Monthly Archives: March 2010

Let’s play Newspaper 2010

Charlotte Observer newsroom staff at a picnic circa 1980

Charlotte Observer newsroom staff members pose at a picnic circa 1980.

See that guy in the photo on the far right, third from the bottom? The one with The Hair?

He was my first boss at The Charlotte Observer. On busy breaking news days, or sometimes on slow Saturdays, he’d arrive for his evening shift in metro and say, “Let’s play Newspaper.”

And so we did.

You might know him as Greg Ring. He’s a survivor, still at the paper, and one of my heroes.

The photo was taken about 1980, just a few years after Watergate. I arrived about five years later, wearing a dress-for-success suit.

Imagine that newsroom group in 1980 for a moment.

The Baby Boomers are taking over the work world. They’ll dominate newsrooms for what some call the industry’s prime years. The Watergate movie, “All the President’s Men,” was released four years earlier. John Lennon was killed that December.

That guy in front? Near the beer can? With more good hair and short shorts?
That’s Mark Ethridge III, who became managing editor of The Charlotte Observer at age 34.

Now fast forward to 2010.

The Boomers are still around, but there’s a Boom Echo, the children of the people in this photo. They’re poised to change the world again. Newspapers are not the same. We spend lots of time trying to figure out business models for journalism.

But for one brief moment, let’s pull ourselves away from business models or Farmville and play Newspaper again, without the paper.

Imagine you’re starting from scratch, online. Some people are.

What is essential to a news organization? Who will be the final defense against errors? Who will be the anchor, rewrite man and mentor of reporters on metro? Who will answer the phone (or emails, texts and tweets) and deal with everyone from the publisher to the crazy guy who might just have a valid news tip?

How does the news organization reconnect to its audience?

You can hear lots of theories these days about how technology has brought a new era of engagement with new media. But small-town editors will tell you that engagement never went away; it just got tough for the larger metro papers to manage, in fortress-like buildings with guards at the door. And voice mail. In small towns, it was easier, slower, organic.

I was bureau editor in Monroe, N.C., from 1993 to 19995, and was shell-shocked at first by the number of interruptions that walked in the front door of the bureau, in the heart of the small town. Readers wanted to talk, directly, with their newspaper. The Observer had to be just as accessible as the hometown brand we were battling. And sometimes, news walked in that door.

You can also hear lots of talk these days about UGC (user generated content) as if it’s brand new, invented along with Blogger and WordPress and cameras in our phones. Actually, news organizations have used readers’ submissions for years.

But now Twitter, Facebook, See Click Fix and other social tools have given news organizations and other institutions a way to connect again, faster and easier. And everyone else has those same tools.

At the same time, tools like Blogger, WordPress and RSS have given everyone the tools of the printing press and The Associated Press.

So what’s essential for a strong news organization? How can journalists leverage and transfer the experience and talent of those people in the photo at the top to new newsrooms? What needs to be saved? What is unique when everyone has the same tools?

Lots of people have asked about the future of journalism recently, but the focus has shifted to revenue, business models and sometimes finger pointing at Google or aggregators or other perceived villains.

I see at least one unique thing for journalists: The new possible managing editors at age 34 still have experienced journalists around, reachable inside or outside the newsroom walls. It would be great to start from scratch, with new tools, but with the best thinking from experienced hands.

So for just a moment, let’s play Newspaper 2010, and share some ideas about how to engage and reward readers, how to curate their contributions and how to reach them on their new love, the phone.

I’d like to hear your thoughts. It’s more fun than Farmville.