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.