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Archive for February, 2009

This will be my column for The Gazette (now appearing on Mondays):

Journalists should experience the glare of media attention now and then.

We’ve had the tables turned on us the past couple weeks at the Gazette Co. Journalists who are used to asking the tough questions and deciding what news and facts were most important have fielded inquiries from television and print reporters. We’ve watched and read news reports and blogs with uncomfortable facts, annoying errors and snarky viewpoints.

As the editor who took on an unfamiliar title and delivered some bad news to people who lost their jobs, I spent much of the time in the spotlight.

The media attention began the week before our job reductions, when KGAN got wind of changes taking place at The Gazette and focused on us in a weeklong series on turmoil in the newspaper business. I noted some of the TV report’s errors right away in my blog, though I won’t belabor them here and didn’t blog about all the errors they made. I hope and believe that our staff members identify themselves better in approaching people for interviews and check their facts better. I hope and believe we provide better context and depth in our reporting.

But the fact is, KGAN smoked out the story that something was up at The Gazette and I give them credit for that.

When we started giving employees the unfortunate news Tuesday that some of them were losing their jobs, the glare intensified. I fielded inquiries from the Associated Press, Des Moines Register, three different KGAN staff members and IowaIndependent.com (and I might be leaving out a media outlet or two).

My boss, Gazette Co. President and CEO Chuck Peters, announced late in the day that I would be leading our new operation to develop content independent of specific products. While my organization will include most of the staff of what used to be The Gazette’s newsroom, I will no longer hold the title of Editor. That title goes now to Lyle Muller, a leader on our staff for the past 22 years. We will work closely together, my staff providing news, information, photos, videos and other content and Lyle leading efforts to use some of that content to produce an outstanding newspaper.

Chuck, Lyle and I responded to 37 questions and comments Wednesday in a live chat with the public at GazetteOnline. We received more than two times as many questions as we had time to answer. Many were skeptical or downright hostile.

As I announced Tuesday night in my blog, my new title is Information Content Conductor. I won’t repeat here the explanation I gave in the blog for the title. But here’s the central reason for changing the title: Editor is a role focused on a packaged product, a newspaper (Lyle’s role). My role is going to focus on generating content independently of packaged products. It’s a huge change for this business and a new title, even a title that sounds strange, sends an important message to our staff that we are serious about change.  A journalist doesn’t relinquish the title editor lightly, but I felt I had to.

My new title was mocked by Iowa Independent Managing Editor Chase Martyn, who accused us of “gimmickry” (a fair criticism, even if we disagree) and “shortsighted planning” (a conclusion drawn without a single inquiry about our planning). Martyn wondered whether my designation comes with a funny hat (not yet, but I wouldn’t rule it out; we are saying this start-up venture will require us to wear multiple hats).

That blog was mild compared to the diatribe by former staff member Josh Linehan, who left voluntarily before last week’s staff cuts. Linehan proclaimed himself to have more guts than his former bosses, whom he didn’t name but described as charlatans, idiots and liars, though he never had the guts to voice these views face to face to me when he was here. And his self-righteous commitment to the truth didn’t extend so far as to call or email me to check his facts. He also wondered how we sleep at night, without bothering to do the research to see that the question had been answered.

Of course, the media glare isn’t all uncomfortable. Arizona State University journalism professor Tim McGuire cheered me on in his blog, agreeing that our industry has to innovate more seriously than we have so far.

I don’t particularly like the spotlight. I’d rather be the one asking questions and stating opinions. So here’s a question: Would we really be innovative if we didn’t face some skepticism? And here’s an opinion: After we succeed, the skeptics will adopt our approach (if they’re still in the business), but they won’t admit they were wrong.

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While I’m suggesting a way to save this year’s American Society of Newspaper Editors convention, I’ll go a step further and suggest how to save two organizations of editors: ASNE and the Associated Press Managing Editors should join forces.

I don’t know the details of the history of the organizations, but ASNE and APME have been redundant for as long as I can remember. From where I sat, editors who vigilantly stamped out redundancies in newspaper copy have carefully protected it in their organizations because that meant both the editor (or executive editor) and the managing editor both got to have a convention junket during the year.

ASNE, formed in 1922, was once so exclusive that you had to answer a series of questions that verified that the buck stopped with you in your newsroom. APME came along 11 years later, also for senior editors but accepting those on the next-to-top rung. So for decades the top two editors in most newsrooms each had a convention to attend each year and everyone ignored the obvious fact that both conventions were dealing with the same issues: journalism ethics, public service, diversity, training, changing technology and timely issues that came and went.

That was great when newspapers were making high profits. I enjoyed gatherings of both organizations, four ASNE conventions and APME meetings in at least four states (APME has a stronger presence at the state level; I was president briefly in North Dakota and I think I just agreed to serve on the Iowa APME board, though the conversation was pretty informal). Over time, the organizations became hardly distinguishable at all to those of us in newsrooms across the country.

ASNE’s current membership requirements are nearly the same as APME’s. Both organizations serve mostly the same purposes for mostly the same people. And both organizations have too many members looking at our budgets and our to-do lists and deciding we can’t afford the money or the time to attend their expensive conventions.

So here’s a suggestion: Merge the two organizations. Follow my suggestion for a virtual ASNE convention this year. Find some foundation support to subsidize registration and travel for this year’s APME convention in St. Louis (not yet canceled, but stay tuned). Plan a low-cost joint convention in 2010 (maybe a weekend instead of nearly a full week). Continue those state meetings that really help far more editors than either organization’s national meetings.

And continue helping us be better leaders for our news staffs. ASNE and APME should show us how to adapt and survive, not how to die.

Update: Tim McGuire supports this call for a merger and provides first-hand knowledge about background, including links to a 2008 Jerry Ceppos piece for Poynter (I’ll be seeing Jerry this weekend at an API ethics seminar in Reno) and a 2000 ASNE reporter piece on discussions then, as well as a Steve Smith blog post on ASNE’s convention cancellation.

Seriously, put aside the rivalries and obstacles. Join forces and help this industry adapt.

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I was disappointed but not surprised when the American Society of Newspaper Editors decided today to cancel this year’s convention.

Few editors or their organizations could afford the time or money to attend the gathering scheduled for Chicago in late April — still on my calendar because I forgot to delete it before leaving work. I planned to attend, even if I had to go from my own pocket (and even if I’ve taken on a new role that doesn’t have editor in the title).  

I was more disappointed with ASNE’s weak promise to keep serving editors at the most difficult time the industry has faced in my career. By simply canceling the convention, ASNE practically tells us that it was just a big party anyway. I enjoyed the party. I enjoyed the speeches by politicians (Senators Obama, McCain and Clinton addressed last year’s convention and President Obama was on tap this year.) But I wanted to go to share and hear advice on facing our shared challenges. Leaders of the nation’s newsrooms need help now more than ever.

The list of woes is pretty familiar: The Rocky Mountain News published its final edition the same day ASNE announced it was cancelling. Philadelphia Newspapers and Journal Register had filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy within the past week. And right here in Cedar Rapids, we eliminated 14 journalists’ jobs at Gazette Communications and announced a reduction in our company’s workforce of about 110 jobs since before last June’s flood.

ASNE can’t give up now. Maybe the editors don’t have the money or time to come to Chicago to party and listen to political speeches. But we have to join forces to support each other and to resist the sucking sound of the drain.

I don’t say this to criticize my ASNE friends and colleagues. When I was at the American Press Institute in Reston, Va., I worked right down the hall from the ASNE offices. My wife, Mimi, worked at ASNE for more than a year (and for two of their conventions). I consider several ASNE staff and leaders to be friends. Others that I don’t know as well are colleagues whom I admire. I’m in my second hitch as an ASNE member and I’ve attended the last four conventions. I have trained journalists in the newsroom of ASNE President Charlotte Hall, editor of the Orlando Sentinel. She provided helpful information for a presentation I made when I was at API, and she provided support when The Gazette was resisting restrictions on our rights to liveblog at Iowa Hawkeye football games.

So I am not a critic piling on when ASNE is down. I am Bluto in “Animal House,” shouting to my friends, “Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?” As Bluto said, nothing is over until we say it is.

Hall’s announcement of the canceled convention said ASNE would “increase reliance on the Web to help editors share what they are learning as they reinvent their news organizations for multiple platforms.” Promising some webinars and email newsletters is not exactly a rallying cry.

We can’t cancel this convention. Let’s just cancel the party in Chicago. Let’s gather electronically and wrestle with the issues that threaten our industry and share our most innovative ideas.

Here’s what we should do: Editors (and perhaps the occasional conductor) around the country who are trying something new or have some ideas to share should volunteer to lead (or contribute to) live chats on the issues. The ASNE convention is a lot of panel discussions anyway. We can do that online and probably tackle some thornier issues, maybe even a broader range of issues. ASNE can develop a wiki where people suggest topics for colleagues to cover or offer to address topics. Members can vote on the topics we most want to learn about and we can connect digitally to discuss the issues for two or three hours a day during convention week (maybe we can do it for two weeks, since we don’t need to worry about hotel rates).  

I’ll offer to lead or contribute to discussions on any or all of four topics: Leading your staff into the Twittersphere; journalism ethics in social networks; liveblogging as stories unfold and reorganizing to separate content generation from product management. I’ll pull together links to various materials for people to read before or after the discussion. I’ll host the live chat and lead the discussion (or collaborate with another colleague or two).

And I’ll join discussions colleagues want to launch on other topics. Tell us what you’re trying, especially if you’re having some success. I’ll jump online to ask questions, applaud risks and offer encouragement.

All the editors who were planning to attend the Chicago convention, as well as those who made the tough call to stay home, have great war stories about how they and their staffs succeeded in getting the big breaking story in the face of obstacles. Those are the war stories we would be telling in the Chicago bar. It wouldn’t even take one beer to get me started about how we covered the flood.

We need to use that same damn-the-obstacles approach to the convention. Let’s gather in a virtual convention center, even if we can’t gather in the bar afterwards.

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Meant to do this Wednesday, but I’ve been busy. Here’s the live chat I had at GazetteOnline Wednesday with Gazette Co. Chuck Peters and new Gazette Editor Lyle Muller about the changes we’ve made here.

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Twitter is not just some cute Internet fad.

It is an essential reporting tool and if you don’t use it routinely and smartly in your reporting, you sometimes aren’t going to get all of the story. It’s that simple. Recent flying emergencies prove this beyond question: (more…)

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I can think of few jobs as exciting or as important (to me) as being editor of a newspaper. I was so delighted to get the job as editor of The Gazette that it seems weird to give it up. Voluntarily, even.

My wife, Mimi, knows how much I loved being editor. My colleague Mary Sharp, The Gazette’s longtime Iowa Editor, knows what the title means to a career journalist. I had nearly identical conversations recently with each of them. “But that’s what you came here to do,” each of them told me, in nearly identical words, in separate conversations about the fact that I would be relinquishing that title.

No, I responded. I didn’t come here to edit the Gazette. I came here to help transform this organization and the newspaper business. I can do that better by leaving behind the entrenched titles, structures and thinking of a business that I love. So now I take on a new job and a new title: Information Content Conductor.

As I have reported before in this blog, Gazette Communications is splitting content creation from the making of products. Lyle Muller, the new Gazette editor, and I will explain this change further in the coming weeks in our columns and blogs.

With Mary’s assistance, I will lead an organization that will seek new ways to develop content that is richer, deeper and more meaningful than is allowed by the limitations of our products. Lyle and other colleagues will work to continue serving our community with excellent products using content from my organization and others.

We will share details as we fill positions in both of these new organizations and finish realigning our company in the coming weeks.

But let me tell you this much about our plans: My new title sounds odd at first (yes, to this old editor, too), but each word tells you something about what we are doing:

Information. We will continue providing factual, independent news and information for the community. While the tasks, presentation and means of delivery will change, integrity and truth will remain the core of everything we do.

Content. The kind of content we provided in the newspaper was pretty simple when I started my journalism career in 1971: stories, columns, editorials, lists and photographs. Graphics became a big deal in the 1980s. The future of content is far more diverse: all that as well as databases, videos, audio, slideshows, text messages, blogs, tweets, interactive multimedia, comments, questions, live chats, interactive maps and more that we can’t yet imagine.

Conductor. As much as I have loved the title editor, it doesn’t describe what I will be doing. Maybe the title will change someday, because I know the work will change as this organization and my job evolve. But for now, conductor seems the most accurate term. As a musical conductor does, I will be orchestrating the work of creative people. As a railroad conductor does, I will interact with the public to provide an orderly, satisfying experience. As an electrical conductor does, I need to carry energy in the staff and the community.

I wish that we were launching this new venture in a thriving economy with a larger staff. But the economic challenges that forced us to reduce our staff this week underscore the necessity of transformation.

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In the first 37 years of my journalism career, the worst day was July 24, 1992. That was the day I was fired. The publisher of the Minot Daily News called me into her office and told me I was no longer the editor.

The proudest day of my journalism career was June 12, 2008. That was the day the flood surged through Cedar Rapids. Less than a month ago, I nominated our staff in several categories for the Pulitzer Prize for their outstanding journalism in covering the flood under difficult circumstances that day and in the months since.

Tuesday was worse than the day I got fired. It was the day I had to tell 13 colleagues they would no longer work at The Gazette (another got that unfortunate news Wednesday). These were many of the same colleagues responsible for my proudest day. Every one of them deserves a job with this company. Every one of them deserves a job somewhere in journalism or somewhere in this community. But Tuesday I had to tell them they no longer had jobs here.

I am not asking for sympathy, just stating facts. Save your sympathy for my colleagues and friends (I hope we’re still friends, but I understand if we’re not) who are worrying about how to pay their mortgages and feed their families. Save your sympathy for my colleagues and friends who wonder if they will ever work again in this profession they love. Save your sympathy for your colleagues and friends who have lost their jobs at so many other companies in our community.

The nation was starting to show signs of economic trouble when I came to work at The Gazette two days before the flood. The real estate market was already slumping so severely that my wife, Mimi, and I did not even bother trying to sell our condominium in Virginia (we’re thankful to have a renter).

The newspaper industry was slumping, too. Newspapers have succeeded in drawing large audiences as people move online for news and information. But advertising rates online are nowhere near as strong as in print and newspapers haven’t done a good job of developing other revenue streams from the digital marketplace.

I came to Gazette Communications because I saw this as a company that was committed to transforming to meet the challenges of the digital age. We are doing that and I believe we will succeed and prosper. My next post (coming later tonight) will explain some of those changes further, including my new role. I believe we will eventually grow and provide new jobs for journalists.

The events of the past nine months have deepened the challenges facing this company: The flood had a severe economic impact on our community and our advertisers; credit markets melted down, plunging the nation into our greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression; the newspaper industry’s decline accelerated, with two companies seeking bankruptcy protection in the past week; newsprint prices continued to soar.

The decisions we carried out Tuesday in the newsroom I lead and throughout Gazette Communications were inevitable and unavoidable. Employees own stock in this company and they knew the financial figures that forced this week’s decisions. They had, in fact, been expecting the cuts for weeks. Some departments were already cutting staff in smaller numbers as they reorganized, a few here, a few there. We have been, and after these cuts continue to be, larger than most comparable newspaper companies. Everyone knew that our current revenues couldn’t continue to support that workforce.

But knowing the cuts were coming and knowing they were necessary didn’t soften the blow.

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When I started in the newspaper business, “local news” often meant who was sick and who was visiting.

My first job as a journalist was at The Evening Sentinel, a daily newspaper of about 4,000 circulation in Shenandoah, Iowa, that went out of publication in the 1990s. I was a sports writer, covering the school teams in nearby towns even smaller than “Shen.”

Chuck Offenburger, the sports editor, and I filled some space in the back of the paper with game stories and features on local athletes. The front page reported big (for Shen) news such as the city council and school board actions and an occasional crime or court case. But the heart of the newspaper was what we called the “locals,” a string of one-paragraph tidbits giving updates on someone’s illness or telling whose kids were visiting from college or from the distant big cities where lots of Shen’s kids moved off to (and if you were in Shen, Cedar Rapids and Iowa City were big cities). (more…)

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Update: I spoke by telephone and direct message this evening with April Samp, news director at KGAN/KFXA. She doesn’t think she misrepresented herself in her interview request. I will concede that Twitter doesn’t allow many words for a detailed interview request, so maybe it was more a matter of poor communication rather than misrepresentation (but I’m not hard to reach by email either). I’ll also stress that nothing in her Twitter profile identified the organization that was asking for the interview. She told me that her Twitter stream makes frequent references to KGAN and that she would be easy to find on Google. All true, but when you ask for an interview, the obligation is on you to identify yourself and your purpose. The person asking for an interview shouldn’t have to research to figure out who you are. (Perhaps I should have done some of that research before blogging, though.) April also told me that she responded by BlackBerry to my Twitter message that gave her a couple of possible interview times, saying that they wanted to do the interview at one of the times I suggested. But her Twitter direct message log confirms that the message didn’t go out. And since I never confirmed that we were on for an interview, we never had an interview set, as KGAN reported. So I am comfortable in saying that the original report on KGAN was inaccurate. The story I just watched on the 10 p.m. newscast was at least accurate. So I thank KGAN for correcting the report. But I didn’t hear any acknowledgment that they were wrong in the 6 p.m. newscast or the original web report, so I feel comfortable standing by my original blog post, which follows.

KGAN apparently misrepresented itself to me in an interview request last night and reported falsely about me to the public today.

Here are the details:

I received a direct message on Twitter late Monday evening (Feb. 16) from someone identified on Twitter only as @aprilsamp. The message asked: “Are you available for sit down interview on Tuesday re: future of newspaper biz? If not, can you have someone else do an interview?” (more…)

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Live chat with Steve Buttry

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Bad judgment is bad judgment.

Journalists have said stupid things in print and on television and that didn’t mean those media presented ethical problems for journalist. Journalists have said stupid things to sources in person, in emails and on the telephone and that doesn’t mean journalists should avoid using email, telephones or face-to-face conversations. Journalists will also say stupid things on Twitter or other social networks. When they do, the problem is the stupid thing you said, not the platform you used to say it.

(Before I go further, I should say that the “stupid things” someone said in the examples that follow involve foul language that I don’t use in this blog. Click the links below if foul language doesn’t bother you.)

A Twitter exchange that appears to be between National Post technology reporter David George-Cosh and marketing consultant April Dunford has drawn a stir on the Internet. (The Twitter feed identified as George-Cosh’s in accounts of the dustup indicates that someone might have hacked his feed.) (more…)

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This is a handout I use in Upholding and Updating Ethical Standards, an American Press Institute seminar underwritten by the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation. It doesn’t attempt to provide all the answers, but to ask a lot of questions for journalists and news organizations to consider as they use social networks for valid journalistic pursuits. I offer these questions for my staff and other journalists to consider. We will be discussing these issues in greater depth among our staff.

Social networks are a rapidly growing part of society and communication and journalists and news organizations need to connect with them as we gather content and build audience for our products. We also need to keep ethics in mind as we operate in this swiftly changing world. If you are an editor, you need to discuss with your staff members how they are using social networks and what standards and issues you think are important in dealing with networks. If you are a staff member, you need to tell your editors how you are using social networks and discuss any questions you might have about policies and boundaries. Some questions and guidelines to consider:

Consider everything public. Even though social-networking sites generally allow you some control over who sees your contributions, you should regard everything you post online as public. Some of your “friends” could pass along what you have posted. Once you post anything even to a closed network, you lose control of it. (more…)

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