Journalism and 20 years of leaving my comfort zone

Yesterday was my 38th birthday, and today, I’m celebrating exactly 20 years working in the newspaper industry. Tomorrow, it will be exactly 10 years working for the company that presently employs me.

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My first press pass, as an 18-year-old reporter at my hometown weekly newspaper in the suburbs of Portland, Maine.

I’ve worked as a reporter, editor, corporate director of news and publisher. I’ve handled news, sports, features, writing, editing, photography, page design, advertising sales, circulation, budgets, launching newspapers, closing newspapers.

I worked for small, family-owned newspapers for my first 10 years in the business. For the past 10 years, I’ve worked for Journal Register Company/21st Century Media/Digital First Media, which was even more print-focused than the print-focused newspaper industry when I started, and today is on the most radical “digital first” edges of newspapers that are jettisoning print.

I still don’t know what I’m doing.

So that’s my biggest failure (with a long trail of mistakes behind me), but in a way my biggest source of pride as well. If I can tackle each day at work with the attitude that I have a ton to learn and a ton of opportunity to grow, approaching 40 in a constant-state-of-change industry isn’t so depressing.

I became a daily newspaper editor three weeks before 9/11. I was 25 and struck by how how much I was just going to have to figure out on my own and on the fly. I turned to the more veteran journalists in the newsroom, and they were in the same boat, because nothing comparable had happened in their careers.

It was one of many times in my career in which stepping out of my comfort zone taught me things, made me a better journalist, a better boss, sometimes a better person. In this business, that can be a once-in-a-career news event, such as 9/11 or the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting last year. But I’ve also learned from 20 years of putting myself in new and challenging or foreign situations. This included a corporate editorial oversight role I wasn’t qualified for a year into my tenure with Journal Register Co., working on the business and advertising side as a publisher, and then getting back into the newsroom full-time and trying new stuff.

I never went to journalism school, and had only one semester of college before a guy named Harry T. Foote taught me the basics of journalism. Harry had retired as city editor of the Portland Press Herald, Maine Sunday Telegram and now-defunct Evening Express, and purchased two weekly newspapers, the Westbrook American and South Portland-Cape Elizabeth Journal, that he combined into the “American Journal” in the suburbs of Portland, Maine. He was 77 and I was 16 when he first interviewed me for a reporter job. He went with someone more experienced (ha!). I walked back into his office a little over a year later with a letter to the editor I’d written alleging that a local bar had over-served the drunken driver who had hit and killed the mother of a friend of mine. He rejected my letter as libelous, but he offered me a job as a reporter. I started the day after my 18th birthday.

Harry’s curiosity about an incredible range of subjects, from the minutiae of local life to matters of global importance, taught me what the editor of a good newspaper is like. On one page, he’d be asking (and investigating) why the Postal Service seemed to have fewer and fewer public mailbox drops around town for the convenience of the public, and on another he’d be tackling the long-term implications of nuclear power.

Harry kept pulling on the thread of a story, and pulling, and pulling, and pulling, to the point where I swear he had public officials trained to just spit out what they were hiding to avoid the interrogation-to-completion that would come as long as certain details were missing or unclear or didn’t add up.

He taught me that people in power lie to taxpayers, to their customers, to reporters. I can’t count the number of times he would be grilling a reporter about the results of an interview they’d done where something wasn’t right, and Harry ended the conversation with a loud, “He’s lying!” as he walked back to his desk. That was our cue to get back on the phone, go back to our sources, go back to public documents, and work harder to flush out the truth.

Harry taught me how to write with a can of rubber cement, proofreader’s pen and scissors that he kept in a hardware store apron around his waist and attached to his desk with fishing line so as not to get lost in the blizzard of papers there or walk away to another part of the office. I would leave a printout of my copy in his box. He would physically cut out the fifth or sixth paragraph of a story, and move it to the second paragraph, using the rubber cement. He’d put a piece of scrap paper in his typewriter and write a new lead for me, and glue that to the top. He’d write a dozen questions in the margins. He would mark all of my spelling and grammar mistakes. And like a surgeon, from the middle of sentences, cut what seemed like hundreds of unnecessary words from my copy. I’d get the frankenedit and have to go into my story and make all of those changes. I learned how to spell accommodate and recommend after fixing them for the fifth or sixth time. And I started to learn how to get to the point faster and to anticipate the questions a reader would end up having about the holes in my story.

When the Portland Press Herald ran a story about Harry’s death last year, the photo they ran of him in the old American Journal newsroom in 1999 showed me in the background, fitting proof of his influence on me.

Twenty years after Harry took a chance on me, I’d add only a few key things to the basic approach that he taught me if I could go back in time and counsel myself about what lay ahead as a journalist and a manager of newsrooms.

1. Write about important shit. I think the biggest responsibility of an editor, especially after years of shrinking newsrooms, is to decide what not to cover – to focus his or her staff on what’s important in any given day or week or month or year. We should be working in one part of the room on how to use technology and partnerships to aggregate and curate hyperlocal and commodity news – and anything else not deemed part of our core mission. And everyone else should be investigating, writing and visualizing for our readers the stories they can’t and won’t get on their own or from anyone else. Stories that expose wrongdoing, or shed new light on our collective human experience, or even offer a solution.

2. Don’t be an asshole or tolerate assholes. I’ve done both, and still need reminding that all it does is stifle the creativity and potential of the people who work for you and with you.

3. Be transparent about your work and awesome at making corrections. This would have been great advice 20 years ago, too, but today it is an essential part of doing business. “Digital first” isn’t just a switch in preference from reading something on paper to reading it on a screen. It’s a fundamental transformation of the relationship between consumers and brands, from providing a product to providing a service. Journalists are human beings with biases and world views shaped by what they’ve been exposed to in their lives. It’s why we need to make diversity a top-priority issue in newsrooms, and also why we must emphasize transparency about where we’re coming from and what our process is like. That includes admitting mistakes when we make them, correcting them quickly, and with absolutely full and prominent disclosure of what we said that was wrong, and where and how we fixed it.

4. Put the reader first in approaching technology and collaborations. Like tech companies that put millions into user experience and product before thinking about monetization, we need a reader-first revolution in newsrooms that pursues and presents good journalism using whatever platform and partner (be it blogger, citizen, nonprofit or legacy competitor) gets the job done. Don’t be penny wise and pound foolish as the industry wrestles with the great unbundling of advertising and content.

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

What’s in store for print-first journalism schools?

The Guardian's "Three Little Pigs" explains how "open journalism" is replacing the traditional gatekeeper role.

The University of Connecticut might lose the print edition of its newspaper, “The Daily Campus,” after students voted to reject an increased subsidy of the product.

This should be a great opportunity, right? UConn has a journalism school. What would better prepare journalism students for today’s workforce than to figure this out?

Our company is focused on the crossover point where digital revenue offsets print decline. And everyone, newsroom included – newsroom especially – is part of that conversation and mission.

We’d love to hire graduates whose journalism school education includes figuring out what to do when your print business is dying and you need to grow, connect with and monetize a digital audience.

But I’m afraid that’s not going to happen anytime soon at UConn, although I hope I’m wrong.

As Romenesko was writing about the potential demise of The Daily Campus, UConn Journalism School Dean Maureen Croteau was at the annual meeting of the Connecticut Daily Newspapers Association last week addressing the Bizzaro World question of “How do we preserve our role as gatekeepers?”

“We used to know who we were,” she said. “We were gatekeepers. We sorted out the rumors from the truth.”

Croteau criticized the idea of the story as a process, saying that media now “reports rumors” not because we know they’re true but because “everyone is talking about it.”

Her example of why readers still need newspapers to “sort out the truth for them” was a recent quest she made to research the purchase of a new washing machine.

One online review said it was the best thing ever, the next said it was the worst, and my God, where is my newspaper telling me what kind of washing machine to buy?

It’s OK. I didn’t really understand what she was saying either, other than that she hasn’t fully figured out the whole web-has-revolutionized-consumer-knowledge thing and how to use it.

Croteau said – in that exasperated, exaggerated voice that print curmudgeons use to indicate their reluctant disdain – that she Tweets and Facebooks and realizes we have to embrace new mediums.

But let’s find a way to hold on to that gatekeeper thing.

She ended by quoting former Philadelphia Inquirer Editor Amanda Bennett’s contribution to a recent Nieman Reports collection of “what I would have done differently” musings.

…. Where Bennett argued not the conventional wisdom that newspapers did far too little to change back in the day, but that they panicked too much:

“With circulation and advertising both dropping, we had a tendency to go apocalyptic. I remember long impassioned discussions about the “future of news,” about how young people didn’t care anymore, about how newspapers were becoming irrelevant. The panic froze us and perhaps made us less effective at figuring out what our problems were.”

Croteau closed with Bennett’s closing words, “that people—including young people—want news and that even physical newspapers have long lives ahead.”

The message stood in contrast to Croteau’s fellow CDNA panelists last week.

Rich Hanley, head of Quinnipiac University’s journalism graduate school program, talked about how his school has been “platform agnostic” for years. We know this, because we’ve hired a number of his graduates.

And retired Hartford Courant Managing Editor Claude Albert had a very different take on “what I would have done differently.”

Albert kicked off his remarks by showing The Guardian’s “Three Little Pigs” video, and then remarks by Guardian Editor Alan Rusbridger on the importance of “open journalism.”

Albert said the traditional gatekeeper role must be shifted to “harness the expertise of others.”

The Guardian is “charging into the networked world for a very journalistic reason,” he said, and no one can question the results they’ve achieved in partnering with the audience to do better watchdog journalism.

Albert said newsrooms must “fully embrace digital first, including social media.” And that means a top editor who is fully committed to digital, and ALL reporters and editors web-capable and social media savvy.

He said you need to find “the RIGHT efficiencies,” to put resources into journalism that distinguishes you, and to engage with the community and partner with others, “so you can devote more of your resources to things only you have.”

The world that Albert describes is the one Croteau’s students will inhabit. Will they be prepared? I know potential employers like me will be asking that question. We can’t afford not to.

Posted in American University, Connecticut Daily Newspaper Association, Hartford Courant, Jeff Jarvis, Maureen Croteau, Quinnipiac University, The Daily Campus, University of Connecticut | 8 Comments

Patch ignored early advice about one journalist-per-town model

Before Tim Armstrong launched Patch, jumped from Google to AOL, bought it from his own investment group and expanded it across the nation, he ignored early advice suggesting that the hyperlocal’s one-journalist-per-town model would not work.

Quinnipiac University journalism professor Rich Hanley says he was asked to help with a secret “beta test” of Patch in Hamden, Connecticut, prior to its later public launch in three New Jersey communities.

Patch paid Quinnipiac students to test whether one full-time journalist could provide all the content necessary to make a  hyperlocal website about the community viable.

The answer they gave – “No” – was not what Patch wanted to hear. Hanley said that their test in Hamden found the town to be too diverse, too complicated, too time-consuming for one person to handle.

Patch pushed forward with the model anyway, but used the findings, at least initially, to shape the types of communities it chose for sites. They looked for towns with a defined downtown core, high average household income, and significant digital literacy. That is, communities that were not particularly diverse, or complicated.

But after AOL took over and took Patch from three sites to more than 900 in about 18 months, Hanley said, not as much thought or rigidity, at least, went in to selecting communities.

They had a great, easy-to-use hyperlocal web platform, and were “blinded by the ease with which you can replicate digital stuff.”

“They thought they could just press a button,” Hanley said, pluck someone from a local journalism school, and have a site that would be meaningful to the community.

The clearest sign that the advice didn’t sink in, perhaps, was that one of those 900 sites ended up being a Hamden, Connecticut, Patch, staffed with the one-journalist-per-town model that Hanley and his students said wouldn’t work there.

Speaking at a Connecticut Daily Newspapers Association conference Thursday, Hanley said he did not accept money as an early Patch advisor, in part, so he’d be “free to criticize them” down the road.

Hanley said Patch expanded too fast, and without a solid plan for local advertising sales. “The second flaw was they didn’t promote the sites enough,” he said, wondering why they didn’t do things like sponsor the high school football field scoreboards in Patch towns.

Some of the Quinnipiac grads who went to work for Patch have already left.

“They weren’t learning anything on the job,” Hanley said. “They weren’t getting better. They were just burning out.”

That’s where the benefit of working in a traditional newspaper or TV newsroom comes into play, Hanley said.

“You’ve got to have quality assurance. In a newspaper, it’s the copy desk,” Hanley said. “You’ve got to have another set of eyeballs on the content before it’s posted.”

Former Hartford Courant Managing Editor Claude Albert wonders why Patch doesn’t leverage its journalists in Connecticut for “a higher aim.” If he had 80 reporters stationed around the state, Albert said, all kinds of ideas would come to mind in terms of enterprise, investigative reporting or deeper analysis of important topics.

University of Connecticut School of Journalism Dean Maureen Croteau said that the difference between Patch and many newspapers who often have less than one reporter covering a single town is that Patch editors are more in the mode of “feeding the site,” seven days a week, with everything from calendar items to breaking news.

Hanley said that they asked Patch management in the early days about their plans for investigative and enterprise reporting. They pointed to Google Map visualizations of police blotter and fire department call reports, and said “the rest would come later.”

“Think of Patch as a piece of software, because that’s what it is,” Hanley said. “And it shipped with a lot of bugs.”

Gary Farrugia, publisher of The Day in New London, said he was worried at first when Patch moved into his coverage area.

Then it ended up being “largely stenography instead of journalism, and it’s wildly inconsistent from town to town.”

But Farrugia is keeping a very close eye on it, because they have a good platform and it might be a matter of time before they or their successor figures out how to use it well.

“I’m worried about what comes after them,” he said.

Posted in AOL, Claude Albert, Connecticut Daily Newspaper Association, Gary Farrugia, Maureen Croteau, Patch, Quinnipiac University, Rich Hanley, The Day, Tim Armstrong | 35 Comments

Overcoming burnout on the road to ‘digital first’

“We will be and are burning people out.”

That quote from John Paton led the final paragraph of a Jan. 15 Los Angeles Times profile on his “digital first, print last” transformation of Journal Register Company and Media News Group.

My finger reached out and pointed to that part of my laptop screen when I saw it. “This. … This!” This is important. It won’t keep us from getting where Paton is leading us. But it has slowed us down, no doubt.

When asked whether journalism would suffer as newsrooms juggle Twitter, video, blogging and other digital tools, Paton said he’s afraid it might in the short-term, “not because of (digital) tools,” but because of burnout.

Burnout, you say? Didn’t newsrooms invent burnout?

Actually, Journal Register Company took it to another level in the pre-John Paton days. After years of cost cutting and bankruptcy, the theme song of our newsrooms could have been a cross between something like this:

and this:


Then Paton came along and laid out this urgent plan to completely change the workflow of newsrooms, which required we learn a whole bunch of new tools, a whole new skill set. Even longtime top editors, even the most curmudgeonly members of our city desk or sports department, would have to learn and change.

And we’d have to do it while continuing to get a print edition out the door and satisfying the expectations of our print readers.

Paton described it at the time as “trying to change the tires on a moving car while driving down the highway.”

Remarkably, he sold tired and cynical editors on that message. They went from burned out to enthused to rally behind a vision for preserving and reinvesting in local journalism. Paton’s playbook is a great guide, actually, for companies who are dealing with their own digital first burnout questions.

But two years into the JRC turnaround, we’re dealing with a different and perhaps more critical stage of burnout.

If folks who’ve bought in to “digital first” become overwhelmed or discouraged, the danger is that they’ll slip into a going-through-the-motions daze, holding us back from the next stage of real cultural change in the newsroom. As one editor said, “I just don’t feel like I’m doing any one thing well. I don’t even know where to start sometimes.”

They bought into Paton’s message because there was a clear strategy, communicated well and executed with transparency. He has treated them with respect, focused on the important stuff, provided the tools needed to get the job done and empowered them to try new things.

Preserving those conditions as the company grows in size and advances to the next stage of “digital first” will keep them buying in. But to keep them from burning out, we’re at a juncture in which top editors must step back, prioritize and recognize human limitations, starting with themselves. That means a ban on the words “do more with less.” It means deciding NOT to do things that are less important or to at least place a lot less focus on them.

If we believe producing quality journalism and connecting it with as wide and engaged an audience as possible is our number one goal, let’s learn about and use every tool possible that will help us do that. But if we’re doing things that don’t support that goal, we have to stop doing them. And we have to stand up to our own publishers, our own staffs, and our own sense of tradition, to draw that line.

Respect for journalism and journalists

Paton got JRC editors’ attention literally on day one by inviting them to a seat at the adults’ table. When he gathered publishers to a meeting near JRC headquarters the day after he started as CEO, he surprised both by inviting editors, too.

He said things like “quality journalism is our business model,” and, with raised voice, that we would never let advertisers dictate or compromise newsroom decisions under his watch.

Treating journalism and journalists with respect is a great weapon against burnout.

Treating someone with respect means listening to them – really listening – and it didn’t take Paton long to hear about how much lack of investment in basic hardware was holding newsrooms back, especially as they peered into the digital first future from around their Windows 98 PC and tube monitor.

Paton launched an “evergreen” program that replaces computers at least every three years. He backed up his emphasis on video by giving every reporter in the company a Flip camera. And he backed up his call for top editors to lead by example in learning new tools by sending each of them a smart phone and iPad.

Providing proper tools to do the job is a great weapon against burnout.

Empowerment and Experimentation

Paton used two projects in his first year as CEO to give newsrooms a sense of confidence and empowerment when it comes to the world of digital journalism.

The Ben Franklin Project involved publishing the print edition and website of every JRC daily newspaper for a single day using only free, open source, web-based tools.

By proving we could do it without them, it enabled Paton to win major savings from software vendors, savings that helped fund the aforementioned hardware upgrades.

But the real genius of Ben Franklin was that it forced newsrooms to behave like startups. By necessity, they were turned on to a whole world of online storytelling tools. And editors who’d rarely shared resources or knowledge naturally reached out to each other without prompting to compare notes and share discoveries.

Paton followed Ben Franklin with the JRC Idea Lab, which freed up 15 employees to spend 25 percent of their week to experiment, plus a monthly stipend, smart phone, Netbook and iPad.

The Idea Lab had direct benefit to the newsrooms where members were assigned. They saw through ideas and projects that would otherwise never have materialized from the daily grind.

But it sent a broader message to newsrooms across the company. It’s OK to experiment. It’s good to experiment. And experimenting means failed experiments. And that’s OK, too. It’s part of the process.

Empowering staff to try new things and fail is a great weapon against burnout.

One foot in digital, one foot in print

So here we are, two years in, and we’ve improved our journalism. Digital audience and digital revenue have grown tremendously. And just over the horizon we catch glimpses of Paton’s “crossover” point where digital growth exceeds print losses and local journalism is saved.

But there’s a lot of truth to Paton’s analogy of changing the tires on a moving car. It has felt like that at times. Hey, at least he warned us!

JRC is a company of small newsrooms – dailies and weeklies where top editors are laying out pages for the print edition after a day of live blogging, tweeting and editing video, and motivating the team in between.

It’s amazing how much they’ve willingly placed on their shoulders over the past few years.

We’re at a stage when some key remaining pieces (a new, integrated CMS, for example, and the Thunderdome project that will provide print pagination and national news coverage) are coming soon, but not here yet.

Rather than complain about the difficulty of jumping into digital first with both feet when they still have one foot in print, they’re finding ways. They’re masochists. Or they really believe in what John Paton is saying. Probably both.

You can keep that up for only so long, though, before burnout endangers the mission.

And if a local editor is attempting to put the whole thing on his or her back, chances are they are putting off some difficult but inevitable decisions.

What’s not part of the mission? Why are we still doing it?

Is the newsroom still organized around print or the premise of a larger staff than exists today? How should job descriptions change?

Are you working more hours, juggling more stuff and obtaining more gray hairs to avoid answering these questions?

Old way or new way, staff of 50 or staff of 25, every day you arrive at work and make decisions about what you are not going to cover and not going to get to.

If learning new tools is important, if dedicated training time is what it will take to get there, you have to decide (for you, or for one of your employees, or both) to do one less thing that day.

If using a new tool improves the quality of your journalism and/or helps you connect that journalism to a wider audience, but takes longer than the old way, you have to decide to drop something that’s less important.

The first step to overcoming burnout is knowing that it’s OK to make those decisions.

If they came easily, it would be much smoother sailing in my own newsrooms right now, and I wouldn’t be thinking so much about whether my staff is burning out. But I do think it’s the conversation we need to have.

Posted in Ben Franklin Project, Burnout, Digital First Media, Digital Ninja School, Idea Lab, John Paton | 2 Comments

Is linking a ‘keystone habit’ that can convert newsrooms to ‘open journalism?’

Elaine Clisham was shaking her head at the latest dust-up over whether media organizations should link to other news outlets and sources of information in their reporting on the web.

On Twitter recently, Mathew Ingram and others again debated media organizations' failure to link to other sources.

Clisham said that newspaper industry leaders such as her former American Press Institute colleague Steve Buttry had been preaching the importance of linking for years.

“The fact we’re still talking about this is exactly the problem!” she wrote on Twitter in response to a discussion among MG Siegler, Mathew Ingram, Charles Arthur and Caitlin Fitzsimmons that was sparked by Siegler’s scoop of the Wall Street Journal on a story, and the Journal’s subsequent refusal to link to his original story when they followed up on the news with independent confirmation.

But the fact is, the newspaper industry wasn’t listening to Buttry. Linking is still a foreign concept if you are still writing the same story you used to write for print, except that it’s also published on the web. And linking does not come easily with content management systems built for print editions.

(Full disclosure: Buttry is now community engagement and social media director for the company I work for, Digital First Media/Journal Register Company, which means we, at least, have to listen to him).

Buttry makes the case far better than I could in a recent blog post referencing the Siegler-Wall Street Journal spat, “4 reasons why linking is good journalism; 2 reasons why linking is good business.” See also this 2010 Jonathan Stray post he references. And Ingram’s recap, “Is linking just polite, or is it a core value of journalism?

But I wonder if the practice of linking – or reporters’ and editors’ failure to do so – could be far more significant than we realize in the transition to digital journalism.

In his new book, “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life and Business,” New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg writes about “keystone habits” that have defined or transformed both corporate cultures and individuals’ lives.

He tells the story of how Paul O’Neill shocked investors when he first took over as CEO of Alcoa by saying nothing about profits, but instead telling executives that the company’s number one goal would be to improve worker safety.

“I knew I had to transform Alcoa,” O’Neill told me. “But you can’t order people to change. That’s not how the brain works. So I decided I was going to start by focusing on one thing. If I could start disrupting the habits around one thing, it would spread throughout the entire company.”

O’Neill’s approach at Alcoa led to record profits. The focus on worker safety prompted a cultural change that instituted a more disciplined and conscientious approach to all aspects of the business.

O’Neill’s success at Alcoa is just one example of a keystone habit, a pattern that has the power to start a chain reaction, changing other habits as it moves through an organization. Keystone habits, I found in writing my book, can influence how people work, eat, play, live, spend, and communicate.

What could be a bigger “keystone habit” of journalism that is part of the open and networked web than linking?

And what could be a bigger “keystone habit” of just plain and basic good journalism than what Buttry calls out as “honesty, transparency, attribution and context?”

We are teaching reporters and editors to link out as part of our Digital Ninja School newsroom training experiment. And a new content management system built by Saxotech that we are rolling out across Journal Register Company combines print and digital and incorporates the ability to link at every step in the process.

But I wonder if it should be moving closer to the top of our list. Maybe linking is the “keystone habit” that could be the lynchpin to creating newsrooms that are truly “digital first.”

UPDATE: Alex Howard had this to say on Twitter about my last sentence:

 

I agree we aren’t “digital first” without linking. The “maybe” part is wondering if this one key aspect of digital first is a behavior that, if embraced by all, could become the catalyst for bigger change.

Posted in Charles Duhigg, CMS, Elaine Clisham, Linking, Mathew Ingram, Saxotech, Steve Buttry | 8 Comments

A new kind of newspaper severance: Help laid-off journalists be entrepreneurs and partners

As I was packing for a trip north to speak at the Maine Press Association convention this weekend about our Newsroom Cafe project in Connecticut, this story came across my Twitter feed this morning.

The Portland Press Herald, my hometown daily, is laying off 38 employees and eliminating 23 additional jobs through buyouts, with the “majority” coming from the newsroom. I’m guessing that’s going to have a severe effect on the mood at this conference.

The size of this layoff is dramatic for a paper its size – (Portland’s newsroom has already been winnowed significantly during a rocky ownership change from the Seattle Times to a group of investors). And the Portland newsroom is one full of veteran, longtime journalists. We’re not talking about layoffs of just-out-of-college J-school grads.

This is huge. And it’s a good opportunity for the industry as a whole to stop and reflect on how we do this.

I’m not questioning the need for these cuts. I wouldn’t anyway without knowing the financial circumstances the Press Herald is facing, but as a community daily newspaper publisher myself I know how difficult of a print advertising environment they must be facing.

But what if a newspaper such as the Press Herald engaged the journalists affected by these cuts in an entrepreneurial brainstorming session on the news and information gaps that exist in Maine?

What if they – in a formal process – helped them use their severance checks as seed money for new, independent journalism enterprises?

There are niches and opportunities out there better filled by the start-up culture this would create than the legacy media brand.

It’s bound to happen with a layoff like this anyway. Check out Connecticut, where former legacy media journalists have launched enterprises such as CT Watchdog, CT Mirror and CT News Junkie.

So why not help set them up as “competitors” that could really function as independent partners to the Press Herald? Use your legacy base to aggregate and curate the work of these new efforts. Help sustain them – and your own operation – by taking on part or all of their advertising sales for them.

If the Press Herald doesn’t do that, the Bangor Daily News should, or one of the Portland TV stations.

The ideas here are straight from the preachings of Jeff Jarvis – and there are more and more resources these days for stoking entrepreneurial journalism, including Jeff’s one program for that at CUNY.

Portland – or the next legacy media company to lay off journalists – should reach out for help and pursue an approach like this. It will be good for journalism, good for your community and may be your only chance at spinning a cutback into growth for your brand.

Posted in CT Mirror, CT News Junkie, CT Watchdog, Hartford Courant, Jeff Jarvis, Maine Press Association, Newsroom Cafe, Portland Press Herald, The Associated Press | Leave a comment

Bloggers teach community inside newly opened newspaper building

Fifty community members showed up for a local blogger's presentation on Irish genealogy at the Troy Record.

What if a newspaper could unlock brand new areas of content and news coverage via citizen journalism, use this to connect with audience members yearning for information on these niche topics, and become a virtual and physical center of community information and discourse in the process?

Well, take a look at what’s happening at the Troy (N.Y.) Record under the leadership of Editor Lisa Robert Lewis and newsroom digital specialist Tom Caprood.

Over the past year, the newspaper has recruited 50 local bloggers to be part of its Community Media Lab. (The Troy Record is a Journal Register Company paper, and it’s part of a company-wide effort that has led to a network of more than 1,000 local blogging partners.) According to Caprood, 90 percent of them are blogging for the first time due to the newsroom’s outreach and training of citizen journalists.

Others had “hobby blogs” with small audiences. After partnering with the Troy Record, which links to their posts from its website and promotes their work, they saw their traffic explode. One blogger said the big bump in traffic that the newspaper brought him and interaction from new readers moved his blog from off the radar screen to near the top of Google searches on the topic he is writing about.

Recognizing the gold mine of interesting content being produced by these new bloggers, and the newspaper office’s great location in the heart of downtown, Lewis, Caprood and Troy Record Publisher James Murphy started working on plans for a physical space showcasing these new community connections.

The Troy Record renovated an old circulation office into a community room with free public wifi and a flat-screen monitor for presentations.

They turned an old circulation department office on the first floor of the Troy Record building into a community meeting room. And in early March, they scheduled their first public workshop. A local CPA who blogs about tax advice and is a member of the Community Media Lab put together a program on tax tips ahead of the April 15 Tax Day crush.

“Not one person came,” said Caprood. “That was our first learning experience.”

The newsroom adapted quickly, spreading word about their next event, a program on Irish genealogy presented by another Community Media Lab blogger, by reaching out to local organizations, posting it on message boards and publishing a story about it in the print and online editions of the Troy Record.

“We went from having zero to having 50 people show up two days later,” Caprood said. The room was packed to the point where there was just enough room for emergency exits.

Newsroom staff scrambled to take down names and email addresses of community members in attendance, seeing the opportunity to build something for the future.

The newspaper quickly scheduled a second night with the Irish history blogger, and another 50 people showed up, including a big contingent of new faces.

“Then we had a bass fishing forum,” Caprood said. Again, it was hosted by a Community Media Lab blogger. He shared secrets about the best local fishing spots, and even brought lures and equipment to show off.

A Community Media Lab blogger shared tips and secrets on the best local fishing spots at a workshop hosted by the Troy Record earlier this month.

Twenty-five people showed up this time. “Afterwards, people stuck around for half an hour looking at his lures and asking questions,” Caprood said.

A workshop on social media followed, with 20 community members attending in addition to Troy Record staff themselves, eager to learn more as they integrated Twitter and Facebook into their news reporting.

Last night, the newspaper’s longtime horse racing columnist presented a workshop on the ins and outs of handicapping and the unique features of the nearby Saratoga racetrack as compared to other tracks around the country.

Each workshop the Troy Record hosts is live-streamed on TroyRecord.Com, and Caprood is working on a landing page that will archive replays of each session for future viewing. He has also run live chats during the workshops to field questions and comments from people watching at home or from afar.

The newspaper has also opened the space up for use by community groups, including a recent work session by an organization attempting to promote regional tourism. Free public wifi has been added to the space, and a large flat-screen monitor installed for presentations.

“The end game right now is to get people down here into the building,” Caprood said. “I think the perception among community members has been that it’s not OK to just walk into our building and engage with a reporter or editor. We’re trying to get rid of that mindset.”

Caprood said there is opportunity all around for the newspaper to become more involved as a facilitator of community engagement and problem-solving.

In May, the Troy Record will host a forum with the heads of local theater companies, facilitated by a Community Media Lab blogger who writes about the arts.

The newspaper is planning to open up its first floor on city Election Day for community members who want to watch the votes be tallied and participate in live-streamed commentary and reaction.

Tom Caprood is the Troy Record newsroom's digital specialist.

Caprood said the newspaper wants to be a resource for the growing number of neighborhood-specific organizations who are attempting to revitalize Troy.

Tonight is the monthly “Troy Night Out,” where businesses stay open late and art exhibits are hosted throughout the downtown.

And in a symbol of literally being more “open” than ever before, the newspaper is participating for the first time in the four-year history of the event. It will host a lecture and exhibit of photos taken in the aftermath of 9/11 by former Gov. George Pataki’s official photographer.

Tomorrow, the Troy Record newsroom is crowdsourcing an effort to document a citywide Earth Day cleanup. Neighborhood leaders are sending in “before and after” pictures and videos that will be mapped out on TroyRecord.Com as a display of what a community working together can accomplish in one day.

Murphy said that the good will these kind of outreach projects and creativity have generated for the paper has been significant.

“When I first got here as publisher, people asked about the newspaper like they were talking about a funeral because of our company’s recent bankruptcy and cutbacks over the years,” Murphy said. “Now it’s nothing but positive feedback for what we are doing for the community. The buzz has been terrific and it builds every month, and the result has been significantly larger audience for both our digital and print products.”

“People are noticing,” Caprood said.

Other newspapers attempting to figure out “community engagement” should take notice, too.

Posted in Community Media Lab, Crowdsourcing, Livestreaming, Tom Caprood, Troy Record | 3 Comments