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.




18 thoughts on “Take it from former editors: Newspapers need bolder change

  1. Pingback: Newspaper innovation: Not too much but too little

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  4. If you ask me: what is the most radical and disruptive change, it would be that we accept as journalists that we no longer need to restrict ourselves to the news. We can start to report the world at large.
    How: Stake a claim to a subject, start at zero and document your learning curve on the web. I have been doing this for the past 4 months for the Guardian in London about the financial system. It’s incredibly great fun to do, curiosity-driven rather than news-driven journalism. And given the long-tail you can do stories with a very long shelf life, and then see them accumulate page views over the months. What users like is that they are given an entry point into a very complex issue – most news is either very superficial (horse race etc) or it is by insiders for insiders about insiders.

  5. I agree with the idea that editors need time and neutral space to think about the What Next, Melanie.
    A lot of people in the media are excited by the idea of change (No-Day-Ever-Alike is, after all, why a lot of us were attracted to Journalism in the first place) and having the chance to step back the daily whirl of producing a newspaper product, and look at the next 3 years as opposed to the business plan for the next 12 months, would be welcomed I suspect.
    I’ve been lucky enough to have some ‘sandbox’ time, working with hackers, academics, digital developers, artists and storytellers from outside the world of Journalism, and it’s helped shape my thinking enormously… but I wonder how many of my peers have had the same opportunity?

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  8. This is 2012, and you and those in your league are just now figuring this out? You’re just noticing these stultifying things about American journalism and newspapering? And you have the temerity to credit these thoughts to sitting in your oh-so-comfortable perch, a sweet reward for your short-sighted service to journalism? And worse, you have the chutzpah to write this down and put it out here as if it’s some big revelation.

    • Not sure about comfortable perches, I’ve been at this 30 years and have more work ahead in journalism. Thanks for weighing in.

  9. From my perspective, the combination of print and Internet is a fabulous opportunity for bold change – but it won’t be effective until corporations stop thinking of their website as simply a newspaper online. In my opinion the key to change is to start there – create a news organization that builds the two pieces to complement one another, but not with a carbon copy mentality.

  10. I’ve been in the business for more than 40 years, from sports stringer, to photographer, to managing editor and editor of a daily newspaper until 2001. Since then I’ve run several weeklies and for the past 3-1/2 years was news editor for another that was 60 years old. When the Internet first started creeping into our daily lives years ago, I pushed for our newspaper to get into the “high-tech” age but my most recent job as news editor was the typical reaction: The web version was treated as an after-thought with every article in the print product being placed on the web all at the same time once a week. I wanted the website to be a daily product with followup stories in the print edition; a one-stop shop of information that provided a variety of links for people. Owners of the newspaper, like so many others, were from the old culture and didn’t understand the changes that needed to take place. But then their children, who grew up in the computer and Internet age, took over the operation and, made moves to bring the website of newspapers in the chain into the 2000s, and promptly closed the newspaper where I was working in one of the most rich and influential counties in the Midwest. They understand everything about high-tech but nothing about business!

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  13. Major change won’t be possible until print outlets resign themselves to the fact that print profit margins are unobtainable online. And that won’t happen anytime soon. It would think long and hard before returning to journalism for any outlet that wasn’t digital from the ground up.

  14. I was downsized at my paper, a very small daily in a rural county. The challenges are the same as a big city paper and the mistakes keep piling up. Newspapers are good for depth on the big issues. Look at every major disaster, war or crime. Print can do more in-depth work than any other medium. Leave the fluff for the Web where people are likely ton spend seconds as they StumbleUpon the next page.
    Let reporters tackle big stories and give them the space to cover the issues. Also, let the elitism that runs amok in newsrooms go by the wayside.

    • News organizations uendfd by money unconnected to commerce Doesn’t exist.Nobody is heaping money on reporters out of good citizenship. It’s pay for plug.WBUR and WGBH are as sales oriented as any commercial broadcast facility. They just call them grant announcements instead of spots, and retain the right to run beg-a-thons to make their quarterly or monthly(sometimes it seems like weekly or hourly) budgets. As for the pending doom of “casual endemic corruption caused by non-existent or ineffective small town papers, it’s already here. Most 10,000 small town papers depend so much on locally generated ad revenue they don’t do much poking.The biggest threats to small town papers is 20 years old and comes more from malls and the resulting withering of downtown, homegrown commerce than from the Internet. The chain stores buy national and regional media, not the local Daily Star Leader-American. The trend toward chain retail has either killed small town papers or rendered them next to irrelevant for anything other than wedding news, high school sports scores and funerals.Anytime you see law enforcement busting some corrupt municipal scheme, you see the failure of local journalism which could have known, should have known, probably did know, but which backed away in ignorant bliss

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