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.

48 Comments on “Time to get crazy

  1. Fast and furious. I like it.

    But don’t forget about the revenue. Why not add some sales, marketing and advertising folks to the mix?

    This will cause some discomfort, though I’d reckon some interesting ideas will result.

  2. Brilliant, Patrick. Or maybe have overlapping circles, as in a Venn diagram — ad teams meet with editorial teams before AND after reporting takes place.

  3. Go Mindy.

    “Set up an internal blog or discussion forum. Everybody posts ideas. Everybody votes.”

    I would add. Make that blog open to the public there and then.

  4. Pingback: Time for radical thinking in journalism « Reportr.net

  5. Yes!

    Agree with Andy, open as much as possible for the public to see, live that transparency we all want from everyone outside the newsroom, and bring people in. People have to feel like it’s their paper, or it won’t be. Do that offline, too.

  6. Pingback: Steve Outing » The year of changing newsroom culture

  7. Ms. McAdams,

    Why will the steps you outline get us to the goal of “[making] everyone in your community start talking about your newspaper and your Web site”?

  8. Pingback: Notes from a Teacher: Mark on Media » Friday pieces

  9. Great Post, thanks Mindy.

    From where I sit, everyone is *fairly* comfortable until we invite the advertising and marketing people into the room . . . then everyone gets scared again.

    Perhaps this is the most uncomfortable aspect of “convergence” for journalists – not the coming together of technologies, but the coming together of departments and disciplines (not photog and writer, but reporter and *gasp* ad sales.) These are the traditional “church and state” of the journalism world.

    Of course, I have always doubted the purity of such distinctions. Better a heretic than a hypocrite, I always say!


    PS – Finishing a 2-day flash class to bone up for the semester – when can we expect a second edition of “Flash Journalism”??

  10. Why we need a Global Journalism Union.

    As for the newsroom, here an excerpt I wrote from the discussion:

    I would like to invent a new kind of classroom (or newsroom) for all kinds of media professionals.

    I would like to invent a Multimedia Multiversity (or newsroom) in which there is a classroom that is circular and all the seats are arranged in a circle. In front of every seat, there exists a computer touch-screen for all the students or media professionals who are interacting in this environment.

    There are two monitors in front of every subject, one connected to the Internet that the subject controls, and one monitor that shows whatever is on the teacher’s (or moderator’s) interactive computer screen.

    The teacher (or editor or moderator) has a control switchboard which allows them to temporarily transfer control of the non-interactive monitors to project the interactive monitor of whomever is speaking or “has the floor” during a discussion, lecture, or debate.

    In addition, their is a circular dry-erase board (which spans all around the classroom) behind the seats, in which students, teachers, professionals, (or politicians alike), can get up and draw or write notes behind them. Due to the circular nature of this room, anybody in this environment can see each others notes with relative ease and transparency.

    This model would use a dialectic, Socratic seminar approach. The room itself would be structured in the form of a panopticon.

    All debates could be recorded with a camera in the middle of the room and the recorded videos could be made available freely (or for a fee) online as an educational resource to anybody in the world who wants to watch them.

    Ideally, these seminar rooms would be constructed to seat no more than 18-24 people, seeing as how smaller class sizes are more conducive to Socratic debate, analysis, and dialectic.

    Moreover, each seat would have the ability to project a video image of somebody in another location who is participating in the discussion but is unable to be there physically in person due to geographical constraints. These participants could even be reporting from “on the scene” at a news event.

    I think this classroom model makes sense because universities and newsrooms can’t keep up with the progress being made in multimedia journalism and communications.

    This model could accelerate and enrich the learning process with media as well as democratize the teaching process, since more and more college students (or subordinates in newsrooms) are surpassing their professors technically speaking in the fields of multimedia journalism and communications.

    It is an environment that could prove very conducive to the formation, maximization, and application of raw creative mental energy.

    It’s purposes could be equally useful for government officials, education, journalism, politics, advertising, public relations, or even courtrooms.

    (Edited) Imagine a scenario in which the active participants in this experimental classroom were graduates from various fields of communication from all around the world.

    There is no telling how valuable the research and knowledge attained from this project could be for the journalism industry and society as a whole.

    This is something that could change the world by changing the way we think, learn, work, and communicate. By accelerating communication with this environment structure, we could very well accelerate our capacity as a species to solve a great deal of the world’s problems.

    — Patrick Yen
    Global Journalism Group

  11. No need to go dig. We already know what people want. Parents want pictures of their kids on the field and in the school play. Business owners want advertorials. Church members want us to promote their fundraisers. Cops want a front page spread whenever they make a collar. Readers in general want a steady diet of rape, murder, pedophiles and abducted children.

    I agree with Mindy that there’s a lot of useless stuff in the paper every day, and I love a lot of the technology my paper doesn’t use nearly enough of, but I don’t understand why embracing technology needs to mean embracing the fatuous and superficial and an American Idol approach to the news.

    OK, so papers have failed to convince people that government and numbers matter, so why don’t we use the technology to reform the way we do those stories instead of capitulating to the TMZ model. Do people visit TMZ because they believe it’s “their” Web site? Give me red team, blue team, one team, two team and I’ll sign up. But please stop undermining my ability to do work of substance.

    How about we tweak the model to have at least one team dedicated to medium and long-term projects and weekend packages that bring real people and “deciders” together through words, video, pics, audio etc?

  12. Pingback: Problem Solved

  13. I do not agree that what people want is “fatuous and superficial and an American Idol approach to the news.”

    I know why you say that — millions of hits on every Britney story. But believing that is actually what people want is what leads the news organization to publish and broadcast junk. Journalists think the audience is stupid. This is wrong, and it’s killing us.

    People are concerned about their communities, schools, roads, poverty, immigration, etc. If you talk to them about it, you’ll hear about how your newspaper does not publish enough about the right things. No one means “more Britney” when they make that complaint.

    Also, when people say the newspaper prints too much negative stuff, it’s the journalist who translates that complaint into “Give me more Britney!” What people usually mean is “Give me some hope. Show me that someone did something good for a change. Don’t just tell me about horrible crimes that make me doubt there’s good in the world.”

    Work of substance does not need to take six months.

    Work of substance means making a commitment to go out there and do something meaningful every single day.

    I’m sick of seeing stories about, for example, how the food banks have less food this year. I want more about the reasons and more about what I can do, as a member of my community, to help. Seeing that the food banks have less food is just depressing.

  14. Mindy, I agree with your response all around.

    I don’t think the public is stupid. I feel like I’ve spent the three years of my reporting career fighting against editors who act like they are, though. Editors who think hyperlocal means covering bake sales rather than making larger issues relevant to neighborhoods and other small communities (this is usually top management, not front-line eds).

    I want to do what I want to do because I think there are lots of intelligent people out there who want in-depth work, not 8″ brights that confuse complicated issues.

    But it’s pretty hard to argue against page views, which is why I argue for a little time to develop really compelling pieces of some lasting value. That’s the only way to compete with a car wreck. Doesn’t have to be six months. How about a week or two and some space in the paper? And if there’s no space how about some of the unlimited online space?

    Personally, I’m all about the “what can I do to help?” info box. And I’m out every day talking with real people on my beat, getting coffee, going to PTA meetings, etc. I love that part of reporting.

    This is the first I’ve seen your blog. I’ll keep reading.

  15. Pingback: links for 2008-01-04 by andydickinson.net

  16. Great job, Mindy

    Seems to me that there are also some underlying psychological/emotional aspects of journalism culture that need to change before other core changes can move forward:

    1) Persistent negativity. Too often, in newsrooms and at journalism conference enthusiasm is equated with lack of credibility. As if, if you only took the time to think things through, it’d be impossible to be enthusiastic about anything. Doing the kind of change you recommend takes enthusiastic, motivated champions — and these are exactly the folks who too often get squelched by snarky comments from colleagues.

    2) Attachment to hierarchy. Yeah, we journalists like to pretend we’re such rebels, but in fact most of us are terrified by anything that would seriously change the newsroom pecking order or blur turf lines. We like our boxes.

    3) Attachment to defined roles. Of course, the big fear of many journalists is that our jobs are always at risk because of the increasingly tenuous status of our employers. Stick your neck out, and that gives them a reason to chop your head off. And then if you’re out own your own, you either have to scramble to find another job or (horrors) define a new role for yourself, on your own. Personally, I think if more journalists were willingly to think collaboratively and entrepreneurially (rather than competitively and climbing the corporate ladder) we might be able to overhaul this business regardless of what today’s news orgs are willing or able to do. And we wouldn’t care so much about the boxes other people might want to put us in.

    I’ll blog about this more later, but I thought I’d toss these ideas out here. What do you think?

    – Amy Gahran

  17. Pingback: Newsrooms leaders, change or step aside | editor on the verge

  18. Pingback: The Journalism Iconoclast

  19. It’s time we let go of everything we have ever held on to. It’s time we start making journalism that matters to the people.

    If we had to start a news organization today would it be anything like a newspaper? Of course not.

    If I had to build a news organization today it would be nothing like a newspapers, but that’s just me: http://patthorntonfiles.com/blog/?p=112

  20. Pingback: links for 2008-01-05 : William M. Hartnett

  21. Pingback: One Man and His Blog

  22. Pingback: contentious.com - links for 2008-01-05

  23. @Amy: Good list.

    1) Persistent negativity. Forbid the phrases “We can’t” and “We don’t.” When you find yourself about to utter one of these phrases, close your mouth. Think of a way to change the sentence to “We can” or “We do.” Then speak.

    2) Attachment to hierarchy. All stratifications are artificial. The king and the queen are flesh and blood, just like the peasants. Responsibility must be assigned and understood, or else the news hole would never be filled. But why is it a chain of command? This is not the military.

    3) Attachment to defined roles. Photographers can’t write, copy editors can’t edit video, reporters can’t write HTML? All of that is false. Everyone tells jokes about union rules that forbid a carpenter from touching a rope because rope is the rigger’s job (or something like that). In rigid systems, bloat occurs naturally. Bloat is expensive. We cannot afford bloat anymore. Get over it.

  24. Pingback: howardowens.com: media blog » Blog Archive » Journalists doing their jobs better is a competitive advantage

  25. Pingback: Journalism At The Crossroads: Change Or Die - Publishing 2.0

  26. Pingback: Late for the Revolution « Media Judo

  27. Show me any journalist who wouldn’t love to light the first match on the modern American newsroom. I’d be first in line. But do you really think it’s the reporters who are dying to write another useless fill-the-newshole story? (Sure, let’s interview someone as they fill their tank with the last $50 left of their paycheck but ask whether they’ll be enjoying Aunt Fanny’s jello mold this Thanksgiving.) Is it really cynical Luddite journalists holding back the digital revolution? Show me one modern American newspaper publisher willing to do exactly what you describe. If you are going to speak truth to power, it helps to know exactly who holds it.

  28. KayDee – I don’t think anyone’s trying to blame cynical luddite reporters and leave out cynical luddite publishers here. Cynics and luddites of all stripe are the problem. Can reporters do this without support from higher ups? Could it work vice-versa?

    And frankly, if we’re so tired of the standard stories (particularly around the holiday season) then why do we write them? Why don’t we ask our audience what kind of holiday stories they want to see? Maybe they’ll want the same old thing, or maybe they’ll have something new. Audience participation like this isn’t revolutionary.

    As for the reorganization: yeah, we can’t reorganize the news silos from the bottom up, necessarily. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be thinking about it. The current editors and publishers won’t be around forever, especially if they think business as usual will keep things going.

  29. Pingback: Newsroom leaders, change or step aside | editor on the verge

  30. Good suggestions here. Great point about journalists wanting to think they’re rebels, even though 98 percent of them refuse to do anything to improve their own work environments.

    And for progress to occur, the design dolts have to be removed from the newsrooms. We need to stop pretending these people are journalists. They’re not. Get real journalists back in the newsrooms, and these innovations can move forward.

  31. To respond to an earlier post, I don’t see all defined roles as “bloat.” Photographers can write but not as well as skilled reporters can. Reporters can shoot but not as well as skilled photographers can. News staff members can learn how to do different things, but can they learn to do them all well? (And efficiently?) Does doing things well not matter anymore?

  32. Pingback: Tid til at tænke skørt : Vad NU!

  33. I am new to reading your blog but it is excellent! This will cause a bit of discomfort among “dinosaurs” in the industry but no one can deny the change that is coming. I agree with you as I think we will see it most with talented amateurs rather than the established organizations as you mentioned.

    People got to get out there to keep it interesting. Stories are everywhere, you just have to find them and then MAKE them interesting via eye-catching videoand photos or interactive feratures such as blogs.

    I’m impressed, keep it up.

  34. Right on John.

    1) Persistent negativity is bred by hierarchy. We can’t purchase a new video camera without someone signing off on it. There’s a reason for that.

    2) If there’s not hierarchy, then we have too many cooks and no one writing checks, or in the example above, everyone writing checks.

    3) If we have too many cooks, then we have no defined roles, thus no one doing things “well” but rather well enough. In no business setting is that good enough. It should absolutely matter.

    And while I agree that job duties and subsequent skills do naturally progress, I would never tell anyone to “get over it.” *See how well that’s working for the writers. Do news media, professors, not face the same challenges?

    I love the idea of mixing it up as long as the content is up to par.

    Personally, I’d like to see more stories. The Today Show, for example, focuses on the same topics without fail: war, celebrity, diets, gadgets, fashion, and what they’re going to be for Halloween. Each year, they rotate in a seventh topic, like the presidential race. Another year, it was the colonoscopy. For me, the saving grace of Today is Ann Curry. So, I’d like to see more Ann. If more local networks covered the news like Ann, with iReporters and all, I’d hit their Web sites for more, for sure. That’s how they develop their voice and followers–nowadays with a blog; however, I don’t care if Susie Q made a cake. And if she opened up her very own cake shop in town, I care less. For stuff like that, I watch Oprah. Sorry.

  35. We tried a good deal of what you suggest, Mindy, at The Albuquerque Tribune about 20 years ago. We were an afternoon newspaper in a two-paper town, suffering exactly what many morning papers in one-paper towns are suffering now.

    Management blew up the newsroom, dynamited all the silos and created “teams.” The teams included reporters, photogs, designers, even copy editors for project teams. The teams decided, as you suggest, what ought to be covered and how to cover it.

    We quit covering meetings. We did advances instead to tell our readers what was going to happen at the meeting. Same with performance reviews. We’d cover a concert in another city to preview it for our audience.

    We blew up the newspaper, too. The entire staff participated in a redesign. Our sections had two fronts — one on the “front” and one on the “back.” Among the biggest mistakes was putting Sports on the back of a section. I forget now which one.

    We did not, of course, have Web sites, email, video and the like in the mid-80s, but we put section editors’ phone numbers on the section fronts — if not a first, certainly avant garde.

    This experiment lasted about nine months, if memory serves. The staff loved it, but the readers didn’t go for it, I’m sorry to say. So, the teams were then dynamited and the redesign tweaked.

    I agree with you, Mindy. It’s time to try it again. The Trib always was about 20 years ahead of its time.

    (Scripps announced in August that it will close the paper unless a buyer is found… Another harbinger of things to come?)


  36. That last example is precisely what’s usually wrong with these efforts. People think redesigning is the key to it all.

    The true key is excluding the non-journalist designers. Don’t include them on the teams. Then maybe they’ll get a clue and pack up; they can be replaced with real journalists, and this will allow the newsrooms to move forward.

    Newspapers have got to cast aside the failed approaches and get back to what works: good content, written well and edited tightly. Designers don’t make this happen; they just get in the way.

  37. Pingback: Tahoe Journalism » J-School angst

  38. Pingback: Be A Part Of The Culture In Which You Work

  39. I’ve been saying this for a decade. I’ve been doing it for a decade – when I can. Established, stodgy, “We’ve always done it this way,” newsrooms call me “a loose canon” because they never know what kind of story I’ll bring back – but they know it won’t be the traditional snooze. (Like the time my editor chastised me for stopping to cover a fully envolved structure fire when I was “supposed to be” doing a story on the library’s new reading hours or something. And that scares them. I notice that that newsroom is now being sold…imagine…

    Also – perhaps readers have noticed that 20% of us do 80% of the work and that the 80% don’t like being pushed to do more? It’s not just about fear of change on the part of management. While they’re strategizing about where to go with news, in the newsroom there are issues of workplace bullying, jealousy, and lack of training. There are a lot of us who want to do what you’re suggesting – that’s why we’re reading your blog, pestering management, working on ideas on our own time and dime and not sitting on our butts complaining, trashing and gossiping about co-workers. We’re DOING it…or trying to.

    What it will take is a management team committed to excellence, zero tolerance of bullies and incompetence and someone not afraid to embrace radical change – including its *failures* (failure = piece of the puzzle that doesn’t fit where you’re trying to put it) – because out of failures comes success.

  40. @Becky: I believe a lighter, smaller management structure would help most newsrooms. I once worked at a start-up news organization in which the number of management personnel — president and VPs — almost equaled the number of editorial and production people. How does that make any sense?

  41. @ Wenalway: I’m not sure where you work, but in my newsroom, every designer on staff went to j-school and/or worked as a reporter or copy editor before designing full-time. Most have worked in newsrooms their entire careers, and have developed strong news judgment. They’re valuable because they are able to aggregate what others produce into a more meaningful whole.
    The inclusion of design as an important part of newspapers began as soon as the first illustrations appeared, continued with the addition of photos, then maps and graphics, and so on. Stop all the bad-mouthing and start accepting reality.

    Fact is, things definitely have to change. We have fewer people, and we must collaborate more and better to survive. People who cannot and will not work with others, who maintain some misguided superiority and who are unable to appreciate another’s contribution are absolutely useless if not destructive in the business of innovation. The ship is sinking. Start pumping with the rest of us or get off the boat.

  42. Word on office politics getting in the way of breaking down any barriers.
    As a reporter, if I try and write so much as a brief in another section it has to pass through two editors.
    When I asked to shoot video, I was told “online would take care of it.”

    It’s really frustrating to want to learn but being discouraged from putting any of that learning to use. Editors seem to be afraid of change and being unpredictable.

  43. RSM:

    Sorry, you’ve failed to convince me. You cite no examples other than your own beliefs, and those can be questioned almost immediately. (Saying designers have strong news judgment immediately throws your cred into serious doubt.)

    It sounds as if you, like many failing journalists, keep rubbing your little rabbit’s foot in the vain hope that somehow the failed and failing design-based approach will right itself. It won’t. Best to realize this quickly and to look for a real solution. It won’t come from the design crowd.

  44. Pingback: links for 2008-01-21 « David Black

  45. Pingback: Throw out the rulebook, if only for a day a month | The Evolving Newsroom

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.