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.


13 responses to “Let’s play Newspaper 2010

  1. I totally agree with with you, i think that sometimes we get too carried away with technology when the basic stuff hasn’t changed. The creation and distribution is different now but the ability to investigate, write and have the balls to ask tough questions is still paramount. The technological evolution just made it more easier and interesting,and it’s not the enemy, it just showed that the industry was too laid back without any real competition. Now they have it. And the race is on, for the benefit of a vast majority, and a lot of minorities. Journalism will be alright, and so will those who choose to embrace the future. Game on.

  2. I took that picture with a 4 X 5 view camera. I was on the Observer photo staff at that time, and it was a staff party out at a private camp off Kuykendall Road. I learned a terrific amount from many people in that photograph. Foster Davis (now deceased), lying down at left with his son Bradley (I think) taught me more about writing in one coaching session than I learned in four years in Journalism School. He told me that if the lead draws a picture in the reader’s mind, you have them hooked. As a photographer that appealed to me.

  3. Nancy,

    I’m so glad we found the photographer!

    And thanks so much for the great tribute to Foster.

  4. That must have been weeks before I came to work as a clerk…I recognize almost every face, including some I haven’t thought of in 25 years. And, of course, you were my last editor there, in that brief summer of 1993. Thanks a million for putting this up!

  5. Oh, thank you, Gene, for teaching me about the “fruit-of-the-week” stories.

    Will never forget how easily you could bang out 20 inches on strawberries.

    At least one fruit story was traumatic: You wrote 20 inches, and then we had to cut to about 4 inches to hold to the front.

    In that respect, the Internet is a much richer place for writers.

  6. I grew up in a weekly newspaper family. Then I worked at small papers. Eventually, I worked at a big daily. Then I owned a small weekly. Here’s what I learned: you are so right when you say small-town papers never lost their connection to community, to real people, to readers. Metro dailies have blown gas for two decades about finding readers again. At the same time, big-city journalists have remained holier-than-thou. We’ve done what WE want, not what our readers tell us they want and need. UGC? The technical solutions are great. But the best UGC is coffee time with a real “user” to whom you really listen and who learns that you care deeply yourself about a community.

  7. Let me know if you run across any pooj in your studies.

  8. …and SPDL, or “Small Pushed-Down Lead.”

    Many of those terms get credited to you, John. Harry Lloyd would approve.

    You should have been a linguist, as well as a page layout guy, a piano tuner and an IT god.

    Does the Internet have pooj? You betcha. Probably even has SPDLs.

    So the task: Find a form that doesn’t require crap content to be overly displayed. Find a form that allows great content to be well-displayed outside of a regular template.

  9. James Willamor

    Great piece. A few thoughts from an outsider:

    Journalists and news orgs will always be in demand despite the rise of Blogger in WordPress. It is the because of the same reason that professional photographers are still in demand in spite the rise of smartphone cameras.

    Newpapers are to the news industry what cassette tapes are to the music industry. The future is in mobile devices, online, iPad, etc. The artist formerly known as the newspaper has to adapt to the changing way consumers want to receive their news. Start hiring smartphone and iPad developers now. Don’t make a Facebook app then think you’d finished – you should always be in beta.

    New upstarts have the advantage because:

    1) Because they don’t already have a revenue stream they can experiment as many ways as they like. If something doesn’t work, scrap it and try something else.

    2) They can more easily adapt to changing ways consumers want news. They can easily incorporate social media.

    3) The younger generation grew up online. They know how the internet works and how to use new technology. They just need to figure out how this whole “journalism” thing works.

    Newspaper veterans have the advantage because:

    1) Newspapers already have a revenue stream. They just have to figure out how to transition into the new media.

    2) They have the talent and skill of veteran journalists. They ones they haven’t let go, at least. The editors, designers, reporters, and photographers have skills that will always make them in demand.

    3) They can embrace the role of being an aggregator. They have the skill to curate hyper-local content.

    For journalists, the future may not include working for just one news organization. Self employment and freelancing seems to becoming more prevalent.

    At the 2008 ATL photojournalism conference, the mood seemed to be “What are we going to do now that newspapers are struggling?” At the 2009 ATLPJ the mood seemed to be “We used to work for a newspaper but we quit and work for ourselves now. One day we’ll do a wedding, the next day we’re shooting something for Time.”

  10. Pingback: Happy birthday, Charlotte Observer. Applause for your staff. | Global Vue

  11. Thanks for the memories, Bob – er, Andria! I loved every one of the 30 years I spent there and am just glad they never found out that I would have worked there for free!
    And yes, Kays Gary, Greg Ring, Mark Ethridge and Foster Davis are still on my heroes list – along with many others. Y’all were my “other” family and I dearly miss everyone.

    Cheers ‘n beers,

  12. Thanks, Gerry!
    Actually, Crystal D. and I are hatching plans to get some more women in this heroes list. Like you, Sandy Hill, Louise Lione….

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