What wakes you up in the middle of the night? With me, it’s sometimes the dog barking or a growling stomach or perhaps a daughter with the flu, but most times it’s a nagging question with no clear answer: Can the daily newspaper be saved? The theoretical angst behind this question gains a stark and frighteningly personal focus when I think about The Roanoke Times, the daily newspaper (circ: 97,000) I oversee in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. And it’s a question we’ve been wrestling with for a number of years.
The depressing news about newspapers seems overwhelming. A stack of studies sits on my desk, all of them lamenting circulation declines, the absence of young readers, the aging of loyal readers, the corporate squeeze for ever-higher profits, and the intense competition for readers’ time as the Internet rapidly reshapes our world. The story is all too familiar — it’s the end of the world as we know it, and that’s enough to make any ink-stained curmudgeon cry.
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The Roanoke Times onlineYet I’d argue that digital technology and the Internet might offer the best reason to put the cap back on the Prozac. It’s counterintuitive, but the future of what we do is not as scary as it seems. Newspapers — or, more precisely, newsgathering operations — are in a position of strength: In most markets, they are the last remaining mass-medium; they are prime creators of original journalism and, in many cases, they are deeply committed to a community’s civic life and welfare. Finally, they are blessed with a profitable business model that can, if allowed, underwrite a range of digital experiments and online forays to move us successfully into the future.
Simply put, we need to reinvent newspapers. That’s what we’ve been trying to do in Roanoke during the past few years as we’ve merged our print and online content operations. Recently, we launched a funky and fun online video newscast each weekday, which is our way of embracing today the multimedia world of tomorrow.
Granted, this former railroad town is not at the hub of the digital universe. We’re not the first place most people would look to see how the Internet is revolutionizing our business. But that’s the beauty of the digital revolution — a news organization doesn’t have to be in Silicon Valley to make things happen. In fact, not being in a big city is helpful; we have the freedom to run some experiments, fail, try again, and along the way discover some meaningful success.
Crossing the Digital Divide
What follows are some lessons we’ve learned on the digital front. Consider this an up-close look at what’s happened at our midsized newspaper to enable us to join the digital dance. This is designed to be part case study, part practical advice, part big picture, and then, a look at some pitfalls to avoid.
Educate, educate, educate: About two years ago, our newsroom undertook a strategic review dubbed “Looking Ahead.” Amid the tumult of change, we asked some basic questions: How is the world changing? What’s happening to newspaper readers? What’s the impact of shifting demographics? What does national research, such as reports from the Readership Institute, tell us, and how do these findings fit with our local experience? Where are our gaps in coverage? What do readers expect from us? And how is the Internet changing everything?
As answers emerged, we began to glimpse ways to transform the newsroom culture, first by recognizing that we need to split the word “newspaper” apart and realize that it’s the “news” that’s most important and not the “paper.” Once that happens, other changes follow more easily.
Take the long view: The newspaper’s senior leadership team, led by our publisher, Wendy Zomparelli, played a key role in helping the newsroom think hard about the future. Once we identified where the rest of the world is headed, it was easier to decide where we wanted the news operation to go. We decided not to stick our head in the ink tank, but chose to become well-schooled in digital technology so we could find new ways to reach different audiences. We wanted to become a living laboratory and find smart ways to play in the online world.
Don’t force change: That’s a sure path to failure, because resistance will be high. Look first for allies across the newsroom, staffers who see the need for change and the importance of online. We partnered first with photographers, technophiles who love to experiment and want to see their work go global. As creative storytellers, photographers started posting online slide shows of assignment outtakes, then began playing with an inexpensive video camera and digital mini-disk recorders. Several learned Flash and quickly emerged as teachers. I knew we’d reached a milestone when I spotted two reporters with headphones on, busily editing sound files for online stories to accompany their work in print. The enthusiasm was going viral.
Integrate, don’t separate: There’s a robust debate about whether a disruptive technology has a place in the traditional newsroom of the newspaper. My belief is that you shouldn’t relegate online players to backrooms or basements, particularly if you want others to learn and grow. The online content operation should be integrated into the newsroom, particularly as the seismic shift of resources from print to online gains momentum. We moved our online team into the newsroom more than a year ago, and what a difference it has made. The online editor hears a metro editor talking with a reporter about a breaking story, and within minutes that nugget of news is posted on our Web site. We’ve even given up the old-fashioned notion that we can scoop ourselves, except in the rarest of cases.
Prepare to get messy: While our online content team is in the newsroom, our digital media operation is a separate department. That works okay, even if it can sometimes be confusing. The digital folks handle the back-shop work, the Web mastering, some advertising, and any disruptive content creation not connected to the newsroom. In this case, some separation is good, because they are free to pursue new and more radical ideas.
Get everyone to drink the Kool-Aid: Beyond our online team, we have key players in the newsroom thinking online. Editors know that breaking news online is important. Our assistant managing editor for content and planning, Dwayne Yancey, is intimately involved in online ventures. Our managing editor, Carole Tarrant, who joined us a year ago, brought with her immense online savvy, creativity and new ideas. It’s vital to have key leaders pushing an online vision.
Shore up your weaknesses early: First, claim the online news ground. Plant your flag by breaking news online and beating the TV stations. Go ahead and scoop the newspaper. Anecdotal evidence leads us to believe that breaking news online leads to more interest in the print product. If we didn’t pursue this strategy, we’d then worry about who’s going to get there first and eat our lunch. In the end, eyeballs are eyeballs, and we have to capture them wherever we can.
Don’t be afraid to invent jobs: Who would have imagined that a newspaper would ever create a slot for a multimedia editor? That’s what we did more than a year ago. Seth Gitner, a photographer who gravitated early to online, fills that role. He’s helping us with video, audio and slide shows. We’ve invested heavily in video equipment and are building a studio next to the newsroom to allow us to create, in effect, a guerrilla TV station, so we can do online video on our terms.
So far, this approach has paid off with some stellar multimedia projects, like “An Unlikely Refuge,” a chronicle of Bantu resettlement in Roanoke that won first place in the 2005 Associated Press Managing Editors Online Convergence category and “Going Down the Crooked Road,” a fascinating multimedia look at old-time mountain music. Finally, we recently launched the TimesCast, an interactive, online video newscast with a playful sensibility that posts each weekday afternoon in time to beat our TV competitors.
Embrace the waves: More than a decade ago, when I was executive producer of allpolitics.com, we used Vivo, a streaming online video software that rendered jerky, ghostly images of video on the Web. It was an experiment without an immediate payoff, and I used to wonder why we bothered. But with broadband video bearing down like a tornado, everything about this technology has changed. The same for podcasts, which we jumped into last year, and YourPix, a popular photo-sharing site that creates good user-generated content. Finding a way to play with new and emerging technologies is key, even if at first they don’t attract huge audiences or drive big dollars.
Interactivity: Play to the medium’s strength. Bring users into the site and listen to them. Create message boards. Build polls. Seek comments. Pay attention to the most-read stories. Bring blogs onto the site, including ones written by newspaper staff. Build them around strong communities of interest. We were slow to buy into blogs because of their bad-boy reputation. Now we’re looking to drill deep in areas with strong local audiences and use blogs as an interactive reporting tool. Yes, we run them through an editor’s eye and monitor the conversations. Next, we plan to pursue and publish in print more user-generated content, particularly as community news items.
Work across traditional barriers: In this new world, different departments need to communicate and coordinate well, so that means that editors will be talking a lot with advertising and information technology folks. In a recent redesign, for example, we created sellable slots for advertising, which is crucial to our business success. Our content creators are constantly aware of the need to work closely with the technology. In a traditional newspaper world, such conversations might seem jarring, but in this new environment, it is essential that they take place as we construct a new paradigm. This is not always easy for newsroom folks to understand. The irony, of course, is that newspapers, the world’s chroniclers of change, are themselves frightened to death of change, and that fear can often impede vital experimentation. Don’t let that happen.
Maintain journalistic values: As online meshes with journalism, realize that the two are not separate and apart. Journalists’ work is about telling stories, albeit in different (and exceptionally powerful) ways. Core journalistic values must be maintained, for they are what lend the news organization its credibility, whether in print or online. We should not underestimate the value of that credibility, because those fundamental journalistic principles we hold dear — accuracy, verification, fairness, honesty, context, ethics and community service — will become an even more important competitive advantage as the Internet morphs and people seek sources of news they can trust. No matter where this technology is able to take us, it is essential that our strong journalistic foundation be preserved.
Beware of Pitfalls
Along the way to achieving this transition, there are plenty of bumps in the road. For starters, not everyone in the newsroom will embrace the new vision; it’s a foreign concept for many traditional journalists, particularly when the word “video” is involved, given our long-seated disdain for our TV brethren. We’ve had some robust discussions, driven by a fear that our online efforts will undermine our print credibility. Editors daily face the difficult decision of whether to ask a reporter to write a breaking news item for online or allow her to continue reporting for the print edition. We’ve debated whether we should scoop our newspaper by posting news stories online. We’ve argued about whether message board postings should be used in print, and we’ve unfortunately allowed some items on our blogs that clearly didn’t meet our journalistic standards. Currently, an internal debate is rumbling about how much playfulness we can inject in the TimesCast without besmirching the newspaper’s reputation.
For many of us, this is uncharted territory, and as we move into it and experiment, we discover new boundaries, and this can lead to a rather disquieting tension for many.
The Tipping Point
Looking at this as an economist, I would draw a chart with two trend lines to explain our future. On this chart, I’d look to see where the tipping point — when the weight of our news dissemination effort moves from print to online — might occur. The first line, declining steadily over time, captures the commitment of readers to print newspapers. The second one, increasing steadily, shows users going online to get news. At some point in the not-too-distant future, those lines will cross.
As we head towards that tipping point, these trend lines let us know that a concomitant shift already needs to be taking place at our news operations. Gradually, we need to either add or move resources — people and money — from print to online. This redeployment of resources is one of the more critical questions ahead. Our experience tells us that efforts should already be underway to make time for journalists in the newsroom to experiment with and learn more about digital storytelling. With good planning, the tradeoffs in this transformation need not be too harsh or debilitating.
So far, we’ve been fortunate. Our newspaper is consistently ranked among the Top 10 nationwide for readership, based on the percentage of adults who regularly read us. (In our case, that number for our core market is 73.5 percent, a loyal reader base.) Our corporate culture willingly embraces change, and we’ve devoted real resources to allow our newsroom to experiment. But all we’ve done is still not enough to tell us whether we might save the daily newspaper.
My hunch, however, is that we can, and here’s why: We’re motivated by a glimmer of optimism rather than a pall of fear, and we spy opportunities where others might see problems. In the end, we’ve decided to try to shape our future rather than allowing the future to shape us, and that has a calming influence, particularly in the middle of the night.
Michael Riley, a 1995 Nieman Fellow, is editor of The Roanoke (Va.) Times.