Monday, May 26, 2008

Anderson conflicted

I've actually had a chance this morning to read almost all this month's Carnival of Journalism blog posts at Ryan Sholin's place, and when I got to Jack Lail's from Knoxville/Scripps-Howard, it occurred to me that if you want an example of today's conflicted thinking over newsrooms, contrasting the collection of "carnival" posts and what is happening in Anderson, S.C., might be a place to start.

This casts no aspersions on the Independent-Mail, which is trying hard to reinvent itself. But contrasting that with some of the other practitioners and thinkers, I just come away with the feeling that again the game afoot in many newsrooms is too much about trying new things in old ways.

Anderson, the "Electric City," is one of those small metro areas that grew up in the Industrial Age and especially after World War II. They're scattered all over Ohio, Indiana and Pennsylvania, for instance. Places like Marion and Muncie, Newark and Zanesville. In most cases , they were one-industry towns, and that industry is long since gone (or mostly gone). In Anderson's case, it was textiles. The nickname comes partly from the city's having the first electrically powered cotton gin (1897).

The city is in South Carolina's northwest corner. Clemson University is nearby, as are the mountains and the recreation afforded by the upper lakes of the Savannah River. The city hasn't been able to capitalize on that too much, however. Clemsonites really shudder when you mention Anderson in the same breath, for instance, and the population went from about 26,300 in 1998 to 25,800 in 2003 (the last figure on the city's Web site), having dropped as low as 25,500 during the 2000 economic bust. But the county grew by a little more than 7 percent from 1999 to 2006. Its per-capita income ($18,365 in 1999) and median household income ($36,807) were about middle of the pack. The paper's circulation, which includes several other counties, including over the line in Georgia, at last report (SC Press Association) was a little over 35,000 daily and about 40,000 Sunday.

In other words, things are just kind of plugging along up in Anderson, and the growth, such as it is, is in the outlying areas, which are more expensive to serve, especially with energy costs trending as they are.

Editor Don Kausler, in his contribution to Lail's post, recounts the following:
  • His paper has jettisoned its seven-day Lifestyle section in favor of a Thursday entertainment tab, "a handful of" faith and values pages on Saturday and a section called Vibe on Sunday. Other traditional features such as comics, puzzles, etc., continue through the week.
  • It now has a dedicated online reporter 6 a.m.-3 p.m.
  • In our shrinking newsroom, we no longer have enough reporters to cover traditional beats such as government, education, business, health, etc. Now all of the reporters on our content staff are general assignment reporters. They are assigned to geographic regions, and they cover government, education, business, etc., in that region (or they wrangle content from freelancers)
  • The paper also has converted to a tall tab.
That first one probably would get a thumbs up from almost all the "carnival" posters and many more writing these days about newsroom "innovation." It's a bold step in a business that too often continues to think it has to be all things to all people. The jury is out on the tab, though it is generally considered more reader-friendly.

But let's look at the other two:
  • The dedicated Web reporter. Contrast that with Pat Thornton's thoughts as part of the "carnival": Why have two staffs to produce editorial content, when most employees could be creating content that works on multiple platforms? That’s what I mean by rethinking staff resources. ... Duplication of work is a great way to stifle innovation, because most news organizations are under a tremendous budget crunch and can’t afford to waste resources like that.
    • Kausler also writes: We reverse publish some of his material, but nothing goes in the newspaper unless it already has been on the Web site. The question from the other side might well be: Why isn't that the case with all your reporters? (Maybe it is, but his response does not indicate so.)
    • Consider this from Adam Tinworth: You break it on the web, you break it as soon as you have it, and you develop it online. And then, and only then, do you analyse, contextualise and develop it on paper. And you hope and pray that you've done a good enough job developing it on the web that your readers will trust you enough, and value your judgement enough, to shell out for a paper product to enjoy at their leisure. Paper is a vehicle for analysis, for depth, for a sit-back-and-think experience. The internet is for news.
  • The conversion of all reporters into geographic-based general assignment. How often have we heard just the opposite -- that breaking news is the Web's province and that the future of the newspaper is to develop expertise that can pull numerous threads together to provide expert analysis? Contrast Kausler's with reporter and blogger Matt King: The bias against specialization in media companies is self-defeating and then some. It’s fostered newsrooms full of haggard reporters who aren’t nearly the stars they could be because they’re spread so thin. And it’s a huge factor in newspapers’ dwindling readership and influence because reporters are not given the chance to become experts in the communities they cover, or experts in education policy, or experts in government finance, or really great writers or videographers or whatever. ... Overwork and unreasonable expectations = stenography.
    • I find myself wondering who is going to keep an eye out so that things that might be seemingly isolated or random among geographic areas don't get overlooked as pointing to a larger pattern. This, it seems to be, puts additional pressure on the editors to see that 10,000-foot view. But even if they do, will the GA reporter thrown in to do the story have the time to develop the expertise.
    • (Some additional thoughts from Charlie Beckett: Firstly, we lose newspapers and TV newsrooms. ... New ones will appear. ... The new ones will not duplicate their rivals content. They will invest in difference. You can see this happening already in the UK newspaper markets as each title emphasises its particular character.)
Finally, one other thought. Anderson tried and then dumped Scripps' online community site YourHub awhile back. Travis Henry, YourHub's former editor, said during the ACES meeting in March that some papers never fully realized that YourHub and other attempts to create online community cannot be "turnkey" -- they require resources and nurturing. But the reigning meme is that newspapers need to look at ways to create online community. For now, Anderson is going with the usual handful of staff and community bloggers and by now pretty much standard solicitation for calendar and news items from the community.

Is Anderson trying? Yes. Is it really doing anything new for the Web? No. Is it typical? I'm afraid that's too so, and it's worth thinking about as we go about offering advice.

Ryan Sholin, who was this month's carnival-master, has picked up on this post and in the process points to a really good one from Michelle McClellan of the Knight Digital Media Center, who points out that a substantial part of our problem in newsrooms comes from the tendency toward perfectionism -- which impedes innovation and gives us a place to hide.

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