Reinvent or die has been uttered by many in the newspaper industry of late. Newspapers face tremendous challenges from other media as they compete for readers' time. They are responding to the challenges by becoming more relevant to readers. This means journalists are going to have to change, too.
Unfortunately, many newspapers have also responded to the challenges by reducing their newsroom staffs, leaving many experienced, talented journalists vying for fewer and fewer jobs.
In light of these two realities, journalism students need to prepare now to enter a radically different newspaper workforce than graduates from five years ago. They need to acquire skill sets that will make them marketable in a competitive field and valuable to their future employers.
In order to avoid further editorial cutbacks, newspapers will be looking to maximize the work of staff reporters. Reporters must be nimble enough to cover any beat at any time. Sharp interviewing and clear writing remain the most important skills to acquire. But the beats might not be the same ones you learn about in journalism school.
Newspapers are branching out from traditional news coverage and focusing on practical, reader-oriented approaches. Bakersfield Californian reporters write how-to articles that are popular with readers. The South Florida Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale created “The Help Team,” a collection of reader-focused, consumer content designed to assist readers with their daily lives. The Dayton Daily News replaced its traditional beats with 14 topical ones such as life online, urban affairs, rural life and social justice. Also advancing this concept is Gannett Co. (the largest newspaper group in America). It plans to restructure all of its newsrooms in 2007 to fit an “Information Center” initiative. This broader-based approach to newsgathering emphasizes breaking news, increased community participation and deeper, richer local information.
Reporters in these environments will be served well by a broad liberal arts education. They will also be expected to handle databases and spreadsheets, so demonstrated skills in software programs like Microsoft's Access and Excel will be important.
The death knell of newspapers has been rung many times since the rise of Internet publishing. However, people still love to read and newspapers have counted on this for decades. They got away with publishing news the way they saw fit. But the industry is experiencing a shift away from this traditional, hard-nosed mindset and toward a more reader-centric approach.
Readers' opinions count more than ever now as newspapers try to steer their coverage as much toward readers' wants as toward their needs. It's not enough to give readers something they can't get anywhere else. Newspapers need to make a difference in readers' lives. The Readership Institute at Northwestern University advocated this reader-centric approach in its groundbreaking 2000 Impact Study of Newspaper Readership. Among the suggestions for building readership was publishing more intensely local, people-focused news including stories about ordinary people. It becomes imperative that journalists understand their readers more completely.
“We have to engage readers where they are at, not where we think they should be,” said Roger Gillespie, managing editor of the Hamilton (Ontario) Spectator, one of the leaders in readership innovation.
Readers will likely play a vital part in the future of newsgathering. The “Citizen Journalism” movement continues to evolve as more and more readers contribute stories, photos and news tips via websites. Already, the Bakersfield Californian daily print edition publishes some reader-submitted stories. Gannett announced plans to use more “crowdsourcing,” a concept where the Internet is used to “outsource” jobs typically done by employees—in this case, newsgathering functions—to a generally undefined public group for little or no compensation (think Wikipedia). Gannett's Fort Myers News-Press enlisted the aid of its readers for a series on why new sewer lines were so expensive in Coral Gables. The newspaper was overwhelmed with the number of e-mails, phone calls, news tips and documents generated by its request for help in the investigation.
So it is essential that reporters get to know people. Open your eyes and ears to what is going on in the community. Find the true leaders…not the mayor or city council members, but the people in town who seem to know everything, the people who always show up at local events. Ask community leaders who they turn to for guidance.
Understanding readers goes beyond using them as sources. According to the Readership Institute, stories about “ordinary people” are one of the most powerful ways a newspaper can build readership. Readers want to read about people like them. Reporters need to learn to talk to ordinary people, which can sometimes be harder than talking to public officials who expect to deal with media. Reporters need to learn ways of putting people at ease, developing trust and establishing rapport. Simply being honest and courteous is a good first step.
Even though circulation has continued to slide, newspaper websites have helped many newspapers achieve growth in total audience in recent years. The Web also brings newspapers back into the breaking news business, an area where they have not had an impact for decades. Newspapers will continue to emphasize the value of their websites, which means reporters must be adept at writing for online products.
Simply put, writing for online is an amalgam of print and broadcast writing. The writing is shorter and punchier—like broadcast—while still adding depth and context—like print. Studies show readers do read differently online than they do in print. They tend to scan stories rather than read them thoroughly. So stories can be roughly half the length online as they are in print. Most other standard rules of writing apply: use active voice, limit jargon, make action sequences clear and strive for concise sentences (and construction).
New methods of storytelling
Newspapers are also experimenting with alternative story forms. A cutting-edge journalist will learn how to write stories in the form of Q&A's, bullet lists, timelines, checklists, pro-and-con debates, or even in graphic form. Readers enjoy the change of pace these story forms offer.
Andy Bechtel, assistant professor of journalism at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, studies newspapers' use of alternative story forms. He has found that their primary benefit is offering readers quick facts and deep context, sometimes simultaneously. They make news easier to digest. “For my money, an alternative story form, done well, is just as good as a traditional story form done well and vice versa. You can slice up information a number of different ways,” he said.
It used to be the being able to snap a photo was an impressive skill to add to a print reporter's arsenal. Now, all reporters should be able to shoot a decent digital photo. The more impressive journalists can record audio, shoot video, and perhaps even create a Flash animation for the Web site.
Many newspapers have found benefits to being “platform-agnostic.” In other words, the news is delivered anytime in any way the end user wants it—in print, on the Web, through a mobile device, or broadcast on radio or video. Progressive newspapers are changing the way they gather and deliver the news in order to make it available as many ways as possible
The Fort Myers News-Press in Indiana trained its reporters to be “mobile journalists”—or mojos. They approach stories armed with digital cameras, MP3 recorders and wireless laptops. The News-Press approach also embodies the principle of understanding the reader. The mojos work on the neighborhood level. They are not out covering meetings. They are covering readers' lives and what is important to them. While they are out, they are uploading stories, photos and video to the Web site for immediate “publication.”
Even smaller-circulation papers have taken advantage of this new technology. The 8,000-circulation Montrose Daily Press in Colorado shoots video for stories every day. The newspaper posts videos on its Web site and also delivers the video (and a news script) to a television station in Grand Junction for its nightly “Daily Press Report.” The person responsible for getting this program up and running was Joel Blocker, a former intern who had learned how to shoot video at the University of Wyoming.
Newspapers focused on readership also understand that the work culture must change. Traditional newspaper work environments tend to be defensive. Departments generally keep to themselves and inter-departmental collaboration is almost non-existent.
Innovative newspapers know how to break down departmental walls to encourage collaboration. Circulation, editorial, advertising and production all work together. This collaborative atmosphere does not mean, for instance, that advertising dictates anything the newsroom does. It means that the two departments can work together to create a special section that can attract a new audience and new advertisers, both of which benefit the newspaper. Breaking down these walls means understanding each department's role in the overall health of the newspaper.
What journalism students can do is learn more about the overall newspaper operation. Understand the importance of ad revenue to the paper. Learn about the production and distribution process and why it is so important to meet deadlines. Go out on a sales call with an ad rep or drop some bundles with a district manager in circulation.
Sometimes, the simplest advice still holds true. Enterprising reporters care about the newspaper. They care about being professional. They are respectful and self-motivated. They are also preparing themselves for the next step. Obviously, they should be dedicated to their current positions, but they should also have an eye on the future. They should be learning management and leadership skills. They should be refining their craft. They should be a step ahead, knowing what trends in the industry will sustain and what ones will fizzle out.
About the Author: Randy Craig is publications editor for Inland Press Association, Des Plaines, Ill. He edits and writes for Inland's twice-monthly newspaper trade publication, as well as inlandpress.org. He joined Inland as editor in 1994 after two years as an award-winning beat reporter at the LaPorte (Ind.) Herald-Argus daily newspaper. He holds a journalism degree from Ball State University, Muncie, Ind. His book Readership 101 about building readership at newspapers is scheduled for print in Spring 2007 (Marion Street Press, Forest Park, Ill.). To follow up with Randy Craig about this article, click here.