Shifting Sands  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   August/September 2007

Shifting Sands   

By Kimberly Metzinger
     


Ken Sands is switching Washingtons, trading the wilds of the Inland Northwest for the wilds of the Beltway. The online publisher for Spokane, Washington's Spokesman-Review is moving to Washington, D.C., in August to become Congressional Quarterly's executive editor for innovation.

A former reporter and editor on the Spokesman-Review's city desk, Sands plunged into the online world in 1998. He was named interactive editor, then managing editor of online and new media in 2002, then online publisher for the Spokesman-Review and spokesmanreview.com in 2005. Among his innovations were Webcasts of the newspaper's two daily news meetings to offer readers a window into editors' decision-making.

At CQ, he will oversee editorial product development and much of CQ.com. An edited transcript of his interview with AJR's Kimberly Metzinger follows.

Q: In 2002, you told a journalism blog you were interested in exploring where newspapers and their Web sites intersect. Over the past five years, have you found that intersection?

A: I think we've certainly [found it] in Spokane. The newsroom is as integrated as any newspaper staff anywhere, and that's because the newsroom management really saw how necessary it was to embrace the Web.

A lot of other places still haven't reached that point culturally where they really do embrace the Web... Unfortunately, the printed newspaper still makes up 90 or 95 percent of the revenue at most newspapers. As long as that is still the case, the newspapers are going to have a problem fully embracing the Web because they're not going to devote as many resources to it as they are still going to devote to the print edition.

Q: Do you think print media can survive without online media, or online without print?

A: I think the real dilemma is that content creation is expensive; it's labor-intensive. People cost money. So far, I don't know of any really successful Web-only operations that could compete with a daily newspaper for the quality and quantity of content. But newspapers have a huge infrastructure to support. I don't know how viable a long-term business proposition that is.

Q: A lot of the innovative elements you've implemented over the years seem to be focused on local news. Why is local news so critically important to media outlets?

A: I would say to any editor anywhere, "Figure out what your franchise is." Meaning: "What do you do better than anyone else? What do you do that no one else does?" And for the vast majority of newspapers, that means local news. So do it as well as you can.

Q: How do you feel about newspapers charging a fee to view online content?

A: We do that with some of our content here. We're one of the few papers that does have some parts of our site behind a subscription wall. I think the jury's out on that. The New York Times has done it. The Wall Street Journal has done it. A couple dozen regional papers like us have done it. The media that are successful at charging for subscriptions have something that you really can't get anywhere else.

Q: Why are newspapers becoming more transparent and more willing to let readers know how they do their jobs and what resources help create stories?

A: I think we were certainly one of the first newspapers to embrace transparency and probably have done it more extensively than anyone else. I just think it's a credibility issue. With the media the way it is now, bloggers can question us in real time, question our ethics, our motives, our practices. To be able to not only give answers in real time, but to actually answer the questions before they're even asked by exposing as much of what we do to the light of day as possible, then people won't wonder or be suspicious of our motives if they can see what we do and how we do it.

Q: Where do you get your news from?

A: Mobile. Mobile is the future. I suffer from what some would call BlackBerry thumb. It's repetitive stress and pain all the time from overuse of my smartphone Treo. So when it comes to getting news, it's not the Web site, it's the device. With e-mail alerts and instant messaging, the news is wireless and in the palm of my hand.

Q: Do you think blogs should be considered journalism?

A: To say that a blog is or isn't journalism is like saying a printing press isn't journalism. Philosophically, I think the word "blog" has a lot of unnecessary and negative baggage attached to it. I think that probably 80 to 90 percent of the media bloggers I've seen don't do a very good job because they don't really understand the power of interactivity and aggregation.

Q: What kind of role do you think editors should play with blogs?

A: A lot of newsrooms are struggling with whether blogs should be edited prior to publication or not. But I think the editor's main role should be the same as it is for all other journalism: helping to guide the reporters to do a better job [and] giving them ideas and feedback. Unfortunately, I don't think the editors understand interactivity and aggregation any better than the reporters do.

Q: Why are you leaving Spokane for Congressional Quarterly?

A: I think it's a fabulous opportunity. Congressional Quarterly is affiliated with the Poynter Institute, so it's a great company to work for. Washington, D.C., is a great place with a lot of vitality and interest. I believe their editorial and business strategy is very forward-thinking, and I'm very excited about it.

I've been working in the newspaper business for 26 years, and it's always been doom and gloom. We've been trying for decades to hold on as long as we can. And CQ, on the other hand, is trying to expand dramatically. They have a very bold, aggressive expansion plan, and that's exciting.

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