It’s a Lesson in Digital Transformation
A former newspaper reporter and editor returns to his newsroom to learn firsthand the lessons he teaches his j-school students.
Mike Days, managing editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer, turned the ignition key to his sensible Volvo sedan and then stepped on the accelerator to ease into traffic. Reaching into his shirt pocket, he grabbed his iPhone. “This has restarted the clock for us. In a way we’ve been reborn,” he said.
Everyone at the Inquirer has been rooting for a newsroom renaissance from the time, not so long ago, when then-candidate Barack Obama gazed at an office full of PC relics and chided the staff for “still using these old things.” No longer. That same newsroom is in the grip of a digital transition that has readers actively participating in the changes. Those under the age of 30 (both of them) have no concept of waiting until the next morning’s paper to get news; it now spews from smartphones, tablets, laptop and desktop computers—and forces newspapers like the Inquirer to fight for survival.
Hai Do, assistant managing editor for multimedia, pushed for Philadelphia Media Network to invest in iPhones and laptop computers for all Inquirer and Daily News reporters. Photographers carry digital and video cameras. Photo editors and several other editors were issued iPads; even though Do would like to have outfitted all reporters with iPhones and iPads, he told me he realized the radical switch would have overwhelmed them. He insists, however, that they use the best available “newsgathering devices,” holding up an iPhone for emphasis.
“Use a hammer for a nail. Use a screwdriver for a screw,” Do said. “We have to think about how to use the tools.” And with varying degrees of sophistication, that’s precisely what newspapers are up against in the digital realm when everyone—from basement bloggers to emerging online news organizations—is using the same digital devices to report and distribute their stories.
Young people use hand-held devices incessantly and mock newsbreaks on TV, reminding us that the same information was posted in a tweet hours before. Does this foretell that these 140 character bursts will become our new journalism? As tweets grow exponentially and traditional news outlets shed readers and staff, the digital realm, despite some limitations of access and signal disruptions, is simply more attractive—for speed, ease and multimedia storytelling. Inside the Inquirer’s newsroom, digital alerts, notably via Twitter and Facebook, have gained strong footing as sources for assigning editors, as well as reporters. In some instances, these alerts skirt the time needed for reporters and editors to mine information related to beats and coverage areas.
The demand, in turn, for output has compounded stress in newsrooms where staffs are dwindling even though coverage areas are essentially unchanged. On a typical assignment, a reporter is expected now to report from the scene, photograph it if possible, post information on Twitter, file 150 to 200 words for the digital story, update a blog or the news organization’s Facebook page, then write an article for the newspaper that will be published the next morning.
That line-up of responsibility squeezes a lot out of the time formerly devoted to reporting a story more in depth. Conversely, reporters and editors have been helped greatly by sources responding to digital queries, so much so that Kristen Graham, who covers Philadelphia public schools for the Inquirer, was honored with a staff award for her resourceful use of Twitter when she covered the contentious school reform commission. Graham cautioned, though, that she was extremely careful in vetting her Twitter sources by asking them to identify themselves so that she could verify employment and let her know their direct knowledge of the negotiations. And she did get a break because she was able to tweet updates from the commission proceedings rather than break away to write online stories throughout the day.
The Digital Challenge
“It’s completely difference audiences,” Graham told me. “Older people will read my story in print; younger people will have follow it online.”
All of this raises the question of whether a quick digital alert about U.S. forces killing Osama Bin Laden is enough to give Americans what they need to know. My answer is “no.” So the issue becomes whether those dining on digital alerts absorb enough news nutrition to make informed decisions when it comes time to vote. Or do the digital alerts for the extremely busy create a generation of—as former Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain put it—“leaders, not readers.” It’s worrisome when a person seeking our highest office believes the two are not inextricable.
The press of constant deadlines and the chasing down of rumors now offered at lightening speed detract from the more predictably paced process of journalism that provides the breathing time to reflect on the ethical standards guiding our work. “You’re more susceptible to pressure because the stories are a part of the whole world [of media],” said Linda Hasert, who is deputy New Jersey editor for the Inquirer. “It’s hard to inject calm when the pressure is zinging from all over the world. So, you get too many cooks in the kitchen.”
Working at this pace in the digital realm can also warp how news is defined and how it is presented. When reporters shoot video their clips should be 60 seconds long not because the story merits that length but because that’s the length that requires no editing. There’s also a digital impact on presentation. Photo editors are adapting to using shots that attract the eye on the horizontal iPad and Android screens.
While there will always be worthy stories that can’t be told in video bursts because of their complexity or the absence of visual imagery, others work well in the new media. Security video that was part of a public court record greatly enhanced the storytelling in an Inquirer series about school violence. Global Positioning Satellite tracking enabled investigative reporters to dispatch photographers to the site of a gas pipeline where shoddy work was done. In each case, video enlivened the in-depth reporting.
Philadelphia Media Network (PMN), which owns the Inquirer, the Philadelphia Daily News and Philly.com, launched Project Liberty—placing a new focus on an IRP index of Innovation, Relevance and Profitability—to usher the company out of bankruptcy and into these digital times. This meant revamping some newspaper offerings and rolling out digital apps. In September, the company offered up to 5,000 Arnova 10 G2 tablet computers for as little as $99 to those subscribers who signed up for three discounted apps developed for the Android tablet. Those who subscribed for two years got the tablet and are charged $10 every four weeks, while a one-year subscription put the cost of the tablet at $129 for the tablet with a payment of $13 due every four weeks.
Greg Osberg, PMN’s chief executive officer, warned the staff that to focus only on their newspapers would mean that the company would “slide with that industry.” When reporters asked if his strategy signaled the end of the papers, he told them that the marketplace would decide.
“Clearly it’s the biggest challenge I have and we have as an institution,” said Stan Wischnowski, editor of the Inquirer. “Either/or no longer exists. Print still is very relevant; strong multimedia platforms are necessary. And we have to do it in a way that is methodical. We have to invest in training. That is necessary before we can get the whole newsroom moving in the right direction.”
Philly.com—with the Inquirer and Daily News online as well as work done by the Philly.com staff—is now the dominant news site in the fifth largest U.S. media market. On its own, the Inquirer’s newsroom has 260 fewer staff members than it did in 2000, when 620 people worked there. Yet, as Wischnowski reminded me, “We have more consumers of our news than at any time in the 183-year history of our newspaper.”
Getting them to subscribe (to pay money to read the newsroom’s product) is now the greatest challenge.
Gerald B. Jordan is an associate professor in the Walter J. Lemke Department of Journalism at the University of Arkansas.