Maybe it is Time to Panic  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   April/May 2008

Maybe it is Time to Panic   

Why news organizations have to act much more boldly if they are to survive

By Carl Sessions Stepp

Carl Sessions Stepp (cstepp@umd.edu) began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.

After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.

In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.

     


Two dozen journalists from a national magazine have gathered to discuss their future and how to prepare. They seem somewhat anxious and uneasy, but what most intrigues me is where they focus their main concern.

It isn't about whether journalism will survive, or even whether they will have jobs.

Their rawest worry seems to be this: With all the stresses and cutbacks, will they be able to continue doing the job right? "The hardest question," as one puts it, "is how to maintain accuracy with less time."

This apprehension squares with what I hear repeatedly in visiting newsrooms and talking with journalists. To be sure, they are showing worrisome levels of battle-scarred doubt. But at the same time, they remain some of the most idealistic souls you'll ever come across.

For all their jaded posturing, journalists want to preserve something that has worked for two centuries: news media that can both make acceptable profits and perform essential public services.

Can this still be done? Probably.

How? By moving far faster than conventional media are moving now, accelerating into a space-race urgency to revolutionize their content and business.

The rank-and-file is ready. After a generation of fitful transition toward some elusive new age, journalists seem primed to move from the hand-wringing stage to decisive action.

If only their leaders knew what to do.

At a recent Carnegie Corporation conference in New York City on the future of media, Jim Willse, editor of Newark's Star-Ledger, pointedly framed the problem.

"The business model of newspapers that we all grew up with has blown up," Willse said. Now the issue is: "What is it that we have that is truly of value? What can we do that people are willing to spend something to get, even if it's just time?"

The bad omens are easy to see.

Today's newspeople know they have forfeited the edge on breaking news and lost the buzz in the online marketplace. They have been outflanked and out-thought by portal sites, aggregators, social networkers, indexers, video hosts, auction and classified sites and many others. They see advertisers retreating, and readers fleeing and Web viewers waffling.

Lots of statistics demonstrate these points, but consider just this one:

Daily newspaper circulation has declined every year since 1987.

Yet journalists own some sizable advantages, both new and old. They cling to their franchise strength of localness in both news and advertising, benefit from the seemingly infinite appetite for information and conversation, maintain strong credibility and brand presence, and are models of dependable longevity in an age where trendier bookmarks and blogs come and go by the hour.

No wonder journalists, who aren't necessarily all that normal to begin with, react in unorthodox, often contradictory ways, endorsing change but clinging to old ways, cynical on the outside but altruistic at heart.

This duality, and the perseverance it breeds, may well save them in the end. The tough part is that, for now, they're acting a lot like a nervous puppy about to be loaded into the family van.

Are we going to the park to play, or to the vet to get those shots?

When I visited the Charlotte Observer last year to interview its under-30 staff members (see "Caught in the Contradiction," April/May 2007), a 24-year-old copy editor named Christine Lee, in true headline-writer style, cut directly to the heart.

"We are all just kind of stuck in that old model," she said, "and we haven't figured out how to get out of it yet."

Now, after a generation of inconclusive lurching, journalists want to figure it out. The initiative falls to managers.

The next step calls for newspeople to focus their formidable collective brainpower on a quantum leap forward in quality and service. It probably won't cost nearly as much as

they fear; from Gutenberg to Google, world-changing ideas have come from unknown upstarts with more imagination than money. The results can be transforming.

At some elemental level, neither journalism nor market economics has changed.

Journalism remains today, as it always has been, a blend of reliable information, entertainment, discussion and connection.

All that is required to prosper, as always, is to supply the audience with some of the above ingredients more attractively than the competition.

What has changed profoundly is not the role of journalists as trusted monitors, watchdogs and guides but their position.

For centuries, journalists stood at the mouth of a vast assembly line of information. They controlled the flow, which moved in an efficient line from producers to receivers. This model let producers dominate content and format.

Information came when journalists let you have it. If you wanted a magazine, you had no choice but to stand by your mailbox until it arrived, on the producers' schedule, not yours.

Today journalists stand not at the head of the pipeline but in the middle of a boundless web of interconnected media, messages, senders and receivers. This is the new, right-brain, digital world. The journalist-in-the-middle is a ringmaster, a maker and a consumer, a grand impresario of a two-way information flow that has no beginning, end or fixed schedule.

Journalists no longer control content and format. Anyone with a computer can become a publisher. An independent blogger can scoop the pros. A kid with a cell phone can distribute the day's most compelling video.

Ultimately this interactivity may be the most influential change of all.

It makes everyone a potential producer as well as a consumer. It transcends schedules and time restrictions. It produces instant feedback and amplification. It democratizes decision-making. And it lets the audience disregard the professionals when it chooses.

Again, none of this changes the definition of news. News remains, as always, fresh information of public value.

What changes is how news is assembled and shared. Here too power has slipped from journalists. News becomes a collaborative and cumulative work in progress pieced together by multiple contributors, rather than a media-certified byproduct carved in press plates and fixed in time.

In a widely discussed essay in the Washington Post in January, the outspoken former Baltimore Sun reporter David Simon, executive producer of HBO's "The Wire," asked, "Isn't the news itself still valuable to anyone?"

I would answer that the news itself is more valuable than ever. Information is power. In an information age, good information is not just valuable but invaluable.

What changes is how that value is apportioned in the marketplace.

Until recently, producers monopolized the information flow and the resulting revenue. Now they have less control and more competition. Because technology has fostered near-infinite ways of finding and spreading information, there is actually far more revenue available than ever. But it is spread thinner, and the mainstream media have proved sadly slow in corralling their share.

Why didn't they capture the market in online classifieds, long before Craigslist? Why didn't they become the home base for local video, long before YouTube? Why didn't they recognize the power of social connections, long before Facebook?

Preoccupied with trying to save their old model, they barely glanced up as one potential pot of gold after another floated right past them.

Now, as blogger Alan Mutter, a former print editor turned new-media chief, wrote recently, it's time "to stop whining about the glories of yesteryear and start thinking of creative ways to make or save more money."

In short, the challenge is this: News organizations need to think more imaginatively, turn duress into motivation and make their content irresistible and their business operations unstoppable. And fast.

Hyde Post, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's vice president for Internet operations, was discussing change within his organization last year when he said something that has stuck with me ever since.

"If we really wanted to get in good with people," Post said only half-jokingly, "we would be the people who come to your house and hook up your machines."

I for one wouldn't trust most journalists, myself included, to hook up anything mechanical, but I appreciate his larger point. Today's journalists need to corner the market on information customer service.

This will demand dramatic, even radical, improvements.

Think about these figures, all based on published reports by professional groups or analysts:

Thirty years ago, 71 percent of adults read a daily newspaper. Ten years ago, it was 59 percent. Last year's figure: 48 percent.

Last December, 63 million unique visitors came to newspaper Web sites. Google's figure: 133 million.

Ad revenue for newspaper Web sites rose 21 percent to $773 million in the third quarter of last year over the previous year. Print ad losses during the same period: $1 billion, wiping out the gain from the Web.

In the third quarter of last year, print advertising dropped 9 percent, including a decline of 17 percent among classifieds. A Goldman Sachs prediction for overall newspaper advertising this year: a drop of 8 percent.

While most news organizations remain profitable, they are rapidly losing ground in readership, revenue and Web popularity.

Now is not the time to panic, of course...

Wait.

Now is exactly the time to panic.

Circulation down every year for two decades? Ad categories plummeting at double-digit levels? Competitors siphoning off brainpower and market share?

These dire symptoms fully support panic, or at least a boldness beyond anything seen so far.

In too many cases, news organizations respond not with bold advances but with retrenchment, and its inevitable damage to staffing, resources, newsholes and overall investment in such quality items as foreign coverage, enterprise and investigations. Even the physical size of the page has shrunk.

Their shift of resources to online journalism, while impressive in many ways, has been sluggish by cyber standards. Few traditional news organizations have built dominant Web sites. Cooperation and coordination between print and digital units remain grudging.

Now let me take a breath and acknowledge that exceptional work is being done on many media sites, that audacious experimentation can be found every day and that numerous news companies, foundations and organizations are underwriting exciting and promising initiatives.

But even conceding all that, how many mainstream journalists can look at either the tangibles (revenue and audience) or the intangibles (buzz and momentum) and truly feel good about the current situation? How many people, inside or outside the business, consider news organizations on the cutting edge?

While managers might argue that revenue problems require the print cutbacks and online caution, they should also ponder this question:

Do you really think that strategy is working?

My parents recently received a letter from the newspaper they have subscribed to since I was in the first grade 50 years ago. It informed them the paper was ending home delivery in their rural town.

It is no exaggeration to describe them as heartbroken.

Now I recognize that such consolidation has been going on for years, in a calculation pitting the cost of serving outlying subscribers against their value to local advertisers.

But my parents' disappointment resonated with me because, at about the same time, I had opened my home-delivered New York Times to learn the paper was ending television listings for my area, along with accompanying wonderfully droll recommendations. It was described as a cost-cutting move.

I understand the economics, but I also understand something that might matter more.

How, in ultracompetitive times, can a business afford to be seen as reducing value and service?

Doesn't that smack of defeatism? Give me instead a maniacal, refuse-to-lose, never-give-up fighting spirit and competitive fire that could electrify newsrooms, harness their limitless dedication and passion, ignite the fiercest creative fervor in media history and court audiences with quality so wondrous and indispensable that they wouldn't dare turn away.

Before time runs down, why not launch a counteroffensive to preserve serious journalism, which has precious value in a confusing world; to recapture domination of the overall information market, where professional journalists lead in expertise and credibility; and to rebuild the business to make more money in more ways than ever before, all in keeping with the highest standards.

The guiding principles would be these:

Make it better not worse

Make it astonishingly, irresistibly better

Make it easier, not harder, to use and enjoy

Involve everyone from school kids to staff members to senior subscribers in the ultimate group science project of creating the greatest news outlets imaginable.

Last Christmas, I encountered a large sign on the door of a local electronics store. The store had no Nintendo Wii consoles, it sadly reported, and didn't know when any would arrive.

Can you imagine selling products so popular you can't supply enough of them?

Sales of video game consoles, software and accessories rose 43 percent last year, with each category gaining in double digits, according to the NPD Group, a market research firm.

Not many years ago, parents bought their kids board games and baby dolls, at maybe $15 or $20 apiece. Then, a reinvigorated toy and gaming industry seized on emerging technologies to invent games so alluring and coveted that parents almost overnight began shelling out hundreds of dollars for consoles that required an endless diet of $50 game cartridges.

That doesn't mean the $500 newspaper or $50 Web visit is feasible, but it should teach journalists something vital:

The smart response to change and challenge is to embrace arriving technologies to lift your work to new peaks of excitement and quality. Offer people something that's amazing enough, and they'll line up and happily pay the price.

The days of selling out papers over some fabulous story aren't that far behind us. To recapture that momentum, news organizations need to mobilize and unify. But as I visit newsrooms and Web sites, this preliminary groundwork looks rickety. Too often you find a collection of rival fiefdoms rather than a coordinated campaign. Somebody needs to take charge.

You also need a vision. For most local news organizations, the vision is to become the community's central source of dependable information services in any and all formats.

Think of a mega-mall, with its anchor stores (your Web site, daily newspaper, cable channel), its boutiques (inserts, magazines, giveaways, niche offerings), its service kiosks (archives, search engines, hosting capacity) and its ease of use (syndication feeds, mobile access, electronic alerts, whatever comes next).

You're reaching multiple audiences in multiple ways with multiple opportunities for information, interaction, commerce and revenue.

But success requires coordination, commitment and, most of all, content and formats that entice the audience. Here, too, news organizations lag. I'd propose launching an all-hands, ground-level brainstorming fury to generate idea after idea after idea. Some will fail, some will work and some may work big. Ideally, all could contribute to a workplace climate elevating creativity and a marketplace surge commanding attention.

To turn specific, below are some sample ideas. Many are already being tried. Others may be nutty or humdrum. Who knows? The point is to kick-start new rounds of thinking with ideas such as:

A four-section daily paper recognized as the best available guide and overview to the overwhelming information world. Give it less the feel of a one-way pipeline and more of journalists and readers sharing, digesting and discussing news together:

Section 1, a dynamic, definitive guide to the locally relevant information universe, featuring digests, analysis, explanation, listings, links, columns and audience contributions; excerpts and synopses of top content appearing elsewhere; and a well-edited, annotated guide to the best material anywhere concerning international, national, regional and local news, sports, business and arts

Section 2, the most important and interesting news, local, national and foreign, from briefs to full reports, offering breadth and range, pointing ahead not behind, fully updated and differentiated from earlier Web copy

Section 3, an in-depth package, changing from day to day, presenting serious enterprise, investigative, explanatory and watchdog journalism of the highest possible level, not available anywhere else

Section 4, all the expected features from crosswords to comics, plus new ones including reader creations.

An online information superstructure built around a double home page, with an easy toggle back and forth: one screen for an orderly display of news and other content, the other a portal-type screen offering a master index of anything useful and appropriate for your audience, with more choices, more services and a nontraditional license to experiment

A renewed commitment to the public interest across all platforms, ranging from increased hyperlocal news to intense coverage of developing and continuing issues to giving voice to the needy, oppressed and silenced: a demonstrated long-view investment in community, service and editing

A new, more conversational tone, both online and in print, including staff and outside blogs, behind-the-scenes essays from staff members and a higher proportion of analysis and explanation

Far more easily searchable archives and galleries, with a user-friendly format more like Google or Yahoo! than the primitive systems many news organizations currently use; for example, searches that cluster content by precinct, neighborhood or topic, searches that index advertising or searches programmed to answer questions such as where a movie is playing or when the school board will meet

Expanded interactive guides to movies, shows, concerts, galleries and other arts, with amazon.com-like reader reviews and interaction

Calendars of events, searchable and easily subdivided by date, location or theme

Real-time online traffic and weather blogs, in intensely localized detail

Contests every day for the funniest, weirdest, most helpful or most outrageous local images, audio and video

Tournaments, online and in-print, pitting local individuals and teams against one another in solving puzzles, predicting sports or election outcomes, guessing the first day it will snow or anything else

Online book clubs and discussion groups on local sports, religion, relationships and other meaningful topics

Ratings for anything you can get away with, from local sermons to sundaes

Original uploaded programming, in which readers Web-cam their neighborhood news, read political commentary, offer Leno-like stand-up comedy bits on the news and debate key local issues

Interactive neighborhood centers, for news, debate, exchange, advice, problem-solving and searchable, specialized advertising

Galleries for local photos, audio and video, and applications that let readers upload their own material and search and reorganize existing content

A complaint forum, directed toward local government or business, in which editors or audience choose which questions have merit and pose them to local authorities

A local records center, providing agendas and minutes of every significant meeting in your area; text or links to as many public records as feasible; and your homemade community databases such as local sports stats, crime maps, home values or restaurant menus

A homework center, where paid or volunteer teachers answer questions and offer advice (without, of course, actually doing anyone's homework)

Greater capitalization on the treasures of your archive; for example, through creation of cheap software call it something like localscrapbook.com that lets readers develop and download scrapbooks featuring every article, photo or other mention of themselves and their families in your library; or publication and sale of special in-depth or feature reports drawing on your archives and research capabilities

A help-needed feature, a sort of super-classifieds, that lets readers pose questions, seek products, evaluate services and possibly engage in transactions from which you share the profits

Moderated forums and advice segments for personal finance, health, travel and other subjects

New products and revenue sources: frequent-visitor points, premium services (such as customized news delivery, conferences featuring star journalists, first crack at ads and coupons, local discounts), neighborhood magazines, daily auctions (lunch with the editor!), grants from nonprofits, vastly upgraded searching services and search-related ads, customized magazine and book-length reports on key topics

Above all, an unquenchable burst of new energy channeled into brainstorming:

Giving regular awards for good ideas from inside and out

Unleashing teams of high school and college kids to spark innovation

Staging regular creativity meetings throughout the news organization and in the community

Hosting an ongoing online suggestion box with prizes

Deputizing all staff members to suggest ideas and applications and offering them partial ownership rights and a share of any profits

And spending some real money: Give $100,000 to three or four of your smartest people and challenge them to design something breathtaking.

Given their base of talent and passion, news organizations still can regain the initiative if they stop plodding and start to rocket themselves forward.

"Even in hard times," James O'Shea wrote on losing his job as editor of the Los Angeles Times early this year, "wise investment not retraction is the long-term answer to the industry's troubles.

"A dollar's worth of smart investment is worth far more than a barrel of budget cuts."

Carl Sessions Stepp (cstepp@jmail.umd.edu), AJR's senior editor, teaches at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland. He wrote about newsroom transformation in the magazine's October/November issue.

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