Reinventing The Newsroom

23 Mar

buffalo-news

In an editorial in The Buffalo News yesterday, Margaret Sullivan laid out the reasons why her newspaper is doing just fine, thank you very much.

1. We’re making a profit. The decline in advertising revenue is significant—and likely to get worse— but we’re still in the black and planning to stay that way.

2. We have none of the crippling debt that many newspaper owners are carrying. Many of those debt-heavy papers would be making money if it weren’t for their debt load.

3. We have extraordinarily high acceptance among local residents. The News, as a print newspaper, has the highest “market penetration” among the 50 or so largest metropolitan dailies in the United States.

4. Our Web site is the leading local media Web site, by far, in Western New York. When you combine the Web site and the newspaper, we’re reaching 80 percent of Western New Yorkers on a regular basis.

Well, I’m glad that’s solved.  Let’s just move along…clearly, there is nothing to see here.  Right?  Well, not really.  The trending indicators in daily print journalism are not positive and The Buffalo News is reconciling the cost of an enterprise news gathering operation with the increasing cost of the primary delivery medium.  While more and more readers become online customers, The Buffalo News struggles to charge as much for online ads as they do for the print edition.  This causes cuts in the news and support divisions to sustain the printing operation.  It’s a pretty interesting business problem and one I’ll delve into more deeply in the coming weeks.

However, the most interesting piece in Sullivan’s column and one that had nothing to do with the legacy cost structures which are strangling the newspaper was this:

Tomorrow, I’ll convene the first meeting of what I’m calling the “Reinventing the Newsroom” committee. When I asked for volunteers from the staff, I was overwhelmed with the response.

Together, we’re going to figure out how to move forward with greater challenges and fewer people in the brave new world of Internet-era newspapering, and how best to make ourselves indispensable to you, our readers.

She still doesn’t get it.  Revolution as defined by Marx is when the means of production change hands.  We no longer need people in the newsroom to define our experience.  We no longer need the news to be our primary link to the power structures of our society.  We can do that ourselves, news production is now a two way street.  The Buffalo News needs to expand the “Reinventing The Newsroom” team to include community stakeholders, academics, journalism students, bloggers and readers.  They need to craft a future product that reflects our wants and needs, not a product that is designed from the top down.

Until Sullivan understands this very basic principle of the new media universe in which she now finds herself, there really is a ticking clock on the relevance and existence of her newspaper.  Her fundamental misunderstanding of this concept is evident in the final sentence of her column:

Newspaper journalism protects our freedoms and guards our way of life. We intend to make sure it’s around, in Western New York, for a long time.

She’s conflating the medium of a printed newspaper with the content therein.  The paper it is printed on is not the value provided to the community and deciding what delivery method scales economically and sustains a quality enterprise news outlet is now the fundamental challenge.

21 Responses to “Reinventing The Newsroom”

  1. Lindsey March 23, 2009 at 4:37 pm #

    “The Buffalo News needs to expand the “Reinventing The Newsroom” team to include community stakeholders, academics, journalism students, bloggers and readers. They need to craft a future product that reflects our wants and needs, not a product that is designed from the top down.”

    This is the most important point, and the biggest problem with most committees (especially at school districts) – they don’t include the proper stakeholders, mainly drawing from the population that necessitated the creation of the committee in the first place. If Sullivan wants innovative ideas, look outside the newsroom.

  2. Keith W. March 23, 2009 at 7:23 pm #

    The Buffalo News has the lock down on reporting Sabres news, that’s probably the only reason people still turn to them for sports. The Sabres will not give anyone press access unless you’re affiliated with a national media outlet (yes, i’m a little bitter). Other than that, I spend more time on WNY Media sites than the Buffalo News.

  3. Prodigal-Son March 23, 2009 at 8:30 pm #

    I was reading an article somewhere (maybe the Buffalo News), that talked about how the problem with print journalism is that reporters see themselves as lofty protectors of the public trust, but newspaper owners now view it as a business like any other. The point is, most newspapers, in thier history, were loss leaders. But they were owned by families who were making thier money somewhere else. Now, Rupurt Murdoch wants his businesses to be profitable. Each and every one. Thus today’s “crisis.”

    The article continued to point out that some papers are still losing money, but that’s okay with the owners (The Weekly Standard). But I think the real model going forward (to reference Chris’ stakeholder question) is NPR. Its a hybrid of foundation money, advertising dollars, donations, and government funding. If newspapers, including the Buffalo News, are such important sacred instititions, and do so much public good, then I see a time in the near future where they are reorganized as non-profits, and seek donations, in addition to ad revenue.

  4. Pauldub March 23, 2009 at 9:39 pm #

    I also find it a little off that they are trying to reinvent how they do business without input from their customers as to what needs improvement. Have they actually done a survey or any other research to find out what their customers are looking for?

  5. Buffalopundit March 24, 2009 at 5:48 am #

    They don’t think they need a survey or input from the consumer, because they have such awesome “market penetration” and “acceptance”. Well, gee, if you had a monopoly on daily newspaper news, you’d be pretty well accepted and have awesome market penetration, too.

  6. FancyWow March 24, 2009 at 7:43 am #

    I would argue the News makes these claims with a substandard product, that relies on click-thrus – rather than serving any civic or journalistic purpose. While even the Amherst Bee buries its laughable Police Blotter, the BN gives it front page prominence on its webpage. A quick landscape survey (of comparable, non-national papers) reveals how sophomoric and transparently catering to click-thrus (and I would also argue catering to WNY fears of the scary unknown – the ‘inner-city’) this strategic desicion is:

    http://www.baltimoresun.com/ – Police Blotter (link only) at the bottom of the page, near Sudoku

    http://www.startribune.com/ – Minneapolis daily, no blotter link off the mainpage

    http://www.oregonlive.com/oregonian/ – Portland , OR daily, no blotter link off the mainpage

    http://www.courant.com/ – Hartford , CT daily, no blotter link off the mainpage

    http://www.post-gazette.com/ – Pittsburgh daily, no blotter link off the mainpage

    http://www.ottawasun.com/ – Ottawa paper, no blotter link off the mainpage

    http://www.syracuse.com/poststandard/ – no blotter link in Syracuse

    http://www.democratandchronicle.com/ – and finally Rochester , no blotter link off the mainpage

    They can claim the high road in this editorial, but they’ve found the the “it bleeds, it leads” / “to catch a predator” route is the one that pays the Bills.

  7. pirate's code March 24, 2009 at 8:14 am #

    While frustrating at times, it is somewhat understandable that the News has been so resistant to change. They have been profitable, sometimes hugely so, for so very long and — since the death of the Courier-Express — have clearly set the agenda for most media in town.

    I don’t know how quickly the necessary change will come, simply based on the demographics of the region, but it will come. I know my elderly dad goes a little nuts every time a local news reader on TV says something like “for the rest of the story, go to WXXX.com.”

    “Do they think everyone has a computer?” he’ll ask the TV. “Nobody I knows has one or cares.” He has a point, but only to a point. I have no data to support this, but my gut tells me there are plenty of folks left in WNY who rely on traditional msm for most of their news.

    But, I remind him that every one of his children, and their children over the age of, say, 5, has a computer or access to one. My household of six has four laptops, two I-phones, three internet-capable gaming systems, two smartphones, two “old-fashioned” cell phones and probably some other electronic gadgetry my kids purchased without telling me. Yet, each member of my household also spends some time every day reading at least one of the two newpapers we receive daily.

    I guess we are as conflicted about the shifting media paradigm as the folks at the News, eh?

  8. Prodigal-Son March 25, 2009 at 7:36 am #

    Looks like at least one Senator agrees with me:

    http://www.buffalonews.com/145/story/618349.html

  9. STEEL March 26, 2009 at 2:42 pm #

    The thing is, once all the reporters are all laid off and the TV news finally just admits that they are really just another reality show format, the bloggers will be in trouble. It is easy to blog on-the-cheap as long as someone else (ie news organizations with big paid staffs of reporters and investigators) are doing the leg work for them.

  10. Patrick Lakamp March 26, 2009 at 3:12 pm #

    Some daily newspaper monopolies have woeful penetration rates, so it may not be an accident or just luck The Buffalo News has the highest market penetration among the 50 or so largest metropolitan dailies in the United States.

    And despite what BuffaloPundit thinks he knows about The Buffalo News’ thinking, The News does survey its readers, as well as non-readers.

    Last year, Clark, Martire & Bartolomeo Inc. prepared a study for The News based on a representative sample of 1,005 adults 18 years of age and over, living in Erie and Niagara Counties.

    The News earned very good ratings for most areas of local and regional news coverage. When asked to rate the job that The Buffalo News does when it comes to news about Buffalo, 82 percent rated it either “excellent” or “very good.”

    Seventy-eight percent gave the same marks for its coverage of professional sports, and 72 percent did so for arts and theater coverage.

    Also, more than two-thirds of the respondents rated The News “excellent” or “very good” for neighborhood news and New York state news.

    The News also learned which areas could use some improvement. And my colleagues — from Margaret Sullivan on down — are working to improve these areas, even as the newsroom gets slightly smaller through buyouts.

    The News has taken its share of lumps on this blog and compliments from time to time. Put it under the category: fair game.

    So normally, my colleagues and I read the posts and comments and learn from the fair-minded ones — without replying to the uneducated insults hurled our way in the comments section or to those who claim to know what The News is thinking.

    But as my colleagues and I move forward, I’d like to offer this: We may make some mistakes along the way, but it’s not for lack of caring for our readers, our neighborhoods and our region. We listen. We’re not so arrogant as our harshest critics would have their followers believe. We’re proud of the good work our readers value and will do our best to publish more, in the paper and on the Web.

  11. Christopher Smith March 27, 2009 at 12:17 am #

    @STEEL, I am not advocating for the demise of the newspaper nor am I saying that bloggers can totally replace them. Media is changing, the way people produce, share, and interact with media has radically transformed in the last five years.

    While beatblogs and web based reporters in particular niches (Politico, TPM, etc) can and do compete with the print dailies, enterprise and investigatory pieces are still best done by the news dailies. Simply put, they have the legacy staff to perform the job.

    The problem is that the cost of producing a print product is eating at the margins of the business. The content is as valuable as it ever was but the physical newsprint and the distribution of same is rapidly increasing in cost while also declining as rapidly in relevance.

  12. Christopher Smith March 27, 2009 at 12:18 am #

    @Patrick Lakamp, I’ll continue the discussion on your comment later today when I have the time to do it justice. Thank you for your feedback, it’s much appreciated and will undoubtedly make for a great conversation.

  13. Buffalopundit March 27, 2009 at 8:47 am #

    Shorter Patrick Lakamp: Just because we’re the only paper in town doesn’t mean we don’t care.

    I guess I wasn’t clear. Regardless of your surveys and your market penetration, your circulation and revenue continue to decline because of a variety of reasons.

    I’d add to that the fact that Buffalo is primarily a car-commute town, not a bus/train commute town, and that helps push down reading the paper. When am I supposed to read it? At 6am when it’s 12 hour old news, or at 12pm when it’s 24 hour old news?

    I don’t doubt or disagree that the reporters and commentators care and do a great job. The problem is that people don’t find the paper to be as relevant as it used to be. I think that Sullivan’s points were almost a non-sequitur. Market penetration and perception of quality obviously isn’t the News’ problem, now is it?

  14. Buffalopundit March 27, 2009 at 8:53 am #

    * should be “obviously aren’t”

  15. STEEL March 27, 2009 at 4:01 pm #

    Is printing and delivery the big cost of is it having a few hundred reporters on staff and a big building to pay for. With technology printing is actually getting faster and cheaper.

    Unfortunately a vast majority of the Blog community is reactionary. They pick up on news and keep it alive. The Blog community is great at staying on topic until something becomes meaningful. On the other hand the blog community is pretty inept and digging up the story in the first place. sitting on the couch typing at 3:00am might have something to do with that.

    The big mistake that the newspapers made was ignoring the internet for too long. They could have grabbed is as their own early on. Now they are just trying to hold onto the tail of a dragon. The dragon sees the print media as a meal to eat instead of as its meal ticket.

  16. Starbuck March 27, 2009 at 5:48 pm #

    Doesn’t Buffalo’s car-commute factor make TBN’s very high (compared to peers in similar cities) circulation and market penetration even more impressive?

    Buffalo is primarily a car-commute town, not a bus/train commute town, and that helps push down reading the paper.

    TBN’s % readership is still something like #4 or so in the U.S., aren’t they, out of 100’s of papers? Most of those other cities are 1-paper monopolies too, right? How does that align with BP’s “Well, gee, if you had a monopoly on daily newspaper news, you’d be pretty well accepted and have awesome market penetration, too.”?

    I can’t disagree more with Fancy Wow. I find the police blotter to be a useful browse. I bet the clicks it draws more than justifies its presence on the web site’s front page.

  17. Ethan March 27, 2009 at 11:00 pm #

    Looks like you’ve presaged http://www.salon.com/opinion/feature/2009/03/28/sirota/

    well done.

  18. Ethan March 27, 2009 at 11:03 pm #

    whoops… key graph:

    First, financially strapped newspapers undermined their comparative advantage by replacing audience-attracting local exclusives with cheaper national content. Then, the providers of that national content diverted resources from tough-to-report investigative journalism that builds loyal readership and into paparazzi-like birdcage liner that unconvincingly portrays politicians, CEOs and their minions as celebrities.

    fwiw, I hate the blotter- I think it needlessly amplifies fear.

  19. Peter Crotty March 29, 2009 at 1:19 am #

    Hey man,

    I liked this article very much.

    Thank you.

  20. Christopher Smith March 30, 2009 at 12:16 am #

    And despite what BuffaloPundit thinks he knows about The Buffalo News’ thinking, The News does survey its readers, as well as non-readers.

    Last year, Clark, Martire & Bartolomeo Inc. prepared a study for The News based on a representative sample of 1,005 adults 18 years of age and over, living in Erie and Niagara Counties.

    The News earned very good ratings for most areas of local and regional news coverage. When asked to rate the job that The Buffalo News does when it comes to news about Buffalo, 82 percent rated it either “excellent” or “very good.”

    Seventy-eight percent gave the same marks for its coverage of professional sports, and 72 percent did so for arts and theater coverage.

    Also, more than two-thirds of the respondents rated The News “excellent” or “very good” for neighborhood news and New York state news.

    Surveying readership is a valuable tool, to be sure. However, that doesn’t answer or respond to my original complaint, that The Buffalo News is not incorporating the community and its stakeholders into the process of “Reinventing The Newsroom”. You have collected data and now from that data, you will divine what it is that people want from their local newspaper.

    That’s rather the problem, isn’t it?

    We no longer live in a world in which journalists and local editors are gatekeepers, deciding what is fit to print. A growing share of your audience consume data from global media outlets and deserve to be an active part of the process in determining the future of the local product.

    As I said in my original post, there are dozens of technologies that allow for The Buffalo News to collect, analyze, report and distribute news content. The Buffalo News has been woefully slow to adopt any of those technologies and instead has focused on doubling down on print and using inadequate off-the-shelf applications as a nod to new media.

    Bringing bloggers, academics and others into the process of refining how you collect and distribute your product would be an excellent way to build a stronger relationship with the overall community. Aside from that, it would certainly be a helluva public relations coup. A series of town hall meetings held across Erie and Niagara Counties at which editorial staff would listen to the community writ large about what they expect from their local paper of record.

    It’s a model that should also be applied to reporting and investigations in the future, treat your audience as an additional assignment editor. Let them tell you what they want to read about online or in print. What multimedia features do they wish to consume? What social media channels do they wish to use as their primary means of consumption for that assignment?

    But as my colleagues and I move forward, I’d like to offer this: We may make some mistakes along the way, but it’s not for lack of caring for our readers, our neighborhoods and our region. We listen. We’re not so arrogant as our harshest critics would have their followers believe. We’re proud of the good work our readers value and will do our best to publish more, in the paper and on the Web.

    I am not one who would cast aspersions upon the motivations or intentions of the reporters and editors of The Buffalo News. I do question the intelligence of decisions and what I see as a lack of interaction with your readership. In essence, I make suggestions and criticize because I care.

    Yes, I care for this community as much as your reporters do. I also care about the media and the crucial role it plays (when it functions the right way) in our society. I have spent countless hours talking with reporters from The Buffalo News about the future of journalism, the role of the reporter, the coming sea change in compensation schedules, editorial responsibilities, social media, etc. From those conversations, I know that they care.

    I also know that Margaret Sullivan does not value the web or new distribution channels. She believes, at a very fundamental level, that the newsprint the content is printed upon is just as valuable as the content itself. From a financial bottom line level, she’s right. From the point of view of a responsible journalist, she’s making decisions that will destroy her business and leave this city without its newspaper. Dramatic? Not by a long shot.

  21. Steve Watson April 10, 2009 at 2:35 pm #

    Sorry if I’m late to the dance here, but I did want to offer some of my thoughts on Chris’ thoughtful original post and the good comments that followed.

    Chris, in this post and the other post on journalism and reporters, you make some good arguments. I guess one point I would take issue with is the idea that it’s only about the content and the medium doesn’t matter. That good reporting, good writing will survive and should survive no matter which way it gets to its readers. I used to believe that, or hold out hope that this was the case. That there will always be a market for good reporting and good stories no matter whether it comes on stone tablet or newspaper or online or beamed into our brains.

    I fear this isn’t the case anymore. The business model of the newspaper made enough money to support the good journalism that a staff of that size could produce. No news organization has figured out a way to make enough money online to support a staff that comes close to producing the breadth and depth of coverage online that can be provided in a newspaper or in the paper and on the paper’s Web site.

    Newspapers and their Web sites are the best sources of local, national and international news around. But the paper is propping up the Web site. When newspapers struggle, as they do here and across the country, there’s nothing filling that void. Not blogs, not community journalists, not iReporters.

    I agree we need to do a better job of bringing in our readers and other community stakeholders to figure out how to preserve a strong, well-staffed Buffalo News going forward. The public in San Francisco and in Boston is taking part in the discussions on the futures of the Chronicle and the Globe, respectively.

    Geek, Pundit and the other bloggers and blog commenters have to be part of that discussion. I know you offer these comments because you care about this community, just as Margaret and Pat and I and other Newsies do.

    I can’t argue with you that The News has been late to the game when it comes to our adoption of technology and the Web. The record is pretty clear on that. We’re trying to catch up, but we’re not alone in struggling to find our way on the Internet.

    The Web, I really believe, is a blessing and a curse for journalism. It’s allowed us to do so much more in terms of our reporting, getting and providing access to information. But it’s also wreaked havoc financially on the news industry.

    We’re all trying to figure out the model that supports good comprehensive, investigative journalism going forward. The problems with the economy don’t make this task any easier.

    Let’s keep this dialogue going.

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