Hunting Where the Ducks are Flying

Ten years after newspapers first began publishing on the Web, the Greensboro News & Record is embarking on something bolder. Led by Editor John Robinson, the 90,000 circulation paper has invited its readers in the Piedmont (north central) region of North Carolina – and the wider blogosphere — to suggest ways the paper can do a better job “serving the public and allowing the public to serve journalism.”

The proposals under discussion include reader-contributed blogs on neighborhood news, wikis on various subjects, letters-to-the-editor presented as a blog, bio pages for staff members, and the possible extension of online advertising to reader-generated blogs.


What’s different about the News & Record approach is the extent to which the paper is discussing its plans before any conclusions have been reached, exposing its internal decision-making to competitors and customers alike.


The approach extends a growing trend toward transparency in the news business, maybe not all the way to what Wikipedia describes as radical transparency, but certainly headed in that direction.

After introducing the idea on his blog Dec. 1, Robinson assigned writer/editor Lex Alexander to organize the effort. Alexander issued this invitation in mid-December, and shared what he came up with in a report published online Jan. 4. Robinson discussed it in his regular newspaper column this past Sunday. The paper’s ideas are drawing interesting support from the blogosphere, especially from Jay Rosen, chair of the journalism department at New York University and author of the PRESSthink blog. 

Robinson discussed the paper’s Public Square initiative in an e-mail exchange with Poynter Online.


What’s the reaction been to your Sunday column? From inside the paper? And howbout reaction from the outside — phone calls, e-mails beyond the comments attached to the online version of your column? What does the reaction suggest to you about the project you’re embarking on?


Hey! This is four questions bundled in one! Actually, there has been little reaction from readers to the column. A half-dozen or so have weighed in with their comments on the column at my blog. I recognize all their names except one, so they are regular readers of my blog. I’ve gotten no “traditional” feedback — e-mails or phone calls — from people outside the blog, which is a little off-putting to me, the traditional journalist. But that does show the wonderful potential of cyberspace to connect with readers. We can allow comments on stories, readers will react and engage, and everyone can do it in real time.


The staff inside the paper is well-aware of the concepts voiced in the column because I and other editors have spent a decent amount of time talking about our goals for the year. The staff has also followed the online discussions about what we’re trying to do.


All that said, the reaction I’ve gotten from the public tells me nothing about the project. My sense is that readers need to see it to “get it.” And we’ve not shown them anything yet. But I think they’ll like it when we start rolling it out.


Many news executives say they realize the need to do something to catch up with the changing media consumption habits of their audience, but they’re not sure what to do. What moved you from such a feeling (if you had it…) to taking the steps you’ve taken?


I don’t know that there was any specific epiphany, and this is a long story. I had seen the readership data about our paper that show that we dominate with readers over 45, but that we are weak with readers under 30. I’d been thinking about that for months. Meanwhile, I’ve been reading bloggers for a couple years. We have an active blogging community in Greensboro and many bloggers write about civic affairs. I started blogging about the newspaper about five months ago and discovered that, not only was it not difficult, but that it connected with an audience that I just wasn’t reaching in the newspaper.We’ve mined their sites for news items to put into the paper. That taught me about the potential and opportunities of the medium. I started blogging about the newspaper about five months ago and discovered that, not only was it not difficult, but that it connected with an audience that I just wasn’t reaching in the newspaper. My writing style was more personal and open. I could “publish” comments several times a day if I wanted. And, most important, readers could interact with me and have a conversation — sometimes an argument — about something I said or the newspaper did.


The local blogging community got into the act, and we started cross-posting. They were supportive and welcomed me — and the other four News & Record blogs — into the community. And there is a real community there. Ed Cone, who is a nationally read and respected blogger, lives here and writes a column for our newspaper. He helped me a great deal.


As I read other bloggers around the country — Jay Rosen, Dan Gillmor, Jeff Jarvis, among others — it became clear that something was going on in the way news is reported and distributed, something that many of us at the News & Record were ignorant of. We needed to pursue it.


At the same time, Ann Morris, our managing editor, and I assigned Greensboro City Editor Mark Sutter to spend a month researching newspaper readership and readership initiatives and write a white paper on what the News & Record should do to increase our readership. He proposed — and we’ve adopted (I’ve written about it in columns that are on my blog for the first two Sundays in January) — that the News & Record become a Town Square for the community, a trusted place where people gather to read, write, report the news, debate issues of the day, get shopping information and, generally, engage in civic discourse.


With that, it all came together in our minds that we needed to build an online site to do this.


We asked Lex Alexander, an editor who has been a blogger for years here, to research how to do this online. He posted a query and away we went.


I said a month into blogging that I couldn’t imagine not blogging now. I still feel that way.

What intrigues you most about the possibilities you’re considering?


I love the interactivity with readers. I love the idea that we can create communities of interest and communities of space, and that readers will participate with us. I love the concept of blogging, particularly staff blogs, but not limited to that. Eventually, I think every reporter on staff will have a blog, simply because it is a wonderful way to reach readers, to give them more information about stories, and to hear from them about your work and stories they know.


What worries you the most?


Other than that it won’t work and that we won’t get readership?


In a time of limited resources for most all news organizations, where will you find the time and resources required for these new initiatives?


I don’t know. Right now, we have two people in the news department working on our website. (One doing the work and one thinking about the work.) We also have a small, but industrious and creative, technical staff. We’re going to try things until their plates fill up and then decide.

I’ve learned from reading local blogs that bloggers often know more about issues than we do and can tell it quickly. I want to play in that pool. Frankly, we think we can expand the number of on-staff blogs without much impact on overall productivity. If we ask for reader contributions in the OhMyNews model, that will take some editing time, but we should be able to handle it. As we build communities of interest and space, that’ll take some hard thinking about what we can do and what the communities can do.


What are some of the things that the paper is doing now that you might STOP doing in order to make possible your new initiatives?


We’ve taken a person who was a full-time reporter and put him full-time on developing and building the structure around our Web initiative so we’ve lost the stories he would produce for the newspaper. That’s it. Well, that, plus the fact that I’ve spent a lot of time thinking and reading about it, but my staff would argue that that has had no effect on the quality or production of the paper.


As you move toward involving more of your audience in the creation of your content, how are you adjusting your thinking about the traditional gatekeeper role of journalists?


We’re relaxing the reins. When you’re not constrained by newsprint, when you can essentially say, “If it is news to you, it’s news to us” (which is not original to me, as you probably know), when you can say “Yes” to readers, then, by all means, open up the gate! To steal directly from Dan Gillmor, our readers are smarter than we are. They are many, we are few. I’ve learned from reading local blogs that bloggers often know more about issues than we do and can tell it quickly. I want to play in that pool. 


On our news site, we still intend to maintain a news judgment role, deciding what stories to play big and how to play them big.


But there is also a role of citizens to talk back, to advise us, to share news with others that we can enable through our site.


What are the business implications of what you’re doing? What impact do you think your Public Square approach will have on the short term and longer term profibability of the News & Record?


Business implications? Business plan? We don’t need no stinkin’ business plan!


If we drive eyeballs to the site, someone will want to pay to reach those eyeballs. We’re a bunch of journalists doing this, and we’re approaching it that way. We figure if we can create good, interesting, dynamic content, then readers will come and will value the site. We leave it to our ad side to figure out how to make money off of that.


I don’t mean to take the business implications lightly. Because our costs right now are minimal, we’re not worrying much about it. If we drive eyeballs to the site, someone will want to pay to reach those eyeballs. At least, that’s the way we’re thinking about it. But we haven’t tested it. Call me naïve. On the other hand, we have a very good leader on the sales side of our online operation, so I’m not too worried.


I believe that energy around the website will naturally drive energy to the newspaper. I know that we’re going to mine the website and reader discussion and contributions for stories and commentary in the newspaper. There is, to use that lovely word, a nice synergy. Long-term, I have to say that there’s a favorable profit for us. A former publisher once told me that “You have to hunt where the ducks are flying.” Readers are going online and we’re going to be there for them.

What questions do you have for John Robinson about his paper’s Public Square idea?

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