4 Ways To Save The Newsroom

by Jason Falls |
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Everywhere you look, traditional media outlets are dying off. Okay, not dying, but laying off staff, being devalued at sale, cutting budgets, trimming corners and falling all over themselves trying to figure out web strategies to save their collective asses. There’s even a new website to track layoffs in the newspaper business. Subscription rates are falling. Advertising sales are sinking as well. The American consumer has moved online and the only news she’s getting via ink and paper is the row and seat number of her next flight, which she prints out herself.

I recently chronicled what I view as a largely failed attempt by my local daily, the Courier-Journal, which is a Gannett property, to incorporate social media tools into their website redesign. They did a great job of offering the tools, but a lousy one of giving the users a reason to use them. Fortunately, I had the opportunity to speak with the C-J’s president and publisher, Denise Ivey, a week or so after that post in an unrelated meeting. I shared my criticisms of the site redesign, but also offered up suggestions and questions about the future of newspapers that seemed to disturb her.

Ms. Ivey was inordinately polite and pleasant despite the fact I actually said I have little reason to read her paper. But she seemed perplexed I would suggest elevating citizen blog material to the same status as news reports and use the Courier-Journal’s audience as news gatherers. She threw fact checking and accuracy at me as if I’d never heard of professional standards or journalistic ethics before. I also suggested allowing the online voting and polling of stories to help determine which were positioned above the fold – sort of crowdsourcing the story priority. She scoffed, saying that the section editors and other editorial staff members are trained experts at doing that. True, and I would take nothing away from their expertise, but she may as well as said, “We don’t care what our audience thinks is important … we’re juuuuhhhhhnalists!”

Add to that an interesting statistic from Zogby International’s World Editors Forum and Reuters survey that says one quarter of newspaper editors globally think the quality of journalism over the next 10 years will be worse than it is now and you start to see a theme.

To the old guard newspaper elite out there, have some lovely scones and tea as you pity your own readership. Hide behind your journalistic ethics and training all you want. No one is reading your papers and your websites suck. And letting people have blogs there won’t fix it.

Fortunately, there are some papers that do get it. I had the pleasure of meeting Mandy Jenkins, a social networking maven for the Cincinnati Enquirer, shockingly enough, also a Gannett paper. Not knowing the full story of what the Enquirer is doing, but getting the indication from her and conversations with others since, I looked at their site while writing this post. Guess what I found in the community news sections? A by-line that said the following:

“USER SUBMITTED”

Thank goodness vision, innovation and bravery still have a place in today’s newsrooms.

The Enquirer isn’t the only paper out there doing good things. The Dallas Morning News is, in many ways, pioneering the local relevancy and engagement through its website and NeighborsGo community. There are others. If you know of one, tell us about it in the comments.

So what can traditional newsrooms do to offset their off-line losses and make their on-line assets work for them? First, a quick scan of some of my Twitterati (multiples rearranged for chronological clarity):

pitchengine Utilizing Twitter internally can be a benefit. Perhaps a Twitterfone-like program that turns scanner transmissions in to tweets?

pitchengine Start a network of “coorespondeant” from around the community that can post and discuss news on a site (maybe Ning).

SteMaTo when I was in Savannah I can remember some great message boards talking about local events on the newspapers website.

mozhet Wd be great if fab infographics like this were to allow users to tag data with relevant links http://tiny.cc/eP6uw

joegerstandt they can more authentically engage their customer in the feedback process in the development and guidelines of reporting

joegerstandt but they must understand what an authentic, organic relationship is…or the new tools will be of no real value

dedmond29 How about this? Add new/fresh perspectives to their stories and information

davefleet I wouldn’t mind seeing a digg-style feature on newspaper homepages to let readers decide what’s the most important.

Here are the things I’d recommend to old guard executives to help them become relevant to the American consumer again. These are strategic and philosophical in nature and not meant to give tactical specifics. Those are hinted at above and around the web in various places.

  1. Get over yourself
    Journalistic standards and ethics will continue to be relevant, differentiating factors in the era of new media. But there is relatively no entry barrier for self-publishing anymore. Random fan/freaks can claim to be an expert on Major League Baseball and have just as many readers as your beat guy if they work at it. Your training sets you apart, but doesn’t entitle you. Stop acting like someone who didn’t graduate from Columbia and work at the New York Times can’t get the inverted pyramid.
  2. Listen
    You learned this skill in the Art of the Interview class, first semester, sophomore year. Unfortunately, it was about your interview subject and not your audience. They have a voice, too, and they’re expressing it elsewhere. Stop giving them irrelevant website features and ask them what will make your website relevant to them. I’d bet they’ll say, “Better local coverage and use my submissions.” This ain’t rocket surgery, gang.
  3. Stop hiding behind accuracy
    If you follow step number two above, you’ll learn that immediacy trumps accuracy to most people. As a result, corrections and clarifications are okay in today’s web environment. (It’s not like you guys and gals are exactly perfect, anyway.) If CNN had been paying attention to Twitter on April 18, they could have published a banner newsflash, “Reports of Earthquake in Midwest” either on Twitter or their website, then followed that up with a link to details as they were gathered. Confirmations and fact checking could be done throughout the following hours, making the information resource dynamic, until an ultimate print edition was manifested. Instead, they sat around for 37 minutes letting random people break the news across the country. For a nice look at the balance of immediacy and accuracy in what could be a model for a new newsroom, checkout this post from the Online Journalism Blog.
  4. Know Your Role
    Online readers gather their news from a variety of sources. There’s a good chance they don’t get national or international news from you, yet upwards of 60 percent of most daily newspapers today is wire copy stories from unrelated towns, people and events. Focus on the news that only you, or your readers, can provide. They won’t be able to get it anywhere else and that will set you apart.

These guidelines are a start. There are dozens of tactical executions using social media tools just waiting to be had for newspapers, and even electronic media outlets, that can put meat behind each of those four principles. And I bet you can think of one. So tell us about it in the comments and help us brainstorm a list of ideas the old guard can use to put a little relevancy pep back in their step.

Other Posts You’ll Find Interesting:

  1. Newspapers Missing The Benefits Of Social Media
  2. Can Newspapers Be Saved?
  3. NY Times To Test Crowdsourcing Its Data
  4. How To Use RSS And Social Media For News Gathering

About the Author

Jason Falls

Jason Falls is a leading thinker, speaker and strategist in the world of digital marketing and is co-author of two books, No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide To Social Media Marketing and The Rebel's Guide To Email Marketing. By day, he leads digital strategy for Elasticity, one of the world's most innovative digital marketing and public relations firms. Follow him on Twitter (@JasonFalls).