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Archive for March, 2009

Journalists who covered Hurricane Katrina, the 2008 Eastern Iowa floods and the Parkersburg tornado will share their experience at a seminar in Davenport next month.

The Mid-America Press Institute‘s “Covering natural disasters” seminar starts Friday, April 17, at the Radisson Quad City Plaza Hotel in Davenport.

Mizell Stewart III, editor of the Evansville (Ind.) Courier & Press, who helped the Sun Herald in Biloxi, Miss., cover the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, will be the keynote speaker on April 17. David Purdy, a former Sun Herald photographer, will be one of the speakers on the final day, April 19.

I will be one of three Gazette journalists who will talk on Saturday, April 18, about what we learned in covering last year’s floods. I will lead an exercise on disaster coverage in the digital age. Mary Sharp, who led our breaking coverage and the flood team that cotinues to cover issues relating to disaster coverage, will discuss the continuing watchdog responsibility. Zack Kucharski, leader of the Gazette Communications data team, will discuss IowaFloodStories and other databases we developed in our flood coverage.

James Wilkerson of the Des Moines Register will join Zack to discuss databases, including the Register’s Parkersburg tornado map. Nancy Newhoff of the Waterloo Courier will discuss coverage of both the tornado and the flooding, which hit her coverage area less than three weeks apart.

Bruce Shapiro, executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma, will close the seminar April 19 with a discussion of how journalists can deal with the personal toll of disaster coverage.

Other speakers will be The Gazette’s Cecelia Hanley (discussing coverage of a tornado when she was in Evansville), Mark Ridolfi of the Quad City Times, Christine Martin of the Southwest Indiana Disaster Resistant Community Corp., and Dee Bruemmer and Col. Robert Sinkler of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Register by email, phone (217-273-5812) or fax the flier below (217-581-2923). Registration is $50 for members ($40 for the second person from a member paper) and $75 ($65 for the second person) for non-members. Make your hotel reservation at 563-322-2200 by this Friday, April 3.

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When my wife, Mimi, and I moved to Cedar Rapids last June, we were planning to explore and enjoy the fun places of Eastern Iowa.

This photo of the Blackhawk Bridge in Lansing, Iowa, was submitted by Diana Johnson, who explains in her comment on the blog.

This photo of the Blackhawk Bridge in Lansing, Iowa, was submitted by Diana Johnson, who explains in her comment on the blog.

This is my Monday column for The Gazette:

 

 

We knew western Iowa well from years living in Shenandoah, Essex and Omaha. We knew central Iowa well from years living in Des Moines. But Eastern Iowa was mostly a place we drove through, long ago a place to visit some relatives and occasionally a place to cover news.

Beyond the well-known attractions (we had been to the Amanas and Field of Dreams and were planning to visit the National Czech and Slovak Museum), we planned on getting to know the quirky cultural attractions, the pretty lakes and the small-town diners of Eastern Iowa. (more…)

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I’m sitting in this morning on a session led by George Stanley, managing editor of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, as part of the American Press Institute’s seminar, “The New Newsroom,” at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. Since I had a glitch on the liveblog in CoverItLive, I will just update this frequently.

George is talking about the value of breaking news online, taking back from broadcast the advantage of immediacy that they used to have. Each participant has a large sheet of paper from an easel pad and some markers. He’s taking a flood story (Wisconsin had bad floods the same week as Cedar Rapids last year) and asking how their organization would cover it today.

Here’s the news scenario: It’s 6:31 a.m. Flood has been building for several days. Dam breaks and lake floods main highway into town. First scanner reports say cops are heading to highway to see what’s going on. Questions for participants: How would you learn about the story, how would you gather information, how would you report it?

About 6:50 a.m., state announces it’s closing the highway. Stanley asks participants how they would respond (if they would know about the story yet).

It’s flood day at API. I’ll talk briefly about the Cedar Rapids flood experience in my afternoon presentation and George is using the Journal Sentinel’s flood experience in his exercise. Meanwhile, Fargo’s trying to hold back the Red River.

Back to the exercise: About 15 minutes later, state announces detour on Interstate highway, adding two hours to a normal trip. Lake has emptied into the river. Three houses were washed away. No known injuries or fatalities yet. Car has been found swamped near the highway. No people visible in the car, but a dog is in the car.

Now photos start coming in. Amateur videographer has video of house being washed downstream.

Now a state transportation official says the flood caused major structural damage to the highway and no one is sure how long it will be closed. Stanley asks with each development what your organization would do, how this would change your workflow.

Reporter has found a database on dams in the state. Would need help from another reporter to find important information in it today. How would this change workflow? Stanley asks people to think about the morning news meeting, how that would work.

Here’s the Journal Sentinel’s gallery of photos and videos from the flood. Pretty dramatic stuff. Stanley is showing some of these clips and shots on the screen.

While looking for the flood visuals, I found this directory to the Journal Sentinel’s special projects. Stanley says they have undertaken these investigations even while cutting the staff, and they are hearing more appreciation from the community than at any time in his career. Here’s the point: Investigative journalism matters. It makes a difference and we can still do quality investigative journalism even in difficult times. And we have to.

People have spent about 15 minutes in teams, discussing how they would cover this flood. They’re about ready to debrief, so I’ll be writing some more.

One group is talking about using ad reps to field all the media calls and providing room for visiting media working the story. (Sounds familiar: We got lots of media calls during our flood, but with power outage, we didn’t have anyone wanting to use our facilities.) George is talking about the value of interacting with the national media, so they can drive traffic to your site.

Alright! This group talks about connecting with the audience through Twitter and Facebook to contact sources. These are invaluable crowdsourcing tools. Cory Powell of Star Tribune notes that going to Twitter and Facebook is not yet an “instinctive move” in his organization. They would be on the story, though, because they have a reporter starting at 5 a.m. and another at 7.

Powell says commute is bad in Twin Cities by 7, so this would be a huge story that they would be all over. (Of course, highway disaster stories aren’t hypothetical for Twin Cities. Remember “13 Seconds in August.”

Now people are talking about getting access to helicopter or airplane for shooting aerials. I’m guessing most companies don’t have their CEO fly the plane, as we did.

Another participant notes that his site couldn’t handle the web traffic.

John Dye of Green Bay says you do say “Web first,” but still think primarily about the next day’s paper. You need to ask, “Are you really focusing on the here and the now?”

Stanley says flow charts look very different. “Editor has to push it and set up the environment. There’s no way you can come up with all the ideas.” That is so true. Newsroom leader’s biggest job is enabling the creativity and talent of the staff.

Now we’re talking about posting directly online. Stanley talks about how important it is to make sure staff understand law and ethics if they are posting directly online. Now a participant is noting that when journalists know they aren’t being edited, they take more responsibility for their copy.

Stanley says 15-16 months ago, when staff was 25 percent bigger than today, “we couldn’t have done this story worth a damn.” They would have done a great job for morning paper, but would have learned about the story on the radio on their way to work.

Stanley notes how radio and TV are tied to their broadcast schedules and larger, swift news staff working online and thinking online can lead the way and “be of greater service to our community.”

With all the competition we have today, “we have to earn our customers,” Stanley says. “We have to be useful. We have to be relevant to their lives.”

Task force helped reshape how the Journal Sentinel newsroom worked. “It wasn’t all coming from the editor or the managing editor. It was coming from the people in the newsroom.”

As the Journal Sentinel changed the way it worked, “the metabolism of the whole newsroom sped up,” Stanley says. Use of the task force, rather than working hierarchically, just “blows away any office politics … You can bust through those walls.”

Stanley explaining how “breaking news hub” works in Journal Sentinel newsroom.

They don’t report directly from scanner, but confirm quickly. They immediately send out tweets and seek people with direct knowledge of breaking event. Asking for photos, video, what people want to know about event. Reporter also scans Twitter for tweets about the flooding.

Stanley: “As soon as the state posted its detour, we realized it was a ridiculous detour.” It was set up for interstate truckers and added 2 hours to commute. So J-S crowdsourced the task of suggesting better detours. “Talk about becoming the place they’re going  to go to … They’re going to love you for it.”

By the time rush hour hit peak, Stanley says, Journal Sentinel was blowing all the competition out of the water. Then shifting to enterprise (databases, interactive maps, etc.).

In current Journal Sentinel newsroom, they can’t afford to spend as many resources as they used to dedicate to preparing the print edition. People have to be generalists now.

Stanley handouts include Jill Geisler’s Poynter piece about task force and breaking news hub.

We’re breaking for lunch now. And I’m the afternoon discussion leader, so I won’t be liveblogging that.

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I’ll liveblogged briefly today from API’s seminar, “The New Newsroom” from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. I encountered a glitch and stopped after a while. I will post a single account of the second morning session, led by George Stanley of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Here’s what I did live from Mary Glick’s opening session, if you’re interested:

API New Newsroom Seminar

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Updated with BeatBlogging Q&A:

The transformation we are undertaking at Gazette Communications continues to draw attention:

Those are new developments. These are other links I posted recently:

As I wrote in an earlier post, all of this means nothing but ego stroking and eventual embarrassment if we don’t deliver in the executing of our plans. Lots of people in the newspaper industry have been wrong about a lot of things before. You could compile many more links than this of people eloquently making the case that news web sites need to charge for their content. And the fact that you could find a lot of them wouldn’t change the fact that they’re all wrong.

But I am encouraged that a lot of people I respect think we’re on the right track. And I’ll keep sharing those links if they keep writing.

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As the Red River rises in North Dakota, Eastern Iowans are watching closely.

Cedar Rapids has tried to learn lessons in flood recovery and flood control from Grand Forks, N.D., which was devastated by 1997 flooding. Now Fargo and Grand Forks are facing the worst floods up there since 1997.

You can keep tabs on the flooding through a variety of Twitter feeds, hashtags and other searches: (more…)

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I spend a lot of my time involved with digital communication – blogs, tweets and multimedia. But occasionally I have to lose myself in an old-fashioned book.

I recently finished Tallgrass by Sandra Dallas and will start soon on Harper Lee‘s classic novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. I could read them digitally if I could pry the Kindle away from my wife, Mimi. But sometimes it’s good to just stretch out with a good book and turn some actual pages.

I’m participating in the annual Linn Area Reads program of the Metro Library Network. People are encouraged to read these two books and participate in a series of programs reflecting on them. We started with a March visit from Sandra Dallas, author of Tallgrass, March 1 at Theatre Cedar Rapids. I hadn’t read the book when she visited (wish I had), but I finished it last week.

Related programs continued Saturday at Collins Road Theater with a screening of the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird. I hadn’t seen the movie or read the book in years. I look forward to reading the book again. Usually the movie version of a great book disappoints me. But with this one, you marvel at the storytelling skill of either version.

I’m trying to recall whether specific scenes from the movie were even in the book and how the book treated them. I’m trying to recall whether anyone ever nailed a role better than Gregory Peck did the role of Atticus Finch.

Organizers of Linn Area Reads picked the two novels because of their similarities. Each book examines racial prejudice in a small town: Tallgrass is set in southeastern Colorado during World War II outside an internment camp for American citizens of Japanese heritage, relocated from California in one of our nation’s most shameful episodes; Mockingbird examines racial injustice in Alabama in the 1930s.

The books had other parallels: Each is told through the eyes of a young girl (Rennie in Tallgrass, Scout in Mockingbird); each girl’s father is the moral rock of the story, standing strong against bigotry; each book examines other prejudices (against unwed mothers and people with mental disabilities).

Jim Kern of Brucemore will lead a discussion of those similarities Thursday, April 9, at Barnes & Noble. I need to finish Mockingbird by then. Wouldn’t want to comment on parallels between the scenes where the fathers stand up to potential lynch mobs if the Mockingbird scene was in the movie but not the book.

A “Buseum” traveling exhibit of “Held in the Heartland,” about German prisoner-of-war camps in the Midwest, will come to the Westdale Mall parking lot Tuesday, March 31. Linn Area Reads will conclude with a “Stage to Page” discussion with cast members of the Classics at Brucemore production of To Kill a Mockingbird. The discussion will be Friday, May 8, at 6 p.m. at Marion Public Library. The play opens July 9. 

I will moderate and The Gazette will sponsor a “Race in America” panel discussion Thursday, April 23, at 7 p.m. at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art.

I’d be interested in hearing how you view racial issues in our country and in our community. In the 1930s era when Mockingbird was set or in 1960, when it was published, it would have been impossible to imagine an African-American president. We have come a long way. But I receive too many emails and letters loaded with overt or subtle racism to think that one election wiped away centuries of bigotry.

Tell me the questions and issues you would like us to address in this panel discussion: If you are a racial or ethnic minority in our community, how do you feel included and excluded? What barriers remain? What opportunities have you had that were denied to your parents? If you are in the majority, how has your understanding of other races grown in recent years? In what matters, if any, do you think that race becomes a false issue?

If we are so fortunate as to have a Harper Lee in our midst today, what issues would she address in a novel that would still touch hearts a half-century later?

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Updated to add @carolynwashburn to list of Twittering editors.

I’m pleased that the American Society of Newspaper Editors is proceeding with a virtual convention.

I suggested such an alternative in a post I wrote Feb. 27, the day ASNE canceled its Chicago convention scheduled for late April. I can’t take credit for the ASNE decision because President Charlotte Hall, editor of the Orlando Sentinel, told me in an email right after I sent her a link to the post that plans were already under way. But I applaud the decision. Tough times are exactly when leaders of news organizations should be sharing ideas and helping each other meet difficult challenges.

ASNE took me up on two offers I made in that Feb. 27 post. I will be leading webinars to teach my fellow editors how to lead their staffs into the Twitterverse (April 7) and how to use liveblogging to cover events as they unfold (April 21). 

 (A couple recent comments on this blog asked who I write for — my peers or the community. The truth is that I write about community issues as well as journalism issues. This particular post is focused on journalism issues. Community members are welcome to read it, but if my focus on journalism issues and my frequent discussions of Twitter annoy you, this would be a good time to click over to some more community-focused content at GazetteOnline.)

I’ll blog soon about liveblogging and seek some advice from editors and from the community on how to use that tool effectively. But right now I want to explain how urgently my colleagues need to learn about Twitter.

I’ve never known a top newspaper editor who didn’t work too hard and love his or her job.

Editors work long hours and then take work home, worrying about matters as diverse as ethics, grammar, revenue and investigative reporting. They believe to their core that they are performing public service and upholding a right so precious that our nation’s founders protected it in the First Amendment. They are working hard at innovating, but they and their staffs are so rooted in what they know that change is slow and difficult.

Only time will tell whether Twitter is a fad or a revolutionary information source whose importance will grow. But for right now, its value for journalism is clear, growing and easily demonstrated. And most top editors don’t use it at all. And most who have Twitter accounts rarely use them.

This is the truth about being a newspaper editor today: The things you learned over decades on your path to the top are not the things that will help you innovate and thrive in the future. Twitter is only an illustration that editors are moving too slowly on the path to innovation.

As promised in a recent post, I searched for leaders of the American Society of Newspaper Editors and the Associated Press Managing Editors who use Twitter. My search might have omitted some who don’t use their actual names or locations in their profiles or some with common names who created a profile but didn’t update more than a few times. I’m confident I found every leader of ASNE or APME who uses Twitter in any significant way under his or her real name. Also, the numbers of followers and updates listed below might be a few days out of date, because I checked a few editors here and there over the last several days.

Of 20 officers and directors of ASNE, only three even had a Twitter presence:

  • Ellen Foley has 33 followers. But I should note that all 21 of her updates came after she resigned in October as editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.
  • ASNE President Charlotte Hall wrote her first Twitter post Monday. She has 52 followers. When I started writing this, she had 29 followers but had not yet given them a single tweet to follow. She’s moving in the right direction. I hope she’ll be in my April 7 audience.
  • John Temple, who was editor and publisher of the Rocky Mountain News when it folded Feb. 27, has 55 followers and one update: one word, “test,” tweeted last July 23. I have not seen a news report that he has a new job yet.

In other words, of 20 ASNE board members, not a single active editor had posted a single tweet at the time they canceled their convention.

Of 16 ASNE committee chairs (including some board members), George Stanley of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and Jennifer Carroll of Gannett (a corporate executive with a digital emphasis who doesn’t lead a newsroom) were the only ASNE committee chairs who were active on Twitter. (I will be collaborating with Stanley in a regional American Press Institute New Newsroom workshop in Eau Claire, Wis., next Friday, March 27.)

Of ASNE board candidates, only Anthony Moor, an online editor for the Dallas Morning News, is active on Twitter. Carlos Sanchez of the Waco Tribune-Herald has 24 followers and no updates. But if he ever does update, you can’t read it unless he lets you follow him because he has protected his updates.

APME’s board is more active on Twitter, but its only members with more than 100 followers or tweets are an editor and a former editor with primary focus on the digital platform. Of 31 APME board members:

  • Jack Lail, news director of innovation at the Knoxville News Sentinel, has 1,066 followers and 2,527 updates (I follow him and recommend following him).
  • Jim Brady, former executive editor of washingtonpost.com, has 550 followers and 107 updates.
  • Randy Lovely of the Arizona Republic has 35 followers and 22 updates.
  • Kathy Best of the Seattle Times has 18 followers, five updates and protects her updates.
  • Bob Heisse of the Centre Daily Times in State College, Pa., has 18 followers and 53 updates.
  • Carole Tarrant of the Roanoke Times has 87 followers and 21 updates.
  • APME Secretary Hollis Towns of the Asbury Park Press has 34 followers and five updates.
  • Andrew Oppmann of the Murfreesboro (Tenn.) Daily News Journal, an executive committee member, has 45 followers and 56 updates.

These aren’t the only top newsroom leaders using Twitter. I will repeat the list from last week’s post at the end of this post.

I should add here that Twitter is far from the only way that an editor can learn about innovation. An editor focused on mastering video or link journalism or user-generated content might feel too swamped to take on Twitter (though it would be helpful in those pursuits). And the leaders of ASNE and APME have taken on national leadership responsibilities in addition to their responsibilities in their newsrooms. They may be the busiest of the busy.

But on some level, Twitter has value as a barometer of how editors are embracing innovation and learning valuable but uncomfortable new tools and techniques. And the simple, undeniable fact is that the leading newsroom leaders are barely using it, let alone learning its value and leading the way in this change.

If you’re an editor who knows you need to catch up in the social media world, please join me for the April 7 webiner “Leading your staff into the Twitterverse.” It’s free for ASNE members. I will try to give you simple and helpful advice. If you’re an editor (or any journalist, but I especially want to hear from top newsroom leaders) who’s already Twittering, please read last week’s post and answer some of the questions I posed there. (Thanks to Andria Krewson of the Charlotte Observer for a detailed, thoughtful response that I will quote in the webinar and in a later blog post.)

ASNE likes panel discussions at its conventions and I am going to try to convene a panel discussion by Twitter. I will recruit some active Twittering editors to tweet some advice to their peers during my webinar, using hashtags. Your advice will show up in my Twitter stream and I will show the participants how to use Twitter search and we will find your advice there, too. I’ll also feed your streams into a CoverItLive liveblog. I will be contacting some editors directly, but if you would like to help, direct-message me on Twitter or email me. 

Here’s that list of top newsroom leaders I know of who are using Twitter (additions welcome; I don’t pretend to know them all). I took out the numbers of followers and updates because the figures I used last week are a week old. The top three are the most active. After that, they are in no particular order. 

  • John Robinson of the News & Record in Greensboro, N.C.
  • Chris Cobler of the Victoria Advocate in Texas.
  • Kirk LaPointe  of the Vancouver Sun.
  • Valerie Casselton of the Vancouver Sun.
  • Gerry Kern of the Chicago Tribune.
  • Melanie Sill of the Sacramento Bee. 
  • Monty Cook of the Baltimore Sun.
  • Rick Thames of the Charlotte Observer.
  • Jeff Thomas of The Gazette in Colorado Springs.
  • Steve Fagan of The Monitor in McAllen, Texas.
  • Marci Caltabiano of the Brownsville Herald.
  • Cyndi Brown of the Daily News in Jacksonville, N.C.
  • Glen Faison of the Porterville Recorder in California.
  • Lyle Muller, my Gazette colleague and successor as editor.
  • Robyn Tomlin of the Wilmington Star News in North Carolina.
  • Alexandra Hayne of the Daily Tribune in Ames, Iowa.
  • Mitch Pugh of the Sioux City Journal in Iowa.
  • Steve Thomas of the Quad-City Times in Davenport, Iowa.
  • John A. Nelson of the Danville Advocate in Kentucky.
  • Bill Watson of the Pocono Record in Pennsylvania.
  • Steve Mullen of the Bakersfield Californian.
  • Bob Davis of the Anniston Star in Alabama.
  • Carolyn Washburn of the Des Moines Register, who started March 25.
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    If you want to follow or help chronicle the progress of flood recovery in Czech Village, spend some time with “It Takes a Village.”

    This multimedia project by Gazette staff members Cindy Hadish, David Miessler-Kubanek and Greg Schmidt shows pictures and reports the status of businesses in the  historic Czech Village area of Cedar Rapids.

    Click on the Bohemian Cafe and Pub or the Red Frog and you’ll see when they reopened (I need to choose one of them for dinner this weekend). Click Zindrick’s and you’ll see that it should be reopening in May. Eight businesses show that they will not be returning and 12 are still undecided. But an encouraging 17 are  either open or planning to reopen.

    While our staff has prepared the basic information, we invite you to help tell the story. If one of these is your business, or if you were a loyal customer, each entry has a place where you can add a comment.

    “It Takes a Village” is part of our continuing effort to tell stories, especially the complex and continuing stories of flood recovery using interactive tools such as multimedia and databases.

    If you haven’t already spent some time clicking through (or adding your information to) IowaFloodStories, I encourage you to spend some time checking property by property for information throughout Cedar Rapids’ flood zone.

    Or check out our projects on the collapse, cleanup and reconstruction of the CRANDIC bridge across the Cedar River; the “Year of the River” series we did last fall, with journalists Orlan Love and Jim Slosiarek canoeing the river; our “Unstoppable Epic Surge” video; or our directory of flood coverage.

    We’ve written a lot of stories and shot a lot of photographs relating to the flood and the recovery. But our staff is demonstrating that we have many other storytelling tools as well.

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    I believe and hope we’re on the right path in the organizational changes we’re making at Gazette Communications. We’re getting some positive attention in the industry:

    All of this means nothing but ego stroking and eventual embarrassment if we don’t deliver in the executing of our plans. But a lot of people whose insights about innovation and journalism I respect think we’re on the right track. I find that encouraging.

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    Update: Ken Doctor’s blog Content Bridges notes one of the most intriguing aspects of the SeattlePI.com plan: Aggregating regional advertising opportunities for business.

    Rest in peace, Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

    When I was in Des Moines in 1982 and in Kansas City in 1990, I saw the deaths of two newspapers, the Des Moines Tribune and the Kansas City Times. So when I was unemployed in 1992, I applied all over the country, except in cities that had two newspapers.

    I love the mountains, so Denver and Seattle were two cities I would have enjoyed working in. But I didn’t apply at either, because I didn’t want to be around when one of the newspapers died. Both cities had joint-operating agreements that kept the second newspaper alive a lot longer than I anticipated back in 1992.

    In both Des Moines and Kansas City, the two newspapers were operated by the same company, so JOA’s were not an issue. The companies could see the duplication involved in dual staffs and the efficiencies offered by killing the afternoon paper and merging the staffs.

    Even anti-trust exemptions were not enough to keep the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the Rocky Mountain News going in today’s economy. The Rocky died Feb. 27. I have the final edition displayed in my office, courtesy of Judi Whetstine, who was in Denver that day.

    The P-I followed suit today, announcing that Tuesday’s paper would be the last print edition, Editor and Publisher Roger Oglesby announced. Seattlepi.com will continue as a news web site with a much smaller staff.  

    Add the deaths of the Capital-Times in Madison, Wis., last year and the cutback at both Detroit newspapers to three days per week, and two-newspaper cities are becoming increasingly scarce. Even twin papers in twin cities, such as Minneapolis-St. Paul and Dallas-Fort Worth, are viewed as precarious.

    Cedar Rapids is a one-newspaper city. The Gazette is far healthier than most newspapers. But the deaths of long-established newspapers in Denver and Seattle underscore the importance of innovation and developing new business models. We have to change dramatically and swiftly.

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    I posed by my initial at the Gutenberg Museum in Mainz, Germany, in April 2007.

    I posed by my initial at the Gutenberg Museum in Mainz, Germany, in April 2007.

    This will be my Monday column in The Gazette:

     

    I can be a little smug when I receive e-mails from conservatives who attribute the decline of newspapers to our supposed liberal leanings.

    I understand the shifting media landscape so much better than these people, I tell myself. Aren’t they aware that conservative newspapers such as the Wall Street Journal and Orange County Register are facing the same upheaval?

    That smugness reared up in another place last week when I was reading a message from an academic who wanted to know more about the “experiment” we’re undertaking at Gazette Communications. I mulled how to tell the professor this is no experiment. We’re undergoing a no-turning-back transformation here.

    Then I read Clay Shirky’s blog post “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable.” I realized I’m just beginning to understand the shifting media landscape. I can see that even a no-turning-back transformation is truly an experiment.

    For nearly two years now, my closing shtick at presentations for newspaper industry gatherings has revolved around Johannes Gutenberg, whose development of movable type and a printing press transformed the world in the 15th Century.

    I told of visiting the Gutenberg Museum in Mainz, Germany, in 2007. For a journalist in his fourth decade working for newspapers, it was an emotional experience to see the history of printing in its birthplace and to see three ancient, original Gutenberg Bibles. In the same room where the Bibles were displayed, I also saw several older Bibles, beautiful works of art handcrafted by monks in the centuries before Gutenberg.

    In closing my presentations about innovation in the news business, I likened those monks to today’s newspaper industry. If the monks’ product was a beautiful handmade book to be passed down through the generations as a treasure, its days were numbered when Gutenberg developed the printing press. But, I added, if their product was a message that they believed in their souls was the word of God, this new technology would help spread that message to countless millions who would never be able to have one of those precious handmade Bibles.

    Similarly, I said, our product today is not ink on paper, delivered to your home daily with an account of yesterday’s news. We’re pleased that so many people count on their newspaper and we certainly have been hearing from them the past week after we made some changes to The Gazette. But that newspaper you love or hate is just a delivery system, not the actual product. Our true product is news, information, meaning, context, connection to the community and connection to the marketplace. If we can use today’s revolutionary technology to advance that product and deliver it in different ways to new audiences, we can thrive in this revolution the way the Bible thrived in the printing revolution.

    It’s a good shtick and I deliver it with a fervor that would make my preaching parents proud. But when I read Shirky, I realized I didn’t fully understand the Gutenberg revolution and its meaning for today’s newspaper industry.

    Citing Elizabeth Eisenstein‘s book The Printing Press as an Agent of Change (I’ve already ordered it and may write more about it in the future), Shirky cited lessons from the Gutenberg revolution that snuck right past me: “That is what real revolutions are like. The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place. The importance of any given experiment isn’t apparent at the moment it appears; big changes stall, small changes spread. Even the revolutionaries can’t predict what will happen.”

    Shirky couldn’t predict, and neither can I, where this revolution will lead: “No one experiment is going to replace what we are now losing with the demise of news on paper, but over time, the collection of new experiments that do work might give us the reporting we need.”

    After reading Shirky, I had to admit that we are experimenting, even if we aren’t turning back. The Gazette Co. remains by far Eastern Iowa’s leading news source. We need to experiment now from this strong base, even if the local and national economy and the newspaper industry are in turmoil.

    We face an opportunity as profound as Gutenberg’s. We need to be bold enough and visionary enough to seize that opportunity and contribute to this revolution.

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