Category Archives: Newsrooms

Power structure: Another “Big-J” project for strapped newsrooms

Last time I blogged about a fairly simple but powerful “Big J” journalism project we did years ago in my hometown, shaking up the judicial system in a very positive way.

Here’s another “Big J” project we did back then. It can be done in any community, and it will reveal very interesting things about who has and wields power in the community. Read further to learn how, and to see clippings of the stories we produced.

It started in 1992, when I was editor of my family’s newspaper in Monroe, Mich. At the time, I was doing some serious thinking about the local power structure.

The trigger was some disturbingly dysfunctional behavior I was seeing among the various political units at the time.


See links farther down the page to access clippings.

Cities and neighboring townships were feuding on various topics. The elected officials were deploying zoning and development policies designed to maximize growth at the expense of neighboring governmental units. Annexation battles were ugly and divisive.

I started to think about who really pulled the strings in our community. Who operated behind the scenes? Who could apply pressure or persuasion and get things done — or stop them?

I didn’t really know, although I had some ideas. I’d heard that this or that individual was quietly powerful or influential, but the only people who were routinely visible as decision-makers were the elected officials.

So, in the newsroom, we started trying to figure out a way to reveal who actually had political, economic or social clout in our community.

We came up with the idea of doing it with a survey. We decided that the best way to conduct it was to send it to a list of people we were certain had power or influence, asking them to name others who did.

So we started out by identifying what we saw as the most important categories of community activity at the time:

  • Industry
  • Commercial business
  • Government
  • Education
  • Human services and the arts

(Your list might be different; these were the sectors that made sense to us in Monroe County at the time.)

Within each of these sectors, our news team made a list of the people we were seeing or hearing most often as movers and shakers. We would send the survey to those people, asking them to identify others whom they saw as being the most “powerful or influential.”

We would ask each one of them to name people in his or her own sector, and we would ask them to name those with wider spheres of power or influence.

We hoped this would produce some visibility into the unknown networks of individuals who actually had and used some amount of power, authority or influence to make things happen.

I wish I could provide a copy of the survey here, but that’s long gone. I’m not even sure that I recall quite how we did it.

I think I wrote a cover letter that told the survey recipient that he or she had been identified as one of the powerful or influential leaders in Monroe County. I think the letter explained that we were attempting to identify who else in Monroe County wielded power or influence, so we wanted them to fill out and return the enclosed survey.

The survey asked each recipient to name other individuals they believed had the most power or influence, and it gave them space to explain the reason for each name they listed.

We asked them to complete the survey and mail it back to us.

A few days later, the response was looking very good.

Cindy Chapman, who was tabulating the surveys and would write the story, stepped into my office. As I recall, the conversation went something like this:

She said, “There’s good news and bad news.”

“What’s the good news?” I said.

“The good news is, there’s a lot of consensus on who is most powerful or influential. And there are two people who were named by every sector,” she said.

“Great,” I said. “What’s the bad news?”

“You’re one of them.”

I was flabbergasted. It hadn’t occurred to me for a second that I would show up in the survey. And now I was going to have to be quoted in the story, trying to explain away my presence on the list.

As I saw it, I kept a low profile. I didn’t belong to civic organizations other than my church, didn’t call leaders and try to influence them, didn’t eat lunch or play golf with power brokers.

I just directed the newsroom as we covered our community. And I just wrote local editorials.

And I had recently led some behind-the-scenes planning that produced a major civic retreat and discussion about how best to manage growth and progress in our community.


Well, as I saw it, all of this was just doing my job. I was just trying to keep the community well informed, keep people focused on the important local issues, and encourage other people to move those issues ahead. I wasn’t wielding power, although maybe I was exerting influence, in a broad way.

In my quote for the story, I did my best to downplay any notion of personal power: “It was a surprise to me at first but when you think about it, if a newspaper’s doing its job in the community, the editor’s name will probably come up.”

The survey gave us great material for a major front-page story and multiple sidebars, attached here. (I apologize for the sketchy quality of these scanned, reassembled and photographed clippings, but I couldn’t find any electronic archives for these stories.)

The survey gave Cindy a great opportunity to talk to those who were named, getting their comments about how they saw the community’s needs and how they worked to get things done. We produced a sidebar on each of the eight most-named individuals, with photos, factoids and quotes.

It was a fascinating read, and it generated immense amounts of buzz in the community.

And it did succeed in teasing out identities of some folks who had operated entirely behind the scenes. Check out the sidebar on Bama Owen, a local Democratic Party kingmaker who had operated for years with total invisibility to the public.

Best of all, the project placed a bright spotlight on the civic power structure. It revealed that power was spread across a wide base, and it put faces and identities to names both known and unknown.

And it didn’t take weeks or months of hard-pounding investigation. Just a survey and some phone calls.

It’s a project that would work very well in thousands of communities, and it would drive strong readership and community discussion. Why not give it a try?

“Big-J” journalism projects for resource-strapped newsrooms — Part I

Justice sign on a Law Courts building

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. Read the rest of this entry

Rethinking the mission and purpose of local reporting

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:

  1. A lot less of it is happening now.
  2. 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

The hardest part of saving news: Changing the definition

Lots of people understand that the traditional business model around news is breaking down. Far fewer realize it’s not just the business part — advertising — that’s broken. It’s also news itself.

Why is this so hard to understand?

A planet full of people is going from a daily diet of a newspaper and a couple of news broadcasts to constant access to almost everything there is to know. Inevitably, this is causing people today to want and expect different things from their time spent on content than people did 20 or 50 years ago.

But what we produce as news has hardly changed. Read the rest of this entry

Millennials, news and the Borneo effect

It’s the Year of the Millennials, according to Pew. In 2015, at ages 18 to 34, they will surpass Baby Boomers in the U.S. to become the largest living generation. And a major new report by the Media Insight Project, just released at the NAA mediaXchange, sheds a lot of new light on their consumption of news.

CoverThe report (pdf, html) emphasizes the bright side, stressing the finding that most Millennials do value news and consume it regularly. But the most worrisome finding for newspaper companies is that they rarely go to traditional news providers to get it. We are far back in the loop, when we’re in it at all. Read the rest of this entry

How to change behavior in your disrupted organization

Cropped handsWhen a company or industry is beset by massive disruption — as the traditional media have been for more than a decade now — it creates two massive challenges:

  1. Figuring out how the business has to change.
  2. Changing behaviors in the organization to get the new things done.

As most people in the newspaper industry can testify, both of these are difficult and relentless. There’s no “one and done” in a disruption as massive as the digital revolution.

And, unfortunately, success at No. 1 is no guarantee of success at No. 2.

Over last three years, I’ve blogged frequently about No. 1. This time let’s look at No. 2. Read the rest of this entry

Media business model: Are you running the Scotch Tape store?

If you’re old enough to remember Saturday Night Live in its glory days, maybe you remember the hilarious sketches set in the Scotch Tape store at the old mall.

The bit was centered on, and got its laughs from, a ridiculously narrow business model centered on a single product, sold in a retail location that was no longer the cool place to be. (I’d love to link to a clip here, but I couldn’t find one. NBC must be closely guarding its copyright.)

Those sketches came to mind this week as I was trying to think of a metaphor for the newspaper business and its relentless concentration on news. News continues to be our industry’s central purpose and the heart of its business model for attracting audiences.

I laughed out loud when it occurred to me that we might be well on the way to becoming the Scotch Tape store, or “Scotch Boutique,” as they called it. But the idea is as painful as it is funny. Read the rest of this entry

Why the definition of news must change in the digital age

Nothing is more deeply ingrained in the newspaper industry than the definition of news. It’s the foundation of what we do, the “product” we use to attract and serve consumer audiences, and the platform on which we sell most of our advertising.

Now the definition desperately needs fundamental change, as I’ll document below. If we hope to be relevant and engaging to the people in our markets, we need to start over, beginning with a fresh answer to the question, “What is news?” Read the rest of this entry

Four huge takeaways from Borrell’s “The Future of Legacy Media”

When your industry is undergoing massive disruption, getting a glimpse of the future is priceless. The more you know about where things are going, the smarter you can be about what to do right now.

For that reason, the report released earlier this month by Borrell Associates — “The Future of Legacy Media” — should be required reading for everyone responsible for the health and sustainability of any legacy media business in the United States and Canada. Read the rest of this entry

Desperately needed: More innovation on the audience side

Just how disrupted is the old newspaper business model — the model that’s centered on providing news to a geographic market?

A lot more disrupted than many people in the news media think.

The local media industry is scrambling to innovate around sales. This is seen, for example, in the race to create new digital sales teams and agencies selling digital marketing solutions to small and medium businesses. And the industry is innovating around costs by consolidating, outsourcing and otherwise whacking at the high costs of producing and distributing its products.

But I don’t see a lot of innovation happening around the content model that’s been the basis of the newspaper business for the last 100 — even 200 — years. Read the rest of this entry