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The future of newspapers: The problem is in the newsroom, not the newspaper

December 10, 2007

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I recently gave a speech at the Paper and Pulp Products Council (PPPC) European Summit in Brussels, Belgium on the future of ink on paper and the magazine and newspaper’s future as we know it today. I noted that the problem is not with the medium but rather the problem is with the message. In fact, after further reflection and several visits with newspaper newsrooms both in the U.S. and in other parts of the world, I am more of the opinion now that the problem is rather with the newsroom also and not only with the message. In fact, I do not know if we can separate our message problems from our newsroom problems.
The majority of the newsrooms that I have visited are still operating in the same way they operated when I was working in a newsroom as if nothing has changed. Yes, we no longer use typewriters (we are talking 70s here) but we still have the beat system and the division of the newsroom between reporters, writers, editors and designers. The territorial divisions in the newspaper are still alive, well and kicking the newspaper to its grave. Try to tell the folks in the newsroom that the reporter from the city council beat needs to work with the reporter from the world beat and see what will happen. Try to tell the reporters to ignore yesterday’s news because their readers have already heard and seen the news and see their reaction. The newsroom has to go beyond the news and the reporters working there have to do the same.
As we move to adapt in this rapidly moving technology era, we need to make sure that our reporters and editors will focus their content on the right medium. That is why some forward thinking newspapers are moving more in the direction of content editors and directors rather than news editors.
I believe that we need to have two newsrooms in each paper, one to operate the on-line edition which will continue to operate like the old fashioned newsroom with beat reporters whose sole job is to chase and report the news (from their virtual office to the web directly) and a contents-room for journalists who are going to stop the news-race and rather focus on analyzing and studying the news in order to create information out of the news as the editor-in-chief of the Dutch newspaper nrc•next Hans Nijenhuis likes to say, “News is free, but information is not.” He told Monocle magazine last month, “We feel that Next is actually a daily magazine. Traditional papers are done page by page and sent off to the press to be put together. At Next we put all the pages on the floor at 18:00 and see how it works as a whole…”
The technology of paper (and yes paper is a technology for those who tend to forget that) may no longer be the best home for most of the news, but it sure IS the best technology to provide the information that is needed to link our yesterday with our tomorrow. The good paper technology still provides its customers with a “beyond the news” detailed information that as Bruce Brandfon, the publisher of Scientific American says “will have a profound impact” on its users. We must keep that in mind and start to implement that profound impact in our newsrooms.
Change should start from within, or the prophets of doom and gloom will continue to predict the demise of the newspapers. A paper (notice that I did not use newspaper) must be that, a paper that offers unique journalism that will have that profound impact on the lives of its readers whether political, culture, financial, or even entertainment and lifestyle (Such as in the British paper The Independent). Profound is the key for a successful journalism paper in this century and beyond. The fun thing about the aforementioned is that it is not new. The necessity of journalism is as important today as it has ever been. The only change is in the way journalism is delivered. The paper technology is great for some journalism and the web technology is great for some other journalism. The key is to change and adapt. Change must come from the inside, inside the newsroom, otherwise, newspapers will be committing mass suicide in this country and their numbers will continue to drop. If your newspaper is not necessary and sufficient you can start counting the days to the grave, and if you are still talking about the need to change, IT IS TOO LATE.
The papers in this country can still have a great future if we free the newsroom and the way we do business in the newsrooms. Trimming the staff, redesigning the paper and closing national and overseas offices are nothing but band-aids on a major, deep cut that will not help the healing process. Now is the time to hit the brakes and rethink our entire strategy of the future. A strategy that should begin today and it should begin from within the newsroom.

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6 comments

  1. [...] The problem is in the newsroom, not the newspaper | Mr. Magazine Samir Husni says one solution is to turn the daily newspaper into “the daily magazine.” (tags: magazines newspapers) [...]


  2. I am mystified by your continued attachment and fixation to a only paper can be important society. Is there no room in your heart for a meaningful pixel or two?

    Your article is terrific and you almost have it right. “The problem is in the newsroom, not the newspaper” The real problem in the newsroom and in some pundits heads is that they forget that it is the words, the journalism, the actual thinking, and the distribution of that wisdom that is of any real meaningful importance.

    Why does it matter if it is paper or plastic? What is the difference? Who really cares? The problem is in the newsroom… yes. But most newsrooms are getting better and better and starting to embrace the electronic distribution of their hard journalistic work. Is that wrong? Should they stop the electronic distribution model? Is there really no hope for a significant digital future? Is paper the only way?

    Samir, are you going to tell me that it ain’t journalism, if it ain’t on a paper substrate?

    BoSacks
    -30-


  3. [...] Read the full article: The problem is in the newsroom, not the newspaper [...]


  4. BoSacks,
    I don’t think Samir is saying that at all — in fact, he has trained some great online editors and writers.

    Personally, as a journalist, I think the biggest challenge to us all has been the 24-hour news channels. We used to have a day (in the case of daily newspapers) or a month (in the case of magazines) to go out and get the facts and write the story. Now we’ve created a bigger beast of immediacy, and it unfortunately has lessened the in-depth content we’re able to provide. Today’s publishers and editors want the headline up as soon or before the competition has it, and that to me is the biggest challenge the newsrooms face. It leads to questionable credibility (and less time for journos to shake off any spin that might have been imparted by a source). In a world that increasingly has a difficulty time distinguishing between an unsubstantiated blog post and real research done in a newsroom, that’s a dangerous part of the slope… We’re all going to have to shift gears (just as was once down when news went from monthly to weekly then to daily), and unfortunately, there’s no clutch on this car to make it a smooth transition.

    Samir — great blog. Really enjoyed finding this.

    Ciao,
    Geoff


  5. Geoff:

    We agree that publishing is in a transition of delivery that remains a big problem. Who are we? What messages do we deliver, and in what medium, is it best delivered? 24 hour TV news is usually a repetition of the same brief overview. Although newspapers can’t deliver the news as new, they can and should deliver the authenticated details in long form.

    As for me and Samir, it is a long and on-going debate between friends of a pixel interpretation of the future of reading Vs. a complete reliance on the distribution of trees.


  6. [...] The future of newspapers: The problem is in the newsroom, not the newspaper I recently gave a speech at the Paper and Pulp Products Council (PPPC) European Summit in Brussels, Belgium on the future of ink on paper and the magazine and newspaper’s future as we know it today. [...]



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