Posts Tagged ‘Information Content Conductor’

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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I was disappointed but not surprised when the American Society of Newspaper Editors decided today to cancel this year’s convention.

Few editors or their organizations could afford the time or money to attend the gathering scheduled for Chicago in late April — still on my calendar because I forgot to delete it before leaving work. I planned to attend, even if I had to go from my own pocket (and even if I’ve taken on a new role that doesn’t have editor in the title).  

I was more disappointed with ASNE’s weak promise to keep serving editors at the most difficult time the industry has faced in my career. By simply canceling the convention, ASNE practically tells us that it was just a big party anyway. I enjoyed the party. I enjoyed the speeches by politicians (Senators Obama, McCain and Clinton addressed last year’s convention and President Obama was on tap this year.) But I wanted to go to share and hear advice on facing our shared challenges. Leaders of the nation’s newsrooms need help now more than ever.

The list of woes is pretty familiar: The Rocky Mountain News published its final edition the same day ASNE announced it was cancelling. Philadelphia Newspapers and Journal Register had filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy within the past week. And right here in Cedar Rapids, we eliminated 14 journalists’ jobs at Gazette Communications and announced a reduction in our company’s workforce of about 110 jobs since before last June’s flood.

ASNE can’t give up now. Maybe the editors don’t have the money or time to come to Chicago to party and listen to political speeches. But we have to join forces to support each other and to resist the sucking sound of the drain.

I don’t say this to criticize my ASNE friends and colleagues. When I was at the American Press Institute in Reston, Va., I worked right down the hall from the ASNE offices. My wife, Mimi, worked at ASNE for more than a year (and for two of their conventions). I consider several ASNE staff and leaders to be friends. Others that I don’t know as well are colleagues whom I admire. I’m in my second hitch as an ASNE member and I’ve attended the last four conventions. I have trained journalists in the newsroom of ASNE President Charlotte Hall, editor of the Orlando Sentinel. She provided helpful information for a presentation I made when I was at API, and she provided support when The Gazette was resisting restrictions on our rights to liveblog at Iowa Hawkeye football games.

So I am not a critic piling on when ASNE is down. I am Bluto in “Animal House,” shouting to my friends, “Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?” As Bluto said, nothing is over until we say it is.

Hall’s announcement of the canceled convention said ASNE would “increase reliance on the Web to help editors share what they are learning as they reinvent their news organizations for multiple platforms.” Promising some webinars and email newsletters is not exactly a rallying cry.

We can’t cancel this convention. Let’s just cancel the party in Chicago. Let’s gather electronically and wrestle with the issues that threaten our industry and share our most innovative ideas.

Here’s what we should do: Editors (and perhaps the occasional conductor) around the country who are trying something new or have some ideas to share should volunteer to lead (or contribute to) live chats on the issues. The ASNE convention is a lot of panel discussions anyway. We can do that online and probably tackle some thornier issues, maybe even a broader range of issues. ASNE can develop a wiki where people suggest topics for colleagues to cover or offer to address topics. Members can vote on the topics we most want to learn about and we can connect digitally to discuss the issues for two or three hours a day during convention week (maybe we can do it for two weeks, since we don’t need to worry about hotel rates).  

I’ll offer to lead or contribute to discussions on any or all of four topics: Leading your staff into the Twittersphere; journalism ethics in social networks; liveblogging as stories unfold and reorganizing to separate content generation from product management. I’ll pull together links to various materials for people to read before or after the discussion. I’ll host the live chat and lead the discussion (or collaborate with another colleague or two).

And I’ll join discussions colleagues want to launch on other topics. Tell us what you’re trying, especially if you’re having some success. I’ll jump online to ask questions, applaud risks and offer encouragement.

All the editors who were planning to attend the Chicago convention, as well as those who made the tough call to stay home, have great war stories about how they and their staffs succeeded in getting the big breaking story in the face of obstacles. Those are the war stories we would be telling in the Chicago bar. It wouldn’t even take one beer to get me started about how we covered the flood.

We need to use that same damn-the-obstacles approach to the convention. Let’s gather in a virtual convention center, even if we can’t gather in the bar afterwards.

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I can think of few jobs as exciting or as important (to me) as being editor of a newspaper. I was so delighted to get the job as editor of The Gazette that it seems weird to give it up. Voluntarily, even.

My wife, Mimi, knows how much I loved being editor. My colleague Mary Sharp, The Gazette’s longtime Iowa Editor, knows what the title means to a career journalist. I had nearly identical conversations recently with each of them. “But that’s what you came here to do,” each of them told me, in nearly identical words, in separate conversations about the fact that I would be relinquishing that title.

No, I responded. I didn’t come here to edit the Gazette. I came here to help transform this organization and the newspaper business. I can do that better by leaving behind the entrenched titles, structures and thinking of a business that I love. So now I take on a new job and a new title: Information Content Conductor.

As I have reported before in this blog, Gazette Communications is splitting content creation from the making of products. Lyle Muller, the new Gazette editor, and I will explain this change further in the coming weeks in our columns and blogs.

With Mary’s assistance, I will lead an organization that will seek new ways to develop content that is richer, deeper and more meaningful than is allowed by the limitations of our products. Lyle and other colleagues will work to continue serving our community with excellent products using content from my organization and others.

We will share details as we fill positions in both of these new organizations and finish realigning our company in the coming weeks.

But let me tell you this much about our plans: My new title sounds odd at first (yes, to this old editor, too), but each word tells you something about what we are doing:

Information. We will continue providing factual, independent news and information for the community. While the tasks, presentation and means of delivery will change, integrity and truth will remain the core of everything we do.

Content. The kind of content we provided in the newspaper was pretty simple when I started my journalism career in 1971: stories, columns, editorials, lists and photographs. Graphics became a big deal in the 1980s. The future of content is far more diverse: all that as well as databases, videos, audio, slideshows, text messages, blogs, tweets, interactive multimedia, comments, questions, live chats, interactive maps and more that we can’t yet imagine.

Conductor. As much as I have loved the title editor, it doesn’t describe what I will be doing. Maybe the title will change someday, because I know the work will change as this organization and my job evolve. But for now, conductor seems the most accurate term. As a musical conductor does, I will be orchestrating the work of creative people. As a railroad conductor does, I will interact with the public to provide an orderly, satisfying experience. As an electrical conductor does, I need to carry energy in the staff and the community.

I wish that we were launching this new venture in a thriving economy with a larger staff. But the economic challenges that forced us to reduce our staff this week underscore the necessity of transformation.

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