Thursday, June 14, 2012

Charging forward

I read this analysis of the changing newspaper industry recently after one of my Digital-First Media bosses Steve Buttry pointed to it in a blog post: This I Believe ... by Tim McGuire of the Arizona State University Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communications.

I also recently led a panel discussion at the Pennsylvania Press Conference sponsored by four state newspaper associations in Gettysburg on "Doing it All: Tips from old-school journalists in the digital age." The highlight was York Daily Record photojournalist Jason Plotkin, outfitted with bulletproof vest, hip waders, and an iPhone, reminding us that he is a pro who does not sacrifice quality in the name of a blogger with a Flipcam.

That evening (June 2) was the annual awards banquet sponsored by the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association and Pennsylvania Newspaper Editors Association. Three hours of speeches more or less followed the theme: "Our business is struggling but thanks for this award that notices we're still trying." At the conclusion of the speeches -- yes, it really lasted three hours -- the Harrisburg Patriot-News and The Philadelphia Inquirer were honored as the two Pennsylvania media organizations that won Pulitzers this year for local reporting and public service. Their introduction and standing ovation was, as we say, a buried lead. The example of reporting excellence belongs front and center -- first, not last, in a year's retrospective of our profession.

These experiences got me thinking.

As I returned home that Sunday and to the office Monday, I was confronted by the mistakes an overworked copy desk misses on the front page, the bad headlines that get on to the web when the send button replaces a second read, and the uninspired content that comes from doing things the way we've always done them, even with new, faster digital tools and techniques.

But I also saw good work, much of it sadly taken for granted -- by us in our presentation and by our readers who are looking for something more immediate.

I decided it was time to stop talking about how change is pushing us, and instead, change how we're being pushed.

In the words of another media analysis, I don't want us to be "cranking out just enough rickety junk to keep words and pictures around the remaining ads" of a shrinking newspaper. ("Sustainable Quality" by Dan Conover)

Monday I wrote this staff memo:
"While I am forever encouraging people to think differently about how we do our jobs, I need to do some of that as well. After some discussion with others, it seems we cover high school graduations with story and photos just because that’s the way we’ve always done it. Starting now, we’re changing."

Tuesday I came into work earlier -- not to write another editorial or play on Twitter, but to sit still and plan how to best present to the readers of The Mercury and the audience at a meaningful look and analysis of the world in which they live.

I don't want us to crowdsource a reaction story to property tax reform on Facebook if we don't also provide a data analysis of how property tax has affected your households and your schools.

I believe we need to stop recounting the timelines of every crime and the events leading up to an arrest and start providing some perspective on the toll that crime takes on your neighborhoods.

I believe community engagement must go beyond being liked by a couple thousand people on Facebook. Being involved with the community means working together for good, not just sharing words and photos.

I want this newspaper and all its new and varied platforms to be an instrument for change in Pottstown and the surrounding area. I want people to discover in the print edition a reader's joy in experiencing a well-crafted story. I want the website to reflect the life of the towns we cover as vibrant, sometimes tragic, events and moments.

If we are to embrace change and grow, we can't be stuck trying to do things the way we've always done them and just add video. We can't write a slew of boring stories and pat ourselves on the back because we had a conversation with readers on Facebook or because we blogged a few times.

If I am going to ask others to look at their work as opportunity instead of burden, it starts with me. I believe that this newsroom is an amazing group of journalists who every day rise above the limitations of our industry. They report on this community with creativity, passion and accountability. What we need to do better is sharpen our presentation and follow with conviction our core values of telling the good story, fighting the important fight, and inspiring progress in the towns and schools we cover.

During the past two weeks, I've been busy writing memos, marking up papers and analyzing our work. If you read The Mercury in print, you may have noticed some bolder page designs, more colorful pictures, better packaging of news. If you follow online, you saw our photo galleries of high school graduations and our blog Schuylkill River Sojourn that traveled along with this year's 112-mile trek down the river.

I didn't give a speech at this year's awards banquet because we didn't win any major awards. If we had -- if I did -- it would be to say I believe in local journalism and this newsroom's ability to deliver it.

Keep an eye on us.

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