News Leadership 3.0

November 19, 2008

Join an open conversation

At API, the fresh solutions were outside the room when key players heard more of the same behind closed doors

Way back in the day, when I was a newspaper ombudsman (The Oregonian, 1996-1999), I was stunned to learn how much our critics felt we left out of the newspaper when I, like most of my colleagues in the newsroom, wanted them to admire what we put in. We were capturing crime problems in local neighborhoods, for example, but missing community discussions about why crimes were happening and what citizens could do about it. We were capturing the angst of youth, but failing to give young people much of a role in the discussion.

The issue wasn’t so much to be nice or to be fair, although those are good things. The issue was to be relevant, to create a news report that was meaningful to people where they lived. That’s usually a very different place than the newsroom. Sure we would give regular people a starring role in our newspaper movie, but only if they followed our script.

I learned of these omissions, not by waiting for people to call and complain. Instead, I went looking for trouble, hosting and joining conversations around Portland and by strong-arming and sweet-talking other journalists to join them as well. Knowledge grew. Perspectives changed. And, key to change at that time: Journalists find a wider circle of sources upon which to draw. They get more comfortable with the untitled people and their unfamiliar points of reference and the important linkages of community. They let others write parts of the script.

These insights have stuck with me for more than a decade now. They have been refreshed by my old-journo efforts to learn about digital media and the untitled people and important linkages of the online world. They hit me hard last week when I joined a different conversation, an online conversation occasioned by a closed-door meeting of news industry executives hosted by the American Press Institute and the McCormick Foundation. The “Summit on Saving an Industry in Crisis,” apparently consisted of a couple of presentations by business experts (and, yes folks, the business outlook in the newspaper industry is dire) and a pitch by API for its Newspaper Next program (a useful approach to innovation that has not caught fire in the industry). You can read API’s report here and a follow-up by Amy Gahran on Poynter Online here.

The gist of the main presentation at API, by turnaround expert James Shein, is that there are five stages of industry decline and much of the news industry is in the fourth stage, crisis. The fifth stage is dissolution. Ominously, says the API summary, “failure to take action at any point on the curve means the enterprise inexorably moves to the next point. As an organization moves down the crisis curve, it will find executing a recovery plan more difficult, and will have less time to do it.”

Another Shein comment that resonated: “The biggest hurdles to progress the industry’s senior leadership, including some of the people in this room. I am not sure you can take a look at your industry with fresh eyes.

That’s pretty ironic, given an array of “fresh eyes” that were outside the room having an online debate keyed to the summit. One of the news executives in API’s invitation-only session was Charles M. Peters, president and CEO of The Gazette Company. Peters decided to try to blog the session live via CoverItLive on Twitter. Peters, who had never live blogged before (I have and I can tell you it is very demanding, at least at first.) What ensued was a lively discussion about moves the industry might make to rescue itself. Peters has posted an initial summary here and plans to write up highlights and I’ll post links as they come up. The transcript, all seven hours, is here.

What struck me about the online conversation was how similar it was to what I saw way back when as an ombudsman. This time, of course, I was outside with the untitled people and their unfamiliar points of reference and the important linkages of community. I didn’t presume to have answers—I don’t think any of the 30 plus people in that online conversation did. But there was a wealth of ideas. Some might have been worth a try by one of the organizations represented inside the room. Some might have sparked even better ideas inside the room.

The people inside might be playing the role of journalists in the newsroom—unwittingly trapped in their own self-reinforcing conversations with one another, failing to see the value of difference and change. Above all, failing to see a crisis in their growing (rightly or wrongly) irrelevance. I wondered how many of the ideas from outside they’ve already heard, dismissing them—like the newsroom often dismisses community suggestions—as too small, too different, too….
A lot of small and different could turn into something big. My idea in the conversation was that each company might take on responsibility to push one big experiment and then quickly share results with the others. Journalist (and Twitter friend) Tim Windsor said it well after API canceled a news conference because its meeting had failed to reach a consensus. There “shouldn’t be consensus,” Windsor said, “But a steady rain of divergent ideas to try.”

Peters attempted to bring his fellow executives into the online conversation. I believe it was displayed for a time on a screen in the conference room but it didn’t sound like the room layout or conference format encouraged engagement. I think it would be better for the executives to join online conversations and networks and participate in them regularly, if they are not already doing that. As I’ve said before, I have learned from blogging and being on Twitter that you only really understand how the Web works when you are there. You only learn the power of the network once you join it.

That’s another small suggestion, and one that demands time and attention—both in short supply right now in the news industry. It’s time well spent for those who want to build tomorrow’s news organization. Hard to say how people will be getting their news five years from now. But you can bet it will be on some Web not yet imagined, not on dead trees. If you understand how it works now, you’re that much more able to keep up. If you don’t bother, you’re that much farther behind. Shein’s curve may apply: The farther behind you get, the bigger the solution must be and the smaller to time available to find and implement it.

Here are two additional posts about the API meeting that I found interesting:

Jane Ellen Stevens offers a “10-Point Road Map for API Execs
Steven A. Smith gives a newsroom editor’s perspective in “The secret API meeting: Do we laugh or cry?

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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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