future — yet Editor Paul Tash reassured them that the paper wasn’t really changing. I’ve written  columns offering similar semi-contradictory messages about major format changes, so I understand the impulse and don’t mean to pick on Tash, a journalist I respect and like. Instead, I recognize a familiar struggle seen in most news organizations over how to keep loyal customers while moving forward in contemporary ways.

I thought about this culture struggle again the other day in reading a column by Washington Post ombudsman Patrick Pexton, who argued that the paper might be doing too much innovating at the expense of — well, it was hard to say. The complaints were familiar, both the reader gripes and the staff concerns Pexton mentioned, yet they didn’t get at the core question: do the changes improve the Post’s coverage and relevance for contemporary readers?

Most newspapers are stuck in the late 20th century formulas, scarcely varied across the country, for section concepts (even names) and types of coverage. These conventions, moreover, carry over into digital forms, and only in the past couple of years have we begun to see new forms made only for digital channels.

Amid legitimate struggle in newsrooms to make this outdated formula work with vastly reduced staffs and greatly increased production demands, there’s not enough attention on creative breakthroughs — the kind of conceptual innovation needed today. What should a print edition do in a 24/7 news world? How is it differentiated from other platforms in content, format and organization?

As someone who spent too much time reassuring readers that newspapers weren’t really changing, I wish now that I’d invested that energy instead in discussing the goals of change and enlisting readers as advisers with a stake in the paper’s future. I wish I’d done more of the things I argued for in my recent USC Annenberg paper on open journalism. The barriers often were were psychological as much as practical.

I’ve spoken with eight or 10 former top editors in the course of the last few months, some retired and others working in new jobs in media. From each I heard a version of the same regrets: looking back, they wished they’d pushed harder, focused more on the world outside newsrooms and responded more boldly to the opportunities and challenges of digital shift.

Thing is, there’s still plenty of time. We’re not at the end of change, we’re in the midst of it. Even for print newspapers, there’s plenty of upside (and plenty of audience) — not for a shrunken version of the newspaper format of 1992 to be valuable in 2012, but for contemporary approaches to print to serve readers well as part of a menu of options in the digital era.

One start for news companies might be giving their top editors and probably many other key people some working time away from their papers — the kind of thinking time I and others have embraced after stepping away — to consider the view from outside, gain that  “clarity of purpose” John described and return to the fight renewed.

 

 

 

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My open journalism paper is out

The Annenberg Innovation Lab has published “The Case for Open Journalism Now: A new framework for informing communities,” my online discussion paper on the emerging idea of open journalism.

The web paper (which can be downloaded as  PDF) includes dozens of links to open journalism in action and draws on thinking, writing and actions by people across journalism, including bloggers and nonprofit newsrooms along with print, broadcast and online journalists. It resulted from my work during the fall semester as Journalism Executive in Residence at the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism in Los Angeles. Along with Nikki B. Usher, assistant professor of journalism at George Washington University and a recent Annenberg Ph.d., I gave a talk at the National Press Club on Dec. 12 on open journalism and open source influence in journalism.

My biggest challenge has been extending the conversations that enriched the reporting for this paper into an online forum. I hope you’ll read and weigh in using the online response form or via email. There’s plenty to debate, and you might disagree with my conclusions, but certainly those who consider journalism a public good have reason to consider the arguments from me and others included in this paper.

 

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