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A Messenger the community can trust, a legacy to draw upon as news provider

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What does it mean to be the Messenger in today’s new news ecology where the people we used to call the Audience are now equally participants, competitors, colleagues, arbiters and sources?

In a recent blog post, a Canadian newspaper executive strips away the myths that surround the establishment news business. In its place, he outlines the heart of the business and the values upon which to rebuild the business: Trusted Messenger, shared accurate content, readers helping make sense of the constant stream of information.

As scholastic journalism organizations look to find their place in the mix, his thoughts are food for thought. He could just as well be talking about your organization. Community, collaboration and trust is at the heart of effective media of the future.

Old Dogs New Tricks and Crappy Newspaper Executives

CEO John Paton’s Dialogue With Employees And The Public On How Newspaper Companies Can Adapt and Thrive

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(Speaking notes for an address to the Canadian Journalism Foundation, Toronto, Canada, 2/16/2012)

Good evening.

I’m old media.

This is my 36th year as a newspaper man – apologies – my 36th year as a multi-platform news executive.

It’s a career I started as a copyboy on this same street about a dozen blocks east of here.

I was hired for taking a picture of a belly dancer fooling with a drunk columnist. I was given the job of a guy who had just been fired for being a drunk. And I ended my first night on the job, taking home – dead drunk – the guy who hired me.

In my career the only reprimand I have ever received – if you don’t count the odd suspension for insubordination – was about expenses, specifically it was about booze. It read: “You are no longer allowed to order an Armagnac, digestif or any other after dinner drink that is older than you are.”

This is commonly referred to as the Golden Era of journalism.

And now, like many of you, I am struggling hard to teach this old dog new tricks.

Struggling to accept that much of what we know is no longer valid.

And trying to come to grips with the fact that crappy newspaper executives are a bigger threat to journalism’s future than any changes wrought by the Internet.

All of us have been subjected to the annual spectacle of a gaggle of print publishers gathering on a panel – Doug Knight, our moderator this evening, has officiated over a couple of these – to declaim they are not dead yet.

It’s an embarrassing display played out time and time again at conferences where our industry heads look like aging ingénues at Stratford declaring they can still play Juliette. And nobody has the heart to break it to them.

Or worse still, mediocre journalists, wrapping themselves in the flag of long-form journalism, to deride the value of social media as a reporting tool. A tool they don’t understand or care to understand.

And then having to watch them use that ignorance to dismiss the phenomenon of participatory journalism.

When I hear these hacks cry out that their work can’t be reduced to 140 characters I always think – if only – and pine for the useful hours I could get back in my life if spared their thumbsuckers.

And while these false, zero-sum arguments play themselves out, Rome burns.

And in the United States of America, where I work, the fire is burning faster and fiercer than ever before.

Since 2005, the U.S. newspaper industry has lost more than 60% of its advertising revenue and so many jobs no one can accurately count them.

And while this is not yet the story in Canada, I would say the only difference between here and where I work in New York City – is time.

It’s not like the Internet isn’t coming to your town.

The Journal Register Company – the Company I took over two years ago – and, more recently, MediaNews Group –which we now both run under Digital First Media – could be the poster kids for what ails the US newspaper industry.

We count our products in the hundreds.

Our employees in the thousands – ten thousand actually.

Our audience in the millions – 57 million actually.

And our revenues are counted in the “Bs” as in billions.

And, it is profitable. With better margins than an average Dow Jones listed company.

We have titles pre-dating the American Revolution and can stretch our lineage back to at least one predecessor title co-founded by Benjamin Franklin. Well, just about stretch if we stand on a high stool.

Another title was around to publish George Washington’s obit.

And our core mission is enshrined in the nation’s Constitution.

And none of the above will save it or other companies like it – unless we and our industry profoundly change how we do business.

You can’t fix what you won’t admit is wrong.

So let’s start with this one: Print’s coming back.

A show of hands please if you think that’s true – heads up people this is a trick question.

In America from 1985 to 2005 – the very peak of print newspaper advertising revenue – the average annual growth was 2.7%. Again, that was the Golden Era.

And for those of you wrapping the daily sheet in heavyweight glossy stock betting on a return to the Golden Era – at that rate of growth -it will be more than a quarter of a century before we are back to – 2005 levels.

But that is not going to happen as advertising gets ever less share of marketers’ dollars.

And newer, sexier platforms are targeting customers in such terrifyingly precise ways that we print folks are effectively taking a knife to a gunfight.

In 2012, in the US, it is expected there will be more advertising on the web than in newspapers and by most estimates more Americans now access their news via the web than print.

The customers have spoken.

But are we listening?

I would argue not nearly hard enough.

The debate rages on where that news starts – largely print – rather than how people access it – largely the web – and how it might be blocked.

And so, for awhile, we were treated to spectacles like the online copy enforcer RightHaven pursuing stay-at-home bloggers obsessed with their cats who happened to pick up some online news copy for a post. RightHaven died a deserved death.

Now we have the Associated Press playing around with NewsRight – the word Right is used a lot by print people. This time, we are told, NewsRight is out to nail companies who are not bloggers – it would seem – and to gather data on how our copy is used. Okay. We’ll see.

In the meantime, where are the industry efforts to understand and act upon how news is actually created and consumed?

Where are the industry efforts on understanding how professional journalists can come together with the people we used to call the Audience and who, armed with laptops and broadband access, are in the same business as us?

I meant what I said earlier when I used the word struggle.

I am not a Net native. I’m a newspaper man. My father was news photographer’s assistant and then a printer. The first hands that ever held me had ink under the fingernails.

And it’s tough enough struggling with concepts such as open publishing and participatory journalism and to let go the control we used to have on copy because of our control of the means of production, without print’s knuckle-draggers refusing to acknowledge we need to change at all.

Because change we must.

And if we are going to change we are also going to have to admit that the Print model is broken. Don’t believe me – then read any of the newspaper company Chapter 11 filings in the United States or Clay Shirky.

If you haven’t read Shirky’s essay Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable and you are in the newspaper business then brother let me tell you – you are not paying enough attention.

His message is simple:

“If the old model is broken, what will work in its place? The answer is nothing. Nothing will work. There is no general model for newspapers to replace the one the Internet just broke.”

And his message is clear:

You don’t tinker or tweak a broken model. You start again anew. And I would add build upon our foundations.

To do this you have to let go of those things we once held true. Like:

  • – We are the gatekeepers of information.
  • – That we are the agenda setters and that we decide what news is and what is not.
  • – And that we keep the Outside world outside and only let in the chosen few – people like us.

So, if we can admit the Print model is broken what else must we recognize isn’t working anymore.

I think it is this:

As career journalists we have entered a new era where what we know and what we traditionally do has finally found its value in the marketplace and that value is about zero.

Our traditional journalism models and our journalistic efforts are inefficient and up against the Crowd – armed with mobile devices and internet connections- incomplete.

Our response to date as an industry has been as equally inefficient and in many cases emotional.

“You’re gonna miss us when we’re gone” is not much of a business model.

The French philosopher Roland Barthes argues that when culture becomes nature we are in the presence of myth.

In our blustering for self-justification we have created a myth of our value. Without ever establishing its economic value, we have argued our value as journalists and journalism itself is self-evident and unassailable.

This has been one of the most gut-wrenching struggles for me to deal with because clearly journalism is not without value but, for sure, how it is largely practiced in print today – particularly “he said last night journalism” – nearly is valueless.

Today news organizations that do not embrace how news is now created and consumed – Digital First and Print Last – are ignoring not only how their customers desire to get news but how they understand it as well.

We ignore this at the risk of killing our business but worse we ignore it when the solution to our future is sitting under our noses – the power of our brands – if we would only let go of the past and embrace the future.

The University of London professor Celia Lury argues in her essay “The Brand as New Media Object” that brands themselves are platforms for content.

Dr. Melissa Aronczyk at Carleton University argues, with co-author Devon Powers, in their work “Blowing Up The Brand” that “the relationship between consumers and brands become less about the consumption of the product than about social relations, experiences and lifestyles such consumption enables.”

In an industry that has been hidebound to its production process – printing – but equally wedded to the belief that its brands stand for something, I think the professors’ arguments point to a way forward for newspaper companies as news companies.

Just as the printing press divorced the reader from the writer with the pen and created a whole new world of scalable audiences and techniques of communication, the new digital platforms demand journalists use each platform to its utmost advantage.

The first steps in this transition have been our Digital First strategy but clearly it is also a case of Digital Right – the right uses for the right platforms on the right occasions. And not just the simple re-purposing of content from one platform to another in order of priority.

Online stories today that do not link are now considered inferior by consumers. News companies, as brands, cheapen and destroy themselves if they do not allow the social interaction that society now demands of the new digital tool set.

Marshall McLuhan knew this when he said the Medium Is The Message.

In the news business, particularly a legacy business like newspapers, if we don’t understand this and take advantage of the Medium’s potential we will cease to be the Messenger.

And it is in this role of Messenger that we have tied up our ideas of brand values.

Such as:

  • – A Messenger the community can trust.
  • – A Messenger known for its accuracy, integrity, etc.

But what does it mean to be the Messenger in today’s new news ecology where the people we used to call the Audience are now equally participants, competitors, colleagues, arbiters and sources?

At Digital First Media we have started to answer that question by first unlocking our brands and sharing our content into this new eco-system for all to use. And where we, in turn, aggregate the Audience’s content, curated under our brands.

The Audience – at the Journal Register Company – has responded to this initiative by doubling in about a year.

Letting go of control is a very hard thing to do. And allowing the Audience – or the outside – in is even harder.

Often when I talk about bringing the Audience into the news conversation, the aforementioned aging ingénues respond sharply, reminding me:

  • – “We have always connected with our communities.” Read: letters to the editors or streeters.
  • – “Our readers are part of our process.” Read: surveys and citizen members of editorial boards.
  • – “We hear and act on their complaints.” Read: the ever-ineffectual Ombudsman.

When I worked at the Toronto Sun, as both a reporter and an editor, we said the same things usually wrapped up in this tidy little phrase:

“We produce a newspaper for the guy who rides the Queen St. streetcar.”

I bought into that, even though as a guy who actually did ride the Queen Street streetcar to work it was obvious about half of the riders – men and women of color; non-English speakers struggling to find their way in Canada’s largest city – looked nothing like the self-satisfied white guys – me included – who sat around the rim deciding what was news.

The web ensures that doesn’t happen anymore. Or at least it doesn’t happen for a long period of time for a news company trying to survive.

Extending Professor Lury’s argument that brands are platforms, at Digital First Media we have taken our initiative to unlock our brands and share our content one step further.

In Torrington, CT we have literally extended our brand, the Register Citizen, by using the newsroom itself as a platform.

At the Register Citizen we have established an Open-to-the-Public newsroom and all are welcome.

They are welcome to work at blogging stations set up right in the newsroom. They are welcome to use the community meeting rooms and they are welcome to attend the news meetings themselves. For those who can’t make it the news meetings are also live-streamed.

In Torrington we have tried to embody the basic values of the web – transparency, inclusiveness and interactivity.

Placing online fact-checking boxes on every story is our direct request for help to correct any mistakes we may have made. I believe this is an act of transparency that is bonding us closer to that community.

To be clear, we have accepted we are no longer the old-fashioned agenda-setters or gatekeepers of information for our communities. Clearly communities know what they want and can organize themselves around issues and activities.

What we can do, however, under the power of our brands, which are still trusted, is help organize relevant information out of the river of content now available in each community.

Vint Cerf, Chief Evangelist at Google and called by some the Father of the Internet, is very clear about this:

“People’s trust in journalism has always been about branding.”

And as the community has become even a physical part of the newsroom we are building a better connection with that community than we have ever had before.
In Torrington, the community has responded by driving the newspaper’s digital audience to more than five times its print audience and it has taken the Register Citizen from a loss to profitability.

Along with the Community Media Labs at all Journal Register Company dailies and which are now being rolled out at Media News Group, Torrington’s Open-to-the-Public newsroom is becoming a new model of community engagement that works and enhances the news organization’s brand value.

This is a brand value being built by the community itself as the community takes ownership in what the local news organization does and helps to establish its key values of community involvement.

The gate is forever open now. There is no longer a gatekeeper on community news. Communities will now value those institutions – like Twitter – that help the flow of news and those – like us – that add context and reflect the values the communities themselves set.

Adding value to the new free-flow of news requires a new news organization.

Our journalism tied to the power of participatory journalism is in my opinion an unbeatable combination as we help communities make sense of the river of information on the web.

In New Haven, CT we have created what we believe is a local newsroom that adds value.

It has four key components: Breaking News; Investigative Reporting; Audience Engagement and Widgets.

Audience Engagement and Widgets are the new no-brainers. Newsrooms must share content and they must engage their audience as demanded through the new digital tools that are powering social media.

No social media connection. No news organization.

While the crowd can be as fast or even faster on breaking news, adding the context we have through our community connection and professional newsrooms is both vital and additive to brand value.

However, it is the re-establishment of an investigative reporting unit – a victim of cutbacks in local newsrooms a long time ago – which can add the greatest value.

Finally, again, and using the new digital toolset, we are asking questions that others are not asking.

That virtuous circle is complete when the news organization’s engaged audience pick up those questions and demand answers.

From a business perspective we are getting closer to the Holy Grail of value alignment with our communities.

Trust me when I say all of this is easier to say than do and it takes a commitment from the entire organization. If you are not fully committed the community will know it in a heartbeat.

And then you are dead because a thing of value has to earn its value – constantly.
I strongly believe sharing content will mean more prosperity not less in the future.

One of the reasons I am so stern on paywalls and other walled gardens is because I firmly believe that in the future content will go the audience and not the other way around.

Smart, original content, tagged with advertising will gain value by being shared through networks.

Shared content equals influence.

And influence in the new eco system equals engagement.

And engagement equals value to those advertisers and others trying to reach that engaged audience.

While online news start-ups here in Toronto like OpenFile understand this intuitively too many newspaper publishers do not.

And they continue plow on by slashing editorial, research, marketing and even sales resources – our only core competencies – to meet profit expectations.

An aside, newspapers get the investors they deserve.

In the US with many newspapers either in, coming out of or threatening to go into bankruptcy, newspaper managers appear to be equally bankrupt of ideas as they seek to please investors by slashing costs and driving short-term gains.

Investors, being no fools and recognizing newspaper managers have no plans to truly transform their business, are simply doing their jobs when they keep management focused on producing short-term gains.

Investors don’t buy into myth. They buy into math.

If you want investors to take a long-term view on our industry or our companies then you better give them a long-term plan that works. Give them a plan they will back.

And I would add it should be a plan built on the editorial floor where the core of our business lies.

The rest of transformation is mechanics.

If it is not core to your business- and in newspapers core means content and sales – then reduce it, stop it, sell it or outsource it.

And for God’s sake stop listening to newspaper people. We have had since the mid-90s to get this right and clearly we are no good at it.

Put the digital people in charge – of everything.

They can take what we have built and make it better.

It is so very important we get this right – not just for the industry and investors – but for our communities.

“The newspaper is the place where communities are formed,” writes New York University professor Aurora Wallace in her book Newspapers and the Making of Modern America. Dr. Wallace continues: “Newspapers are … the engine behind the construction and maintenance of strong communities … when they falter, we must ask what else will suffer as a result.”

We owe it to the communities who have sustained us not to falter just because we are afraid to change.

Finally, I would say to newspaper execs learn to let go and love the ‘Net.

I am here to tell you, you can teach an old dog new tricks.

Metaphorically, I still chase cars down the street and bark at cyclists but I’m picking my marks better now and for old dog I’m starting to catch some of them.


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A Messenger the community can trust, a legacy to draw upon as news provider