This will be my keynote address to the Arizona Newspapers Association fall convention in Scottsdale today. I didn’t follow the script closely and I trimmed the court-liveblogging section for time, but this is the written version. I also will lead a breakout session on revenue-building ideas.
It’s kind of early on a Saturday morning to start thinking about the weighty matters of the news business, so I’m going to get us started with a little exercise. If you don’t feel comfortable with Twitter, please stand up (if you’re physically able).
OK, if you’re not comfortable using Foursquare, I want you to raise your right hand above your head if you’re already standing or stand up if you’re still sitting.
If you’re not comfortable with Facebook or Pinterest or Reddit or Banjo or Google Voice or Spundge or Storify or ScribbleLive or some other tool with an odd name that you’ve heard might be important, raise your left hand if your right hand is already up, your right hand if you don’t have a hand up and stand up if you’re sitting.
Now, if you’re not comfortable letting the public come into your newsroom every day and use your computers, browse your archives, drink your coffee, chat uninvited with your news staff and attend your news meetings, (in person or online), wave your right hand if both hands are up, put up your left hand if it’s not up yet, your right hand if it’s not up yet and stand up if you’re sitting.
OK, if you don’t feel comfortable with a future built on revenue sources beyond advertising and subscriptions, wave both hands if you’ve already waved your right hand, wave your right hand if both hands are up, raise your left hand if only your right hand is up and raise your right hand if neither hand is up and stand up if you’re still sitting.
OK, everyone sit down. Is there anyone who stayed sitting through this whole exercise and didn’t clap? Please stand. OK, you’re excused. You don’t need to listen to anything I’m going to say. But everyone else look around and identify some of these people. You might want to sit next to them at lunch or buy them a drink tonight and talk to them.
I’m going to talk today about what makes us uncomfortable as journalists and news business leaders. I’m going to talk about embracing your discomfort and working through that discomfort to find the hope and promise that lie on the other side.
My father was an Air Force chaplain and later an American Baptist pastor, so once a year he had to give what ministers call the “stewardship” sermon, preaching about the importance of tithes and offerings to support the chapel or church. His favorite line was: “Give till it stops hurting.” I’m going to steal and adapt that line from Dad today (I’m sure my sons have heard many lines that I stole from Dad). Here’s my advice from Dad filtered through my media lens: Journalists and leaders in the news business need to change till it stops hurting. You need to get comfortable in your discomfort zone.
I didn’t feel comfortable with Twitter the first time I used it. I didn’t understand why I couldn’t go over 140 characters. I didn’t understand who would see my tweets or why they would care. It had a stupid name and it made me feel stupid. I tweeted once – something like “trying to figure out this Twitter thing” – and when nothing magical happened, I retreated to the relative comfort of LinkedIn, Facebook andFlickr, the other social networks I was trying to learn (we weren’t yet calling them “social media”).
They felt more comfortable: LinkedIn was like professional networking, Facebook was sharing stuff with my friends and Flickr was like a photo album. They had digital features I was trying to figure out (or perhaps ignoring), but they fit within my frame of reference. But Twitter was odd and uncomfortable. I was used to feeling confident and it made me feel clumsy. So I retreated to my comfort zone.
A few weeks later, Howard Owens, who then was working for Gatehouse, was a discussion leader for an American Press Institute seminar I was leading. Howard had written an outstanding blog post about 11 objectives journalists should pursue in 2008 to become what Howard then was calling a wired journalist. Of course, we’re all wireless now, but I’ll bet many of you could still benefit four-plus years later by following Howard’s 2008 advice. Well, I asked Howard to lead a session for me at API about his list and his challenge to grow as a digital journalist.
Twitter was one of the items on the list (No. 9), but I don’t think Howard was discussing Twitter when one of the people in the workshop responded to one of his suggestions by saying, “I don’t feel comfortable about …” Howard responded by saying something like: “You’re not going to master digital journalism from your comfort zone.” He said you have to go where you don’t feel comfortable and embrace the discomfort and learn new ways of working and thinking. And there’s nothing comfortable about that.
Well, I thought Howard was speaking directly to me and speaking about Twitter specifically. So I blogged that evening (that post is no longer available, but I hope to repost it later today) that I was going to “twitter” hard the next week hard (I wasn’t using tweet as a verb yet) and would report back on how it went. Well, it didn’t feel comfortable. But I embraced the discomfort, I started learning and soon I was starting to understand and master a new tool. Soon I was growing comfortable and eventually I realized that it was the most useful tool for journalists that has been developed in my career.
I should add that not long after that, Howard followed his own advice and jumped into the discomfort zone of running his own business, The Batavian, a local news website covering Batavia, N.Y. The business is doing well, last I heard, and disrupting the local newspaper, which didn’t even have a website when Howard launched The Batavian (talk about comfortable).
I hope Howard’s advice was helpful to the seminar participants. It certainly helped me. It helped me transform my career, so I gladly pass it along to you this morning. I want to call on you not just to use Twitter, but to embrace all your discomfort zones. I’m going to honor Howard’s advice and I’m also going to suck up to my boss,John Paton, by stealing one of his ideas and giving you a keynote address that’s built around a series of tweets.
I used the same approach in June at the Pennsylvania Press Conference, but I used different tweets. The messages overlap but are not identical. I turned that keynoteinto a blog post and this one is on my blog as well, along with all the tweets and the slides, so if you find anything helpful here, you can find it all on my blog.
We’ll start, of course, with Howard’s advice: Steve Buttry@stevebuttry
Now we’ll move on to my advice: Steve Buttry@stevebuttry
Twitter ain’t going away (even if Twitter goes away). Master the chaos of short social messages. #embracediscomfort
For the first year or two that I was using Twitter and telling journalists that they needed to start using it, people would tell me that it was a fad and would be gone in another six months or so, replaced by the next big thing. I told them they might be right. I didn’t know then and I don’t know now that Twitter won’t be the nextMySpace and move sometime to the remember-when graveyard of social tools.Friendster anyone? Google Wave? Aardvark? But I also told them this: I would learn about whatever came next much faster on Twitter than they would learn about whatever comes next on whatever they were using.
And I was saying that four years ago. Four years! Four years is an eternity in digital media. Twitter (the tool) has shown its staying power. It is here to stay, whatever happens to Twitter (the company), and if you haven’t started mastering it yet, it’s time to start catching up. Today. You’re not still holding out on buying a cellphone because you want to make sure it’s not a fad, are you?
I say that Twitter is here to stay even though I have concern that the company’s recent actions exerting much stronger control over its API could backfire and leave the company known as Twitter vulnerable to disruption and could finally fulfill those smug predictions I was hearing four years ago. Much of Twitter’s success has been fueled by developments that started with third-party developers innovating on Twitter’s open API, and I think Twitter is risking its future with this strategy.
But I also think Twitter might finally be building the successful revenue stream that its critics have always smugly noted that it didn’t have. Twitter’s CEO Dick Costologave some credible explanations of this strategy in response to some tough questions from Emily Bell at ONA last week. I wouldn’t bet against Twitter. And I absolutely wouldn’t bet on the world going backwards. If Twitter isn’t here to stay, it’s not going to be because everyone started to wait for tomorrow’s newspaper to find out what’s happening in 20-inch chunks of paper and ink.
If Twitter fades from importance it’s going to be because someone with a name likeSpundge or Circa or something we can’t spell yet (or possibly someone with a name we already know like Facebook, Google, Storify or Tumblr) comes up with an even better way of helping people tell their networks and the world quickly what’s happening.
Here are a couple 2008 tweets that drove home to me the value of Twitter in covering breaking news. You might not want to print this quote from Mike Wilson on your front page, but you sure as hell want your reporters to talk to him if the plane crashed at your airport. MikeWilson@2drinksbehind
And if your community experiences a news story like the 2008 Northridge earthquake, MissRFTC is going to be telling a more interesting story than your reporters, so you need to be able to find her quickly .Verdell Wilson@MissRFTC
I am totally serious. My Ob/Gyn was IN my vagina and an earthquake started rattling the room!
One of the most memorable news photos of 2009 was tweeted out by Janis Krums, who was on a ferry across the Hudson River and in a better position than any professional photojournalist to capture the news. Janis Krums@jkrums
http://twitpic.com/135xa - There's a plane in the Hudson. I'm on the ferry going to pick up the people. Crazy.
If the biggest story of 2011 had happened in your community, you were scooped by Sohaib Athar. So don’t you think you’d want to find that guy quickly and interview him?
On one of the biggest domestic stories of last year, Brian Stelter of the New York Times couldn’t get a strong enough signal to call his editors or email them. But he could send text messages, so he wrote the story of the Joplin tornado 140 characters at a time.
For nearly two years, Andy Carvin has been leading the world in covering the revolutions in the Arab world and he has done that by listening better than anyone to the Twitter conversation in that part of the world and by vetting, verifying and debunking the stories he hears in that conversation.
And just this summer, if you were telling the story of the attack on the theater in Aurora, Colorado, you found some of the final words of Jessica Redfield in her last tweet.
If you’re still uncomfortable with Twitter, I would love to hear someday about how you’re getting better stories and images in your comfort zone than these people are telling in their tweets. You’re something like five years late, so start catching up. For the past two-plus months, I’ve been writing a series of blog posts that I call a#twutorial. Dig in, get uncomfortable and catch up. I’ll be around after this session and before my 10:40 session to help you get started. I’m serious: If you don’t have an account yet, get started today. If you have an account you haven’t been using, livetweet the rest of today’s conference. It’s past time to get going.
I’ve spent much of the digital era telling journalists and publishers not to worry about scooping themselves online. You can’t scoop yourself. If you have it first, you scoop everyone. Finding new revenue sources is the topic of my breakout session starting at 10:40, so I’m a little worried here about scooping myself. Damn, I’m back in that discomfort zone. Here’s what I’ll do: I’ll tease my revenue session by scooping myself in a tweet:
We’ll talk in that 10:40 session about some of these revenue approaches that might lead to a prosperous future. What I want to address briefly now is our comfort zone: ads and subs. When I worked in the Newspaper Next project at the American Press Institute back in 2006, we learned from Clayton Christensen that a common error of comfortable businesses facing new technology is to try to force our old business models into the new space. That is exactly what newspapers have done in seeking to build our digital model based on advertising and subscriptions.
Over the past year or two, we have seen a boom in paywalls and we have read a lot of proclamations of success. I read one yesterday written by my friend Ken Doctor. I’m not buying. By that I mean two things: I am not paying for your online content. And I don’t believe this approach will ultimately be successful. It is purely a defensive measure, trying to squeeze a little revenue out of a diminished audience – and the revenue has not been that impressive, not even for the New York Times, and you’re not the New York Times.
If you think paywalls are the key to a prosperous digital future, I’ll ask you some questions: Why is nearly every site that’s experimenting with paywalls a newspaper site? You don’t see Facebook or Google trying to charge for access. Or TechCrunch orMashable. Or The Batavian or the West Seattle Blog.
Here are the most significant dangers in our industry’s insistence on clinging to a subscription model: Most of the forward-looking paths to prosperity work better with a larger audience and paywalls (or meters or whatever you want to call them) limit your audience. Most of the paths to prosperity demand that we reach a younger audience and paywalls continue a model in the comfort zone of newspapers’ aging and dying audience.
People my age are great and loyal newspaper readers and we might subscribe. But I’ll tell you something else about people my age: We’re dying. My high school class from Shenandoah, Iowa, just had our 40-year reunion and we were stunned to learn how many of our classmates had died – more than 20 of us in a class of just over 100. And you know where I learned this (I couldn’t attend the reunion)? On Facebook. The Class of ’72 has a Facebook group and just about everyone in the class who’s still alive belongs to the group. If the Class of ’72 is on Facebook, where we link to tons of free content already screened by people we trust, you’re not going to prosper very long selling content.
Press+ built its business model on your comfort zone and that’s going to bring some short-term prosperity for them, but it’s not a path to long-term prosperity for us. Subscriptions are a backward-looking strategy rooted in our comfort zone. Prosperity lies ahead along an unfamiliar and uncomfortable path.
And you’d better find that path quickly. As severely as newspaper advertising has already declined, we remain vulnerable to still more print disruption. You know as well as I do that preprints and legal ads are as vulnerable to disruption as classified ads were 10 years ago.
How many of you checked in here today on Foursquare or Facebook? I’ll just say I didn’t get any points for a swarm when I checked in. I’m not going to say that Foursquare is the path to our prosperity. I think it’s a pretty silly game.
I really don’t care that I’m the mayor of Baggage Claim 12 at Dulles International Airport. And I know my wife is not at all pleased that I am mayor of three different Thrifty car rental locations and unlocked level 10 of the Jetsetter badge. She would not appreciate knowing, as Foursquare told me yesterday, that I’ve checked in at airports 12 weeks in a row. And I don’t even know what the hell I did to earn the 16 Candles badge.
Foursquare is a silly game and sometimes a bit creepy, definitely not my comfort zone. My 30-year-old son is among my Foursquare friends and you don’t always want to know what time your adult children are checking in at home or where all they checked in on a weekend evening.
I don’t play Foursquare because I think it’s a fun game. I play it because I think journalists and news organizations need to be figuring out the value of geodata for news and local commerce. And Foursquare is the leader in location-based social media, so I check in and earn my badges and occasionally become mayor of some place like my dentist’s office. I play because I hope it will help me figure out how to use location tools successfully for news and commerce. Or – more likely – when someone else figures it out, I won’t have to go as far to catch up.
I love me a fat old copy pencil. And glue guns and proportion wheels and pica poles. Now those are comfortable tools. But nostalgia is not going to get us onto the path to prosperity.
You and your staff need to be exploring and learning new tools. How many of you are using Storify? Pinterest? ScribbleLive? We are having success at Digital First with all of these tools. Pinterest is described sometimes as a digital scrapbook. But at the Pottstown Mercury, my Digital First colleague Brandie Kessler got the idea of using it as a digital post office wall, posting photos of local fugitives on a Pinboard. And guess what? Police report that these photos are resulting in more arrests. That sounds a lot like old-school public service journalism to me.
Are any of you thinking as I’m talking that these tools may be useful, but how in the world are you and your staff going to find time to use these tools? This is the magical thing about ScribbleLive (or CoverItLive or just livetweeting with a Twitter widget on your site): They can actually save you time and produce more and better content.
How many of you here have a court reporter – a journalist whose primary responsibility (or one of the primary responsibilities) is covering courts? How many of you have sports reporters on your staff? How many of you have reporters who cover government meetings? Or community events such as festivals? When you cover events live, you create more content, greater depth and stronger engagement without any more staff time. In fact, your staff members will actually learn to save time by providing live coverage.
Let’s use the example of the court reporter. Do Arizona courts allow reporters to use computers or cellphones in courtrooms? (I’ll use this passage if the answer is no: For the purposes of this example, it doesn’t matter. Access battles motivate journalists. When I was editor of the Cedar Rapids Gazette, the University of Iowa Hawkeyes tried to tell us that we couldn’t liveblog their football games. We backed them down and the access fight helped unify my sports staff and helped us instill a strong liveblogging culture in our newsroom. The First Amendment guarantees media freedom and the Sixth Amendment guarantees public trials. Arrogant judges who are blocking reporters from livetweeting trials simply do not have a higher authority than two amendments in the Bill of Rights, and you will win this battle.)
But while you’re waiting to win the legal battle, the principles I’m going to discuss here work just as well for sporting events, festivals, breaking news and meeting coverage. And keep in mind that when I say liveblogging or livetweeting, those terms are almost interchangeable, because you can feed your tweets into your site using ScribbleLive, CoverItLive or a Twitter widget.
I know a lot about court reporting. I have covered a few trials as a reporter and I have supervised court reporters in coverage of more trials than I can remember. Here’s how the print-focused newsroom covers a trial: The reporter spends about six hours in court each day, filling two or three reporters’ notebooks with notes. When the reporter finished, she had a conversation with her reporter that went something like this: How much are you going to write? How about 20 inches? Can you do it in 12? They compromise on 15, the reporter writes 18 and the editor cuts it to 16. And all of that is guided by the cost of newsprint – how big your hole is today – and by their mutual speculation on the interest level of the mythical average reader that we wrote for.
After the conversation, the reporter stares at the blank screen for a while waiting for the perfect lead to write itself and eventually writes the story, finishing about by your print deadline.
But you know, if the crime happened in my neighborhood, I want more than even the 20-inch story the reporter wanted to write. If the defendant or the victim was my child’s teacher, I want everything in that reporter’s notebook. You gathered enough content to satisfy the highly interested reader, but you’re just sharing enough for the average reader. But it doesn’t take any more of that reporter’s time to give that highly interested reader complete coverage. Your reporter was going to be in court six hours anyway. Livetweet that trial and feed the tweets into your site and you provide a powerful, compelling narrative.
And sometime during the day, the reporter is going to write a tweet and say, “Damn, that was good. Maybe that should be my lead.” The reporter is going to tweet a dramatic exchange between the prosecution and the key witness that she can just cut and paste later into the print story. And she’s not even going to propose writing a 20-inch story. She’ll start the bidding at 12 inches or maybe even 10 for the print story and write a summary that is more appropriate for the print product. She’s not trying to cram everything she can into the paper because she’s just written 80 or 90 inches, if it was ever set in type, so she’s going to write a briefer summary story and finish sooner.
Changing how you work and how you think to a digital-first approach can product more and deeper work in less time.
Back in the print days, when your competition was TV and radio, you prided yourself on providing deeper coverage. But if you’re not using new tools to provide live coverage of the events in your community, you’re leaving most of your depth in your notebook. And you’re spending that time in the courtroom, or the meeting room or the press box anyway.
Our court editor, Trish Mehaffey, pushed for access to liveblog a federal trial and the judge granted it, the first reporter allowed to liveblog a federal trial. And we had more than 1,000 people at a time on the liveblog, with an average time on site of two hours. These were people who were never satisfied with that 16-inch story they got from their newspaper. But we were there in the courtroom all day, taking down content in our notebooks and then, rather than providing that content to them, we made assumptions about their interest level and kept most of that content from them.
Trish wasn’t operating with the safety net of an editor to filter, fine-tune and approve all of her words before they went into the liveblog. But let me tell you: She’s a good journalist and she did a good job and I didn’t hear any complaints.
If you’re not already covering events in your community live, you need to do it. Learn how to livetweet, liveblog, livestream and live chat. If someone figures out a tool that will let you do a live holograph or live mindmeld, you’d better try that, too. Live coverage is not always polished and it’s not always comfortable, but it’s how good journalists report the news today.
Do you know how the inverted pyramid story was developed? It had its origins in the Civil War, when was correspondents sent their stories by telegraph lines that were always vulnerable to disruption as the two armies would take lines down for strategic purposes. So reporters put the most important information at the top of the story, so it would get through if the transmission was disrupted. Then that story form was perpetuated by technology because in the days of hot-metal typesetting, it was easiest to cut stories from the end if they were a few lines or a few inches too long.
I don’t intend to debate the merits of the inverted pyramid today, but I will tell you that I do think we can improve on a form that invites people to stop reading (because you’ve already read the best stuff). If you’re comfortable clinging to a story form that is rooted in technology we haven’t used in decades, let me introduce you to the smartphone and the laptop computer. You need to be telling stories in videos and interactive graphics and Storifies and timelines and maps and blogs and liveblogs and tweets and Facebook updates and slideshows and pinboards.
The truth is that storytelling – in literature as well as in news – has always been evolving. Today’s novelists don’t write anything like the epic poems of Homer or the dramas of Shakespeare. And today’s storytelling tools and techniques have evolved in many directions from the inverted pyramid (which still persists as a useful form for a quick news post).
I have a couple more points I want to make, but I want to pause here to field some questions. If you have a question – or want to disagree with some points I’ve made – please speak up. I may not be comfortable hearing your criticism, but I’m willing to embrace that discomfort.
After a few questions:
What are the biggest obstacles to innovation in your organization? Cost? Skills? Training? Culture? Time?
This is what Cedar Rapids looked like on my third day as editor of the Gazette. A flood– or any disaster – is a horrible experience for any community. But it’s an odd thing about the news business that when disaster strikes, we are in our comfort zone. My staff faced incredible challenges in covering this disaster. Photojournalists covered the flood in chest waders and boats. We had to get respirators for staff members to wear when they went into moldy buildings after the waters receded. We had trouble getting to critical locations because roads were out. Power in our building was out for a month. Wherever my comfort zone is, it is not working in June in extreme humidity in a building with no air-conditioning.
And it wasn’t just the newsroom: Our circulation department did a heroic job reworking routes on the fly to deliver the paper anywhere people were still in their homes (and filling in for carriers who had lost their homes). Our IT department had to figure out how many computers and fans we could run on our backup generator so we could keep the website up and keep publishing in print.
Our facilities manager, Ken White, was amazing. That guy and his crew sandbagged our drains and had pumps ready so that when the sewers backed up, we could pump the water out and stay in our building. Ken had to find a generator powerful enough to operate our buildings for a month (we had a TV station as well as the newspaper and web operations). It’s not enough just to find the generator. Then Ken had to find someone who could deliver 1,000 gallons of diesel fuel a day to run the generator. And we needed portable toilets because the city’s sewer system was overwhelmed.
The HR department needed to find someone to deliver three meals a day and lots of drinking water, because everyone was working long shifts and all the downtown restaurants were closed.
The production department was fortunately in an area that wasn’t flooded and didn’t lose power. But they had to take on production of the Waterloo Courier, whose pressroom was flooded upstream. And they operated on a smaller crew because several workers lost their homes or couldn’t get to work because roads were out. And they were printing extra copies for all the people who would buy single copies, either for their historic value or because they needed to know all the important news we had about the disaster and how they could volunteer or where they could get help.
The ad staff needed to cancel ads from businesses that were underwater and change the copy for other ads, expressing support for the community instead of advertising specials.
The top executives had to coordinate all this work and had to stand up to the National Guard and police when they tried to evacuate us from our building. And they had to figure out how we’d pay for that generator and all the diesel fuel and how to adjust our budget for the lost ads and subscribers.
It was an amazing companywide effort, but we undertook it without hesitation, reservation or excuse. Our community needed our news coverage of this disaster and we delivered amazing results. It’s in our DNA as journalists and news organizations that when the big story breaks, the whole organization responds with amazing resolve, courage and resourcefulness. Many of you have similar war stories of your organizations’ own response to horrific disasters. The obstacles cannot stop us when the big story breaks. We find ways around them. We smash through them. We knock them down. We wade through them. We leap tall buildings with a single bound (remember, Clark Kent was a reporter). Somehow we get the story and we get the paper out, no excuses.
Well, we need the same no-excuses approach to the challenges of the digital marketplace. The obstacles are real. They are significant. But we cannot let them defeat us. The collapse of our print business is a disaster for the newspaper business as surely as that flood was a disaster for my community. We need to meet this disaster with the same level of resolve and resourcefulness that my Cedar Rapids colleagues faced that flood. We need to turn each of these obstacles into war stories of our success and not let them become excuses for failure.
I was privileged five years ago to do some training for Stars and Stripes at their bureaus in Germany and Japan. I had an extra day in Germany to do some sightseeing and my wife, Mimi, and I visited the Gutenberg Museum in Mainz. Has anyone here ever been to the Gutenberg Museum? It’s an outstanding museum and it was an emotional experience to learn so much about the birth of print in a time when we wonder if we’re living in the twilight of print.
Upstairs in a darkened room under protective glass, I saw three ancient original Gutenberg Bibles. That was a really moving experience. And over to the left was another display of pre-Gutenberg Bibles. These were painstakingly handcrafted Bibles made by monks called Scribes in the centuries before movable type.
I reflected on the fact that newspaper journalists and executives are living in a time that’s similar to what those monks experienced when Gutenberg pioneered movable type. If their product was an exquisite handcrafted Bible, passed down through the generations as a family heirloom, its days were numbered, and the number was pretty low. But if their product was a message that they believed in their souls was the word of God, this new technology was going to carry that message to untold millions of people who never had a chance to read one of those beautiful illuminated manuscripts. However much discomfort it might mean for the scribes, the development of movable type was a huge step forward for the world and specifically for the message to which these monks had dedicated their lives.
Well, if our product is ink on paper, delivered to your home daily with yesterday’s news, I don’t think that product has any better a future than the handmade Bible. But I don’t think that’s our product. Our product is news, information, commentary, meaning, insight, connection to the community, connection to the marketplace. And digital technology gives us amazing tools to deliver that product in ways we are still trying to imagine.
Our product has a future that is as boundless as the future of print was in Gutenberg’s day. The path to that future is not comfortable. But if we embrace discomfort and blaze that trail, I believe we will find a future for news that will be exciting and prosperous.