Archive for July, 2008


We don’t do soy at this newspaper

I was watching the Tour De France the other day. Mike’s Hard Lemonade is a major sponsor of the coverage on VS. They have a commercial where an employee, Joey, shows off his drawing for a new version of their product. Mike’s Hard double-caffeinated soy lemonade. The boss is walking by when Joey proudly displays his conception of the new product.

“Joey, what you got there,” he asks. Joey hands him the paper. He crumples it and throws it at Joey. “We don’t do soy.”

After seeing the ad, I couldn’t help but think : That place seems a lot like some newspapers at which I’ve worked.

As Jeff Jarvis notes at his blog, the old guard at newspapers has made a fine art out of killing innovation from within. Which is really bad now that innovation from without is killing newspapers.

Steve Yelvington echoes this in a post titled — What drives away young, talented journalists:

We have an acute need to adapt journalism — and especially newspapers — to the societal changes brought by new technology, and to do that, we need the energy, optimism and willingness to try something new that comes with being young.But Northwestern University’s Vickey Williams observes:

“My work on changing culture in newsrooms shows that young journalists intend to leave because the pace of change is too slow. (Report here). They are turned off by the tendency of veteran journalists to argue down new ideas, cling to old ways, and avoid risks.”

Here is one comment at Yelvington:

The change, if you can call it that, I’ve seen at many newspapers is really, really slow. It hasn’t been resistance from veterans as it is institutional. Changes have to be researched, discussed, forgotten about, discussed more then implemented in small, small steps. Sllllllloow change must be a relic of being a monopoly. Meanwhile, the business continues to not-so-slowly lose money and readers.

Innovation at one place I worked was an almost five year process that ended with almost nothing being changed. Almost a year after we began with formal meetings intended to result in real change we sat down for the final session at which all the ideas and proposed initiatives were brought up for discussion. Every one was shot down. Blogs — don’t need ’em. Changing coverage priorities — you can’t take that away from my department. Ramping up to a 24-hour news operation — I guess, as long as none of my people has to come in earlier or go home later.

Afterward, people in the newsroom went back to talking about how newspapers are just in a down cycle and will bounce back, or they lamented that newspapers ever got involved with the internet at all. Little was learned and only slightly more got changed.

I say once again: I have met the enemy and he is us.

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A job for life

When I was young my uncle worked for a major American steel company. He stepped right from the ranks of troops sent to Korea and onto the factory floor. He dedicated his life to the job, going back to school and learning advanced algebra and even some calculus so he could get promotions. He never imagined how it would end.

Only a few years away from 30 on the job, the company came along and offered early retirement to some of those long-term employees. The company would give them the last few years toward a full pension in return for an agreement not to sue. The company — it told them — needed to purge its employment rolls because the American steel industry was collapsing, largely because of competition from more innovative foreign firms.

Turned out, a little over a year later, this world-renowned firm declared bankruptcy. When it did, the retired workers discovered the pension fund had been looted. They hired lawyers, fought legal battles over the agreement they signed, and years later discovered there was little to glean from the corpse of that once-great company.

My uncle thought he would spend his entire working life with that steel company. It never occurred to him he would have to do anything else for a job. He ended up driving a bus for the local school district to make ends meet.

I went almost straight from the ranks of my university to working for a newspaper. I like to think I have dedicated my life to the job, training myself in a wide variety of skills in the hopes that it would not only help me but also help those with whom I worked. It has brought me some promotions.

I’m near 30 years in newspapers, but no where near that at my current newspaper. My company has offered early retirement and buy-outs on several occasions as it tries to reduce costs as a hedge against declining revenues. Competition from more innovative internet firms is only part of the problem.

I thought I would spend my entire working life at newspapers, I even imagined getting a full pension from the one at which I work now. It never occurred to me that I might see the death of an entire industry. I never thought I would have to do anything else for a job. I’m not really interested in doing anything else for a job.

Now I need to innovate.

Perhaps there are more people like me out there. They may be getting ready to innovate also, necessity being the mother of invention and all that. I wouldn’t be surprised to find successful hyper-local web sites springing from the minds and efforts of these people.

It seems ever more likely that newspapers — the traditional ones — won’t solve the hyper-local puzzle. That may be because there is no cookie-cutter solution or because newspapers see hyper-local as a type of zoning rather than an interactive community-building process. It may be because the vast majority of newspapers are too big and aren’t flexible enough to change as needed. There are a million reasons why successful hyper-local is likely to be the thing that happens outside and after traditional newspapers.

But it may not begin or end with hyper-local. Some of the talented people departing newspapers these days are bound to create some interesting web businesses. Some of them may even involve journalism. One site aiming to foster such things is Treehouse Media Project. Run by a former Philadelphia Inquirer editor who went MBA before joining an internet startup, the following is part of his mission statement:

…no amount of bitching will prevent Yahoo from poaching our readers nor investors from seeking bigger profits. So, let’s suck it up. First, we should give thanks, for we are far luckier than the manufacturing workers who have found themselves on the wrong side of technological change. As knowledge workers, we can benefit from the technologies that are threatening newspapers’ survival: No longer does one need a printing press to publish, only a personal computer, an Internet connection and an idea.

Making a living as a publisher, however, requires entrepreneurial skills that few journalists possess. That is the reason for the TreeHouse Media Project, an effort to provide journalists with the business knowledge and technical skills to survive — even thrive — in this harsh, yet exciting new media world.

Mindy McAdams mentions Treehouse Media as “an alternative to going gentle into the dark night — one that would redirect the rage [being felt by former newspaper employees] into a useful effort.” It’s founder, Rich Heidorn, just hopes to teach old scribes new tricks that will help them survive (and perhaps thrive) despite what the internet revolution is doing to traditional mass media.

That may not get me to my full pension, but it sounds better than a lot of the alternatives.

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Newspapers and Disruptive Innovation

A few years back a well known internet guru stopped at my newspaper. During conversation he mentioned he was on his way back from a third trip to Harvard University where he had been interviewed for a developing study on the future of newspapers. I’m not going to name names for fear of getting anyone — including myself — in trouble.

The study was being done, I believe, by the business school. One professor there, Clayton Christensen, has made his reputation on theories and practices involving disruptive innovation, the type of invention (social or individual) that slips in under the radar and eventually changes entire industries. The Harvard group had applied their methodologies backwards to railroads, passenger shipping, and mainframe computers. Now they were trying to apply them forward with newspapers.

In our conversation this new media guru said the Harvard guys believed the crossroads for newspapers would come in 3-5 years. By crossroads, he explained, they meant the place where declining readership and revenue intersected with rising costs, essentially making the business of printing a newspaper both unprofitable and unsustainable. He said they believed newspapers were approaching a table-top threshold, where their slightly declining revenue streams and readership rolls would suddenly go off the edge into steep and unstoppable falls.

That conversation occurred in 2006.

Various groups at Harvard have been looking at newspapers for years. In 2002, Professor Clark Gilbert did his doctoral research on how newspapers had failed to meet the challenge of disruptive technology presented by the internet and as a result had already lost the web war.

Gilbert noted that unlike previous industries destroyed by disruptive innovation, newspapers were fully aware the internet posed a challenge or threat. Yet recognizing and responding to the threat didn’t help.

“Threat had motivated action, but it was resulting in an aggressive replication of the newspaper business. Newspapers had spent a ton of money, with little to show for it. In an effort to defend their core market from attack, newspaper companies were missing the new emerging market altogether,” Gilbert said.

“This paradox can be summarized: absent a sense of threat, response to disruptive opportunities is inadequate; but with threat, the fully funded response is too rigid.”

Christensen, the guru of disruptive innovation thinking, explained In his seminal work, “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” why big companies and industries are regularly blindsided by circumstances and competitors that they often don’t deem worthy of their attention until those innovators are eating their stodgy, old counterparts’ lunch.

It wasn’t a happy book. One reviewer said of it: “Ultimately, though, Dilemma concludes there’s not much established companies can do to change their fate. Big-company executives are trapped in a doom cycle. For them, reading Dilemma is as comforting as learning the physics propelling a giant asteroid that’s heading for Earth.”

A few years ago Christensen wrote a follow-up called “The Innovator’s Solution.” He saw it as a kind of penance for the negativity of the first book. He hoped to find the lessons that could be applied to business practices from the entrepreneurs who had made their fortunes off of disruptive innovation.

The crux of the book? The reviewer writes:

One conclusion is that a huge part of innovation comes from looking at a problem the right way. Customers don’t really buy a product, Christensen and Raynor write — they hire a product to do something for them. The authors cite a classic example from a fellow Harvard prof: People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole.

From there, the authors write, the key is to innovate around “circumstances” — why someone buys something — not around products or customers.

This all comes up because of the ongoing bruhaha over Jessica DaSilva and her blogging about plans to blow up the Tampa Trib newsroom. She has been hit with a shit-storm of criticism about being naive, unintelligent or unsuited for work as a journalist. Much of the noise is the same type I heard a few years ago when discussing things like the Harvard study mentioned above. The circumstances are the problem, so rather than innovate around them, lets figure out how can we eliminate them.  And if we can’t eliminate the circumstances, let’s kill those who are a) talking about them or b) suggesting that we embrace and innovate around them.

I was encouraged in the last week or so to see real conversation on multiple fronts regarding how newspapers and journalism will survive within the emerging circumstances. Besides Buzzmachine, good conversations were occurring at Mindy McAdams blog, and many others (like Nick Eaton’s where he is giving readers a first-hand look at the process for change at The Spokesman-Review). It seemed to show that finally newspaper execs are starting to act like they understand that radical change must happen. To me it seems a little late, but there are apparently still lots of journos who want to adopt a wait-and-see stance or believe that our industry can somehow turn back the clock on the rest of the world (and not get steamrolled to oblivion in the process).

Those Harvard business types, the ones who predicted not only what would happen to our industry but when, they say those voices insisting on the status quo are the biggest problem for established industries facing disruptive innovation. The circumstances may be bad (really bad), but it is the curmudgeons who will insure they kill us.

So here we stand (or perhaps we are already falling and don’t even know it yet). The newspaper industry (and its millions of employees) are either tripping on the brink or already over the edge. There is no point complaining about the cliff. There is no help in not looking over. We won’t be saved by denying the inevitable. What we need now is to invent wings.

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Apologies from a nooblogger

Turns out I hadn’t unchecked all the boxes that force comments to await moderation. Apologies to those who posted and never saw their comments appear. They were apparently awaiting my moderation. Ironic. Fixed now.


Blowing Up The Tampa Trib

Layoffs and a major reorganization are happening at The Tampa Tribune. Jeff Jarvis blogged about it at his site. An intern there recorded the newsroom announcement and comments were posted at Mindy McAdams site.

Here is some of what she had to say:

Do you know about the reorganization they’re doing here at the Trib? They herded everyone into a conference room today to tell them about 21 layoffs that will happen tomorrow (effective immediately) and a new reorganization of the newsroom’s hierarchy. [Update: The newspaper said it will lay off 11 newsroom staffers this week and eliminate 10 other news jobs “by early fall.”]
It’s going to be like this:
Managing editors
5-6 audience editors — keep in touch with what the print, TV, online audiences want/need
5 sections of reporting (all the reporters for print, TV and Web are mashed up together in these groups):
Deadline — for breaking/daily news
Data — specifically for database stuff
Watchdog — for investigative reporting
Personal journalism — stuff for people’s every day lives like weather, health, entertainment
Grassroots — citizen journalism

Outside of these groups are three “finishing” groups for print, TV and online to determine what stories should be covered and with what medium.
All the reporters will be trained in gathering news for online in case there’s a need for it. They’ll be training them on the go. The focus will now be on immediacy and using mediums appropriately. The print product is going to be more enterprise and in-depth, the Web is for breaking news, etc.

How unfortunate newspapers didn’t wake up and see the future while they were still largely profitable. Even minor changes in print products often lead to significant circulation adjustments. If the new product works, over time, then the audience comes back. There is no time now, nor margin for error. Newspapers are showing up late to their own wake and asking someone to please change the suit on the corpse.

I applaud what they are trying to do at the Tampa Trib. Their coverage concept looks pretty good. I guess we will all be watching to see if it works out. But the hard choices and the radical changes should have been happening 5 years ago. Guys like Tim Porter were talking about blowing up the newsroom an internet age ago (Jan. 18, 2005 for the linked post). Tim left the San Francisco Examiner as an AME to try and wake up newspapers to the coming changes. Now when people are finally ready to listen to the ideas he has been voicing since 2001, he is freelancing as a photographer and writer. His thoughtful blog on new directions for newspaper journalism has been mothballed. The mortgage must be paid.

Where were the balls in newsrooms when they were needed? Why weren’t newspapers making these tough decisions when they had the ability to choose? So now you got out of that ratty, old three-piecer and into a Hawaiian shirt and Dockers. You’re still dead.

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EPIC 2014(5)

In late 2005 a colleague showed a flash video that had popped up online. Called “EPIC 2015,” the piece was a bit of predictive theater by Matt Thompson and Robin Sloan (working for Poynter Institute at the time) about how information technology would evolve. What caught our attention was the opening statement:

In the year 2014 people have access to a breadth and depth of information unimaginable in an earlier age.

Everyone contributes in some way.

Everyone participates to create a living, breathing mediascape. However, the Press, as you know it, has ceased to exist. The Fourth Estate’s fortunes have waned. 20th Century news organizations are an after-thought, a lonely remnant of a not too distant past.

The video (made in 2004) is amazing and, for those under age 55 in the newspaper business, rather frightening. The newspaper I was at then was in the process of focused self-examination. So my colleague and a few of us started passing around the link for the video. It wasn’t that we bought it chapter and verse, it was — at least for me — that its concepts resonated with my vague ideas of the online future. Most salient was the description of Google’s algorithms searching stories and then linking them to readers based on what people post and consume in cyberspace. To me it seemed a logical destination from how newspaper reading was transitioning to internet news consumption.

So we showed to some in the newsroom. Can you guess the reaction? A lot of people got angry — at us. The boss told us to stop showing the video, sending its link or even discussing it with co-workers. We were not being constructive, we were told. We were not part of the solution. We were the problem.

Here we are a little more than three years later. The concept of tailored news seems ever more prescient. The idea of newspapers ceasing to publish — at least in print — ever more likely. A few US papers have already pulled the plug on their presses. The vaunted NY Times has reported massive revenue declines, initiated layoffs and has a stagnating online audience — and they are better off than many others. “Epic’s” prediction of the gray lady becoming a “newsletter for the elite and elderly” seems a snarky backhand — in the NTDF (not too distant future) this bastion of mass media journalism can’t compete online.

At the paper where I helped circulate “Epic 2015,” change has only just begun. It took a epoch in internet years for it to move from thinking about change to actually attempting to change, but hey it took a long time to turn the Titanic, too.

They sort of hint at that in the little film, as well:

“In 2011, the slumbering Fourth Estate awakes to make its first and final stand,” the narrator says. Three years later “the press as we know it no longer exists.”

I wonder what would have happened to the Titanic if, when the lookout shouted “iceberg ahead,” the captain had responded with an angry: “Shut up, you’re scaring the passengers.”

Wait a minute, we do know what happened.

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