In the latest edition of the Nieman Reports, six former editors of regional and local newspapers in the United States reveal what they would change if they were back in charge of a newsroom.
I found the perspectives both inspiring and provocative, yet also at times disagreeable. Although the press in South Africa is very different from the US, their perspectives are relevant for South African journalists and the landscape here.
While most offer different solutions, there are common threads running through all six. They all agree on one thing: innovation is imperative. This is not the time for complacency, the golden years of print are no longer. Also, the pursuit of excellence in journalism is not negotiable.
The innovations suggested by all 6 editors would be possible only if editors are empowered to do their job. They need to have control of their newsroom budgets. They need to be able to implement changes, sometimes acting swiftly and not deferring to the bean-counters every step of the way. Most importantly, they need buy-in from management that the only way forward is through quality journalism. This requires resources, skills and training, and being given the tools of the trade to deliver ground-breaking journalism.
In summarising the series of articles in Nieman Reports, I have taken the liberty of reproducing certain accredited paragraphs in a bid to accurately reflect the views of the 6 former editors.
AMANDA BENNETT, former editor of the Lexington Herald-Leader and The Philadelphia Inquirer, says that back when she was editor, “the panic froze us and and perhaps made us less effective at figuring what our problems were”.
The paper kept looking for big solutions to fix the problems. Now, she would trust the news and the newspaper, and would stop looking for a magic bullet. “I would keep trying as many things as possible, including fiddling with different ways of asking people to pay for the news.”
Her most valuable contribution is the confession that she would have been braver. “I feel proudest of the times I was bravest.”
“We are surprisingly weak at facing down the stares from within our own newsroom when we hear: “That’s not what we do,” “that’s not my beat,” or “We’ve never done that.” How many more times should I have said; “Yes, it is, it’s your beat now. It’s time to try.” I should have been braver at recognising the difference between a reverence for the past and a reluctance to face the future.”
She concludes by saying: The future still lies ahead. Why not try?
SKIP PEREZ, former executive editor of The Ledger in Lakeland, Florida, for 30 years until last year.
Perez argues that one of the biggest problems in newsrooms today is the “creeping despair”, which he says is posing a serious threat to journalism.
To fight the wave of debilitating pessimism, Perez says:
• Staff training is essential. “One small step toward lifting spirits is for upper management co commit to a healthy increase in newsroom training budgets … The right kind of training will boost morale and reward the news organisation with dedicated staffers itching to tackle groundbreaking assignments.”
• Owners should have a genuine appreciation for journalists work and values, ie “covering the news without fear or favour”. A seminar on journalism credibility and conflicts of interest “would be a valuable learning experience for executives tone-deaf to those fundamental values.”
• Managers must learn to help reporters motivate themselves because self-motivated employees are key to any organisational success.
• “Despair won’t get a foothold in a newsroom where the boss understands and encourages extraordinary work and gives the staff the resources to pursue it.”
RONNIE AGNEW, former executive editor of The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Mississippi
Agnew offers tips for newspapers go “get their swagger back”:
• Maintain an investigative reporting culture
• Cover the community better than anyone else (Unless the newspaper is a national one, local news is the primary reason people buy the paper)
• Accept the fact that as more readers become comfortable with digital tools, circulation of the printed newspaper is likely to decrease
• Move faster and more nimbly into digital initiatives
• Lead the community through the newspaper’s strong editorial voice
• Accept that the newsroom can no longer cover everything
• Bring back training
• Find out what works on the Web for your market and exploit it. (web users are very different to newspaper readers)
• Get out of the office and get to know the town, what makes it tick, make makes it unique
• Don’t worry so much about how it (news) will be consumed. Focus on what you will give readers to consume.
TIMOTHY A FRANKLIN, editor of The Baltimore Sun, Orlando Sentinel and The Indianapolis Star, and senior editor at the Chicago Tribune.
Franklin offers some radical suggestions, saying that if he were starting over in the top job at The Baltimore Sun, his new mantra would be: “We are a digital news operation with a print component.”
STOP THE PRESS: He would stop printing the paper on three days of the week, and reinvest these savings in improving the print editions on the other days, especially the Sunday edition. On those three days the paper wasn’t printed traditionally, the newspaper would be provided to subscribers on an e-reader. “This serves the dual purpose of strengthening our print edition on key days, and building an e-reading habit for what will inevitably be an entirely digital future.”
Franklin’s newsroom would also aspire to be a “service-oriented, one-stop news and information portal for the region”. For a “modest subscription fee”, his newsroom would give readers different tiers of information “based on the device they’re using and their needs. Yes, frequent users would pay.”
LOCAL IS LEKKER: The newsdesk would break news - crank out headlines and two or three paragraph news accounts for smart phones and social media, and send news alerts via email and Twitter.
Other staff – editors, reporters, photographers and graphic artists – would be creating indepth versions for print, tablet and website editions.
The Sunday paper would be “meatier and a showcase for powerful local storytelling”.
“More than being a source of news, however, we should be a go-to digital repository for community information and tips that readers need in their daily lives.
“My newspaper would aspire to be the local equivalent of Siri – Apple’s voice assistant, instantly providing answers to the questions you have about Baltimore. We’d create a Utilities Desk with editors who would create and update that information.”
PERSONALITIES AS BRANDS: Franklin’s operation would cater to niche interests, building brands within a brand. “In sport for example, we would sell a monthly digital subscription that is less expensive than the entire paper, and give readers access to our beat writers for chats, video of news conference and all the stats they can handle.”
He would also produce a weekly Baltimore sports magazine or tab to tell separately.
INVESTIGATIVE REPORTING AND BEATS: Bring these back, he says, adding that investigative reporting is “not a luxury, it’s fundamental.” Cover city beats well, including major companies and industries. “My newsroom would have two fulltime obituary writers.”
It would also have: a dedicated social media desk with editors connecting with readers; an opinion editor and fewer institutional editorials; fewer page designers and copy editors and more video editors and web producers; fewer general assignment writers and more reporters who are experts.
MIKE PRIDE, editor of the Concord Monitor (NH).
A community newspaper is the ideal place to lead the revolution in online journalism, says Pride, who suggests a bold break with traditional practices and an increasing reliance on citizen journalism, especially for web-based community news and photographs.
“First you need a savvy person who would make smart online news delivery a priority. After that every idea I hatched and executed would be aimed at restoring and enhancing local news reporting.”
There would be no sports writers per se on his staff. Sports writers would report the news – also the big local sport events and stories. Regional sports would be bought, but national and international sports would be obtained from other agencies.
Local sports coverage would be expanded , mainly on the web. This means more stringers, call-ins and emails from local high schools and leagues. “The Monitor would be the place for people to turn for comprehensive coverage of everything from small-fry soccer to statewide high school sports to community hoops and softball teams.” There would be constant updates of scores, standings and schedules for local events.
Pride’s ruthless photographic plan, disagreeable as I found it, was this: to employ one full-time photojournalist and one fulltime intern. The photo editor would turn to the public to cover the community in pictures. These photos would be updated on the web as much as possible. The best photos would grace the print edition.
Pride would step up the sharing of local and state news with other newspapers around the state, and abandon extensive wire coverage of world and national news (the point being that readers have better sources of news at their fingertips).
“If I were starting the Monitor today, every action I took would be aimed at enhancing the paper’s ability to report local news. The time may come when the Monitor should sell its presses and commit exclusively to online journalism. If it does, the paper’s reason for being will be no different from what it has always been."
JAMES O’SHEA, former editor of the Los Angeles Times
O’Shea would definitely have changed the way he used the 920 journalists and $121 million budget at his disposal (that was four years ago). He said while the paper was considered one of the industry’s “crown jewels”, it lacked one critical component: a weak sense of community, with little agreement within about which community the paper should serve.
He believes that news organisations exist to serve the community by providing credible information so citizens can make informed decisions, the lifeblood of a democracy.
Key would be to have “aggressive coverage of California”.
To do this, the entire news business would be reorganized around three skill sets:
1) Technological: journalists need data mining, geotagging to monitor and analyse communities and expand the reach of reporting deep into these communities.
2) Ability to report and analyse: raw data can be interesting, but you need to turn this into credible knowledge or insight, you need to know how to probe and answer
3) Experts in social media – to promote the kind of honesty and standards that makes for distinguished journalism.
How would he do this? It would take new investment for training and education.
O’Shea would lead a crusade to convince journalists that they can’t expect someone else to solve their problems. You can’t argue “it’s a business side problem” (remembering that the businesss side’s answer was budget cuts that diminished journalism).
His parting shot is to encourage the younger generation to start something of their own, to break free “from the shackles of my generation”.
“The trouble with journalists like me is we spent our lives working for corporations – not evil organisations but institutions that grew more soulless as they aged.”
His message to the younger generation is this: “Report and don’t just repeat. And don’t be afraid to fail. Failure is good for the soul. So go out there and give readers an alternative to the superficial. Infuse your effort with a passion for true journalism. Cover the community: give the public what it deserves: Journalism – with a soul.”
*This piece is based on the cover story seriesMOVING FORWARD in Nieman Reports, Spring 2012, Vol 66, number 1. The Nieman Reports is published by the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University . For the full report, go to www.niemanreports.org