June 9, 2006

By Tom Rosenstiel

This article is adapted from remarks the author gave at Poynter’s Future of News conference May 22. Additional reports from that conference will appear soon on Poynter Online.

The challenge of American journalism today is managing transition. It is not, I believe, supervising decline, though if journalists define it by the second construction, they can ensure that decline will occur.

What America’s newspaper leaders need to figure out, in other words, is how to move from a business financed largely by printing ink on paper to one financed by delivering news electronically to computers, phones, PDAs and other devices still unknown.

That transition is going to happen, with or without newspapers. And how successfully that transition is managed will determine not only whether healthy newsrooms come out on the other end — but also how well important newsroom values endure.

This is not a short-term issue, weathering the storm for a year or two. It is a question of five years, or ten or more. It is a question that will define journalism for the next generation. Survival will depend on the vibrancy of the journalism that newsroom leaders create for the business side to sell. It does not depend on the newsrooms waiting for the business side to invent a new business model. This, in a nutshell, is the future of news.

The first step in managing that transition is coping with the idea that news is becoming a commodity in oversupply. People have access to basic facts from many sources today. That is why TheNew York Times can charge for its opinion columns and editorials — which cost little to produce — but not for its newsgathering — which costs a great deal.

So news people today need to think harder about what we mean by news. There is no longer a single definition. And we need to figure out what kinds of news can build brand, can define a franchise, and in which the public will find special value. I want to suggest five distinct kinds of news that I think journalists should think about in managing this transition. There may be five others I haven’t imagined. Or people may be able to refine these ideas into still better concepts. My goal is get people thinking.

1. Sense-making News

This is the kind of news that most news people gravitate to in thinking about the new media culture. This is the kind of news that helps citizens navigate through all the other media to which they are exposed. It is the news that helps people figure out what to believe. It helps them make order out of random facts. If information is in oversupply, knowledge becomes harder to create because it requires more sifting and sorting. Help me do this.

Sense-making news might be an analytical piece. But it just as easily might be a story that contains one major new piece of the puzzle that helps the picture become suddenly clear. Or it may be a story that adds a piece of contextualizing insight. Or it might be a story that uncovers one new source who hasn’t spoken before. It might be a story that tells me what I have read that is wrong, that I should not believe. Or it might be the story that sorts through all the other stories. It is the story that helps me authenticate what I should trust.

I can think of several examples, though new ones appear everyday. TheWall Street Journal did a memorable piece during the war in Iraq that explained how the American definition of a war hero had evolved from Sgt. York in WW I and Audie Murphy in WW II to Jessica Lynch today. We were no longer as comfortable with heroes who have killed a lot of people. The celebrated soldiers of contemporary America are closer to victims, or survivors.

Or it might be a piece in TheWashington Post about how anonymous President Bush’s second term cabinet is. The West Wing makes most of the decisions and the President’s agenda has shrunk. Or it might be an op ed by direct mail specialist Richard Viguerie about why staunch conservatives are disaffected from the President today.

In every community we have studied, newspapers have more boots on the ground covering news than other media, and they contain much that is available nowhere else in the media in that community.

They are stories that you remember a week later, a month later, a year later. They are stories that help you think and understand. A good editor should recognize them in an instant. They are easier to recognize, however, than to create.

Producing sense-making news also will mean raising the level of expertise among reporters and assigning editors — and probably making your reporting more transparent. It will mean creating journalism that will give the public reason to trust you.

2. Things No One Else Covers

Our content analysis at the Project for Excellence in Journalism bears out one thing repeatedly over the years about newspapers. In every community we have studied, newspapers have more boots on the ground covering news than other media, and they contain much that is available nowhere else in the media in that community. It might be stories about zoning boards, community groups, bowling leagues, prep sports or county commissions. But they are the stories that are nowhere else. They are stories that perhaps no more than 10 percent of the audience might want to read. But if you cover enough of them, you have something everyone wants.

The warning here is to tread carefully in cutting back what you do that is unique. Do not fall for what I call The Fallacy of 30 Percent, of covering only the Big Stories that you think everyone wants to know about. Those stories are covered everywhere. This is the lesson that television has learned the hard way, especially network shows and prime time magazines. If you cover only those stories you know will garner a big crowd, you can actually shrink your audience. You have driven everyone else away.

You may need to do this in new ways, figuring out how, for instance, to employ your audience, citizens in your communities, as sentinels of some of this news. Those reports may be interactive. That can be more involving, and more exciting, than the old way of just doing it yourself.

3. Uncover Things — Be a Watchdog

Investigative work remains something the public respects. It gets us very close to why we have a free press in the first place. The criteria of how to spend those resources should center around what will create new public knowledge and what will keep the powerful honest. Serving as a watchdog, the data from public opinion surveys and years of journalism experience both show, involves courage. In the news of the future, the watchdog role — expensive, difficult, time-consuming — will continue to have a central place.

Note that successful watchdog work needs both to be significant and to tell people what they didn’t know already. There is enough faux watchdog journalism already in the land. Anyone watching local TV may have been told, for instance, that there is bacteria in yogurt.

4. Create a Local Forum

There is plenty of opinion out there, on radio, TV, online. But relatively little of it is focused on community. And it is not yet clear how much of it will be conducted in ways that elevate expertise and knowledge or comport with the values that traditional news gatherers are comfortable with.

The new technology opens up the possibilities here in powerful ways. We can go well beyond Letters to the Editor. We can go well beyond community meetings. There can be places on your Web sites, list serves, and many other means. The notion that journalists create a forum for public discussion is the principle. How we fulfill it should change with the times. Traditional journalism has already been slow to react. Time is wasting.

5. Identify your News Organization’s Deeper Role in your Community. Expand that Role on the Web.

Every news organization has a special personality in its community. This is by parts a function of history, of community culture, of other media in town. It is even partly a function of the image a community has of itself, and how the news organization has shaped that image. Part of journalism, inevitably, is creating the concept of a community, part myth, part hope, part tough love. This is the The notion that journalists create a forum for public discussion is the principle. How we fulfill it should change with the times. brand of the news organization, in the deepest sense of the word. This role is always evolving, though that evolution is gradual.

A successful news organization, a successful editor, knows what that history is, what that function is. Part of the job of news leaders during the transition to the new age of news is to understand this deeper role of your news organization and not only to transfer that to the Web, but to expand on it, deepen it.

If these are five areas of news where journalists should concentrate, I would like to add a word about how they do it. The term that has become popular of late is to be platform agnostic. I don’t like that nomenclature for a couple of reasons. First, agnosticism sounds like you aren’t sure what you believe. Second, I think this will invite old legacy media to be slow and ineffective in embracing new technology. I think agnosticism suggests that you will do what you have always done, but transfer it to the Web.

That is a prescription for extinction. The winners in the next age, those who manage the transition successfully, will be those who recognize the potential of the new technology and exploit it. Not those who merely do what the old technology allowed, and maybe add a few bells and whistles. That is the difference between a wagon company and a transportation company.

You can look at the next few years in different ways. One is to imagine how to put out a newspaper with fewer people than you used to, have fewer pages to fill.

Another way to look at the future is to see that the new technology offers remarkable potential. The story that may have five elements in print — a narrative, a headline, a picture, a graphic, a pull quote — could have any one of 30 elements online — including background profiles of major actors, full transcripts of interviews, links to documents, photo galleries and flash, archives, audio, video, and more.

One way looks back and sees what is lost. The other looks forward at what can be done better. One way leads to low morale, and low levels of innovation. Another leads to high morale, and new levels of excitement. One way is nostalgic. The other way is dynamic. One way will also lead your newsroom to invent a journalism that your business side can sell.

We have seen this in our own training in newsrooms at the Committee of Concerned Journalists. Tell a disgruntled newsroom to take 40 minutes, and imagine what their Web site could be in five years, and you can see people come to life. You can be astonished at the creativity and excitement, and you will discover ideas you can put in place in five days, not five years.

Or you can say to yourself, I am a print person. I’m too old for the Web.

A man I have learned a great deal from in recent years, Gregory Favre, often tells young journalists that they are part of a continuum. They owe something to every journalist who has come before them. And they owe something to those who will come after. That was never more true than today. What is the future of news, and news values?

Whatever it is, it lies in the hands of those who sit in newsrooms today.

Tom Rosenstiel is director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism and vice-chairman of the Committee of Concerned Journalists.

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