May 26, 2017

Worries of impending layoffs, the frustrating search for a viable business model, concerns with all the stories they’re missing thanks to smaller newsrooms. Sound familiar?

This week, a group of 21 newspapers from around the country spent a few days at Poynter as part of the Local News Innovation program. (Disclosure: That project was funded by the Knight-Lenfest Newsroom Initiative, which also funds my position.)

While nearly 100 editors and publishers were gathered together, we wanted to ask a few of them some questions about their concerns, what they’re excited about and what their staffs don’t know about them. We spoke with Joel Christopher, executive editor/vice president of news at the (Louisville, Kentucky) Courier-Journal, P.J. Browning, publisher of The (Charleston, South Carolina) Post and Courier and Brendan McQuaid, president of the (Manchester) New Hampshire Union Leader. We also spoke with Dana Coffield, senior editor for news at The Denver Post, which is participating in the program.

When you wake up in the middle of the night and think about work, what’s the thing that makes it hard to go back to sleep?

Coffield: What did we miss? How are we not serving our community? How is this relentless pursuit of daily-changing metrics making us irrelevant to the the people we hope to pursue and retain as readers/consumers? I am unhappy with the dumbing down of things. I am uncomfortable to the point of nausea with the “just aggregate that” attitude — and worry constantly about the accuracy of the things we publish just to be first or to be like everyone else.

McQuaid: The issue is we are in an existential threat to our existence. We may not survive for the next five, 10, 15 years. We just don’t know what’s going to happen. And if we’re not very careful with how we transition, we’re not going to get to that next place. That’s really what keeps me up at night. And I have 100 people depending on this organization for their existence, and thousands depending on it for their daily information.

Browning: The simple fact that we are not moving fast enough! So much work to be done to align ourselves with the many platforms and types of information wanted today beyond our traditional print reader.

Christopher: Every editor is constantly anxious about how we solve the revenue gap between print and digital in a way that preserves the ability of newsrooms to practice meaningful journalism.

You’re from a mix of locations, sizes and ownership structures. What’s the biggest thing in the way of your news organization surviving and, hopefully, thriving?

Christopher: We’re a couple decades into media’s digital transformation and we’re still fighting cultural resistance in pockets of our newsrooms to finding our identity in the journalism we create, not the method of its delivery.

McQuaid: It’s the new web. The web has been around for a long time, but it has never existed in how it’s currently forming how people use their time. Before, the web was sort of an analog to the physical world. Now, it’s fundamentally the way people spend their time. Now, they’re on Facebook or they’re on Reddit or they’re on Snapchat or something else. They’re not engaging with any of the classic things they used to engage with.

Browning: Making sure we have the right type of leadership that understands the vision and urgency to adapt now.

Coffield: We need more reporters.

In the midst of all this, your newsrooms are all covering an administration that’s targeted the press as enemy from the beginning. Can you tell us what that’s been like in your newsrooms?

Christopher: Most of our journalists are energized by the gauche attempts of the Trump administration and its allies — in Kentucky, Gov. Matt Bevin has adopted Trump’s strategy of hurling childish insults at reporters — to undermine journalism because it’s having the opposite effect. It’s highlighting the importance of an independent, engaged and free press.

Coffield: Outside of the very excellent stand-up comedy routines, it’s immaterial. People have always hated us for not being the other guys. Nothing new to see here.

McQuaid: We were the first on his hit list. We were among the first. He held up our newspaper and said “This will be gone in a year.” We’re still here.

For me, I think the point is that we are a local newspaper, and that’s what we should be focused on. We should be focused on New Hampshire. And when something that he does affects us, then that’s what we should do. But we shouldn’t focus on whatever thing he said on Twitter today, because that just gets too deep into the weeds, and it’s commodity. That’s what everyone else is doing. So we shouldn’t play that game.

Browning: In the grand scheme of things, it has had very little impact. Our newsroom is focused on local news. When we run national news on the front page we are very aware that the headlines must portray the essence of the article.

I hear journalists often say some version of “these are the best of times, these are the worst of times.” What are you excited about right now in our industry?

Browning: We have the opportunity to set the stage for the next generation of news consumers. It’s a huge opportunity and we need to get it right.

Coffield: I think we’re finally actually understanding the relevance of social media and moving pictures and how the digital consumer takes them in, what they’re for. I like the newness of that.

McQuaid: The really exciting thing is the democratization of technology. You can do things now with a smartphone that you couldn’t do 10 or 15 years ago. It’s a huge amount of power for people to both create content and use content. That’s huge.

Christopher: We’re in the crucible right now, but the rise of mobile and more successful strategies to persuade people to pay to support good journalism has given us a new chance to secure our future, one that’s critical for the health of a democratic society. We’ll be able to look back, I believe, at this as a noble — and successful — fight to transform and strengthen journalism, and with it society.

What would surprise journalists who aren’t in leadership roles about what your jobs are like right now?

Browning: The pace at which we are required to adapt to new technology in reporting and how important analytics are when measuring what resonates with readers. A very metric-driven world for newsrooms today.

Christopher: I don’t think most people realize the relentless pace of gathering and disseminating news across so many platforms in a 24-hour news cycle, and the complexity of putting it in front of people in an astoundingly competitive landscape. There is so much more demand on every single journalist to be expert in so many parts of the business of news — how to package and promote it, for two examples — that just weren’t part of the job in the print-only era. We have to be technologists and marketers and analysts as well as journalists.

McQuaid: The pot of gold not existing is the thing that’s a shock to some of our journalists. For so long, newspapers were these behemoths that you sort of couldn’t take down if you tried, and the idea that there aren’t the financial resources that there used to be is really hard. We have a lot of journalists that have been there 20, 30 years, and they haven’t been out in the real world and seen the massive job cuts and layoffs. But we’re finally getting them there, to understand that these financial pressures are everywhere.

We’re not getting inserts, we’re not getting national advertising, we’re not getting local advertising. Retail is crumbling, and we’re really struggling with it.

Coffield: Most of the time it’s still fun. We mostly are doing good, important stories. We do spark change.

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Kristen Hare teaches local journalists the critical skills they need to serve and cover their communities as Poynter's local news faculty member. Before joining faculty…
Kristen Hare

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