This decade is ending with much less fanfare than the past one, which was the turn of both a century and a millennium.
This decade passed without really getting a name — the Oughts didn’t quite stick, like I guess they did a century earlier (they so didn’t stick that I don’t even know or care whether Oughts or Aughts would be the preferred spelling).
If you don’t have much patience for self-indulgent reflections, this might be a good time to go read something else, because I’m going to look back on the past decade of my career.
When 1999 ended, I was a religion reporter and writing coach for the Des Moines Register. I covered a midnight Mass noting the turn of the millennium. Because I was out in the field, I was unable to join the newsroom’s toast to the new year/decade/century/millennium, but I did get a couple of the Champagne flutes we had made for the occasion. Pretty much the whole newsroom was standing by for coverage of the apocalyptic computer meltdowns people were fearing because of … well, if you remember that madness, I don’t have to explain, and if you don’t, it’s probably not worth explaining. Let’s just say that after a couple years of being a huge story, the Y2K computer bug was a smaller story New Year’s Eve and Day than the millennium parties.
I’ve worked for four organizations this decade: The Des Moines Register, Omaha World-Herald, American Press Institute and Gazette Communications. In addition to changing companies, I’ve moved out of newsrooms entirely, back in and back out again. I’ve moved back and forth between and among daily journalism, training and innovation, often juggling two or all three of those primary pursuits. I’ll write about my reflections on the decade in training and innovation. But I’ll start with news, because it was a huge decade for news and because my love for news drives my other pursuits.
I’ve covered lots of big stories in a journalism career that began 38-plus years ago in high school. By far the two biggest stories came this decade. 9/11 was such a huge story that even from Omaha, it dominated my work for most of the year or two after the attack. The day of the attack, I wrote three stories that I recall:
- I connected by telephone with Dave Rimington, a former Nebraska football star who was visiting in Omaha that day, but normally would have been working in the World Trade Center, which housed the offices of the Boomer Esiason Foundation.
- I wrote the main local reaction story for the front page of the evening edition (the World-Herald remains a rare newspaper that still publishes an evening edition), fielding contributions from more than a dozen colleagues (a role we used to call rewrite). My lead: “Although Tuesday morning’s attack struck more than a thousand miles away, the terror struck close to home in Nebraska and Iowa.”
- For the morning paper, I wrote a story on airport security. I managed to find online testimony given to Congress the year before, warning how vulnerable our system was. My lead: “Federal investigators warned Congress last year that the nation’s air travel system was vulnerable to a terrorist attack.”
My oldest son, Mike, was working in Washington as a press aide to Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska. The Washington cell-phone system couldn’t handle all the calls people tried to make after the attack. Mike tried unsuccessfully to call Mimi on his cell phone after the Russell Senate Office Building was evacuated (remember, the flight that crashed over Pennsylvania was headed for Washington). When Mike talked to Matt Kelley, a reporter in the World-Herald’s Washington bureau, he told Matt to pass along the word that he was OK. (Mike didn’t work in the Pentagon or visit there often, but still, parents want reassurance of even an adult child’s safety.) When Matt was back in the bureau on a landline, he told an editor to pass the word along. I quickly relayed the word to Mimi and resumed work on my own stories.
Mike later framed a copy of the World-Herald’s front page from that evening edition. In large type over the blue sky of New York City, Hagel is quoted saying, “America is forever changed. This is the second Pearl Harbor. … We are at war.” It’s an odd historic newspaper to hang on your wall, but a journalist wants a piece of a story that big. And with my byline and the Hagel quote, that front page sort of noted the different roles Mike and I played in the biggest story of our lives.
That was just the start of my 9/11 coverage. I had not previously written about the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, but I was aware of its work. On Sept. 12, I had the first of many interviews with Tom Gouttierre, director of the center. By that Sunday, I had written stories about the history of the U.S. relationship with Osama bin Laden (Gouttierre had confirmed his presence in Afghanistan for the United Nations a few years earlier) and the UNO center’s relationship with Afghanistan, including relations with the Taliban government and leaders of insurgents fighting the Taliban.
Over the next couple years, I wrote about a UNO professor and former ambassador who met with Afghanistan’s exiled king the day before the 9/11 attacks, about a 1999 meeting of Afghan leaders in Omaha, about UNO’s publication and distribution of books for the Karzai government and about criticism of the UNO textbooks. I wrote stories for the 9/11 anniversary, including a story about Sept. 10, 2001, perhaps my favorite story of all my 9/11 coverage. In the fall of 2002, I spent most of a month following Afghan teachers who were visiting Nebraska, a memorable experience with some truly remarkable women. I often think of those women and wonder how they are doing now, how they and their schools have been affected by the continuing fighting there. I hope they are safe, and I hope our increased
The continuing coverage of Omaha’s ties to Afghanistan were the most memorable work of my second hitch at the World-Herald, 2000 to 2005. And my editors’ continuing refusal to send me to Afghanistan to cover the connection from that end was the biggest disappointment.
Perhaps the profound impact of 9/11 is illustrated by the fact that it dominated so much of the work of a journalist who wasn’t in New York or Washington and never made it to Afghanistan. Hundreds, probably thousands, of journalists covered this story closer and more intensely as I did. But this was the story of a lifetime in journalism, with plenty to go around.
Nearly seven years after 9/11, I found myself covering the story of a lifetime again: the flooding that hit Cedar Rapids on June 12, 2008, my third day as editor here. The stories and my experience with them were different in many ways: one national/international, one local, though it led the national news briefly; for one I was a reporter, the other the top editor; one I remember for amazing teamwork, the other largely for my individual work (not to say the World-Herald didn’t show some outstanding teamwork, particularly on the day of the attack, but my memories are more of my own work).
My role in the flood coverage was a leadership role for which I received too much credit for the excellent work of the Gazette and gazetteonline staff. I was proud of our immediate coverage, highlighted by the Epic Surge double front page, designed by Michelle Wiese and Rae Riebe, featuring Liz Martin’s iconic photograph. (That front page also hangs on my office wall.) I was proud of our deadline reporting, which was honored with the Sigma Delta Chi Award. I was proud of breaking news and feature photography so strong that it made an outstanding museum exhibit. I was proud of our continuing reporting on the community’s long recovery process. I was proud of our use of databases and multimedia to tell the story of the disaster and recovery.
I’ll never forget coming into work on June 12 and hearing the generator kick on downstairs in the darkened building. I’ll never forget how hard our staff worked that day and many days that followed. I am eternally grateful for the opportunity to work through that disaster with colleagues I will forever respect: Dave Storey, Dan Geiser, Paul Jensen, Mary Sharp, Lyle Muller, Jason Kristufek, Zack Kucharski and a host of reporters, editors and photojournalists whose ability and dedication still amaze me.
The decade brought lots of other interesting and important news stories: a trip to Venezuela in 2000 with a church mission group working in disaster recovery for a mudslide that was worse than Hurricane Katrina and the Cedar Rapids flood combined; way too many stories about sexual abuse by priests; a multimedia story about a historic home movie that surfaced 65 years after it was shot.
I was a neophyte trainer when 1999 ended. I juggled writing coach duties with my religion reporting duties. I had gone on the road to train for two small newsrooms and the North Dakota Newspaper Association. I was an active participant on a list-serv of newsroom trainers. I was passionate about training, but I wasn’t known very well and wasn’t very experienced. My profile and experience began to grow notably in 2000. I got my first big training gig (at the Raleigh News & Observer) and I helped launch the No Train, No Gain web site, a collaborative venture of newsroom trainers, founded by a conference of trainers I had not yet attended.
Dolf Els of Media24 in South Africa was the webmaster, and I quickly became the content coordinator and leading contributor. I posted handouts for my workshops online and quickly started getting attention and inquiries from people around the world who were interested in training journalists.
I also changed jobs in 2000, returning to the Omaha World-Herald, where I had been a reporter from 1993 to 1998. This time I would be a reporter and writing coach. And my new boss, Larry King, agreed that I could take outside training engagements — on my own time if I was being paid, on company time for non-paying conferences. Neither of us, I’m sure, realized at the time how much that outside work would grow.
While the stories described above, and many more, occupied most of my time for the World-Herald, I also led many workshops for our staff and persuaded Larry to bring in some other outstanding trainers. I joined the board of the Mid-America Press Institute, a regional training organization, became a regular on the National Writers Workshops speaking circuit and visited several newsrooms and press association conferences and seminars each year across the United States and Canada. I made a modest second income from the fees I charged, attended the annual conferences for newsroom trainers and developed an international reputation from my online materials (which were translated into several languages).
Newspapers were emphasizing training then and increasing how much they spent for training (though still not nearly enough). At that time, most of my workshops focused on traditional skills I had mastered as a journalist — reporting or writing techniques, copy editing, leadership.
As my profile as a trainer grew, I developed a relationship with the American Press Institute. First Mary Glick, an associate director at API, and Curt Hazlett, a seminar associate, invited me to be a discussion leader at API seminars. Then I attended the first Train the Trainers seminar at API, honing my training skills under the expert guidance of Alan Weiss and the seminar moderator, API’s Carol Ann Riordan. I kept cultivating my API ties, and by 2005, API President Drew Davis offered me a full-time job as director of tailored programs. I was supposed to take API on the road.
My first year and a half at API were pretty much a full-time version of the freelance training I had been doing before, with a shift more toward leadership programs than journalism skills. We got a grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation to start a series of ethics seminars, so that became a specialty, too. Starting in 2006, my work shifted heavily toward innovation with the Newspaper Next project (more on that in the next section). As newspaper advertising revenues started dropping, the industry severely cut its investment in training. Except for Newspaper Next, nearly all training work dried up, except the ethics seminars, which were heavily subsidized by the grant (and a second grant awarded in 2008).
I have continued doing training for Gazette Communications staff and some external clients since coming here in 2008. Nearly all of my current training is focused on digital journalism: ethics, Twitter, multimedia storytelling, databases and my C3 innovation model (more on that shortly, too).
My passion for teaching has not waned, so I am sure I will continue training in the decade to come. I’m sure the digital emphasis will remain, though I expect it to take as many unexpected turns as my training emphasis has the past 10 years.
Innovation has been an interest for much of my career. I was experimenting with user-generated content projects for the Des Moines Register in the 1980s and for the Minot Daily News in the early 1990s. I’ve used computers all my career, got my first home computer sometime in the 1980s and became an AOL subscriber back when it was America Online, before the World Wide Web unleashed the Internet we know today. I embraced spreadsheets and databases as important reporting tools in the mid-1990s. When the ’90s ended, I had been using the web as an important reporting tool for about five years and had been publishing my workshop handouts online for a couple years. And for years, I had been frustrated with the timid, tentative steps my news organizations were taking into the digital world.
My experience with No Train, No Gain early in 2000 underscored for me the potential reach of the web. We were sharing training resources with journalists in more than 100 countries. I knew that my news organizations were not pursuing all the local possibilities either. I started my first blog (in truth, pretty much an online column), Training Tracks, for NTNG, then continued it at API, where I also blogged about leadership and writing (both of those blogs started out as email lists).
When I joined API, I was pleased to hear of Drew’s intention to launch a project to study new business models for newspapers. I quickly became involved in the Newspaper Next project, making presentations about the project’s lessons to dozens of organizations around the world and contributing to the blog. I contributed a study of interactive databases to the project.
At the same time, I began to see the potential impact and importance of social media. Starting with Flickr, then LinkedIn, then Facebook and Twitter, I began exploring these new tools. After a slow start, Twitter was the tool I became most enthusiastic about. And I keep trying new social tools: .
I also developed a new vision for community media organizations, the Complete Community Connection. My search for a company interested in implementing the C3 approach brought me to Gazette Communications. Here I’ve continued my interest in social media, teaching workshops in Twitter and liveblogging, and using CaringBridge, Google tools, TripIt, SlideShare, Aardvark, YouTube and more social tools.
I finished work on the C3 vision, publishing it on my blog this April and shifting my attention to full-time pursuit of C3. As the year went on, I realized that C3 did not sufficiently emphasize the importance of mobile opportunities, so I developed and published a vision for a mobile-first strategy.
I’m pleased at what I’ve learned about innovation this decade and hope I’ve contributed notably to the discussion of innovation in our industry. I hope the coming decade (year, for that matter) brings some tangible results here and throughout the news business in development and implementation of new business models.