Time to get crazy
I had a wild flash of inspiration while reading Steve Outing’s latest, very good “Stop the Presses” column yesterday. The flash came as a reaction to the oft-repeated observation that everyone in the newsroom knows the newsroom needs to change — but it hasn’t changed yet. No one seems to know how to get change to happen.
It’s too late for incremental change. It’s too late to be cautious and timid.
The time has come to be bold.
So here’s an insane, heretical idea for change. The goal is to make everyone in your community start talking about your newspaper and your Web site. You want people asking all their friends and co-workers, “Did you read x this morning?” and “Did you see y on the Web site this afternoon?” You want a woman coming home from work to say to her stay-at-home dad/husband, “I have to show you this thing on the Beacon’s Web site!” You want her to say that even before she asks, “What’s for dinner, honey?”
That’s your goal. How do you get there?
Well, first you have to quit crushing everyone on the staff under stupid stories that no one in your community even cares about.
Second, you have to figure out what people would care about — locally — if only you covered it properly.
Third, you have to let everyone play. None of this crap where the editor’s pet investigative reporter gets time off to go and pursue his bliss and win a Pulitzer. Everybody in the newsroom is in on this. Because everyone’s future is at stake here.
To begin with, everybody on staff has to go out and dig deep for uncovered stories. Ask your friends and neighbors. Ask people who are NOT JOURNALISTS. Ask your kids’ schoolteachers what matters most to them. Ask the guy who works at the convenience store. Ask your tax preparer. Make sure you’re asking clearly about your community, not the whole damn world. Not global warming. Not Iraq. Stuff that is next door to the people who ought to be reading your journalism. Stuff that no one but you, your news organization, can help them understand.
Set up an internal blog or discussion forum. Everybody posts ideas. Everybody votes. I think this would work best if people were assigned to teams that cut across all departments and silos. For example, Team Blue has a news designer, a sports columnist, a photojournalist, and a cops reporter. Team Red has a GA reporter, a copy editor, a business reporter, and an online producer. Teams then discuss and vote for the best ideas from all those proposed.
Here comes the heretical part. Throw out everything you normally do and devote the entire news hole to these topics.
Quit pretending that the stuff you put in there every day is useful. Much of it is not, and you know it.
Invite the public in. Beg for comments as well as personal stories. Involve them in re-creating their local news resource.
Get the teams (the crazy mixed-up teams I proposed earlier) to propose new ways to present information about these topics. Empower them to realize their vision. Teams can trade players with other teams, but no lone-wolf journalism is allowed in this experiment. Every story is a team effort. Encourage a barter system: “I’ll do audio editing for your team if your photog will come out and shoot for us.”
Don’t plan it for six months and do it one day in July. Do it by the end of January. Then keep doing it every day for a month. Do it for 28 days, like rehab.
Tear up your news hole. Destroy it.
Tear up your CMS templates. Install something else and link to the new thing.
Do it fast and furiously, as if your life depended on it. Because it does.