You’ve arrived at a blog about transforming the companies that publish newspapers. And it’s a blog with an unorthodox point of view.
Here it is: News will not save you.
Why not? Because the disruption that’s pounding newspaper companies is not about people Read the rest of this entry
It’s an article of faith in the local media business: High-quality content is our trump card in the high-stakes business of attracting and monetizing digital audiences.
But how much of that high-quality content do we really produce? And how much of it really has the huge audience pulling-power we need?
It’s the same answer for both questions: Not nearly enough.
Day in and day out, little “Big-J” journalism is created in most newsrooms. The large majority of what we like to call “quality content” tends to be fairly routine coverage of fairly routine community events, government meetings and crime.
This is nothing new. Newsrooms have always tended to focus on the standard fare of community life as the most dependable means of generating enough content for a day’s news budget.
It’s getting worse
But the amount of in-depth reporting is shrinking still further as our revenues — and therefore our staffs — shrink. Investigative reporting takes time.
And when we DO take the time to do investigative reporting, we need to choose our subjects carefully. We need topics that touch or interest broad swathes of the population, or our investments of time may not pay off in big audiences.
What do I mean by Big-J journalism? I mean the kind of reporting that smokes out wrongdoing, holds people accountable, breaks open misfeasance, malfeasance and non-feasance in government, reveals patterns of abuse and so on.
A project for every community
However, my purpose here isn’t to go banging on about the need for this stuff. Rather, it’s to share a “you-can-do-it” example of Big-J journalism that even very small staffs can take on.
This comes from my days as editor at my family’s newspaper in Monroe, Mich. And it goes way back, before the Internet, social media and email.
That doesn’t matter — this idea is as good now as it was then.
I hit on the idea one day as I was thinking about our local judges. As in most communities, once judges got elected in Monroe, they would be re-elected over and over again for as long as they chose to run.
I asked myself why. Well, because each judge’s daily work was mostly invisible to voters. We did routine court coverage and covered major trials, but none of this revealed much about the quality of the judges’ work. They reigned supreme in their individual courtrooms, where few voters ever went.
There was no mechanism of accountability.
I wondered what we could do about that. If only we could watch them work, day in and day out, we could inform voters on how they did their jobs. But that was flat-out impossible with our little staff of five reporters.
Getting the job done
But then it occurred to me that there WERE people who were in those courtrooms every day, and whose training in law made them qualified observers: the local lawyers.
They handled cases every day, and they knew the judges’ strengths and weaknesses from personal observation and experience. How could we tap into their knowledge?
I huddled with our excellent county government reporter, Charlie Slat, and we came up with the idea of drafting a questionnaire that we would send to the members of our local bar association.
As I remember, we had about 10 judges at the time, and the bar association had about 90 members. We looked up the bar’s membership list and went to work to develop a questionnaire.
I wish I still had the original questionnaire and could provide it here. And I wish I could lay my hands on the stories we produced. But this was in the days before digital archives, so I can’t.
What are the parameters?
As I remember, Charlie and I came up with five or six main parameters of judicial performance that seemed most important. As I recall, these were the main ones:
- Impartiality, including gender, race, age, ethnicity and defense vs. prosecution.
- Punctuality, efficiency and orderly oversight of the courtroom.
- Fairness and balance in sentencing, determining bond and settling procedural disputes.
- Courteous and professional treatment of plaintiffs, defendants, attorneys, juries and people in the courtroom.
- Knowledge and appropriate application of the law.
Each performance parameter was briefly described in a sentence or two, and participants were asked to rate the judges on a scale of 1 to 5, from very poor to excellent. We also provided space for written comments on each parameter.
The survey included a ratings sheet for each of the 10 judges.
At the end of the survey, we provided space — labeled optional and confidential — for the survey participant to provide his or her name.
In my cover letter, I asked attorneys to answer honestly and candidly. I asked them to recuse themselves from completing the survey if they did not frequently handle cases in court. And I asked attorneys to refrain from rating any judges in whose courtrooms they did not have direct experience.
I also pledged that the newspaper would not reveal the survey respondents’ identities to the public or to the judges.
As I recall, at least 70 bar association members returned the survey, completed either in full or for one or more of the judges. Only two provided their names — a mark of singular courage and honesty, in my opinion.
As the results poured in, we read them with amazement.
One felony-court judge was revealed in repeated comments to be extremely tough on defendants. Several attorneys labeled him “the hanging judge,” and one called him “an avenging angel for his conservative Catholic morality.”
Another was revealed in multiple comments as uniformly lenient, and a sucker for sob stories and psychologist witnesses for the defense. His sentences were said to be often too soft for the crimes committed.
And several respondents reported a dubious gambit used by some defendants to avoid the “hanging judge.” They would hire an attorney who rented office space in a building owned by that judge, and the judge would disqualify himself on their cases because of his business connection with the attorney.
Then the case would often go to the lenient judge.
Another judge was criticized as indecisive and unsure of the law. And, some said, drunk on the bench.
Another judge was repeatedly criticized for working only a precise 10-to-3 schedule every day, regardless of the backlog of cases.
After the survey went out and the legal community started talking about it, that judge called our publisher. He asked if the publisher would agree to delete him from the results if he resigned before the stories were printed.
The publisher said no.
The judge resigned anyway.
Several judges got uniformly high ratings, several got middling ratings and a few got plenty of criticism.
We published the results with responses and comments from the judges. A couple of them complained — mostly not for publication — that it wasn’t fair to ask lawyers to rate them anonymously.
In my opinion, that was the only way to do the survey. Given the tremendous power judges hold over attorneys in the courtroom, requiring identification would have silenced most of the truth that needed to come out.
Even before we published the results, the legal and governmental community was buzzing, and the lazy judge quit. Then our stories reverberated across the community, triggering discussion everywhere and more than a little indignation.
A few years later, after I had left the community, the paper repeated the survey process and again published the results. It appeared that the original project had left a lasting mark; the results showed a generally higher level of performance among the judges.
Who holds the judges in your community accountable? You can — and it doesn’t take a large staff or months of work to do it.
Yeah, sure — Big Data. We get it, right?
We all know that the digital age is producing huge amounts of data about consumers and their behavior. And, sure, we know that anybody who’s in the marketing and advertising business — like local media companies — needs to get good at it. Right?
Not that we’ve quite learned how to do it yet. But surely we know — don’t we? — that we simply must master it to benefit both ourselves and our customers? And we’re working on it, right?
Well, I am. I hope you are, too.
Why? Because somebody is going to bring Big Data to Main Street. If it’s not us, Big Data will be the next big wave of disruption in our advertising and marketing business. It’s guaranteed to whittle down our local media ad revenues still further. Read the rest of this entry
Ah, real estate. It used to be such a wonderfully profitable sweet spot for newspapers, back in the dear, now-dead days before the Web. And now it’s just a shadow of its former self.
The real estate business itself is doing okay these days, although it always has its ups and downs. It’s print real estate advertising in newspapers that’s been deeply and permanently disrupted.
The question I’m trying to answer these days is, isn’t there another model through which local media companies can play key roles in the real estate market? Read the rest of this entry
And the industry has seen some notable successes. Jason Taylor’s energetic advocacy has lit up many a convention stage since he started as president of the Chattanooga Time Free Press in 2007. And Brent Low, CEO of Utah Media Group in Salt Lake City, has made events a cornerstone of his diversified revenue model since he was publisher in St. George, Utah, more than a decade ago. Read the rest of this entry
Data, data, data. From every direction lately, I’m being hit with urgent reminders about the imperative for local media companies to master data.
Every day, I’m more convinced: This is the next wave of threat — or opportunity — for local media companies. That’s how disruptive innovation works — you either grab the opportunity, or you are overrun by it.
As Big Data marches down upon us, I’m reminded of Longfellow’s poem, “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere.” It tells how, on the eve of the American Revolution, patriots gave warning of the British Army’s advance by hanging lanterns in the belfry of Boston’s Old North Church:
“One if by land, two if by sea.”
I’m hanging out three lanterns. Big Data is bearing down on us right now — by land, by sea and from every other direction. Read the rest of this entry
In the fall of 2006, as the Internet was devastating the newspaper industry in earnest, the American Press Institute unveiled a new program to push back against the disruption.
We called the project Newspaper Next, and its first report was called Blueprint for Transformation.
Ten years later, what did it accomplish? And what should we still remember from that body of work? Read the rest of this entry
In the last several weeks, my whole concept of advertising and marketing has been reframed, and I’m still sorting out what it means. But I know this: It has given me a clearer understanding of the path local media companies must take in sales.
Now I’m going to try to work the same kind of reframing on you.
Reframing is what happens when some new fact, or a new interpretation of old facts, reveals a subject in a very different light. It’s often a breakthrough that clarifies your priorities and shows you new ways to overcome your challenges.
And in advertising and marketing, we have more than our share of challenges. Print and broadcast media have been struggling for years to assimilate a bewildering array of new tactics.
The list includes buzz terms like SEM, SEO, targeting, retargeting, social media, video, reputation management, email, native advertising, content marketing, Big Data, programmatic advertising and more. And new ones show up all the time.
This time, let’s go up 100,000 feet for a look across the globe. As the media industry in the developed world struggles, billions of humans elsewhere are moving from information scarcity to full access to the world’s knowledge.
Some time ago, thinking about this strange dichotomy, I tried to come up with a visual metaphor to reflect what’s happening.
I was picturing the globe and its many nations and peoples, and thinking about their drastically unequal access to information. And I was thinking about the rapid and Read the rest of this entry
Let’s try some thought experiments, in the best tradition of Albert Einstein.
The hypothesis we’ll explore is this: That the large, lucrative revenue stream that newspaper companies have enjoyed from major/national advertisers will decline to something approaching zero.
Our thought experiments will examine what we should do about that. Read the rest of this entry
How do you define the mission and purpose of local reporting?
Cover the news? Hold institutions accountable? Maintain a well-informed citizenry? Hold up a mirror to the community? “Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable?”
Search around the Web for statements of journalism’s purpose and you’ll find all of the above, and more like them.
And there’s a lot of anxiety these days about the present and future of this mission. With local advertising and circulation revenues spiraling steadily downward, and with newsrooms shrinking along a parallel line, two things are evident. Whatever the mission of local reporting is:
- A lot less of it is happening now.
- Even less will be happening in the future.
In many places in this business, the central question these days is: How can we drive revenue from new sources, so we can keep supporting the functions of journalism that are critical to a free society?
To an extent, I buy that. But there’s also something seriously misguided about it. Read the rest of this entry