Why Newspapers Keep Getting It Wrong

27 Jul

ShrinkingAs I spend time pondering my next career move I’ve had a fair amount of time to reflect on my unlikely path so far. There’s no logical route that takes someone from covering breaking news on deadline three times a day for The Dallas Morning News to being paid by clients to help them master marketing on line.

I find myself increasingly explaining to former colleagues how I made the career shift. And that inevitably leads to reflections on why so many great journalists have been made jobless by a technology which should have ushered in the second golden age of local news.

So much of the focus seems to be on the flight of advertisers from print to online, which makes sense since that is the bottom line. Rick Edmonds raises the issues again in his post on the Poynter Institute blog after watching a 2-year-old video on how Best Buy was moving money from print to online advertising.

But the reality is that advertisers taking their budgets elsewhere is just a symptom of the real problem — newspapers have made themselves irrelevant. Scratch that. They allowed themselves to be made irrelevant. And advertisers, agencies and most of readers seem to get it, even if pubishers don’t.

No where is that more evident than in the most basic of journalism tasks, writing the daily stories for publication. In the pre-internet days my job as a reporter was to gather as many pieces of information and points of view as possible, then synthesize that content into as fair and balanced piece of content as possible given the limitations on newshole. Several tiers of editors further scrutinized my work and trimmed as necesssary.

With the advent of the web in the mid-90s the limitation on space went away. Yet newspapers did not take advantage of the limitless space of the web to offer more in-depth versions of their print stories. Indeed, when we launched DallasNews.com we didn’t even post most of the stories from the print edition, let alone any of the paper’s award-winning photography.

Then came blogs and social networks in the last 10 years, and with that the range of voices available on any topic exploded. And yet newspapers continued to cling to the tried and true journalism, perhaps quoting a blogger or Facebook post. But in the end the reporter continued to function as a bouncer at a very elite club, granting selected voices and facts into the exclusive club called the printed paper. Only the club was no longer elite, or even sought out by readers.

People went elsewhere, in droves. It was easy. Now they had access to all the voices reporters and editors once enjoyed exclusively. Hell, sitting in a Starbucks I have access to more sources of information now than I ever had as a reporter. In many cases I am learning about breaking news at the same time as my newspaper.

Think about it. When all hell broke loose in Norway did you turn to your local newspaper? Even the next morning did you grab a copy to get the details? Here in Atlanta the story wasn’t even the lead story on AJC.com. The paper abdicated its relevance on the story. How stupid.

Whether in print or online, newspapers continue to have a massive advantage if only they’d exercise it.

With their staff of trained journalists newspapers can save readers a ton of time and frustration by curating the content of an exploding story. Give me the details, but also links to the sources. Help me sort out the valuable stories from the wannabe sources.

On local news the opportunity is even bigger. Newspapers should be scouring the blogs, Twitter feeds and comments of every local story looking for new voices. Then put those players on a stage where readers can easily find them.

Yes, by all means write the stories that lay out the facts and offer perspective. But then give me the links to the sources. If it’s a confidential sources, then give me the full transcript of the interview. In short, let me have as much of the raw material as I want.

Then dump the message boards. No one cares what a handful of extremeists say about your story. If someone has something to say, then let them write it. Then you’ll link to it and let readers decide for themselves if it is worth their time to read.

In short, get back to reporting the way it should be done when there is no limitation on amount of a story that can be told. I’m willing to bet this is already happening in newsrooms across the country, with the output zipping from editor to editor in emails and IMs.

There’s no reason for newspapers to be dying. Indeed, they have a powerful asset just waiting to be tapped, the newsroom. If publishers could only remember why they got into the business, and invest accordingly then the readers, and advertisers will return, in droves.