One of the most important questions news organizations and journalists need to decide now and in the years ahead is: What should we stop doing?
This was the question that lingered with me most after reading Post-Industrial Journalism, the outstanding report from the Tow Center for Digital Journalism by C.W. Anderson, Emily Bell and Clay Shirky.
When the report came out, my first reaction was to drop everything, read it right away and comment in detail to its many points. But I found I couldn’t do that. The report came out just as I was trying to get back up to speed after an extended distraction from work as I helped my brother’s family deal with the death of my nephew Brandon. Work tasks beckoned urgently, so I couldn’t drop everything again. And when I found some time to read PIJ, I found my concentration weak, partly due to fatigue, partly because the next work task was always beckoning.
Meanwhile other people weighed in with more insightful things than I had to say yet (but often along the same lines, which would have made my points redundant): Josh Benton of the Nieman Lab, Jeff Sonderman of Poynter and Mathew Ingram of GigaOm.
Besides, what I wanted to say on about every page was, “Right on!” It’s much easier (and feels more urgent) to blog about something you disagree with (see my posts about recent CJR posts by Dean Starkman and Ryan Chittum or my response to an earlier Columbia report by Len Downie and Michael Schudson, calling for government subsidies for journalism). But I agreed a lot with PIJ. (I did blog about two disagreements with a particular passage, about whether journalism is in decline and whether smaller communities will feel this decline more acutely).
Post-Industrial Journalism makes a lot of important points journalists and news organizations should consider — about the importance of data literacy in journalism, about the importance of solving mysteries (rather than just learning secrets), about the importance of journalists developing computer coding skills, about the importance of sharing lessons from startup news organizations, about shifting our work away from finished news products and toward the continuous flow of a news stream, about developing more flexible “hackable” content management systems. I encourage reading the whole report if you haven’t yet. Journalists should especially read the section targeted at individual journalists.
When I finally finished the report on my fourth or fifth or sixth sitting, one point stuck out, and it wasn’t something they said, but my reaction to what they said: What should we stop doing?
Without question, a news organization that has cut staff – and that’s pretty much everyone who’s been around very long – can’t do all that it used to be. Please, don’t give me that do-more-with-less crap unless you can cite how technology has made someone’s work more efficient the way spreadsheets and pagination helped us work more efficiently. In too many newsrooms, content management systems and other digital tools are such a patchwork of inefficient or outdated tools that journalists waste time on workarounds, rather than saving time through technology.
We need to examine how we work — as individual journalists and as news organizations — and make some tough decisions about what we stop doing.
Let’s take coverage of local government. I wrote my first government meeting stories something like 40 years ago and I think I knew intuitively that no one was reading those stories. But on some level I believed they were important, so I not only wrote them, I wrote them long. As an editor, I assigned and edited more government meeting stories than I could possibly count. We were the watchdog, we told ourselves and our communities, and we were going to be there telling the story every time the local government bodies met, even if the stories were boring and no one was reading them. And even if most of our meeting stories did little to stop or catch corruption and inefficiency in government (you usually have to dig that up away from meetings).
Well, now we have metrics that in many cases prove no one reads many of our meeting stories. And we should ask whether we still need to cover the meetings. I’m not saying that we need to abandon our watchdog role, just that we need to rethink meeting coverage.
Maybe for your community, the answer is to send a reporter to the meetings to livetweet (live coverage gets more readership than stories), but to have the reporter turn his attention after the meeting to enterprise reporting on topics covered in the meeting, rather than undertaking the redundant task of writing a story about the meeting he just livetweeted.
If your local government agencies livestream their meetings, maybe you don’t need a reporter present. You embed the livestream on your site for meeting coverage and spend your reporter’s time on enterprise, unless a meeting promises to be unusually newsworthy.
By the way, I’m not saying that you only cover what people are reading. Newsrooms should not become content farms. But we should not ignore data either. If people aren’t reading a particular type of story that you think is important, develop more engaging ways of covering that topic (it might not be a story). But I don’t apologize for thinking metrics should provide some guidance in deciding what not to do.
In the sports department, you might reconsider the value of the game story. For pro and college sports, nearly every game is televised, so the real fans know what happened. Maybe your reporters livetweet and feed the tweets into a liveblog. Maybe you feed tweets from fans and other media into your site for live coverage. Either way, the reporter is able to spend her time on enterprise or feature reporting or analysis that might better feed the fans’ appetites.
Actually, the mention of sports raises a fairly important point about Post-Industrial Journalism: The authors took a narrow view that dismissed coverage of such topics as sports:
Not all journalism matters, of course. Much of what is produced today is simply entertainment or diversion, but here, we grapple only with what has variously been called “hard news,” “accountability journalism” or “the iron core of news.” Hard news is what matters in the current crisis. … There will always be a public appetite for reporting on baseball, movie stars, gardening and cooking, but it’s of no great moment for the country if all of that work were taken over by amateurs or done by machine. What is of great moment is reporting on important and true stories that can change society. The reporting on the Catholic Church’s persistent harboring of child rapists, Enron’s fraudulent accounting and the scandal over the Justice Department’s Operation Fast and Furious are all such stories. …
I disagree with the authors about whether journalism about those other topics matters (I have a baseball blog, after all). But I fully agree that holding the powerful accountable is the most important job of journalism. Further, holding the powerful accountable is the aspect of journalism that most presents a challenge in building a successful commercial business model. Media focused on niches such as sports, entertainment, hobbies, food, technology and many other slices of life have great potential for developing strong revenue streams for advertising, selling content and other new revenue opportunities.
But public service journalism can chase away advertisers. It’s expensive to produce. And, whether I’m right about paywalls or not, I don’t think anyone argues that readers and viewers will pay enough to support the full cost of investigative, watchdog and enterprise reporting.
Philanthropic support is showing promise to support public-interest journalism operations such as ProPublica, Texas Tribune, Iowa Watch and Homicide Watch. And those organizations stop covering sports, entertainment and so on (actually, they never covered them, but you get the point). And sometimes you need to choose a niche with more commercial possibilities and stop doing the public-interest journalism.
I also like that their examples of watchdog enterprise reporting aren’t all government examples. Religion and business are two important areas of community life that many newsrooms aren’t covering as well as they should because of newsroom cuts. Maybe those newsrooms have made the right tough choices. But maybe if they re-examine what they are doing and stop doing some other things, they can cover what’s most important in the community. Or maybe the cuts made by established newsrooms will present opportunities for some entrepreneurial journalists.
If you’re still a full-service news organization trying to be supported by the marketplace, rather than philanthropy, part of your decision about what to stop doing will involve analysis of what the community is doing well and how to curate and supplement the community content and avoid redundancy.
PIJ makes that point:
Figuring out the most useful role a journalist can play in the new news ecosystem requires asking two related questions: What can new entrants in the news ecosystem now do better than journalists could do under the old model, and what roles can journalists themselves best play? … The journalist has not been replaced but displaced, moved higher up the editorial chain from the production of initial observations to a role that emphasizes verification and interpretation, bringing sense to the streams of text, audio, photos and video produced by the public.
We need to work out partnerships with community journalists (and non-journalists) who are doing jobs we’ve been doing and stop doing what they are doing, so we can focus our resources on unique ways we can serve the community. We need to maintain some standards, but we need to be flexible and embrace some partners who work differently than we would.
Whether you’re a newsroom leader or an individual journalist, you should be asking and answering what you and your newsroom need to stop doing. Maybe it’s not meeting stories or game stories. Maybe it’s a layer or type of editing (or a layer of editing — or editing at all — on a type of content). Maybe it’s a beat. Maybe it’s a type of content. Maybe you need to link to something instead of producing it yourself. Maybe you can automate something that journalists have been doing.
Decide what’s important to you and decide what’s less important. Stop doing what’s less important, and focus your work on what’s more important. If you’re an individual journalist, you may need your editor’s approval before you can stop doing something, but you should start that conversation.
I blogged last year about working Digital First, about questions reporters should ask in restructuring their work in a Digital First newsroom and about leading a Digital First newsroom. Those posts might be helpful in deciding what you need to stop doing. I think that’s one of the most important decisions newsrooms and journalists need to make today.
Disclosure: Emily Bell interviewed me in her research for the report and I am cited as a source.