News Leadership 3.0

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“They are essentially outdated and irrelevant by the time they’re delivered.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.”

Comments

Great to hear from a newsroom manager from the outside. Fascinating angle, Michelle. Thanks for sharing.

The things Carla mentions that ring true in Arizona is the new function of “a guide to information online.” Papers could better serve their audience by cutting through the noise and finding the stories that matter (growth destroying cultural resources in Arizona) instead of the ones that don’t (Britney Spears spotted at the local mall). This new quality-over-quantity approach is way overdue. Sifting through 300 links on a typical newspaper homepage to find five compelling stories gets tiring, but hey, it’s great for traffic.

The other thing I would add to Carla’s comments is that newspapers should try to be the authority on topics/geographic area instead of being everything to everybody. NewWest.net, a great startup, has captured this, as well as the quality-over-quantity model. We at ZonieReport.com are doing the same thing in Arizona, and it appears to be working.

Adam Klawonn
Editor


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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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