News Leadership 3.0

Posts tagged with: Knight Foundation

November 11, 2009

Six trends in community journalism

American University and J-Lab produce a study about how the movement to create entrepreneurial community Web sites may changing the rules of engagement with news.

American University just completed a mini-study of women news consumers and women who have created news Web sites. The research, by Assistant Professor Maria Ivancin in partnership with J-Lab, offers an intriguing glimpse of changes under way as a new ecosystem of news forms online.

Ivancin described these findings (based on focus groups and interviews):

1. Community journalism is evolving as an exercise in participation, not merely observation. “It’s not just covering community, it’s actually being the community,” Ivancin said this week at J-Lab’s New Media Women Entrepreneurs summit.

2. The traditional emphasis on objectivity is giving way to a focus on broader definitions of news and the inclusion of different voices. New media site founders often felt “objectivity really is not truthful. Top down objectivity you really don’t have an understanding of what’s happening in your community. They felt objectivity can come in a different way, from participation,” she said.

3. Building community rather than simply covering community is the impetus for launching community news sites. “It’s not just looking at what’s happening. It’s doing things to change that community, help that community.”

4. Community news sites rise to fill gaps in news coverage. “There is an unfulfilled need. Whether the local paper was not covering it, or no longer covered it….  The need can be geographic, the need can be audience based or interest based,” Ivancin said. One news site creator called it a need for “a community water cooler.”

5. New media entrepreneurs are motivated by a frustration with old media’s pace of innovation and change. “New media creators saw the changes as opportunities whereas they thought traditional media saw them as threats,” Ivancin. “The competition did not look kindly at these” news startups, including one outlet that r an editorial attaching the new site.

6. News site creators and consumers express excitement and regret over changes confronting established media. People said they “miss the pleasure of reading the newspaper,” and worry that the ability to select news will mean people don’t get the fuller picture provided in the newspaper, Ivancin said.  Also, it’s more difficult to to judge credibility. New media creators are concerned about losing investigative reporting. Benefits include speed and convenience, more voices and perspectives, selectivity and ability to get depth on topics of most interest, she said.

It will be interesting and important to see whether these trends hold true as traditional media outlets shrink and new experiments come onto the field. Certainly developments in community media are important to established news organizations. The start ups change the playing field of media in many communities and they may be harbingers of new attitudes and practices that traditional journalists and news outlets will want to adopt to stay relevant and fulfill the role of town forum.

November 17, 2009

Culture change 101

For news executives who find their staffs are still resistant new ideas and practices, here are three steps to start making change

I’ve been interested to learn in recent conversations with editors that at least some of the change-resistance that plagued many newsrooms a decade ago seems to have survived in today’s industry tumult. The topic came up again in questions Monday when I was on a panel at the ASNE Ethics and Values Forum at the Reynolds Journalism Institute, where I am a fellow this year.

Here are three tips I gave editors seeking change:
1. Keep your list of goals and priorities short, perhaps three or four items. Longer lists tend to translate into “everything is a priority,” which in effect means “nothing is a priority.” Once you’ve got your goals, use them to prioritize and explain what you want your staff to do. If you want something done that doesn’t really serve the goals, then don’t ask for it. Example: You personally would like to see more stories about the city council. But your priority is for your organization is to cover more non-institutional news. So stop asking questions about what the city council did.
2. Assume that people who resist change are doing so because they are afraid of the unknown. That’s often true. Even if it isn’t (and someone is just plain stubborn), you’ll get better results than if you go head to head. If people are afraid, a little empathy and some training that allows them to try the new thing in a safe zone, will help.
3. Keep the discussion of new practices and ideas very specific. Journalists often veer into abstract either-or debates about change. These seldom go anywhere.  Remember when newsrooms used to debate whether the Web would cheapen their journalism? A better discussion is how a specific story was (or wasn’t) well told on the Web.

Culture change takes time, often years. These tips will get your organization started. What are your tips for fostering culture change?

November 24, 2009

Online first? Four ways to show you mean it

Recent flare ups over the merger of The Washington Post’s print and online newsrooms leave out critical requirements for newsroom leaders who want their staffs to innovate online

I’ve been following a fascinating discussion about The Washington Post’s move to bring its well-regarded online news operation into the fold of the print newsroom. Since the announcement of the merger, talented top online managers have left the Post and this week came reports that a couple of award-winning multimedia journalists would be let go.

Mathew Ingram has a good roundup of the debate. He notes: “The recent cuts at the Washington Post (WPO)—as reported by Politico and Washington’s City Paper—have once again brought to the surface a culture clash that has been going on in mainstream newsrooms for most of the last decade, and one that shows no sign of ending any time soon.”

The online discussion tends to play out as a saga of good (new, online) vs. old (bad, print). The online folks, with some justification, usually say it’s better that online be separate lest it be co-opted by conservative print culture.

I’m not sure the structure of the newsroom(s) is as important as the leadership and how it demonstrates what it values. When I lead a newsroom training and change initiative sponsored by the Knight Foundation, we found that leadership communication was the most important factor in creating capacity for change. If top news executives really value online, they can do more to show it by:

1. Assigning all of the news gathering staff to report to an online editor with clout. The news gatherers might also fulfill assignments for the print newspaper, but their organizational allegiance would be to Web first.

2. Assuring that one of the top two newsroom executives comes out of online. The number 2 person, if not the top editor, would be an online expert and evangelist.  Sorry to have to say this, but most newsrooms are held back because their leaders - not matter how pro Web - come out of decades of print journalism. That’s the default.

3. Openly reward the online staff and print staff who make significant strides online. Even if pay raises aren’t possible, consistent praise and shows of approval will help.

4. Restructure the print production desk. Push down the number of people you need to produce the print newspaper until it hurts. More on that idea here.

How have you changed your newsroom or your attitude to promote online first? Please post tips and ideas in the comments.

December 01, 2009

The amazing chaos that is news

Here are five types of emerging news organizations. Help me refine this and build a list of examples.

Very little is certain about the online news experiments we’re seeing except their stunning diversity and verve.

imageLast month, I spent two days talking to start up owners in Seattle and another day at J-Lab‘s New Media Women Entrepreneur summit in Washington, DC. I also coach news startups as a consultant to the Knight Foundation and here at Knight Digital Media Center. All of this has spurred a lot of thinking on my part about how the Reynolds Journalism Institute, where I am a fellow, and others can help these start ups.

It might help to categorize them and build a list of them that may offer lessons in content, civic engagement, transparency and sustainability. I think it’s a good way to bring some order to a chaotic young universe and elevate a conversation that often pits old media against upstarts in the blogosphere. This lis may also help identify strengths and areas where news sites might need help.

So here’s a first run at five categories. I acknowledge the overlaps at the outset as well as the exceptions.  I hope you’ll help me identify gaps and suggest more examples.

1. The bigs. Although not typically as big as a major metro or regional newspaper, these sites tend to have multiple reporters and editors and their aim is to produce highly professional content. Examples: MinnPost, Voice of San Diego, and The Texas Tribune. Although not strictly a start up, the online-only Seattle Post Intelligencer might fall in this group.

What do they need most? A revenue model. Most started with help from philanthropists and foundations. They are strong players in journalism but their financial future is uncertain. What can we learn from them? The value of focus. Unlike general interest newspapers, these sites tend to focus heavily on just a few important topics rather than trying to cover the entire playing field. For example, Voice of San Diego stresses coverage of housing, education, environment, economy and local government and politics, science and public safety, and doesn’t spend much time on other topics.

2. The local news entrepreneurs.
Many of the online news start ups, large and small, are entrepreneurial. In my book, the local news entrepreneurs are small local start ups that are heavily focused on finding a workable business model for their news ventures. They often diversify, mixing tech services and platforms with their local and neighborhood news endeavors. A couple of examples from Seattle:  My Ballard, Capitol Hill Blog, Oakland Local is another highly entrepreneurial venture that also makes community-building a priority (which means it could fit in category #3 as well).

What they need most: Caffeine. What we can learn from them: The value of Web and tech expertise and business diversification. My money is on these folks to figure local news out for the rest of us.

3. The community lovers. These folks see news and information as a vehicle for strengthening their communities. They often fill gaps left by legacy media but they do not see themselves are a replacement. They are the most likely to have non-professional contributors, although many do hire journalists. Many have received start up funding from Knight Foundation and other foundations but are looking for revenue models. Example: TheRapidian. What they need most? Many need help learning best practices of accuracy and transparency and managing citizen contributors, as well as navigating the Web and social media. What can we learn from them? The value of listening to, understanding and engaging community as the right thing to do and make money.

4. The niches. I’m thinking here about topic or service niches as much or more than than geographic ones. Like the entrepreneurs, these are often focus heavily on developing a business model. Many are journalists who have left traditional news organizations in recent years. Examples: Julia Scott’s BargainBabe and Elaine Helm Norton’s NW Navy News, which is both local and niche.

What they need most: Business expertise. What we can learn from them: The power of depth, branding, and how to connect with users.

5. The personals. These are the persona-driven sites and blogs that typically do not have large followings or much expectation of impact (which is not saying they don’t have value). Most turn over quickly. What they need most: I’m probably over generalizing here but I think these sites will largely do what they’re going to do without much help. What we can learn from them: The power of branding.

You’ll notice I didn’t separate for-profit from nonprofit models and I didn’t separate those who use user content and those that don’t. Those are both important distinctions in the old world, but they will blur over time. Shared interests trump differences.

Have I got the right categories? Please suggest additional categories or distinctions in the comments. For example, should ethnic media be one category or do other site features matter more? (Many in the ethnic press are both entrepreneurial and community-loving, but are only now moving online.)

And please help me build a list of the best sites. I’ll write about criteria for the list later this week.



December 03, 2009

Más fuertes juntos

In a guest post, Craig Matsuda describes a new alliance between two Spanish-language media companies - and how it started at a Knight Digital Media Center training session

Craig Matsuda, a longtime editor at The Los Angeles Times and now a consultant, coordinated Knight Digital Media Center’s June conference, “Transforming Ethnic News Organizations for the Digital Now,” in partnership with New America Media, the McCormick Foundation and the Knight Foundation. I have asked Craig to follow up with program participants in a series of guest posts. Today’s post: Stronger together

By Craig Matsuda

Ethnic media organizations, like many start ups, may struggle with the twin challenges of getting the business to that next level of success and overcoming a sense of professional isolation.
But a fortuitous meeting at a recent Knight Digital Media Center program has resulted in a new deal that will give Atlanta Latino, an up-and-coming,  Spanish-language multimedia company, a big boost in a partnership with Impremedia, a top U.S. national Spanish-language news and information company.

The two organizations will share share content and business resources in what executives of both call a “model” and a “win-win” arrangement that will benefit not only the two businesses but also their audiences.

For the thousands of relatively affluent, educated and youthful Spanish-speakers who read the Atlanta Latino in print, online and on mobile devices or who follow its television programming on YouTube and Telemundo, the new deal gives them deep, rich news coverage of Hispanic communities nationwide in places like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.

For the millions of Spanish-speakers who get their news and information online, in print and through mobile devices from ImpreMedia and its 27 properties, such as La Opinion in Los Angeles or El Diario La Prensa in New York, the new deal gives them unprecedented coverage of one of the fastest growing Latino areas in the nation - Atlanta, Georgia and the Southeast.

“This is a win-win deal because it gives ImpreMedia a new footprint in an important market they weren’t in before, and for us, well, it gives our audience the national perspective on issues key to them - everything from immigration to sports—in a way we couldn’t offer before,” says Atlanta Latino publisher Farid Sadri. “Plus, for us, we’ll now have access to new resources, such as national advertisers, that we couldn’t tap.”

Arturo Duran, CEO of ImpreMedia Digital, hailed the partnership with Atlanta Latino, saying it provides a model for his company’s evolving strategy to work with others to increase the flow of news and information while keeping costs low and the returns for all parties high.

“We see ourselves helping to build and bring together communities,” Duran said. “We’re getting excellent coverage of one of the fastest growing Latino markets in the country and we’re not having to build it ourselves. Meantime, we think we can help Atlanta Latino with our national footprint, our advertising, business and technology resources. It’s a sharing relationship that benefits everybody and it’s something we’re expanding elsewhere. “

Both parties emphasize that they’ve entered into an alliance, not an acquisition.

In concrete terms, the recently redesigned Atlanta Latino web site home page, for example, carries a sizable, interactive box with tabs that can be clicked to link to headlines, stories and other content from ImpreMedia’s New York, Chicago and Los Angeles coverage; in print, Atlanta Latino can carry any stories in Spanish from ImpreMedia publications.

ImpreMedia, meantime, links to Atlanta Latino and its content, just as it does with its own properties and those of its McClatchy partners. Duran said his company will be selling to advertisers its expanded reach, especially into burgeoning markets like Atlanta; he says ImpreMedia is scouting for similar alliances with other Spanish-language outlets in fast-growing markets with the savvy demonstrated by Sadri and his editor-wife, Judith Martinez.

Duran was a speaker at the KDMC session last June and Sadri and Martinez were invited participants. Building on what they learned in KDMC sessions, the couple say they have in some hectic months: redesigned their web site to make it easier to view and navigate, as well as to increase opportunities for advertisers; added new technologies to reach their audiences via cell phones and other mobile devices; launched a presence on social media with both Facebook and Twitter; and improved their site video, both with YouTube and with partner Telemundo, so that Martinez’s Spanish language television show can be more easily and widely seen online.

They’re also keeping firmly in mind the strategic plan they developed for Atlanta Latino in the KDMC sessions - and they’re carefully measuring, analyzing and reassessing their efforts.
“These still are tough times, economically,” Sadri said. “But, even with the natural ups and downs, we know that our analytics tell us that our web traffic was up 3.9% last month over the previous month. So we think our hard work is just beginning to pay off. We’re trying a lot of new things. But we’re excited because we can see that they’re starting to really work.” 

December 08, 2009

Community info building blocks: What do you already have?

Communities need relevant, timely information in order to function well. Traditional narrative-format news is one way to package that information. News stories work great as snapshots, but generally not so well for gauging relevant issues on a daily basis. By publishing more structured information, news organizations might help people more clearly understand their world and make decisions about their lives and communities.

(I’m pleased to have digital provocateur extraordinaire Amy Gahran on board as a guest blogger. Today, Amy starts a series of weekly posts that look at how news organizations and other institutions can implement the findings of the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy, This joint project of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Aspen Institute Communications and Society program published its flagship report, “Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age” on Oct. 2. Read more articles in this series.)

By Amy Gahran

Knowledge is power—and knowledge springs from information. In any society, but especially in a democracy, people need current, relevant, and useful information in order to know how to exercise their power to make better decisions and build better, stronger communities.

imageThe Knight Commission report offered rich guidance for how news organizations, governments, schools, libraries, bloggers, and other leading players in the community information landscape could better manage the supply and flow of vital community information. The goal: to create robust local “information ecologies” that support local democracy and quality of community life.

In a new series of posts to the News Leadership 3.0 blog, we’ll explore opportunities to realize the Knight report’s recommendations—examples of what’s happening, what works (or not), and what’s possible. We’ll consider new kinds projects and collaboration, and suggest steps to take action.

Our starting point is the first question the report sought to answer: What are a community’s information needs?

The Knight report proposed 15 ways to to better manage the supply and flow of vital community information. However, it offered surprisingly little insight on which types of information communities need to support the goals outlined in the report: community coordination and problem-solving, public accountability, and a sense of connectedness.

According to the report, the tools to generate a specific list of vital community information types and measurements aren’t quite there yet. Information researchers are still working to develop them. But the executive summary did outline some general categories to consider:

“...In addition to the information necessary to participate in elections and civic affairs, people need access to information to better their lives. Where families struggle to make ends meet and many men and women work multiple jobs, free time is limited. Indeed the path to civic engagement may begin with fulfillment of basic information needs, including info about:

  • Jobs
  • Housing
  • Taxes
  • Safety
  • Education
  • Transportation
  • Recreation
  • Entertainment
  • Food and shopping
  • Utilities
  • Child care
  • Healthcare
  • Religious resources
  • Local news

News organizations traditionally have packaged these types of community and civic information in a narrative story format. In the narrative format, information is primarily communicated through a continuous flow of text, audio/video, or slideshow/photo gallery. Charts, interactive, or infographic components only play a supporting role.

Narrative news stories work great as snapshots—but they can be less helpful for ongoing public awareness, analysis, and decision making.

Fortunately, most of the vital community info types above already exist at least partly in the form of structured information (data sets, regularly compiled statistics, lists, surveys, forms, etc.) The strength of structured information is that it works more easily and flexibly as a kind of radar screen or dashboard. This helps people gauge on a daily basis the state of issues affecting their lives—and how they (or their communities) “measure up.”

Adopting a more structured approach to providing community information, delivered at least partly via news media, can complement traditional news stories in order to support community-level democracy. We’ll examine this strategy in the next post in this series.


Before you start trying to do something new, it’s helpful to assess what you’re already doing. Your news organization may already have more structured information capacity than you realize.

So: Assess which types of information your news organization already publishes periodically in a structured format: tables, info graphics, charts, statistics, interactive tools, etc. Ideally this information is published daily or weekly—but don’t discount monthly, annual, or event-related reports.

Look for information that you publish primarily through tables, charts, form-style blurbs, or infographics (rather than stories).

This can include information with obvious civic or community impacts, such as election results and candidate positions, school report cards, water quality reports, sales tax receipts, crime rates, health statistics, housing or real estate statistics or transactions, unemployment figures, and more.

...But it also can include non-civic information such as weather forecasts, sports scores/statistics, death notices, or stock prices. Again, when compiling this list, pay attention to the format of reporting, not the substance of what’s reported.

Once you’ve created this list, consider: Which of your structured information reports are most popular with your community? You might gauge this through audience surveys. However, simply recalling the feedback you get about this information (especially when you move or change how or where it’s presented) can help you decide what’s working best.

Then consider: What are your existing resources and processes for publishing structured information? It can help to map out the basics of your processes with flow chart tool like, or to draw it all on a huge brainstorming pad.

For instance: Newspapers often run a local “weather box” on the front page. Where does that information come from? How much time did it take do design that weather box? How much time and effort does it take each day to update it? Who’s involved with each part of the process?

Similarly, if your news organization publishes a form-style or tabular guide to candidates’ positions for local elections: What’s your process for deciding which questions to ask the candidates? How do you gather that information? What’s your process for compiling, editing, and presenting that information? How much time/effort does each part of the process take? Which parts of the process work well, and which are problematic? Who’s involved?

...Once you’ve mapped out some of those regular processes, look for patterns. Which people in your organization have a flair or affinity for any part of this work? Which tasks are streamlined, and which are vague or convoluted? Which of these efforts feel rewarding, and which make you groan?

Publishing more structured information can support healthier communities—but you don’t have to do it all at once. Clarifying your existing strengths and resources can help you decide where to start and set yourself up for easy “wins.”

Next week: How to adopt a more structured approach to providing community information

December 15, 2009

Teamwork: Collaborating to build a community dashboard

Driving is much easier—and safer—when you can see the dashboard. It helps to know how fast you’re going, whether your engine is overheating, and how much gas you have left. Plus, if you’re driving a newer car, your dashboard may show where you are, how to get where you want to go, and whether you’re using gas efficiently.

No driver ever watches the dashboard constantly. However, if those indicators weren’t there, you’d probably get pretty anxious behind the wheel.

Similarly, communities seeking to steer toward a healthy future need ongoing, easy access to relevant, structured, local information—a “community dashboard”...

(This is the second in a series of guest posts by Amy Gahran. Amy is looking how news organizations and other institutions can implement the findings of the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy, This joint project of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Aspen Institute Communications and Society program produced the report, “Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age”. Read more articles in this series.)

By Amy Gahran

Last week I wrote about how news organizations could help strengthen communities by presenting more structured information about vital community issues, as a complement to traditional news stories.

Structured information is organized consistently to make it easier to manipulate or reuse in a database, computer program, or web application. This, in turn, makes it easier for people to sort, search, trend, and compare that information. image

...In contrast, unstructured text (like most news stories) can be searched but not easily reused, analyzed, trended, or otherwise manipulated.

News organizations already publish many kinds of structured information: weather forecasts, sports scores, election results, stock prices, and more. They also publish many kinds of vital community information, such as local economic indicators—but typically in story format, such as: Denver home resales up 23% in November from 2008

News venues are an ideal place to display a community dashboard of local economic, civic, or quality-of-life indicators. The catch is: Developing indicators and compiling that data continuously is a big job—and not always a core strength of news organizations.

Fortunately, other community players are already doing a lot of this work. Finding and collaborating with them can help:

Researchers and officials: Academic researchers, government agencies, nonprofits, and social service organizations often are skilled at compiling structured community information—which is why the Knight Commission report listed some of them as vital community information intermediaries.

However, often these players’ efforts to share their information are not easy for community members to find, understand, and use.

For example, Temple University’s Metropolitan Philadelphia Metro Indicators Project has compiled and analyzed a wealth of information benchmarks to gauge the status of community issues such as civic participation, transportation, the regional economy, housing, education, and more in the 353 municipalities in and around Philadelphia. This information is gathered through rigorous surveys and analysis, but presented mainly via complex reports in pdf format on a web site that probably is not well known among community members.

A search of, the leading metro daily news organization for the region, revealed only one story mentioning this project. More collaboration between the university and the news organization might go a long way toward helping people in the Philadelphia area understand their communities.

Librarians: These information professionals are skilled at sharing information (including structured information) with community members. Also, public libraries typically have a strong local focus and commitment to community service. Most importantly, librarians usually know what kinds of information community members seek or need.

The American Library Association’s Civic Engagement blog is a great resource for understanding what libraries have to offer on this front.

Other news organizations: It’s possible—and perhaps increasingly desirable—for local news organizations that once considered themselves competitors (or serving different audiences, like local ethnic, college, or business media) to collaborate to create community resources based on structured information.

Web application developers: These programmers (rather than web site designers) are skilled at making structured information user-friendly and engaging. However, few web application developers focus on local communities. The Knight News Challenge-funded startup Everyblock, recently acquired by MSNBC, is one example of how web applications can support community-level democracy and quality of life.


Identify willing and able local information partners. Partnering is first and foremost about relationships—which means talking to (and collaborating with) people.

Look over the list of potential partners above. Your news organization probably already has many contacts in each category—probably as sources, but perhaps as partners in various community or publishing projects. List your best contacts in each category: Cooperative people who tend to know a lot of about who’s doing what in their organizations or fields.

Call some potential partners with whom your news organization has existing relationships. Tell them you’re considering publishing a community dashboard of important local indicators. Suggest weekly or biweekly to start. Ask them: What kind of indicators do you think should be on that community dashboard? And: Could you help supply information for our dashboard?

If people have trouble grasping the community dashboard concept, show them Temple University’s Metropolitan Philadelphia Metro Indicators Project. Then say: “We’re thinking of packaging a small-scale version of something like this in a format similar our weather forecast box. We’re not exactly sure what the final product would look like, but it would be more like an infographic than a story. And it would come out regularly, so people could track it easily.”

The web application developers represent a different type of partner. Ask them for their ideas about presentation and delivery of a community dashboard. But they may also have content ideas, too.

Once you’ve identified at least a few potential partners who are willing and able to help, get them together for a brainstorming session with the people on your staff most skilled at working with structured information. (Last week I suggested how to identify these valuable staffers). The goals of the brainstorming session would be:

  1. What kind of a community dashboard would we like to see? (Creativity)
  2. How could we start to create that dashboard? (Prioritize options)
  3. What are the first tasks to get started? (Commit to action)

If you can only get through the first two goals, that’s significant progress. It’s most important to build momentum and relationships, and to create opportunities for action (not just abstract discussions). Having such an action-focused base of collaboration can help move forward many of the Knight Commission report’s recommendations.

Also, from here, you can design small-scale pilot projects to introduce your community to the idea of a community dashboard.

December 17, 2009

Six lessons from the Sandy Rowe School of Leadership

“When standing, stand. When sitting, sit. But above all, don’t wobble” and other wisdom from one of journalism’s great leaders

I count Sandy Rowe, editor of The Oregonian, among my closest friends. Along the way, she also has been my boss, my mentor, and the person who most shaped my understanding of leadership.

Sandy leaves The Oregonian next week after more 16 years in Portland and three decades leading newsrooms. Happily, this doesn’t mean she’s leaving journalism or leadership. But it’s an occasion for celebrating the strong, graceful leadership Sandy Rowe exemplifies.

A few of the many lessons:

1. Listen, and listen well.

I remember when Sandy first arrived at The Oregonian in 1993.  She scheduled one-on-one interviews with pretty much everyone in the newsroom staff.  When my turn came, I was struck at how intently she listened. No fidgeting, no looking around or peeking at the clock. Total focus. Eye contact. No speeches. Lots of questions, many of them gently challenging.

I was astonished. A new forty-something editor who had just crossed the continent to take over a flailing, demanding newsroom in a strange town. Total focus. My 15-minute interview turned into an hour-plus conversation.

I left vowing to learn how to listen and focus that well. I’m still working on it, and every time I come up short I revisit that day.

I am not the only person who learned from Sandy. I rarely attend a journalism conference or visit a newsroom when someone doesn’t mention getting a favor from Sandy, having a helpful conversation with her or praising the mentoring she provided.

Sandy changed my view of the role of the leader at its core. She showed me that leadership was mostly about teaching and learning and hardly at all about telling.

2. Let others lead.

In announcing her departure as editor, Sandy told her staff that all the leadership The Oregonian needs for the future is in the newsroom. I think she meant not only an exceptional executive team with Peter Bhatia as the new editor, but the leadership of every journalist on the staff as well.
Jacqui Banaszynski, Knight Chair in Editing at the Missouri School of journalism who worked with Sandy in Portland, says developing others was Sandy’s mission.

“Sandy is one of those rare editors who takes leadership as seriously as she does journalism. She doesn’t just wing it. She studies leadership, thinks about it and is conscious in her practice of it.  She doesn’t cherry-pick the parts of the job she loves, and fob off the parts she doesn’t.  She is a gifted line editor but usually resisted the temptation to take over a story.  She believed it was her job to create a newsroom that best let others do their jobs - not to do it for them.  And she took responsibility for her job, every day and in every action. 

“That’s probably why, in announcing her retirement, she noted that her greatest pride came from building The Oregonian’s staff into one of the finest in the country.  She put her energy into hiring and supporting the best journalists she could, and then in standing behind them as they did the best journalism they could. 

“She often told me that good leadership is selfless; I saw her live that belief again and again - most recently when she decided to leave a newsroom she loves so others could stay.”

3. Make the tough calls. No matter how much the leader listens, she has to make a decision or let someone else decide.

Janet Coats, editor of the Tampa Tribune (also departing the newsroom this month) and another of the legions Sandy has mentored, tells this story about Sandy and decisiveness:

“The best lesson of the many Sandy gave me came as she was departing from Norfolk for Portland. I was a newly minted deputy managing editor then, just 30 years old and in over my head. I inherited Sandy’s desk when she moved, and she taped a note inside the desk drawer. It read: ‘When standing, stand. When sitting, sit. But above all, don’t wobble.’

“That note is still taped inside my desk drawer today, as it has been in Wichita, in Sarasota, at Poynter, finally in Tampa. I have looked at it every day of my professional life, and it has been my mantra through the last 16 years of crazy, fun, difficult, tumultuous days running newsrooms. Know what is important. Be decisive. Don’t wobble. Sandy never, ever wobbled. I don’t know if I could claim the same, but her advice has helped me stand up more times than I can count.”

4. Stand up for readers.

Sandy has served tirelessly on just about every important journalism board you can think of, including chairing the Pulitzer Prize board and the Knight Foundation Journalism Advisory Committee.  As president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, Sandy focused on core journalism values and credibility, among them improving connections with readers.

Deborah Howell, longtime bureau chief of the Newhouse News Service and now a Newhouse consultant, cited Sandy’s leadership in creating the ASNE Credibility Project in the 1990s.

“To me, Sandy’s leadership was national, not just at the O. When she was president of ASNE, she gave a fantastic speech and led the charge for editors to be more responsible, to get closer to readers, for newspapers to be more credible. I think her emphasis on creditability is one of the stars in her crown.  She stressed the importance of accuracy and fairness in everything small to large, that readers care about it all and that journalists cannot ever sluff off. Her convention and that speech and her leadership got editors’ attention and made a difference.”

5. Know your talents and how to use them.

Geneva Overholser, director of the journalism school at the USC Annenberg School for Journalism and Communication, says Sandy has a wide range of talents and knows when to use each.

“She is unparalleled at combining what might seem disparate skills. For example, she’s great at engaging and listening to others, yet just as great at making tough final calls with dispatch. She never forgets the fundamentals, yet leads toward innovation with gusto. And, for all her whip-smart intelligence and her no-nonsense leadership, she is among the warmest and most generous and gracious friends on the planet.”

6. Own the vision.

Sandy has high standards and sets challenging goals. She relentlessly articulates a vision and then helps others figure out how to implement it. In seeking experimentation, she accepts mistakes.

Banasyznski tells this story:

“When I first met Sandy, I noticed a card on her bulletin board. It was a cutout of Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion from the “Wizard of Oz.” After working for Sandy for awhile, I realized that she has the ability to see far down the road, past the nasty forest and the winged monkeys and the poppy fields that slow most of us down or make us turn back, and keep her eye on Oz.  She has the self-discipline and sense of purpose that allows her to keep moving forward and not be distracted by the obstacles and unhappiness of the moment as she builds to the future.

“She also has the wisdom to know that no one gets very far alone.  She surrounds herself with smart people and challenges them to be as smart as they can, even when they disagree with her or move beyond her control.

“I expect that kind of leadership is lonely.  Too few leaders have the ability to make the tough decisions and stick with them when they aren’t immediately understood or popular, or when they don’t produce immediate results.  Those leaders often piss people off - but they are the kind who smart people come to trust and want to follow. They are the kind who make a difference that lasts.

Sandy is that kind of leader.”

For all my sadness that she is leaving The Oregonian, I’m looking forward to seeing what Sandy does next. Whatever it is, Sandy Rowe will lead.

December 22, 2009

Civic topic pages: Boost local traffic, democracy

In most communities, getting up to speed on—and involved in—local civic issues is more work than it should be. In a guest post, Amy Gahran offers one strategy that will enable news organizations to help communities, democracy and their own bottom line by making local civic info easier to find, understand, and use.

(This is the third in a series of guest posts about how news organizations and other institutions can implement the findings of the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy, This joint project of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Aspen Institute Communications and Society program produced the report, “Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age”. Read more articles in this series.)

By Amy Gahran

Right now, how do people in your community get a quick overview of current local civic issues, and how to get involved?

Chances are they’ll have to spend time searching for and reading back through the right section of one or more poorly designed/written local government web sites. Plus, they might search Google and local blogs and news sites for local transit coverage—probably with scattershot results. image

That’s a lot of work—enough work that most people would probably find it far more appealing to remain mostly uninformed and disengaged.

Strengthening local community and democracy can be good for the news business—if you do both in a way that plays nice with search engines. Topic pages are an effective strategy for attracting search engine traffic (which is why Wikipedia ends up at the top of search results for almost any topic).

What if local news sites published local civic topic pages? These would be not just about big or ongoing news stories, but about local civic organizations and processes, or perennial issues (such a local elections or municipal budgets).

Over time, this strategy might attract more local traffic via search engines. This could help news organizations better serve local communities, local advertisers, and their own bottom line.

A topic page is, in part, a more structured approach to providing information. Kevin Sablan explains that a topic page “typically contains a brief textual and visual synopsis of one topic (e.g. a person, issue or company) along with links to other articles, blog posts, pictures, video. etc.” More from Steve Yelvington on the value of topic pages for news sites.

Several national news outlets have introduced topic pages as a strategy to draw search traffic—including the New York Times, Huffington Post, and USAtoday. Even the Associated Press is hatching a topic page strategy (despite that earlier this year they complained loudly about search engines and news aggregators).

This year there’s been considerable saber rattling in the online news biz over the role of search engines and news aggregators. Steve Yelvington argues that nonlocal, search-driven traffic may not really help the bottom line of sites that publish community news. He may have a point, but: Topic pages on local civic topics (not just big local news that might also attract national attention) could attract more local traffic through search engines—the kind of traffic local advertisers value most.

According to the Knight Commission report, communities need easy access to civic and social information: “People need to know their rights and how to exercise them. They need to know how well public officials and institutions function. They need the underlying facts and informed analysis about the social, economic, political, and cultural factors that shape the community’s challenges and opportunities. They need news.”

Several regional or local news outlets already aggregate headlines, background, and context on their big or ongoing stories into landing pages like this factory closing page from Staff web producers create these pages manually, but new relevant stories get added automatically when they include appropriate keywords or tags.

If your news org is already doing something similar, here’s how you could experiment with applying this approach to a civic institution (such as city council or public health department) or a civic process (such as local elections or long-term municipal planning).


Start with the low-hanging fruit. Consider which civic institutions or processes your news org already covers regularly. City council, the police department, and school board are likely candidates—as are local elections and economic development programs. Also, ask local reference librarians at the public library which local civic issues people ask about most.

From this, select your initial target topic. For instance, if property taxes are a perennial topic of local debate and confusion, you might create a topic page on the County Assessor.

Write a brief synopsis, just 1-3 paragraphs. Cover the bare basics of what the target institution or process does, and its community significance. Include a bullet list of key current or past issues or controversies involving your target (such as corruption scandals, major initiatives, etc.)

If a local grassroots civic wiki exists, contact its operators and ask whether you can republish some of their content on your topic page—with credit and a link.

Search optimization. Make sure your page title and synopsis includes terms that local people might actually search for. For instance, a civic topic page about the Alameda County Assessor’s Office might bear the title: Oakland Property Taxes: Alameda County Assessor.

Enable engagement. Include a resource list of names, titles, and contact info for key relevant officials. Also link to relevant web sites, to encourage direct engagement. (Not just to the home page, but to specifics such as event calendars, instructions or FAQs, etc.) You might also link to relevant associated organizations, such as community or watchdog groups.

Configure your content management system to syndicate to the civic topic page recent headlines that mention or are relevant to your target instituion or process. It’s best to trigger this off of an internal taxonomy such as story tags, but it could be based on keyword searches of the content.

Monitor traffic to the page. Topic pages tend to attract more traffic—and better search ranking—over time. So set up a local civic topic page or two as an experiment, let it run over a few months, and watch what happens. See which search terms bring people to the page, and how much of that traffic is local. Periodically conduct Google searches to see how your page is ranking for desired search terms.

Make someone responsible for updating civic topic pages. For instance, if the local board of education announces plans to renovate several schools, that might warrant a mention in the topic page synopsis. Similarly, a school board election would require an update to the contact list.

Make sure your reporters, editors, and producers know how to tag stories so they show up on relevant topic pages.

Assess your experiment. After about six months, assess whether and how this strategy is working for you. How does your topic page’s search ranking for desired search terms compare to, say, local blogs, organizations, or official sites? How much local v. nonlocal traffic are those pages attracting? Do they get more traffic when there’s relevant breaking news?

Expand, as simply as possible. The more you can template the format of your civic topic pages, simplify their updating, and automate syndication of current news to them, the easier it will be to create more of them. Over time you’ll hone your approach. You’ll also compile a valuable community resource that supports civic engagment while driving the kind of traffic that could help you earn more revenue from local advertisers.


Community info building blocks: What do you already have?

Teamwork: Collaborating to build a community dashboard

December 29, 2009

Government 2.0: What’s in it for local news?

The fast-growing Government 2.0 movement could create opportunities for news orgs to get more local news and engagement without necessarily having to write more traditional stories.

(This is the fourth in a series of guest posts by Amy Gahran about how news organizations and other institutions can implement the findings of the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy.This joint project of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Aspen Institute Communications and Society program produced the report, “Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age”. Read more articles in this series.)

By Amy Gahran

Local governments are the source of much local news—yet often they do a notoriously poor job of communicating with community members and news organizations. This is starting to change as more governments become open to experimenting with new tools for sharing info and engaging community members. image

Monitoring and getting involved with these experiments can yield new opportunities to for local news. This content could be more engaging and less labor-intensive than traditional reporting.

The key to making this cooperation work is connecting with people in government who are eager and able to try new approaches to public transparency and engagement. The Government 2.0 (Gov2.0) movement is a great place to find allies for strengthening communities and local news.

Recommendation 4 in the Knight Commission Report is:

“Require government at all levels to operate transparently, facilitate easy and low-cost access to public records, and make civic and social data available in standardized formats that support the productive public use of such data.”

The Knight report suggests some ways to approach this by strengthening and more fully implementing public information rules, open meeting rules, and open courtrooms. These are also passions of government employees and officials involved in Gov2.0.

Gov2.0 is a movement among government employees, as well as other interested people, to apply the strengths of social networking and Web 2.0 tools to all levels of government. The goal is to create systems for public transparency, participation, and collaboration. Although Gov2.0 first gained momentum among federal employees, it’s quickly spreading through many state and local governments.

In fact, in coming years local government may be where much of the Gov2.0 action is. Mark Drapeau, a leading Gov2.0 practitioner, recently listed “local governments as experiments” as the first of his top five Gov2.0 predictions for 2010-12. Gartner analyst Andrea DiMaio agrees and notes:

“Indeed we have seen and will see the best from local authorities. Not because they are necessarily smarter or bolder, but because they are—by their nature—much closer to ‘real’ communities. The issues they deal with are local in nature and touch citizens more directly: parks, waste collection, traffic, environment, safety.”


1. Go where they are. The Gov2.0 community has some important gathering places online. Joining these communities, finding participants and projects near you, and getting involved in their conversations and events can help you find mutually beneficial opportunities to experiment.

GovLoop is your first stop to connect with the Government 2.0 crowd. This community includes people from all levels of government, so search it to find groups, blogs, and members from your region (or who are discussing larger issues that have strong local angles for you). To find local GovLoop members, try searching for your city and state in this format: Oakland, CA. Selectively friending local GovLoop members and asking about their current Government 2.0 projects or interests can be a good way to break the ice. This guide to searching GovLoop can help you find other useful info in GovLoop.

Also, GovFresh features the best of US Gov 2.0 news, TV, ideas, and live feeds of government social media activity.

2. Attend Gov2.0 events in person or online. CityCamp is a participant-organized “unconference” about practicing Gov 2.0 at the local level. It will be held Jan 23-24, 2010 in Chicago. Someone attending from a news org might volunteer to run a session on how local media can complement local Gov2.0 efforts. For discussion, this group has a forum/mailing list, in-progress agenda, Facebook Group, and GovLoop group. Also, on Twitter, you can follow @CityCamp or watch the hashtag #citycamp.

Similarly, Gov2.0 Expo 2010 will be held May 25-27 in Washington, DC. This is part of O’Reilly Media’s high-profile Gov2.0 Summit event series. This will probably have a heavy federal government focus, so it might be most appropriate for national or major metro daily news orgs to attend.

3. Build on existing efforts. Most people involved in Government 2.0 already have projects in mind or in progress: data or documents they’d like to improve access to, easier channels for public participation, etc. In general, it’s probably easiest to work with what they’re already doing, rather than invent projects from scratch.

Once you assess which Government 2.0 projects are already in the works in your region, consider opportunities where using your news site and/or social media presence as a platform could enhance these efforts—while also providing relevant newsworthy content, and building community loyalty to your brand.

Possible results. Cooperating on Gov2.0 projects might be as simple as selectively retweeting local government Twitter items, or periodically excerpting content from their Facebook fan page or group onto yours.

Or imagine a local government decides to set up a site like Manor Labs where community members can submit ideas, rate them, and be rewarded for innovation. A local news organization might run a regular feature highlighting the best-rated submissions—thus increasing participation by reaching more of the community, and spurring constructive local discussion. A more automated approach might be to embed on the news site a widget that provides some of the civic site’s functionality.

You’ll only really start to see the possibilities for collaborating with more open, engaged, online-savvy governments once you start talking with the Gov2.0 community. These are creative, friendly people, eager to engage. And in many cases, the prospect of cooperation with or support from local media could tip Gov2.0 projects from ideas into reality.


Community info building blocks: What do you already have?

Teamwork: Collaborating to build a community dashboard

Civic topic pages: Boost local traffic, democracy

Page 2 of 23 pages  <  1 2 3 4 >  Last »


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

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