I was looking at my posts about the future of newspapers and realized I’m using a lot of “starting from scratch” and “in a perfect” world-type scenarios. I’m going to continue those posts because I think talking about reinventing newspapers from the ground up is interesting, but I also have some ideas on steps that organization could could take immediately, things that wouldn’t require a massive upheaval to implement. Here’s the first four of seven steps newspapers could take immediately to start changing the culture:
1) Get younger in management: The challenges facing newspapers are deep, complex and have no easy answers. But they’re certainly exacerbated by entrenchment among people at the top of the food chain, especially in bigger companies. I’m afraid there are too many people out there in high positions at media companies that are perfectly willing to use the word “digital” a hundred times in an interoffice memo but unwilling to take the smallest of steps to bring new technology into the newsroom, or to let go of elements of news-gathering that simply don’t work in 2012. The industry needs to take big risks, they need creative ideas and courage. Now, I’m not saying there can’t be people who have spent a long time in the industry bringing those things to a newsroom. But I also think there are hungry journalists in their late 20s and 30s who believe in great writing, strong accountability reporting and good sourcing practices – but who are also comfortable with social media, video and mobile technology. Those are the people who can bring newspapers kicking and screaming into the future and they should be in more leadership positions. Otherwise, those folks are all going to start Web-based journalism products and print media will be fall too far behind the curve to ever catch up.
2) Get a younger audience. One of my frustrations about the local journalism industry is that we seem to have zero interest in reaching out to younger readers. One of the biggest misconceptions in journalism is the idea that young people don’t follow the news. If anything, younger people are more insatiable, voracious consumers of news than the generations before them – they just don’t always get it through print newspapers. So we should just give up? What happens when our current, older audience, and there’s no nice way to say this, dies off? Do we just close the doors and go home? If we reach out to younger people and cover the issues they care about, and deliver the news to them in a way they’ll use (hint: MOBILE) we can capture this audience, which will not only ensure newspapers readers for the future, it will also make selling ads easier because we’ll have readers in a more desirable demographic.
3) Design around design. There’s one constant thread to most newspaper websites I read – the philosophy behind their design seems to be to punish readers for visiting. Seriously, readability seems to be the absolute last priority, and most of them are a jumbled mess of popups and interstitial ads, it’s never easy to find what you’re looking for, and multimedia is often clumsily thrown in rather than flowed into the story naturally. Designing clean, easy-to-navigate websites that read well on mobile devices can massively improve an organizations digital footprint. Think about the readers: find out what they’re looking for, and make those sections prominent. I also think creating easily-explorable sections, like a document archive or a Youtube channel that shows all the videos shot by staff can encourage people to spend more time on site. But the most important thing should be readability, first and foremost.
4) Engage readers. The great sin of anonymous Web comments, in my mind, isn’t the vitriol, it’s that it’s the laziest way possible to engage. I’ve always felt the problem with comments was never anonymity, it was moderation, letting the conversation go off-topic. Moderation has either been absent, heavy-handed or inconsistent. I know orgs have seen the idea of having to approve every comment as a nightmare, but I think there are other options. Limiting the stories where commenting is allowed, for one (I’ve always felt that allowing comments on all crime stories was inviting disaster) is a way to allow comments to be more closely monitored without wasting a ton of staff time. But really, the key is to lead discussion, rather than just opening stories up for drive-by-commenting. Have directed chats, involving staff writers, experts or story subjects. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Newspapers should run joint projects with schools. For example, I know a lot of local “kids vote” type efforts have disappeared. That’s a great way to connect with younger readers, give them a civics lesson and train them to become the voters – and newspaper readers – of the future. Host panel discussions, partner with radio and TV. Frankly, I shouldn’t have made this point three – I think directly connecting to readers, in a better way that we do now, is the key to the future of journalism.