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.

If you build it, they will read it

printing pressThe world of newspaper journalism has been turned on its head lately with bankruptcies, layoffs, the discontinuation of print editions, the discontinuation of papers altogether — and many people seem to be struggling with how to help the industry survive.

I’ve been to several meetings in the past few days talking about the new, digital face of newspapers and how this is the way to be successful. I’m not sure I buy it, though, because I’m not sure newspaper publishers have figured out their problem: if you don’t give people a product they want to read, they won’t read it, no matter what flashy format you deliver it in.

There was a great blog entry posted recently about the 16 things people learn in journalism school. It is an awesome reminder to those in the industry about their responsibilities in wielding the power of the pen, which we all know is truly mightier than the sword.

Unfortunately, it seems to me that the 16 basic rules outlined in that blog are often pushed aside lately. I’ve seen it in the journalism schools themselves, as the basic concepts of excellent reporting and writing are ignored to make room for the teaching of delivery methods.

While I was at one of the aforementioned meetings, I was tweeting about changes occurring at the Detroit News and the Detroit Free Press, which both have recently scaled back home delivery to three days per week, have launched E-editions and are working on E-reader versions to be available on the Kindle within a few weeks. As I like to do while tweeting events, I started posing questions to start some discussions.

I thought one of the most compelling comments was this one, from @yasky:

They can’t control delivery method as they are no longer the gatekeepers of information. We may transition, but by choice only.

Perhaps that’s the biggest problem newspaper publishers are dealing with. They are faced with increasing expenses and decreasing advertising revenue. They are faced with a 24-hour news cycle that won’t wait for the ink to dry on the paper anymore. And they are faced with a fickle audience that will not pay for news when it’s available for free in so many other places. But, the harsh reality is just as @yasky said: they are no longer the gatekeepers.

Journalists as a whole, be they in print or broadcast, used to be the primary sources for news and information across the globe. Now, I often don’t hear about news first from a professional journalist, I hear about it from someone who has posted it on Twitter or Facebook or a blog. Certainly, that first person to post a news item may be directly involved, but often they are initially hearing the news from a professional journalist. However, that’s where the control stops. The spreading of news and information has gone global, it has gone viral, it has gone out of the hands of newspaper publishers and into the hands of their (former) readers.

So, the big question is, how do they turn those former readers back into subscribers? First, they need to remember the 16 things they learned in journalism school from the blog post linked above. Then, they need to learn to produce stories so well-written and compelling that people want to read them. They need to build a newspaper that, regardless of delivery method, people feel they cannot do without because it is offering information not found elsewhere. They need to, once again, become the gatekeepers of information that no one else has the time or the talent to uncover and write about.

I’m certainly not professing to have all the answers that are going to save the newspaper industry — no one should be foolish enough to claim that talent. But I am willing to suggest certain steps that newspapers should consider taking immediately:

— give the readers what they want and need;

— give the readers something they can’t find elsewhere;

— create a mecca for news and information that is credible and reliable.

If you build it, they will read it.

(Image courtesy of the BBC.)