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You don’t own this corner anymore

Newspapers will NOT be playing a significant role in the reinvention of news, says Dan at Xark, and he lays out 10 reasons to back up his assertion.

Yesterday a journalist who (still) works at a big Florida newspaper told me, “Last year we were trying to shoot as much video as possible. This year, we’re trying to save the paper.”

That’s not one of Dan’s reasons, but it could be. I mean, if the people who run newspapers had realized that it would come to this — to trying to save the paper — more than a year ago, there might have been something they could do. But I’ve been down that road already.

One of Dan’s more intriguing points:

The culture of newsroom leadership contains a fatal 20th century flaw: A fundamental belief that equates all new trends with dangerous “fads.”

This loops back to the “if they had realized” theme, because there were plenty of people sitting in these newsrooms who DID realize — I will even say they KNEW — that this was coming. Knew long ago, maybe even as far back as 1995. But the people who called the Internet a fad were in the power chairs, and those who could see the future — well, even today, almost none of them are sitting in the power chairs in the newspaper companies.

Those clueless people are still  driving the train in a lot of these companies. So Dan’s larger point (that we can’t expect these guys to turn it all around) rings true for me — even though I’m sad about it.

This part of Dan’s post made me laugh:

Give each staff member a pencil and tell everyone to stop what they’re doing and write out the tag that creates a hypertext link. If most can’t, you’re not spending enough on training.

And THAT loops back to the lack of vision in the executive suite. In most of these companies, until about mid-2005, editors said it was not important to know any HTML when you came out of j-school. Because they saw HTML as … HTML. They thought that unless you had to write HTML as part of your daily work, there was no reason to know it, to understand it. They didn’t see HTML as a building block of literacy in online media, in creating networks. They didn’t see learning HTML as acting like a Roman when in Rome.

… most newspaper payrolls are bloated with pluralities of resentful Luddites who struggle with the complexities of e-mail.

That one is so sad, it makes me feel like crying. And it’s pretty much true, even though a lot of them (those who remain) are not as resentful as they once were.

Dan’s No. 8 might be the linchpin:

Newspapers have already lost one of their key selling points: Social currency. In 2008, all meaningful political discourse — the essential element of social currency — takes place on the Web.

If you think he’s exaggerating, then I think you are — sorry to break it to you — one of those people who still hasn’t figured out online. It’s getting a bit late for that now.

So what’s to be done? I think it’s being done by entities that are not newspapers, that are not associated with newspapers.

They include the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, Current/Current TV, and upstart Spot.us.

It’s probably time to stop rehashing all the mistakes the newspaper companies and their managers have made. It’s probably time to just go ahead and move on to something else.


Categories: ideas


19 Comments

  1. Pat Thornton says:

    @Mindy,

    Spot on. I think the real question, however, is whether newspapers have a significant future at all.

    I just wrote a post about how the downfall of newspapers could be the rebirth of journalism.

    For all the reasons you and Dan listed, it’s hard to see innovation — or even a strong future — coming out of newspapers. Newspapers are filled with people who don’t even get e-mail, think HTML is some cryptic language for spies and care more about newspapers than journalism. I think that’s the fundamental issues.

    I would fire every employee who cared more about working for a newspaper than making quality journalism. Journalism is what we ultimately produce. The medium doesn’t matter.

  2. Pat Thornton says:

    One quick note about newspaper Luddites.

    My girlfriend used to work with someone at a mid-size newspaper who asked her to help her with “my messages.” By “my messages” she meant her e-mail. She would right-click instead of left-click or would minimize windows and not understand what happened.

    She was asked and still gets asked by people for technical help just because she is young. You’d be surprised about how many people lack basic computer literacy. Heck, many newspaper employees lack basic math skills too.

    Let’s be honest, newspapers cannot afford to keep people on their payrolls without strong computer literacy.

  3. Mindy says:

    @Pat – I would NOT be surprised. When I’m in newsrooms training reporters to use Audacity, for example, I see the same things you described: inability to use the mouse correctly, to manage windows on the desktop, to save and find and open files. Some of the folks act like they are people who rarely use a computer — but they work on one every day! It’s kind of mind blowing.

    I’d estimate it at about 1 reporter in 10, just judging from the groups I’ve seen. And the 1 is not always the oldest person in the room — not by a long shot!

  4. Dan says:

    Hi Mindy:

    I like your blog and your thinking very much. Thank you for the link.

    The good news? The faster these old companies come apart, the faster new capital can form around their replacements. After years spent worrying about how to save newspapers, it’s refreshing to think about how to improve journalism.

    As for what we knew when and why we didn’t act on it, here’s how I tried to explain that failure in cartoon form:

    http://xark.typepad.com/my_weblog/2008/08/the-newspaper-i.html

  5. Pat Thornton says:

    @Mindy,

    I know most industries and companies have people that aren’t particularly computer literate, but I think newspapers and news organizations need computer literate staffs.

    We’re in an industry that is increasingly moving towards the Web. How can we make compelling Web products when some of our employees aren’t computer illiterate? Even print employees still use computers every day. Wouldn’t productivity increase massively if all employees had strong computer proficiency?

    Perhaps in a different era — when newspapers were rolling in money — we could justify having employees on board that struggled daily with computers and the Web. Newspapers are facing lean times. They need employees that are as efficient and productive as possible.

  6. I also saw this post on Xark. The “loss of social currency” point really hit home with me, since I’d just watched (and twittered) the first presidential debate on Current TV, and watched Couric’s interview with Palin on YouTube, not CBS News.

    I included a couple of these points in a keynote presentation I made with a colleague at our local JACC conference last weekend. My segment, “Journalism in the Starbucks Era,” noted that we want our news like we want our coffee — on our own terms.

    When I spoke about blogging and microblogging — and pointed out that blogs are just another channel, and that bloggers can be journalists — I actually got heckled by a community college J-prof who apparently blames blogs for the demise of newspapers.

    On the bright side, some of the students in attendance twittered the conference, and one commented that our keynote was a “wake-up call.” I sure hope so. (You can see their tweets at http://twitter.com/jaccnorcal2008 — their comments on our keynote are at the start of the comment string.)

    In case you’re interested, here’s a link to my blog post about this: http://tinyurl.com/699q3w. I posted my presentation on SlideShare at http://www.slideshare.net/camccune.

  7. Mindy says:

    @Cynthia – Ha ha, I’ve heard that “blogs killed the newspapers” lament before! And some people like to say Craigslist killed newspapers. Neither one is true. Newspapers killed themselves like a wealthy alcoholic drinks himself to death. He pays no attention to the increasing damage in his heart and liver.

  8. [...] Want to save newspapers? Get as far away from them as possible.  [...]

  9. [...] earlier; since then there’s been a nice conversation developing in the comments. Related: Mindy McAdams has a great post expanding on the [...]

  10. Jack Lail says:

    Great post Mindy.

    I found my myself actually physically nodding along in agreement.

    At times it feels like I imagine it must for someone who jumps off a cliff and realizes part way down that might not have been such a good idea. The difference is we can’t see the bottom yet.

    When you say “It’s probably time to just go ahead and move on to something else,” I don’t know if you are saying we should write off newspapers and move on to some other business vehicle for doing journalism, or that we should put behind us picking at our sores.

    Call me pollyannish if you like, but I cling to the optimistic belief that we will evolve somehow, some way into the next era.

    I don’t agree that anyone who can’t do HTML needs to go. We do need to get our geek on, but to completely discount journalism experience or years of local knowledge of covering a community would be to make the same mistake the guys in the “power chairs” did in dismissing the Internet as an economically inconsequential fad.

    I do believe the loss of social currency is the single most critical issue for journalists in newsrooms. We are measuring advertising revenue declines with five decimal precision, but the year-over-year declines in social currency are just as devastating to the health of newspaper/TV news organizations, but just don’t show up on the spreadsheets.

  11. [...] You don’t own this corner anymore [...]

  12. Dan says:

    My reason for suggesting the hyperlink tag as a litmus test for proper staff training (as well as a watershed for management competence) is both practical and symbolic: The link is the transformative feature of the Web, and understanding how links (and HTML, and CSS, and XML) work is the cost of admittance into the 21st century craft of journalism.

    So while I certainly HOPE journalistic experience (20 years doing newspaper journalism) and local knowledge (14 years covering my town as a reporter or city editor) will be valued, I understand that none of that matters if I can’t work within the medium. You wouldn’t tolerate print reporters who can’t spell, tv cameramen who can’t properly expose a backlit shot or talk-radio producers who can’t work a phone board. Basic knowledge of basic Web functions ought to be a part of everyone’s professional journalism toolkit, and learning this stuff isn’t rocket surgery.

  13. [...] – Yesterday a journalist who (still) works at a big Florida newspaper told me, “Last year we were trying to shoot as much video as possible. This year, we’re trying to save the paper. – Mindy McAdams. [...]

  14. Mindy says:

    @Dan – I totally get it. A newspaper that has a newsroom filled with people who do not know A HREF is a newsroom full of people who can’t even embed a link in a comment. They probably don’t have a clue how to start a free blog or subscribe to a podcast. They are, in a sense, illiterate.

  15. [...] You don’t own this corner anymore Mindy McAdams' great post that echoes my feelings about the 'copy them' rather than innovate culture (tags: online newspapers newspaper mcadams) [...]

  16. Mike Condon says:

    Mindy:

    I am one of those newspaper dinosaurs who has had to learn about HTML’s and the like on his own. I am an admitted web novice (but I do have the basic skills and don’t need help with my e-mail). One problem for a guy like me who wants to learn, is finding somebody who is willing, and has the time, to share the knowledge. I have been networking, (that is how I found this blog), but it is difficult for a novice like me to find out how to create a hyperlink text and other things that are second-nature to people like you. I know journalism is a different animal today. Not all of us ‘old dogs’ aren’t willing to learn new tricks. All some of us need are the tools.

  17. Mindy says:

    I appreciate what you’re saying, Mike. I do hear that a lot. Now, I would ask you to consider something: Why would these things be “second nature” to people like me? I am the same as all of you. I have a print journalism degree. I never studied computer science or design in school.

    Most of us who do these things are largely self-taught.

    And how did we teach ourselves? Online! We used the Internet to learn how to use the Internet, and how to create and produce here too.

    There are thousands of free tutorials about everything you’d like to learn. Just look for them.

  18. disillusioned says:

    Sigh. So true.

    I work at a major Florida paper. On any given morning, we have three or four managers telling the lone ready-to-quit producer what to do.

    We have not one but two bosses for the video producers, one of whom is a neophyte at web video, and the other a nincompoop with no computer, web, or video skills whatsoever.

    We have a whole raft of people manning our continuous news desk… but seldom anyone actually out gathering news for them to handle.

    Our url’s die within hours; none of the non-story content including photo and video captions is searchable by our search tool nor by Google; good stories with high traffic and high interest disappear just as quickly as any other.

    Top-level management confuses stress with urgency; confuses excitability with enthusiasm; confuses crisis with competence. It’s hopeless.

    It’s time to put a bullet into it and start over.

    I’m saying that after 25 years here….

  19. @disillusioned – That’s a sad comment you’ve made, but I don’t have any trouble believing it to be accurate.

    It’s a shame that a lack of planning, a lack of investment in research during the fat years, an inability to recognize expertise in areas outside traditional news, have brought us here.

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