Two issues facing newspapers

Chip Oglesby bio photo By Chip Oglesby

There are a lot of issues that plague newspapers. Aggregation, fair use, copyright infringement are just a few, but when you really hone in on the problem it may surprise you.

The two main issues keeping newspapers from moving forward are control and education.

Why control?

The Washington Post’s new social media policy is a great example of what I consider ‘control.’ Before the immense rise of social media fueled by recently by twitter, it was easier for a journalist to hide their opinions. Services like twitter keep their thoughts and opinions archived and always on the record. There are plenty of conversations going on about transparency and objectivity in journalism, but why is the Washington Post so concerned about controlling the message of their journalist?

The one-way street that newspapers had are quickly coming to an end. Newspapers need to prepare and educate their staff on how to properly handle these situations. Just because journalists need to remain objective doesn’t mean they can’t engage with readers and sources. Let’s take a look at the Ombudsman’s blog on the Post’s situation:

In today’s hyper-sensitive political environment, Narisetti’s tweets could be seen as one of The Post’s top editors taking sides on the question of whether a health-care reform plan must be budget neutral. On Byrd, his comments could be construed as favoring term limits or mandatory retirement for aging lawmakers. Many readers already view The Post with suspicion and believe that the personal views of its reporters and editors influence the coverage. The tweets could provide ammunition.

A lot of this can be avoided if newspapers would adapt the idea of transparency in the newsroom as Dan Gillmor and numerous others have suggested. Journalist, like everyone else are people and they have opinions and bias. They may as well be as open as possible about it from the beginning. Some will think that this could lead to “Fox news style journalism” but there’s a difference between being transparent and injecting your opinion into every story.

One of the things we’ll be talking about at Social Media Club in October is how journalist can use services like twitter to engage with readers and help build a stronger audience through transparency and engagement. Newspapers also need to have active social media users in their company draft guidelines instead of relying on senior management or editors with little to no experience with these tools.

The second example of control is the continuation of the general interest product. I’ve borrowed this quote before and paraphrased it but it really applies to newspapers as well: “If publishers would focus on how people read and not how they publish, they would be a lot better off.”

The actual quote comes from Clive Thompson:

To which I reply: Sure they can. But only if publishers adopt Wark's perspective and provide new ways for people to encounter the written word. We need to stop thinking about the future of publishing and think instead about the future of reading.

The Internet has completely unbundled the newspaper and allows news to come to the reader instead of the reader going to the news. Although newspapers continue to see a decline in print readership and an increase in online readership, papers still operate in an old school model where stories are routinely held until midnight deadlines. It’s understandable that the paper is still the golden egg of newspapers, but failure to embrace the wants and needs of your readers will result in the end of your business, plain and simple.

Why education?

What’s wrong with your company when 100% of your employees know what a furlough is but less than 75% can actually write a full hyperlink? If your employees can’t finish this “a href” you’ve got some serious problems. Some of the main divisions in the newsroom come from the simple fact that employees aren’t being properly educated. I’m not just talking about continuing education through school, I’m also talking about educating them about their future of their jobs and their trade in a real world environment.

If you ask a typical employee why newspapers are doing so poorly, you’ll likely get an answer like ‘I blame the Internet’ or ‘it’s all Craigslist’s fault’ when in actuality, it goes much deeper than that.

Education also includes teaching coworkers things like although the AP is useful for print, it’s unnecessary for the web when you combine tools like Publish2 with ideas like the link economy. So wire editors now become curators of news instead of copy editors.

Education also extends past institutional knowledge and also includes having an open conversation with coworkers. Before you groan about having another meeting or another brown-bag lunch, consider the fact that these conversations will be one of the most important things you’ll ever talk about at your paper. Leaving coworkers in the dark about what’s going on is just another form of control and shows a lack of education.

Where do we go from here?

All of this starts with a conversation. It could be in small groups or it could be through email, but it must happen. Newspapers cannot afford to operate in the business as usual mentality. Don’t wait for higher-ups to start this conversation, take it to your coworkers and start it yourselves.

Take the time to see how your paper uses ‘control’ and question if it’s really necessary. Ask questions about everything and don’t be afraid to raise the question of education, the only thing worse than an uneducated audience is an uneducated newsroom.