AJR  Features
From AJR,   December 1997

Firing Up The Newsroom   

In an age of fierce competition with other media, too many newspaper staffs are just too lethargic. What's needed are exciting and excited editors who can raise the energy level and liven up the content.

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.


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I'M SITTING IN THE AFTERNOON NEWS meeting at a good-sized daily newspaper, watching a familiar ceremony unfold. Section editors are mumbling through their potential page one stories, the managing editor is dutifully taking notes, tomorrow's front page is shaping up...

...and no one acts the least bit excited.

In fact, the room buzzes with mordant jokes about dull stories and maybe something will show up on the wires and call if you get news. People's body language is weary and resigned. And the next day's paper will reflect it.

On another day, by contrast, I find myself in the budget meeting of a different paper, where the top editor has spotted a sleeper buried on the Metro budget and, hunching forward, motor revving, has begun to brainstorm about page one possibilities. The room is energized, the conversation intense, and the next day's paper will reflect that, too.

As an itinerant writing and editing coach, I've become a connoisseur of the daily news meeting, where you can quickly size up a lot about the energy and ethos of a newsroom. Too often, the laid-back approach reflects the overall spirit of the place, a metaphor, I suspect, for the nagging doldrums that hover over much of the newspaper business these days.

But at times the place crackles. Almost all newsrooms on some days, and many newsrooms on most days, radiate with the exhilaration of competing in tempestuous times.

In more than 10 years as a coach, I've spoken at and visited some 35 newspapers in 21 states, plus a couple dozen news services and specialty newsrooms, and I'm struck by some impressions that have been intensifying as I travel.

Some newsrooms seem on their way to a grand reascendancy, and others seem to be sleepwalking toward irrelevance.

What makes the difference? The following is a report on the challenges I see papers wrestling with and some touchstone signs to look for in newsrooms that are surmounting them.

CHALLENGE 1: Energizing the Newsroom

If you work in today's newsroom, you should feel desperate.

Desperate for every second of every reader's time. Desperate for maximum impact with every article, illustration, headline and page. Desperate for one more day staving off the predatory competitors converging from every angle. Too often, though, I encounter the lackadaisical newsroom. There, reporters produce low-voltage articles they themselves don't enjoy. Editors take audience loyalty and attention for granted.

Challenge No. 1, in my opinion, is to turbocharge these sleepyheads.

Journalists should feel desperate but not doomed. In many newsrooms, challenge and competition now fuel a renewed urgency and excitement, a combative determination to survive and thrive. I'm convinced that there's a straight-line relationship linking the energy within a newsroom, the vitality of the paper's content and its prospects for enduring prosperity.

One of the biggest obstacles is the grinding routine of producing a paper every single day. The very relentlessness saps creative juices. No wonder cop reporters become jaded after their 25th car-truck fatal, and headline writers lose intensity after their thousandth one-column three-liner.

The key variable is leadership. Newsrooms need managers and editors who pump in fresh energy and nonstop enthusiasm. No leadership duty is more vital (or demanding) than transfusing energy into every employee every day.

A newsroom tends to mirror the spirit and ardor of its top leader. Find a forceful, vigorous editor, and you'll find a throbbing newsroom. Find a listless boss, and the newsroom will run like a battery that's just about drained.

CHALLENGE 2: Improving Content

In a wired-up world, newspapers no longer have anything close to a monopoly on selling information. Circulation and penetration have been flat enough for long enough that content changes seem imperative. If new readers are to be attracted and current ones retained, then newspapers must raise the value of what they contain.

But how? Fiddling with the news blend puts into play some touchy questions. How does a paper balance its public service responsibilities with recognition that news is a commodity influenced by the marketplace? How does it balance reader ``wants" and ``needs''? Can a ``serious'' newspaper also be ``readable''? Does artful packaging equate with ``dumbing down''?

To last, newspapers need a mix of news, insight and entertainment that builds credibility, loyalty and customer dependency. These are formidable matters, demanding deliberation and action over the long run.

But the reality I observe in everyday newsrooms is more mundane and more immediately fixable: Many news staffs don't work hard enough day in and day out to produce exciting, high-quality papers.

What immediate steps could be taken?

  • Newsrooms need more hands-on, intense leadership from the top. For a while now in many newsrooms, top editors have become administrative shadows, detached from daily journalism and barely a factor in the paper's content. More and more these days, second-line editors (managing editors and department heads, for instance) are also dropping into the abyss of meetings and outside-the-newsroom projects. In many newsrooms, it's hard to locate a command presence. Without such leadership, papers tend to lack vision and miss the final push toward excellence.

  • Newsrooms need a ``great story czar,'' someone specifically assigned to--and accountable for--producing outstanding packages every day. Too often, I find newsrooms scrounging for page one stories during a late afternoon news meeting, settling for whatever luck or the wire budget may bring their way. I'd like to see someone specifically responsible for meeting the goal of at least one great story on every front page. Maybe that means jumping on a breaking story, localizing something national, spying the germ of a superior story lurking in an unexpected place, or convening a midday brainstorming session when the outlook seems bleak. Whatever it takes, by news meeting time the czar should be ready with a superlative hit.

  • Newsrooms need to rejuvenate themselves as generative, news-producing machines. Imagine this: Suppose you could take several dozen of the smartest people you know, turn them loose in your city for a day, all with one mission--to come back with the most interesting new information they could find. That's what a reporting staff should be doing. But often reporters sit back and wait for the news to come to them, especially at papers that demand so much copy that there's no time for enterprise reporting. Too much time is spent cocooned inside the newsroom, on routine phone calls to the same shopworn list of sources.

  • At some papers, I'm struck by how little news budgets change during the news cycle, how few fresh, unexpected wonders turn up during the reporting day. Few things jump-start a news staff more than reporters racing in, jubilant over some amazing discovery.

    CHALLENGE 3: Expanding Services

    Newspapers are organized to be superficial. That's not meant as a frivolity or even much of a criticism. It simply reflects their historical role. Like supermarkets, newspapers rush hundreds of items onto the shelf and let the customers grab whatever they want.

    More and more, though, readers are signaling that they want more than variety and convenience. They want gourmet services as well. They want depth as well as data, understanding as well as entertainment. How can newspapers meet these demands?

  • First, by providing a greater volume of information of all kinds. More tidbits (Little League scores, home sales, meeting agendas, CD rates), more topics (parenting, leisure, shopping, commuting, coping), more choices. The supermarket becomes the mega-mall.

  • Second, through more sophisticated processing of information, more assessment, more explanation, more connection-making. Beyond tidbits and daily articles, papers might consider offering special reports, book-length analyses, community information guidebooks that trade on readers' desires for fuller understanding and that better use the massive information base the papers have assembled.

  • Third, through the multidimensionality allowed by online services. These services shatter barriers of time and space. They give readers access to archives, to esoterica that didn't make the newspaper story, to an infinity of added-value links and services.

  • The first two challenges--eradicating complacency and improving content--can come relatively cheaply. They require smarter leadership more than added resources.

    But expanding service requires money.

    Producing more and more short items, for example, costs more than might be expected. Quality-control considerations multiply. I was in a newsroom, for instance, where a libel suit was threatened because, while compiling a police log, a clerk transposed the names of the victim and the suspect.

    Even more, achieving understanding requires substantial investment. A reporter required to produce a story a day from Sleepy Hollow will produce data. Depth is something else. It requires time, attention, long-range commitment. Magazine and book writers spend months if not years mastering their material. Not every newspaper reporter can afford that kind of time. But some can.

    Supplying ``added value'' is now a watchword in nearly every newsroom I visit. This is no time to be modest or shortsighted in seeking ways to increase service to readers.

    CHALLENGE 4: Rebuilding Confidence

    Journalists by nature are downside analyzers. Skeptical and negative. Notoriously tough to manage.

    So one shouldn't overreact to their moodiness.

    Still, I think it's fair to conclude, based on visiting many newsrooms and talking to thousands of potential, current and former staffers, that journalists have hit a trough in their confidence level in their owners and managers.

    Their faith in their leaders' vision and integrity has been sliding, and their legendary idealism is being tested (see ``The Thrill Is Gone,'' October 1995). Are newspapers merely soulless cogs in giant money machines? Or can public service journalism coexist with the new order of conglomeratization?

    I hear questions like that repeatedly, and I think managers need to respond.

    My assessment is that demand for information is such a primal human constant that newspapers should enjoy ample profits in perpetuity by producing reliable, responsible journalism.

    On my cynical days, I rue the ever-rising profit expectations and increasing willingness to disparage the notion of journalism as a special calling.

    But I am also heartened by encountering news companies, papers and executives who remain dedicated to reconciling service and profit, defending and raising standards, and staking long-run prosperity on a franchise of service and credibility.

    You can see three great turning points in U.S. journalism history. The first was the writing of the First Amendment during a revolutionary period, producing a mindset of independence that remains formidable today. The second was the creation in the 1830s of a press supported by middle-class readers and the advertisers trying to reach them, a development that liberated the press from government and tied it, for both good and ill, to the needs and desires of ordinary people.

    The third great turning point was the rise of investor ownership of the news media, potentially transferring the ultimate clout from the needs of the middle-class audience to the demands of the investor-class ownership.

    On a philosophical level, this is a profound issue that may change journalism forever.

    On an operational level, it fosters doubt and drift among many journalists and creates an immediate management challenge. Owners, managers and editors who remain dedicated to quality and public service need to dramatically assert their values in ways that reinspire the rank and file.

    CHALLENGE 5: Reducing Isolation

    As a visitor, I frequently find that people inside newsrooms seem curiously out of touch with the rest of the world--their audiences, their communities, even with other media.'

    This is ironic, because journalists are in the business of staying in touch. They are professional world watchers. But newsrooms can become terribly insular, bunkers of the like- minded sealed off from interaction with the regular folks.

    I'm struck, for example, by how little conversation you hear within newsrooms about community activities, the PTA, Little League, church eventsÉthose connective tissues of ordinary life that are staples of discussion inside most workplaces.

    Somehow, in pursuing the laudable goals of objectivity and impartiality, we've edged into a culture of aloofness and disconnection. One editor recently told me that it was only when she was assigned to the ``neighbors'' section, after years of high-level service in the newsroom, that she began to feel related to an actual community.

    For all the rhetoric about a dawning information age, I also find that journalists often seem naively disconnected from other media. Amazingly, many newsrooms still don't have e-mail or easy Internet access. Even with the ubiquitous TVs tuned to CNN, newspeople seem oblivious to what's being reported elsewhere, what's being chatted about on talk radio and TV, what's the day's buzz. Without a sense of the swiftly growing media presence in people's lives, how can newspapers design relevant coverage?

    Their challenge, then, is to reconnect to audiences, communities, colleagues and competitors.

    Staff members with strong community roots need to be valued and encouraged, and new recruits should be chosen, at least in part, because of their anthropological ability to learn quickly about their surroundings.

    Yesterday's model for newspapering must adapt. Today's paper should be filled with tomorrow's news, not just yesterday's; it should aggressively build upon what's in the public domain, adding value, not merely formally certifying the historical record.

    Ignored, these problems can lead to homogenized, sterile newspapers lacking a genuine sense of place and offering obsolete redundancies. But many papers aren't ignoring the issues. Public journalism, controversial as it may be, is one obvious indicator that papers want to reconnect with their audiences.

    Many newsrooms have begun to encourage staff members in community and volunteer activities. News meetings often include the online staff, vivid reminders that the information flow is onrushing and must be heeded.

    There are obvious potential problems here. Online overeagerness can lead to faddism, and community consciousness can lead to boosterism. But newsroom insularity has to be reduced. The challenge is to do so responsibly and progressively.

    CHALLENGE 6: Updating Management

    Newspapers use an assembly-line organizational model left over from the 19th century and a spiked-club management style out of the Stone Age. Well, maybe I exaggerate. A little.

    Still, there's near consensus that the newsroom culture needs updating.

    Across the landscape papers are experimenting with teams, quality circles, newsrooms-without-walls, flattened management hierarchies and other changes (see ``Reinventing the Newsroom,'' April 1995). They are offering training and support for managers who once found themselves thrown unprepared into the herd of unruly maverick journalists. Spurred by the pragmatic consideration that old-fashioned management doesn't work well with new-fangled employees, newsrooms are today more flexible than ever before.

    The challenge is to assess which innovations will most successfully combat key problems:

  • Reducing stress that drives both recruits and veterans away from the newsroom.

  • Balancing flexibility in scheduling (four-day weeks, part time shifts, shared jobs) with the concentrated attention needed to cover news.

  • Improving packaging, coordinating decision making by spreading power and responsibility.

  • Reexamining the deployment of staff, the flow of work and the organization chart in light of today's needs.
  • CHALLENGE 7: Getting Ineractive

    Newsrooms have traditionally held the public at arm's length. Getting any actual human newsperson on the phone is so difficult that it's become a running joke. Complain, and you're invited to submit a letter to the editor.

    Journalists are just too busy doing the public's business to have much time for the public. And they hold full control; you don't get your paper until they're ready to send it to you.

    Until now.

    Through cyberspace, readers can penetrate the newsroom far more effectively than by telephone, leaving e-mail messages and Web site responses, news tips and timely reactions that can't be ignored.

    Increasingly, readers will expect news to be posted online as soon as it's available, and they can and will immediately respond. Their very reactions will then have to be taken into account as the news is updated.

    A reporter writing about an auto accident will hear from a passerby who saw it and will need to change the story. A writer covering a meeting will hear immediate, perhaps persuasive, arguments from readers challenging the story's focus.

    Newspapers will become free-flowing works-in-progress, with readers involved at every step.

    All this will unsettle journalists for a while, but it will also provide a gigantic opportunity to capture the public's attention and loyalty. The more that readers are woven into the system, the likelier they will identify newspapers as essential aspects of their lives.

    The challenge will be to manage interactivity to infinitely multiply the opportunity for reader participation without relinquishing professional oversight of standards and quality.

    CHALLENGE 8: Paying Talent What It's Worth

    Producing good journalism is much harder than it looks or the public seems to think. And it is getting harder.

    Tomorrow's newspaper people will have to process more information, faster, in more ways than ever before. They will need every traditional journalistic skill plus sophisticated computer mastery plus the ability to bring more depth and perspective than journalism has ever demanded.

    These professionals will cost money.

    For decades, papers have benefited from a simple supply-and-demand equation. So many people want to be journalists that papers can easily fill their staffs at very low pay.

    For several reasons, the timing seems right for papers to significantly raise salaries:

  • Newspapers remain extremely profitable--easily in the double digits each year--and they can afford it.

  • Top prospects now have more and more choices. Hot writers, editors, computer-trained designers are in increasing demand. Computer companies, for example, are accustomed to paying for talent, and as they hire more and more journalists the scale should rise.

  • The competitive environment is becoming critical, and papers can no longer coast along with pretty good staffs. Circulation and advertising dips will, at some point, motivate publishers to invest in the best possible talent to create the strongest possible papers.
  • CHALLENGE 9: Building Better Editors

    What variable most accounts for the separation between middle-of-the-pack papers and the truly excellent? In my estimation, it is the quality of mid-level editors.

    Even the smallest papers tend to have fine writers, photographers and technical staffs. But all-star section editors--city editors, features editors, copy desk chiefs--are rare. Most newsrooms are lucky to have one, and few newsrooms have top-notch heads for every department.


    Section editors need a daunting combination of technical, conceptual and human relations skills. Few people have them all. Editors tend to be selected for their technical skills; they manage to produce their sections on time and in good order, but they often lack the vision and leadership that lead to brilliance.

    Journalism schools need to do more to prepare future editors (by emphasizing management, motivation, idea generation and coaching, for instance), and newspapers need far more formal and informal programs for identifying, training and nurturing potential editors.

    CHALLENGE 10: Expanding the Newsroom Mindset

    It's become a mantra to complain that newsrooms are overly dominated by the thinking of middle-aged white men, and papers deserve applause for actively trying to diversify.

    To my eye, the numbers are improving. Newsrooms employ far more women and members of minority groups than they once did. How much influence they have is another matter.

    A huge challenge now is to diversify not just the newsroom makeup but also its mindset.

    I recently attended a news meeting where 17 people were present: 16 white men, all at least 35, and one white woman. To be fair, I also encounter many well-integrated meetings. But the most common configuration remains a meeting dominated by men-in-suits, with younger or hipper participants likely to represent the art department or online operationÉand to sit against the wall rather than at the big table.

    It is especially hard for newsrooms to seriously reflect the thinking of younger people. Although reporting and even editing staffs at many papers skew young, their influence seems limited. ``Young thinking'' seems most often channeled into special sections, and old-think still tends to dominate the traditional parts of the paper.

    It doesn't take great wisdom to see that newspapers tend to reflect their newsrooms and to appeal to audiences who see themselves in the reflection. Attracting the diverse readership necessary to sustain newspapers will require action at the front end: ensuring that those who produce the newspaper amply represent the audiences that they target.