The future of newspapers: The problem is in the newsroom, not the newspaperDecember 10, 2007
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.