MLive may just breathe life back into journalism

When people have complained about print newspapers dwindling and everything moving online, I’ve written  about how news gathering matters much more than the form in which it’s delivered. I’ve also had my share of critical reviews of MLive, its recent merger with Booth Newspapers, and the entire concept of focusing too much on delivery of the news and not the gathering of it. I had a first-hand, behind the scenes look at the new MLive Media Group recently, though, and I have to admit that maybe I have been too quick to judge.

I still get frustrated with MLive’s website being too cluttered — some days it seems a testament to society’s insatiable appetite for information vs. knowledge, not to mention the wisdom needed to fully appreciate both. But if you spend some time with Dan Gaydou, publisher of the Grand Rapids Press and now president of  MLive Media Group, you can start to see the positive side of what that organization is trying to do for the journalism industry and its consumers.

During my tour of the new Grand Rapids MLive hub, which is being prepared for opening in February, I have to admit I found myself nodding in agreement with what Gaydou was preaching, and finding myself more excited about the future potential of journalism than I have been in years. Gaydou is a traditional newspaper guy but he has found a way to embrace the next generation of journalism. He still understands that what matters is community — how every story can be a local story because news readers can and should care about what’s happening across town, across the state and across the country because of its potential impact on their town. But he also sees the increasing use of technology in journalism as a method by which to gather and deliver that news faster and better, and not a collection of flashy toys that look impressive but don’t deliver on their full potential.

It’s not appropriate for me to share too much inside information with folks. After all, that is MLive’s news and I’ll let them be the first to share it. But I can tell you this: MLive is outfitting its reporters with some of the latest technology and providing workspaces that are tapping into technological resources many of us will be envious of regardless of our current industry or position.

MLive’s “hub” is under construction in Grand Rapids.

As a news consumer, I’m excited to see the technology and flexibility of bloggers married to the standards and ethics of professional journalists. As newspapers have struggled to survive, they have left a void filled by amateurs who, even when well-intentioned, often fall short in their ability to deliver quality news. Bloggers aren’t journalists, and not just because of a judge’s list on page nine of this 13-page ruling.

But journalists have suffered recently as their employers have scaled back, struggled to survive and refused to give them the resources they need to do their jobs well. I think that could change with the MLive news hubs. Journalists will be given the equipment and resources needed to be out in their communities gathering news, writing good stories and delivering them at an amazing pace. Hopefully, MLive Media Group will see that there is still a place in this world for well-researched, longer stories that deliver more than knowledge, they also help readers find wisdom. I heard a great line about the difference lately. “Knowledge is knowing tomatoes are a fruit, while wisdom is knowing not to put them in a fruit salad.”

The MLive Media Group is growing rapidly in several markets and has its eyes set on more. They are challenging the old way of thinking in journalism. Gaydou preaches that they are trying to find a way to deliver the best journalism they can in a way that allows them to connect with old and new audiences alike. If they truly practice what they preach at MLive Media Group, then we’re about to see something special happen.

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Newspapers aren’t pizzas and journalists aren’t delivery boys

Journalism is a profession. It requires education on theories, training for practical application and experience to make you a well-rounded professional. It requires the ability to gather, share and explain news. It is about reporting news, not distributing it.

When I ask my students at Michigan State University what their main source of news is, many cite Twitter or Facebook. But these are not sources of news, they are sources of news distribution. So are YouTube, RSS feeds and blog posts with a bunch of links to press releases and news articles written by other journalists.

Seth Godin recently blogged about “lazy journalism,” and he makes some valid points. But I can’t blame journalists for this dearth of professional reporting, particularly in my old stomping grounds: newspapers. I blame the bean counters at newspapers and readers who are too cheap and fickle to support their local news organizations.

I wrote earlier this year about how “news” is more important than “paper,” because it is content that matters, not the distribution system. Since that post, which I wrote after the major MLive/Booth Newspapers merger in Michigan, I’ve seen experienced journalists dropping like flies. The Booth Capitol Bureau  lost a seasoned reporter who has not yet been replaced and may never be. The Grand Rapids Press lost two experienced newspapermen that I’ve worked with over the years and grown to trust for their talent and forthrightness. And today I learned a Kalamazoo Gazette reporter is leaving with no real idea of where they are headed next. They didn’t say it, but I think I can safely assume they are a victim of what MLive/Booth called an “investment in our digital future.” Newspaper reporters left behind on the beat are often inundated with spreadsheets from bosses about the number of hits on a news post, sometimes being directed to write about those numbers, as if that’s actually newsworthy.

Booth has dropped seasoned reporters and editors and consolidated editing functions to a centralized location instead of having local editors edit local copy. Gannett is throwing up its hands on trying to get out-of-control reader comments tamed by selling its readers down the Facebook river. And some of the “news” outlets that are now online have resorted to posting links from press releases to balance out stories rather than doing any investigative interviews of their own. This is happening nationwide, not just in Michigan.

Is it any wonder then that the 2011 list for the “year in media errors and corrections” has some real doozies in it?

At one point in my career, I was the editor for a weekly newspaper and we were the main competition for the local daily paper. Often, people don’t think weeklies can compete with dailies because of the delay in printing. But we focused on hard news stories just as much as the daily did — we simply took advantage of our extended deadline by digging into the story from a different angle or to a deeper level than the daily had the luxury of doing. We gave them a run for their money and every week I was proud to say that our little weekly newspaper was chock full of news that was of importance and interest to our readers.

The newspaper industry is missing a fantastic opportunity to fill a niche. Newspapers have always had a disadvantage when compared to TV, radio and, now, the Internet. Newspapers cannot be first to break a news story unless they’ve been working on an investigative piece quietly and launch an exclusive. But they have the advantage of an extended deadline. TV and radio have to meet a regular deadline (or several) every day. Newspapers have tried to emulate that deadline hell instead of focusing on what they should be doing:  getting a better story, a deeper story, a more compelling and interesting story than their broadcast brethren would ever have the time or space for.

Newspaper journalists need to focus on doing a better job of keeping their profession professional. Give us the stories we need. Give us the details we can’t find on TV or in a tweet. Give us the fair, accurate reporting that often is lacking in opinion-laden blog posts. Give us what we want, even though we may not yet know that we want it. Steve Jobs created an empire at Apple by doing that with tech gadgets. Imagine what newspaper journalists could do if they applied the same philosophy to the intellectual pursuit of real news instead of the packdog-driven drivel they’re forced to heap upon us.

“30 minutes or less” is a fine mantra for pizza delivery, but newspapers aren’t pizzas and journalists aren’t delivery boys.

“News” is more important than “paper”

There is a lot of discussion going on at the moment about the bombshell Booth Newspapers dropped today regarding its move to “invest in its digital future,” which is a pleasant way to say they are scaling back on print editions and employees. If you follow the link I put in above, you’ll be able to read the letter with the company’s spin on this announcement. If you want to know the basic facts of what’s actually happening and what it really means to you as a reader or subscriber, then you should jump straight to the company’s FAQ.

My Twitter and Facebook feed exploded with this news and potential fallout from it, with comments discussing the entire universe of what this announcement means. Some folks are worried about their friends and colleagues who work at Booth-owned newspapers. Others are declaring that they saw this coming and it was only a matter of time until the news chain went primarily to online distribution. And still others are pointing to this announcement as the continuing death of newspapers.

They are all somewhat right, and yet they all may be wrong just a bit, too.

As a former newspaper reporter, I can attest to the fact that for generations it has always been the newsroom and the reporting staff that gets cut first when the budget axe is wielded. So, people are right to be concerned about folks losing their jobs — Booth even admitted that layoffs are possible if people can’t find a proper fit within the new organization. Those who remain will be referred to as “content producers,” which is to say they are the ones who learned to adapt to a rapidly changing world in ways that allowed them to marry their experience with technological abilities.

Those who are suggesting that we all should have seen this coming may be right — after all, the newspaper industry has from the beginning bungled its use of the Internet at the expense of its print products. There is little indication that anyone has learned how to correct the initial blunder of offering news content for free online but only via payment for hard copies. I don’t see that changing, so I suppose my kids will be using something else to line birdcages with some day.

Despite my nostalgic fondness for the smell of newsprint and the ink smeared on my fingers, I’d have to say that it is those suggesting the death of newspapers who are most inaccurate in their assumption. It is not the death of newspapers that should concern us, it’s the death of news gathering. Paper is, after all, just a form of delivery. There is some truth to the notion that you tend to stumble upon news more when reading a print edition than an online edition, but our habits will adjust over time. If the news is gathered properly, completely, and accurately, does it really matter what form it’s delivered to us in?

The biggest issue surrounding this announcement is what this new MLive Media Group will mean for the “content producers.” Will they be given enough resources — meaning equipment and fellow employees — to actually do some real reporting? Or will they be hamstrung by resources, forced to regurgitate press releases and become aggregators of what other people are doing and saying, often without the burden of journalistic standards and integrity?

This story is just breaking and it’s far from over since we won’t know what the real impact will be for some months to come. In the meantime, I hope it all turns out well for the company, its employees and its customers. In the world of journalism, “news” is more important than “paper.” If we’d all stop losing sight of that fact, we might just become the consumers that these organizations need to know exist — people who want accurate, complete news and not a bunch of regurgitated hearsay made pretty with blue links and shaky video.

How will we get our news?

hownews panelI attended a forum last night focused on the future of journalism titled, “How will we get our news?”

It was hosted by the Central Michigan chapter of the Public Relations Society of America and the Michigan State University chapter of the Public Relations Student Society of America. Featured panelists were Ron Dzwonkowski from the Detroit Free Press, Cindy Goodaker from Crain’s Detroit Business and Bill Emkow from MLive.

The event was centered around the One Book, One Community project in East Lansing and its focal point was described as such:

In The Soloist, Steve Lopez laments the demise of newspapers, with their power to tell a story and inspire action. What is the future of the news industry in this age of blogs and on-line news?

One thing that became abundantly clear throughout the night was that there are no easy answers when it comes to the future of journalism — in terms of reporters being given the time and resources to do their jobs properly and businesses being around that can actually sustain the delivery of news in the traditional formats. Yes, shocking news here — newspapers are for-profit businesses. For some reason, people don’t seem to think it’s acceptable for a newspaper to make money, lest it abandon its altruistic nature. But publishing a newspaper costs money, and 85 to 90 percent of the revenue for most newspapers comes from advertising.

It also became clear pretty quickly that old-school journalists are struggling to figure out how to deliver news online while the online folks are frustrated by the newspaper people who think the answer is to simply reproduce the papers in a digital format.

I tweeted from the event, as did a few others. I believe we had a journalist or two in the audience who might write about the event, but those who were following #hownews on Twitter last night already have the story. A bit of irony there, I suppose — that a microblogging platform scooped traditional news outlets on covering a story about the future of journalism. Perhaps a local news organization could have sent a reporter to tweet from the event and then write up a standard news story later. That’s a method of reporting I don’t see being used often enough.

Here are a few of the topics discussed last night that I’d like folks to weigh in on:

  1. One panelist suggested that without major media, online news sources wouldn’t exist — that they are all fed by the mainstream media. Agree or disagree?
  2. Do readers still exist for long-form, investigative stories since everyone likes quick, short news now? Have we, as a society, lost any meaningful attention span?
  3. The average age of readers of the Detroit Free Press and Crain’s Detroit Business is mid-50s. Dzwonkowski said, “the typical newspaper consumer is a dying breed.” He also said, “Young people are consuming a lot of information, but they are consuming it unedited.” He’s worried that no one is bothering to check and double-check the facts and make sure a story is coming from a qualified, reliable source. Do you agree?

One question I asked of the panel and would like to hear your response to as well is: how can we get all people, regardless of age, to once again trust that journalists are doing the proper legwork and providing accurate stories from credible sources? I’d start by getting the Glenn Becks and Keith Olbermans of the world off the cable TV news stations and put them on “The Opinionated Screamers Channel” so people take them with the grain of salt they deserve.

How would you start?

(Photo courtesy of Jessi Wortley Adler – @minij)