News Leadership 3.0

May 07, 2009

The 4th C: Culture

In a guest post, Steve Buttry discusses what C3, his Complete Community Connection news model, will mean for the culture of his organization

Steve Buttry, information content conductor for The Gazette Company in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, recently released his “Blueprint for the Complete Community Connection,” and wrote a couple of good blog posts (here and here) about his ambitious plan for revolutionizing his news organization. I asked Steve to write an additional piece for this blog with a focus on what attitudes would need to change for his organization to be successful. As a longtime student of newsroom culture, I think it’s important for newsroom leaders to develop culture change strategies that are in step with their content change strategies. Here’s what Steve had to say:

By Steve Buttry
A newsroom leader’s most important job today is changing a culture you love.
I love working in newsrooms. I love the energy, the fun, the humor, the skepticism. They are my favorite places to work. And they need to change.
As I outlined in my Blueprint for the Complete Community Connection, newspaper companies need a thorough change in our relationship with the community and in how we operate.
For most of my career in newsrooms, most of my colleagues were oblivious to most of the business considerations that paid our paychecks. We just wanted to do great journalism: tell stories, cover the news, uphold the honor of the First Amendment.
We can do all that. And we must. But we also have to lead a transformation of our companies and our industry, starting in the newsroom. In the C3 blueprint, I tackle several issues that traditionally haven’t been newsroom concerns:
Revenue. Journalists have enjoyed our insulation from the actual generation of the revenue that supports our work. I am not suggesting we jeopardize our integrity by actually selling ads or dealing with advertisers, but we have to advocate and work to achieve a new revenue approach to support journalism. The failure of our leaders and advertising colleagues to develop a new business model has caused too much harm to journalism. Waiting for someone else to innovate hasn’t worked. We can and must engage in the how of revenue generation, even if we have to keep our distance from the who.
Evergreen information. Our business model for decades has focused on providing timely information for our community. We need to continue that, but also become the place where the community turns for timeless information. We can add value to our work by using our archives to provide context and by developing community content that remains useful and brings people back again and again to a helpful community resource.
Personal news. From my first days in a newsroom, as a high school student covering sports in Shenandoah, Iowa, the jading process began as I scorned the “locals” that the Evening Sentinel published about people who were visiting, ill or retiring, and the formulaic announcements of engagements. But as an adult, I know that the personal events that barely make the newspapers, if at all, are big news in people’s lives. As I look back on recent years in my family, the huge events are a son’s wedding or graduation or a nephew’s illness. The C3 blueprint calls on us to provide personal-content platforms where people can turn these life milestones into the big news that they truly are.
Achieving success in these new pursuits (especially in a time of staff reductions) will require several changes in how newsrooms traditionally operate:
* We need to engage the community and let people tell more stories themselves. Where our reporting amounts mostly to gathering quotes from officials and participants, we should provide platforms where those people can tell those stories directly to the community. This will allow us to spend more of our resources telling the stories that officials don’t want us to tell.
* We need to separate content from products, at least in our minds and probably in our organizations. If you speak of stories in terms of inches, you are thinking of stories through the frame of the print product.
* We need to provide links to helpful information that adds depth and context, even if we didn’t publish it. News sites have been reluctant to send users away from our sites, as if that would somehow keep them captive. Google developed the most successful business in the history of the Internet by sending people away. We need to do the same. As Jeff Jarvis says: “Cover what you do best and link to the rest.”
When I was the editor of the Minot (N.D.) Daily News in the early 1990s, my attention focused heavily on the next edition of the paper or the next Sunday’s paper. I always knew what stories the staff was working on and what stories would be on Page One. When I came to Cedar Rapids last year as editor of The Gazette, I fell into the same pattern as a historic flood in my first week overwhelmed our city. I quickly learned that my staff could handle the biggest disaster in our state’s history. So I stepped back to let others handle the day-to-day challenges of covering the news.
My job was changing the culture and helping us find a prosperous future. I started the staff liveblogging events ranging from Black Friday shopping to federal trials to Hawkeye football. We began thinking about telling the story as it unfolded, rather than simply taking notes and telling it later.
I pushed my staff to use Twitter to connect with the community, gather news, write tighter and promote our content. We started engaging routinely with the community.
As the pace of change accelerated, we changed my title (to information content conductor), in part to reflect new realities and in part to underscore to the staff that all our jobs will fundamentally change.
We have a long way to go. And I think our staff will enjoy working in whatever our newsroom becomes. Much as we loved what was, we know we need to reach what will be if we want to continue having fun in this business. 

March 31, 2009

Journalism as civic engagement

The digital revolution is remaking the idea of civic engagement and re-connecting journalism to community is both a challenge and a promise

Digital media provide exciting tools for connecting people and millions are online in social networks discussing matters both important and trivial. Being a link in the network, rather than owning it, challenges journalists and news organizations to re-establish community connections they severed long before the Internet grabbed center stage. Partnerships of journalists and citizens hold promise for the future of news. But rather than asking if citizens can learn journalism, why not ask if journalists can learn civic engagement?

David Stoeffler describes the decades old credibility gap in a recent speech:

“Where we see fairness, many see bias ... many readers believe that our editorial opinions and our own personal biases carry over into coverage. And if we are honest with ourselves, we know they are right - if nothing else it shows up in the stories we choose to cover and those we choose to ignore. ...

“Where we see the importance of getting the facts right, many see we are failing to get the right facts. Accuracy is not just about spelling the names correctly, it’s about talking to the right people, about providing context and perspective so the picture is more complete and the coverage “rings true” to readers.

“Where we hold ourselves out as the most credible sources of news, many see an aloof institution that often refuses to own up to its mistakes. Our newsrooms rarely reflect the diversity of the communities we serve. Our leadership is primarily still a club for white males. Too few journalists are willing to engage readers - still thinking of them in disdainful terms as uneducated or uninformed. ...

“These are challenges we must confront if we are to survive - if we are to get to the other side. ...”

Well said.

Now, we’re also hearing a lively debate about whether citizens can really perform journalism. How can citizens be objective? What about conflict of interest? How will they meet the professional standards of craft?  These and other questions about the ability of citizens to provide news coverage are valuable and necessary as society processes the tectonic shifts beneath the news landscape. Certainly, the broad debate about the value and ethics of independent journalism is important as the traditional financial base for news gathering diminishes.

Among the many things the Internet is remaking is the definition of credibility. Transparency and a willingness to engage are replacing authority and objectivity as top standards. I sometimes hear journalists wondering how citizens might be trained to be journalists. I always want to flip that—What will citizens teach journalists about community and civic engagement?

I hope that learning is already taking place at hundreds of community news sites. The broad debate often obscures what is happening on the ground: Citizens concerned about news in their communities and journalists recently forced out of their newsrooms are finding ways to make it work. Hybrid models that team professional journalists with citizens are emerging all over the United States. While often less complete, authoritative or sophisticated than traditional counterparts, these emergent partnerships spell a piece of a future for journalism, especially for journalism at the community and local level.

What if established news organizations partnered with the citizen sites to cover community news? One editor at a mid-sized newspaper recently told me she is considering asking a local non-profit to help with arts coverage the newspaper no longer has the staff to provide. The Oakland Tribune is partnering with Spot.Us to report on the deteriorating state of Oakland’s streets. A freelance reporter will be paid with micro-contributions from the public and Spot.Us will ask citizens to report potholes that will be mapped online.

These are a couple of small examples. But on the Internet, a lot of small can add up to something big.  Reliance on citizen contributors for micro-news might free up journalists for enterprise stories that citizens are less likely to be able to produce. I’d like to hear of other examples of established organizations reaching out for help from citizens. Please comment or e-mail me at michele dot mclellan at yahoo dot com.

If your organization is interested in working with community sites, J-Lab is looking for partners for a Networked Journalism project that will involve partnering a newspaper in five cities with five hyperlocal news projects in each of their communities. The project will provide micro grants for the hyper local sites and will fund a part-time coordinator at the newspaper. Contact Jan Schaffer via news at j-lab dot org.

March 24, 2009

Seeing the newspaper from outside the newsroom

Carla Savalli says six months as a reader rather than an editor dramatically changed her perspective on the daily newspaper and how people get news

Carla Savalli, a former assistant managing editor who left the Spokesman-Review in Spokane in October, says her time away from the newsroom has upended the way she views the daily newspaper.

“They are essentially outdated and irrelevant by the time they’re delivered. If given another chance, I’d never edit a paper the same way again,” Savalli told me recently. The discovery, she said, is “startling. It’s not a comfortable revelation at first.”

“Now that I’m a reader and not a journalist, I’m much more interested in what information I need and I care less about the proprietary nature of it. I don’t care so much about who’s giving me information. I want to know that it’s valuable and accurate information. There’s got to be a place to capitalize on the franchise of being accurate and in the know, but not on we brought you this story first,” Savalli said.

Savalli isn’t the first to leave a newsroom and find new perspective (it happened to me seven years ago), but it’s instructive to hear the message fresh. Savalli, who wants to return to newsroom management, says it’s based on looking at newspapers in general, not the Spokane paper in particular.

“I’ve been paying attention how we absorb news and information. Newspapers do not control the flow of information anymore. By the time I get my newspaper I have learned about 90 percent of what’s in that paper someplace else. I’ve read it on the newspaper Web site, picked it up on the national news or I’ve picked it up on the street. I’ve been more aware of informal listening posts in the community, like doctor’s office or social groups, places where information is circulated.”

That perspective may not be obtainable within the newsroom
. “I don’t think it’s possible to really get it inside the newsroom. It’s not possible to see an alternative until you get on the outside, because then you’re not intensely aware of every nuance of the story. (In the newsroom,) you think you’ve got the scoop.”

“The Web and 24/7 cable really DO have an advantage over print but print journalists can’t see that when they’re immersed in it.”

Savalli’s ideas for local newspapers organizations:
- Move away from commodity news, the news that people can find all over the place
- Drop national and international news, which people can find online or on television.
- Redefine the newspaper niche product for local news. “Focus on what’s intensely local.”
- Reshape newsroom thinking about what people need to know. “Change the notion that we know what people should know.”
- Redefine the role of gatekeeper to one of a guide to information online.

A news organization must become “more of a proponent of information and news and not so much a proponent of our brand and process,” Savalli said.  “We need to give people more, not less.”

“I’d advise print leaders to take the best of our traditions - the critical thinking skills and news gathering skills and source building - and apply that to the Web and ditch all the other conventions of the craft,” she said. “Yes, the business model needs to be fixed, as does the general economy, but journalists (the real ones) are more important than ever.”

“We don’t need to redefine journalism in order to compete or survive. We need to redefine our work flow, not our values or news judgment. If it really is about delivering and interpreting information, then we must be platform agnostic mercenaries. Serve readers wherever they are. Period.”

March 03, 2009

JTM: Collaborative journalism

The Chauncey Bailey Project offers one model for pooling resources to produce investigative journalism

Dori Maynard of the Maynard Institute and Linda Jue of the G.W. Williams Center for Independent Journalism are describing The Chauncey Bailey project at the morning session of the Journalism That Matters Conference at Poynter.

Multiple news organizations (traditional rivals) and independent journalists collaborated to continue the work of Bailey, editor of the Oakland Post, who was gunned down in August 2007. Under the banner of “You can’t kill a story by killing a journalist,” the collaborative investigated violence and financial fraud at Your Black Muslim Bakery, an institution in the San Francisco Bay Area for almost 40 years, and explored its relationships with local politicians, city and business officials and the Oakland Police Department.

It’s a promising example of emerging ways to get important stories done in times of cutbacks. Here is the Chauncey Bailey Project Web site.

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Exploring innovation, transformation and leadership in a new ecosystem of news, by journalist and change advocate Michele McLellan.

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