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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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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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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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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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Here is my Monday column:

When I was editor of The Gazette, people would frequently send me complaints, suggestions or praise dealing with advertising or circulation.

I had nothing to do with the matter in question, but I still felt responsible for responding to people who went to the trouble of contacting me. My response was to thank them for their feedback and to explain that I was not responsible for that particular issue but that I was forwarding it to the right person, who would address the matter.

I will be doing a lot more of that, because some changing roles in our changing organization will result in more confusion among the public, for a while at least. Lyle Muller has taken the role of editor, though it’s not the same role as when I was editor. And I have taken the role of information content conductor, which isn’t the same as editor or as any role in any media organization. (I explained that new role last week in my blog and will write more about it later in the column and blog.)

Lyle is responsible for editing and production of The Gazette, the newspaper that nearly 180,000 adults read each day in Eastern Iowa (more than 220,000 on Sundays). If you have suggestions, praise or criticism about The Gazette, you should call or write Lyle. He is ultimately responsible for the changes to The Gazette that you will see starting Tuesday, though the changes are the result of a companywide planning process in which I was closely involved. (To share your reaction to those changes, we ask you to e-mail feedback@gazcomm.com or call (319) 398-8333 or 1-(800) 397-8222.)

Unlike other newspaper editors, Lyle doesn’t supervise a single reporter or photographer. The reporters and photographers still work for me. However, we’ll simply call them all journalists now because they will perform more roles than they have in the past. (I’ll explain more about those new roles in the coming weeks.)

It has been clear for years that newspaper companies needed to transform their organizations. We were structured for decades as newspaper factories. Though we staffed our newsrooms with skilled professionals who became experts at specific tasks such as reporting, photography, editing or graphic arts, we were focused on producing a manufactured product each day. We had strict production deadlines and the amount of content we could publish was determined by the space available, which was heavily influenced by the price of a raw material, newsprint.

Reporters and photographers always gathered more information and images than their newspapers published.

As newspapers started publishing content online, we had to change some of our work in the newsroom. We added new positions specializing in operations of the web site. We started publishing breaking news online. We published new kinds of content, such as videos, blogs and slide shows. We started covering some events live as they happened and interacting live with the public. We also started niche products such as Edge Business Magazine, Hoopla and IowaPrepSports.com.

But our organization remained structured and focused primarily on the newspaper product.

We have decided that we can best meet the challenges of the future by changing our company completely. We will have an independent organization which I lead focused exclusively on developing content from our professional journalists as well as from the community. We will publish this content digitally without editing and without the limitations of products. Another organization will plan and edit products, such as The Gazette and GazetteOnline, using content from my organization as well as others. As editor, Lyle has one of the key leadership positions in that organization.

We will tell you more about our changes as our transition to the new structure continues. You will see some of the changes first in our coverage of sports, starting soon.

Please tell us what you like and what you don’t as we make changes. And don’t worry if you tell Lyle or me about something that isn’t our responsibility. We’ll pass your feedback on and make sure the right person responds.

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This will be my column for The Gazette (now appearing on Mondays):

Journalists should experience the glare of media attention now and then.

We’ve had the tables turned on us the past couple weeks at the Gazette Co. Journalists who are used to asking the tough questions and deciding what news and facts were most important have fielded inquiries from television and print reporters. We’ve watched and read news reports and blogs with uncomfortable facts, annoying errors and snarky viewpoints.

As the editor who took on an unfamiliar title and delivered some bad news to people who lost their jobs, I spent much of the time in the spotlight.

The media attention began the week before our job reductions, when KGAN got wind of changes taking place at The Gazette and focused on us in a weeklong series on turmoil in the newspaper business. I noted some of the TV report’s errors right away in my blog, though I won’t belabor them here and didn’t blog about all the errors they made. I hope and believe that our staff members identify themselves better in approaching people for interviews and check their facts better. I hope and believe we provide better context and depth in our reporting.

But the fact is, KGAN smoked out the story that something was up at The Gazette and I give them credit for that.

When we started giving employees the unfortunate news Tuesday that some of them were losing their jobs, the glare intensified. I fielded inquiries from the Associated Press, Des Moines Register, three different KGAN staff members and IowaIndependent.com (and I might be leaving out a media outlet or two).

My boss, Gazette Co. President and CEO Chuck Peters, announced late in the day that I would be leading our new operation to develop content independent of specific products. While my organization will include most of the staff of what used to be The Gazette’s newsroom, I will no longer hold the title of Editor. That title goes now to Lyle Muller, a leader on our staff for the past 22 years. We will work closely together, my staff providing news, information, photos, videos and other content and Lyle leading efforts to use some of that content to produce an outstanding newspaper.

Chuck, Lyle and I responded to 37 questions and comments Wednesday in a live chat with the public at GazetteOnline. We received more than two times as many questions as we had time to answer. Many were skeptical or downright hostile.

As I announced Tuesday night in my blog, my new title is Information Content Conductor. I won’t repeat here the explanation I gave in the blog for the title. But here’s the central reason for changing the title: Editor is a role focused on a packaged product, a newspaper (Lyle’s role). My role is going to focus on generating content independently of packaged products. It’s a huge change for this business and a new title, even a title that sounds strange, sends an important message to our staff that we are serious about change.  A journalist doesn’t relinquish the title editor lightly, but I felt I had to.

My new title was mocked by Iowa Independent Managing Editor Chase Martyn, who accused us of “gimmickry” (a fair criticism, even if we disagree) and “shortsighted planning” (a conclusion drawn without a single inquiry about our planning). Martyn wondered whether my designation comes with a funny hat (not yet, but I wouldn’t rule it out; we are saying this start-up venture will require us to wear multiple hats).

That blog was mild compared to the diatribe by former staff member Josh Linehan, who left voluntarily before last week’s staff cuts. Linehan proclaimed himself to have more guts than his former bosses, whom he didn’t name but described as charlatans, idiots and liars, though he never had the guts to voice these views face to face to me when he was here. And his self-righteous commitment to the truth didn’t extend so far as to call or email me to check his facts. He also wondered how we sleep at night, without bothering to do the research to see that the question had been answered.

Of course, the media glare isn’t all uncomfortable. Arizona State University journalism professor Tim McGuire cheered me on in his blog, agreeing that our industry has to innovate more seriously than we have so far.

I don’t particularly like the spotlight. I’d rather be the one asking questions and stating opinions. So here’s a question: Would we really be innovative if we didn’t face some skepticism? And here’s an opinion: After we succeed, the skeptics will adopt our approach (if they’re still in the business), but they won’t admit they were wrong.

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