This post was published originally on the American Press Institute site on my old Training Tracks blog, May 31, 2007. It was one of several posts in my API days dealing with the Newspaper Next project, an API partnership with Clayton Christensen. I just blogged about Christensen’s most recent insights on the news business, Breaking News, in the Nieman Reports. I have updated or removed outdated links.
The colleague’s lament is familiar:
“Our staff here has been dramatically slashed (we’re down to two news reporters on day shift). It’s quite a change for our paper, which has gained some measure of acclaim for the time, staff we devote to special projects work (which now appears to be a bygone era).
“Unfortunately, smaller staff size is the new reality. One of the things I’m preparing to pitch to upper management is a radical review of what we cover, how we cover it, etc. I know I will face resistance because, well, some people think the approach to community news coverage is a static endeavor. But honestly, with two reporters we can’t be everywhere. And if we try to be everywhere just to please people, rather than focus on what’s really needed, the entire product will suffer.
“Do you have any examples of papers facing the same situation, staff size, which adapted and prospered? Or, do you have any advice?”
Prospering doesn’t describe what is happening in the newspaper business. And adapting may not be enough. That sounds like making a change here and a tweak there. Newspapers have to transform in order to have a chance at prosperity.
My advice to the colleague is to start by reading “Newspaper Next: Blueprint for Transformation.” I believe that’s the best guide newspapers have for developing a business model that will produce eventual prosperity.
For this particular challenge, I would suggest using the building blocks for building audience that we recommend in Area 2 of the Newspaper Next Game Plan: databases, “unlocking the collective wisdom” and providing platforms for communities to form.
With just two reporters, you are going to cover less of the community’s news and features yourselves. So you need to decide what are the stories that need the skills of professional journalists and focus on doing those well, so you continue to serve the important role for your community.
Meanwhile, you use these building blocks to develop ways online and in print where you become the place where the community tells the rest of the story. You have diminishing resources in your staff, but you have boundless resources in the community if you engage people in the conversation and ask them to help you tell the rest of the community what is happening in their little slice. Learn from them what jobs they need help with and find ways to enlist the community in doing the jobs through your products.
Develop a database calendar, such as the one the Daily Advertiser developed in Lafayette, La. Before they started taking the calendar seriously as a database, the Advertiser had 350 upcoming events listed in its calendar. But with promotion in print and online and with an easy way for web visitors to add their own entries, the Advertiser has developed it to the point where they have more than 10,000 events listed for May alone and 480 events just for today. This database has helped the Advertiser tell what’s happening in the community better than before.
Develop a community conversation page such at the Raleigh News & Observer’s Triangle.com, where people can share news, opinions, photos and the like. Or develop a focused page to connect people with common interests, such as Cincy Moms, developed by the Cincinnati Enquirer; Cleveland County Kids, developed by the Shelby Star; or Game, developed by the Lawrence Journal-World (note that large and small papers alike can use these building blocks). Enlist the community in covering events, as the Grand Junction Free Press did by soliciting contributed photos of the Country Jam. Users sent more than 300 photos, generating more than 45,000 page views.
(Update: I don’t think the fact that I had to remove some links from the previous paragraph means those weren’t good ideas. We need to be willing to experiment — and fail — if we’re going to succeed in developing new products and business models. Also, a product doesn’t need a long life span to be successful.)
Just as important, make sure your publisher and advertising staff also read the Newspaper Next report and start using the techniques of Area 3 of the Game Plan to develop new revenue streams.
Newspapers are not going to cut our way to prosperity. If you just cut your news staff, you will degrade the product and lose even more readers. Use the journalists you have to do the essential journalism. Engage the community to tell other stories so your products remain the place where people learn and tell about community life. And use the Newspaper Next model to develop new revenue streams to fund that prosperity you seek.