It was the worst of times, it was the best of times.
With apologies to Charles Dickens, who wrote one of the greatest leads of all times, that is the theme for my presentation leading off an APME NewsTrain seminar at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth this week. (The two-day seminar breaks the group in half, with each half following a different track each day, so I will open the same program for a different group each day.) The seminar organizers asked me to give a big-picture overview of the changing media landscape for the frontline editors who will be attending. This is a blog version of that presentation.
It was the worst of times. I won’t spend much time on this, because everyone at newspapers (my primary audience at the seminar) knows how bad things are. So I’ll just review quickly:
- Newspaper newsroom employment fell by 14,000 (25 percent) from 2007 to 2010.
- Newspaper newsroom payroll spending was $6 billion in 2006 and fell to $4.4 billion in 2009, a drop of 27 percent.
- Newspapers’ annual print ad revenues fell by $17 billion (41 percent) from 2007 to 2009. And they have continued to fall. The supposed improvement this year is just a slower decline. Another way to look at that is that this year’s ad spending is even worse than last year’s catastrophic levels.
- Newspapers’ daily circulation equaled 36 percent of the U.S. population in 1950. Today that level is less than 13 percent.
While that’s all grim, I will note that the newspaper business has been in upheaval my whole career:
- The newspaper I carried as a boy in Ohio in the 1960s, the Columbus Citizen-Journal, died in the 1980s.
- The first newspaper I wrote for as a high school student in 1971, the Evening Sentinel in Shenandoah, Iowa, died in the 1990s.
- While I was a student at TCU from 1972 to 1976, the Fort Worth Press folded twice.
- When I was an editor at the Des Moines Register in 1982, our sister newspaper, the Des Moines Tribune, died.
- When I was an editor at the Kansas City Star and Times from 1985 to 1991, we covered the deaths of the Kansas City Evening News, the St. Louis Globe-Democrat and the St. Louis Sun. And in 1990, my newspaper, the Kansas City Times, was killed.
All this carnage, and a lot more that had no tie to me, happened before the boom of the World Wide Web, so don’t blame upheaval and decline in the news business strictly on the Internet.
It was the best of times. I will elaborate on this more at the end of the presentation. But after that “worst of times” start, I should give at least a glimpse of the best of times. Borrell Associates projects local mobile advertising spending, expected to be less than $1 billion this year, will reach $11 billion by 2014. That is an extraordinary opportunity for media organizations, which I will elaborate on shortly.
To seize that opportunity, news organizations will need to be outstanding innovators. If you work for a newspaper company, that means your organization is going to need to change. Alan Mutter, “Reflections of a Newsosaur” blogger, explains why newspapers are so bad at innovation: “Publishers can’t stand being the first to do anything innovative. … When confronted with a potentially game-changing idea, the first question publishers always ask is, ‘Who else is doing it?’ That phrase could well stand as the industry’s epitaph.”
For frontline editors to pursue the best of times for their newsrooms, you need to be voices for risk and change. Your job as a newsroom leader, whether you are the top leader or a middle manager, should be to be a game-changer. When your publisher (or editor) asks, “Who else is doing it?” your answer should be: “We’ll show the way.”
I challenge editors to work in six related areas to lead your newsrooms to the best of times. (And if your newsroom won’t go there, these efforts will prepare you for finding the best of times elsewhere with entrepreneurial organizations or as entrepreneurs yourselves.) The six things an editor needs to do find the best of times:
- Lead the pursuit of new business models.
- Be your organization’s mobile leader.
- Be a Twitter evangelist.
- Find location-based opportunities.
- Master live news coverage.
- Engage your community.
Lead the pursuit of new business models. For most of my career, journalists have blissfully, almost defiantly, maintained ignorance of how their businesses operated. We can’t do that any more. Our organizations need our intelligence and creativity in developing new business models.
The news media (and people at TBD and the Washington Post) have paid a fair amount of attention to the competition between TBD and the Post. While that competition is real, I have to say that my respect for the Post is long and deep. I was a journalism student at TCU during Watergate, and I was dreaming of working for the Post someday, not of competing against it. I thoroughly enjoyed having the Post delivered to my door for three years when I lived in Washington and worked at the American Press Institute.
In 2007, when the Post was my hometown newspaper, it had one of the greatest years in the history of journalism. The Post won six Pulitzer Prizes for its performance that year. The only organization ever to win more Pulitzers in a single year was the New York Times, which won seven Pulitzers for its work in 2001, mostly connected with its coverage of 9/11. In its own way, the Post’s performance in 2007 was even greater. Each of its six Pulitzers was for a different story, a different kind of journalism:
- Dana Priest, Anne Hull and Michel du Cille brought the Post the Pulitzer Prize for public service for their reports on the shocking mistreatment of wounded warriors at Walter Reed Army Hospital.
- Steve Fainaru won a Pulitzer for international reporting for uncovering the Blackwater scandal of a private contractor operating a private army essentially beyond the law in Iraq.
- Jo Becker and Barton Gellman pulled back the Bush administration’s cloak of secrecy to detail the behind-the-scenes abuse of power by Vice President Dick Cheney, winning the Pulitzer for national reporting.
- The metro staff won the breaking news reporting prize for its coverage of the Virginia Tech massacre.
- Gene Weingarten’s enchanting Pearls Before Breakfast story won the first of his two Pulitzers for feature writing.
- Steven Pearlstein won the commentary prize for his columns on economic issues.
This was journalism at its very best. But a column in the Post by Stephen C. Fehr (a former reporter of mine at the Kansas City Times) revealed some amazing facts about the business performance of the Post over the same period: The Post’s print advertising revenue declined in 2007 by $77 million from the previous year. And washingtonpost.com, one of the best websites in the news business, had an increase that same year of $6 million. That’s a net loss of $71 million. And Steve was one of 100 experienced Post journalists taking buyouts in May 2008, just a month after the Post was celebrating its six Pulitzers.
Nothing could underscore more dramatically that great journalism won’t save an outdated business model. And a declining business model directly affects a news organization’s ability to carry out great journalism.
My Blueprint for the Complete Community Connection was an effort to guide the news business toward a new model. As editors, you need to join and lead conversations at your organizations to develop new revenues to support journalism and lead your newsrooms to the best of times.
Be your organization’s mobile leader. As noted before, the projected growth in local mobile advertising presents an $11 billion opportunity for news organizations. To put that potential into context, $11 billion a year is bigger than:
- The 2009 decline in newspapers’ print advertising revenue. That was a catastrophic collapse of advertising that cost the industry more than 15,000 jobs and contributed to the deaths of newspapers in Denver, Seattle, Tucson, Ann Arbor and dozens of other communities. And the mobile opportunity is bigger than that.
- Newspapers’ decline in retail advertising from 2005 to 2009. What newspaper wouldn’t love to get back all those retail advertising dollars it has lost? Mobile is an opportunity to do that.
- Any newspaper classified vertical at peak. Think about that: The mobile opportunity is bigger than autos, real estate or jobs were at their peaks.
(All these numbers come from the Newspaper Association of America.)
My mobile-first strategy blog posts explain the urgency and importance of the mobile opportunity. When you return to your newsrooms, you need to take the lead in planning a mobile-first project to help your colleagues see the possibilities and start pursuing them.
Be a Twitter evangelist. I know I can be a tiresome advocate for journalists to use Twitter, but you need to be just as pushy and annoying in leading your staffs and colleagues to use Twitter to become better journalists.
Twitter helps you connect with eyewitnesses and sources who are watching and experiencing news in your community. It helps you build connections with your community. It helps transform your outlook as a journalist and your newsroom’s culture. Journalists can’t afford not to make aggressive use of this valuable tool that helps us stay on top of the news.
Statesman.com and TBD have shown how to use Twitter to cover a domestic terrorist attack, the Discovery hostage crisis and a gunman in a university library. Examples from earthquakes, floods and plane crashes show how Twitter helps you get the news first and connect with victims and witnesses.
Find location-based opportunities. I don’t pretend that I have figured out how news organizations need to develop location-based news, information and commerce. But that’s why I play Foursquare. I don’t need no stinkin’ badges and I don’t care about being mayor of Pie Gourmet (though I have been). I play Foursquare so I can start to see the possibilities of sharing information based on where a user is at that moment. Vadim Lavrusik has suggested some smart ways for journalists to use Foursquare. I was intrigued during the Discovery Channel hostage crisis to see and email telling me that Mandy Jenkins, TBD’s social media producer, had checked in at Discovery. I looked up and saw that she was just across the newsroom, where I had seen her a few minutes before. So I walked over to ask her what was up. She was checking to see who had checked in there, so she could try connecting with sources. When you check in to a venue on Foursquare, it tells you who else is there. (Mandy wasn’t able to connect with one, but it was a great idea; every journalist knows you try several great ideas to find the right one that works for that story).
I don’t care whether a journalist is using Foursquare, Gowalla, Facebook Places, Google latitude or another service to explore location opportunities. In fact, I think if your newsroom has people trying multiple services, that’s the best way to operate. (Actually, despite my Twitter advocacy, I don’t see it as especially valuable for locations, because Twitter has my location wrong more often than it gets me in the right place. But Twitter will work out its location bugs and be a serious player in location soon.)
As mobile opportunities unfold, the future prosperity of journalism organizations may depend on our ability to deliver news, information and commercial offers based on a person’s exact location at a given moment. We start the process of understanding and exploring those possibilities by using the tools available to us now. The Wall Street Journal broke the story of the Times Square bombing attempt by using a shout on Foursquare to warn people checking in right then in New York. And you don’t get ideas like that if you haven’t checked in yourself often enough to be mayor somewhere.
Master live news coverage. For most of my career, newspaper journalists conceded that our deadlines kept us from being first with many news stories. We comforted ourselves with the claim that if we weren’t going to be first, at least we would be best. We would provide the context, the details, the understanding. Broadcast news might beat us to the who, what, when and where, but we would provide the why and how. Digital tools provide all journalists the opportunity to be first with the news, to cover the story as it unfolds, and one of the most urgent tasks facing editors today is to lead their staffs in covering the news as it happens.
You need to be exploring liveblogging, live tweeting and live streaming, and determine the best ways for your newsroom to become the live-news leader in your community. You need to lead your staffs in learning how to verify and ask skeptical questions quickly under deadline pressure. You want to be first with the facts, not first with every rumor.
Engage the community. For most of my career, the news business was one-way communication: Professional journalists worked hard to find sources and gather the news. We decided what was most important and we reported as much of the important news as our print newshole or our half-hour newscast permitted. We would publish a few letters to the editor and occasionally sponsor a reader contest. But we decided what was news, we decided what the lead of the story was, we decided which picture ran in the paper and we decided what went on page one.
Now nearly everyone has a camera in their pocket or purse. With your own blog or on your Facebook or Twitter page or your YouTube account, everyone who watches a game, attends a meeting or watches news unfold before them can report the news instantly and provide some commentary as well. Community engagement presents a profound opportunity for journalists and news organizations. If you connect with the community conversation through blogs, social media and other tools, you can elevate your journalism in ways we are only beginning to explore.
Yes, this may be the worst of times for journalists and news organizations that fail to adapt. But I have been in this business more than 40 years, going back to my days as a paper carrier. I have never seen more energy, creativity and innovation in journalism than we see today. TBD is one of dozens of entrepreneurial journalism organizations that are exploring new business models that I believe will find multiple paths to a healthy future for journalism.
I think we truly are in the best of times.