Local Edition: It is possible to shift to digital and not be clickbait

Here’s something I’ve learned from covering the media for the past four years: Anytime there’s talk about adapting to digital changes, there’s always a chorus of  “ugh, clickbait,” and “but we don’t want to be BuzzFeed!”

(Sidebar: BuzzFeed News covers news aggressively and has a pretty impressive investigative team.)

That fear of becoming garbage always exists in the newsrooms I’ve reported on that are in the process of changing their cultures, habits and approaches.

The person who summed it all up best was the Miami Herald’s Nicholas Nehamas. He originally feared that as the newsroom started paying attention to analytics, success would only be measured by clicks.

"I think reporters are seeing that it’s not going to be 'The Hunger Games,'" he said then. "We’re not going to be out there finding the grossest stories we can to report. We’re still fulfilling the old mission."

That was in July 2016, a few months after the Panama Papers came out. Nicholas and his colleagues were part of that team. Nine months later, their work won a Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting.

Yes, it is possible to shift to digital and become a soulless click-driven content factory. Everyone, including me, can lose sight of the why of what we’re doing and just focus on the what and how.

But that doesn’t have to happen.

Here’s something else I’ve learned from covering the media for the past four years: We may be a skeptical bunch, but we believe what we can report out. It’s time to try this stuff and see what happens.

Here’s a look at the conversation this month:

Our work, like digital journalism itself, no longer has an endpoint.

Mississippi Today’s news editor Ryan Nave put it best: “I think what a lot of us have had to train ourselves out of is the idea that publishing a story on a website is the end-all and be-all of what we do.”

Some ideas:

  • Figure out what where your gaps are with this quiz and task list from Better News. (Disclosure: It was funded by the Knight Foundation, which funds my coverage of local news.)

  • Decide what you can say no to. For many newsrooms lately, this has been mid-length stories.

  • Learn to actually shut devices down and take off from work.

But for a lot of journalists, the shift to being always on is nothing new.

Dan Haugen, at the Sioux Falls, South Dakota, Argus Leader, said this: “When hitting our stride, it's a similar rhythm to the PM newspaper I started out at: earlier planning and deadlines, and busier mornings.”

What can we learn from other media industries?

  • Talk to someone in your town who works in another medium and find out what their workflows and processes are like.

  • Talk to people who once worked for the wires. One great way to see how everything old is new again is by reading Paul Stevens’ newsletter for retired AP staffers, Connecting.

  • Learn from newsrooms that have done this already. Better News, which was created from the experiences of newsrooms in the Table Stakes project, also has resources for resetting rhythms and redesigning workflows.

Learn from your neighbors.

This seems to come up with every conversation we have, and it came up again from the Miami Herald’s Jeff Kleinman.

He said: “Sit next to digital brains and learn from them. Don't surround yourself with people who have legacy skills. Listen to the talk. Watch over their shoulders. Learn a new skill each week.”

Try:

  • Ask a coworker from a different generation/department/background about what they’re excited about right now.

  • Then, ask them to teach you.

  • If you see someone, either in your newsroom or another, doing something you don’t know how to do, reach out and be a journalist about it and ask them how.

If you’re comfortable, you’re doing it wrong.

For our not-a-journalist week, Shea Smith, a medical student who left an established career to do something she cares deeply about, put it like this: “I had to become comfortable with being uncomfortable and trust that this was the path I was meant to be on.”

Maybe:

  • Consider changing the entire way you think about what we do and how we do it.

  • Try doing something you imagine you’ll stink at, like drawing, and see what happens.

  • Pick something you’ve never used before: Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook Live, video, Medium, and give it a try. Don’t do it for work, do it for fun and THEN think about how it could help your journalism.

Thanks, as always, to everyone who took part in this conversation. I’m so grateful to get to write this newsletter each week and even more grateful that you actually open it.

We’ll be back next week with the start of something different for the rest of the year. We’re going to look back at what we’ve learned from each other, what we’ve learned from people outside journalism, and then talk about where we should go next.

In the meantime, check out this cool local project. Oh and speaking of not being clickbait, check out this reporting from the Minneapolis Star Tribune, then see the impact it had. Finally, check out this amazing list of women (many in local newsrooms) that my colleague Katie Hawkins-Gaar pulled together. Then, stop procrastinating and go apply for our Women’s Leadership Academy.

Enjoy your Thanksgiving! See you next week!

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