Jane Stevens: Niche news networks

Jane Stevens is editorial director for Oceans Now and an associate faculty member at the Knight Digital Media Center at the University of California, Berkeley, Graduate School of Journalism.

In these new networks, the community is at the core and journalists serve that community. It is the way that things are going.

Q: Are newspapers killing journalism?

A: The leaders of traditional news organizations have certainly dealt a big blow to journalism. A number of things contributed:

Corporatizing news organizations, so that decisions are based on maximizing profitability, rather than improving journalism. Choosing the top decision-makers from business, rather than the ranks of journalists. The results: continual cannibalizing of newsroom staffs to meet high profit margins, thus decreasing the number of journalists, beats covered (witness the elimination of science coverage in many news organizations as well as the closing of foreign bureaus), and depth of coverage. Last year the average profit margin for newspapers was 17 percent. I’d be happy if my investments, my paltry investments, were getting 17 percent. Eventually, this cannibalization leads to collapse.

Regarding the Web as a separate, adjunct profit-making venture instead of as the new dominant news and information medium. People who worked on the Web site were outsiders, they were never regarded as “real” journalists, and they had little to contribute to the newsroom.

When it was obvious that news organizations needed to embrace the Web, few leaders of news organizations instituted an aggressive transformation, which includes training everyone in the newsroom about this new medium, modernizing the advertising and marketing divisions, allowing the development of appropriate niche coverage (such as golf and prep sports), modernizing beats (such as crime and politics), and embracing user-generated content (enabling social networking, not just comments on stories or blogs). Instead, they chased parts of the Web: podcasting, blogging and video — without understanding it.

Q: You have said that if local news sources don’t become Webcentric in two years, they will die. Why is the time line so urgent?

A: Because scalable niche Web networks are multiplying and eating away at news organizations’ bread-and-butter beats and advertising: Yelp, Rotten Tomatoes, Fandango, Disaboom, MaxPreps, TruPreps, CSTV (which now officially is CBS SportsLine College Sports Today), Tributes.com, theknot.com, NASA.gov, CNET, Marketwatch, etc. Mid- to small news organizations still have a chance to make a transition, but most of the metropolitan dailies are not likely to recover.

Q: But can anyone else really do local news in small to mid-size communities?

A: Well, some of these sites affect local news and some don’t. MaxPreps certainly does. And where they have made some inroads, they have essentially scooped local news organizations. I think the same goes for CSTV or CBS Sports on college sports. This is especially prevalent in communities where news organizations thought they were the main source for covering college sports. It’s very clear that in many communities CSTV has just taken most of that away. And I think what’s left for local news organizations are their columnists, but almost everything else is taken away by MaxPreps and CSTV.

I was just meeting with the folks at the Lawrence Journal World (Lawrence, Kansas) because they had been on the forefront of trying to make sure that they are the local news organization, even in the face of all these other organizations coming in. So far they said that MaxPreps wasn’t there, so they’re building their prep sports coverage to make sure that MaxPreps can’t get a toehold. And that’s a real challenge.

Q: Why have news organizations been so blind to this competition?

A: I think that top management didn’t understand the Web. In the heady days before the dot.com bust, they just thought it gave them an adjunct — another cash stream — to what they were doing in print. They just didn’t think that their communities would migrate someplace else for news.

Q: Is that arrogance or ignorance?

A: Maybe a little of both. I mean, just two years ago I heard someone from the Columbia Journalism School say that the Web is a fad. And it was just four years ago that someone very high up — very high up — in New York Times management said the same thing. So, it’s insular; it’s not understanding and looking into what this new medium is all about and watching how people were using it.

Unless you get out there, unless you immerse yourself in how people are using this, and how this medium is changing, how the technology is expanding into ways that we can’t even imagine for any other medium that has preceded it, you just can’t grasp how it’s going to change the way you do your work or the way you live.

Q: Yes, but leaders of news organizations have to worry about balancing a budget plus devote a lot of money to something totally new, like the Web. How does economics figure in your thinking of what’s happened over the past decade?

A: News organizations were able to handle the costs when we went from hot type to cold type and from typewriters to computer systems. I don’t know why they stopped modernizing. They did it before when they had to make huge investments in other areas. And then kaboom, they just stopped.

Q: While weekly magazines have done better, many monthly magazines have been somewhat slow to adapt to the possibilities of the Web. What advice do you have for magazine editors?

A: Jump in and understand it. Hire some young folks who really get the social networking and give them the part of the magazine and step back and watch.

Q: You stress that the main characteristics of online news must include immediacy, context and continuity. How do these characteristics differ, if they do, from accepted ideas about news?

A: You forgot two other main characteristics: solution-oriented, and embracing the community. News organizations “get” immediacy, and have done that well on the Web. But breaking news without context is not enough, especially for local organizations. In terms of context, continuity, and solution-oriented characteristics, newspapers do sports, business and entertainment well, but not other beats. Context means providing a full array of data and resources, which newspapers have done well in print for the sports, business and entertainment beats by using six-point agate to list everything. So, making the transition to the Web in those beats was easy — just turn the agate into searchable databases. Few have done this with other beats. And fewer still have embraced much more than a “we talk, you listen” approach.

Q: You advocate that part of the solution to the bloodbath we now see in daily newspapers — the layoffs, the reduction of news holes, etc. — is that all journalists should be multimedia reporters. How does that solve the problem?

A: On the Web, all stories are Webcentric, or multimedia stories. That means they’re some combination of video, stills, audio, graphics and/or text, put together in a nonlinear format in which the information in each medium is complementary, not redundant. Reporters should blog their beats, and within the available time and resources, use video, still photos, audio and graphics in their blog posts, and augment the blog posts with multimedia feature/investigative stories. They should figure out which medium or media to use to best tell their stories, rather than making the medium they’re most familiar with — text, audio or video — the starting point.

Q: Does this mean that print will be dead soon? If so, how long do you give it?

A: I was talking with a news organization last week about this. I said it’s unlikely that you’re going to quadruple your print product, but it’s very likely that you’re going to quadruple the number of pages you use on your Web site. So, if you take that approach and you’re shifting from print to this new medium, which is really gobbling everything up, then your print product starts becoming something else.

For now, I think it’s going to depend on each local news organization and what it decides to do with print. For daily news organizations that print product might go down to three or four days a week. It might be very oriented to a particular topic, such as entertainment or home and garden or Sunday analysis. I’m pretty comfortable saying that will happen fairly quickly. What happens after that, I don’t know.

If you take this approach — that you know you’re growing on the Web and you know that you’re more than likely not going to grow the print product very much — then your orientation changes a bit. You think about how you deliver news and how you interact with your community in a very different way.

Q: Please tell us a little more about your ideas regarding open-source news templates — what you call “useful and solution-oriented networks” or “news shells” — and how you think they will help solve the lack of coverage in science reporting and other areas.

A: So far this year there have been more than 8,000 journalists laid off, or journalism jobs eliminated. Last year it was 4,700. Science journalism took that hit early, between 5 and 10 years ago.

So, I think there’s some opportunity for science journalists to do one of two things, start some of their own very specific news organizations, or come up with institutions or consortia and maintain their editorial independence while doing some traditional news reporting, engaging the community in conversations and taking a solution-oriented approach to issues.

One of my two areas of interest is ocean science. I think that there is a good possibility of developing an ocean news and information network in which you have journalists creating a place for traditional science reporting, as well as a place for the community to be involved in solving some of the problems that have appeared in maintaining sustainable ocean environments.

Q: Is this like what we’re seeing with the investigative, non-profit news organization, ProPublica, or another entity that would partner with or sell its work to newspapers or television stations?

A: Well, I don’t think there’s a snowball’s chance in hell of any science news organizations selling science news to dailies. The dailies aren’t interested. That’s just gone. However, if you create a place for the community of people interested and involved in the health of the oceans to discuss, share and exchange information, and then have journalists support that community, that has a better shot of working. And that community includes people who can support this effort, whether it’s by advertising, by sponsorship, or even by some level of funding. If you ignore the part of the community that is mostly regarded as business and services, I don’t think you can succeed.

Q: This brings up a question of independence and objectivity. In this approach, do you see any issues to jeopardize that independence?

A: This approach is very much like the original establishment of a news organization or a newspaper in a small town. When a publisher decided to start a newspaper in a small town, that publisher and the editor essentially did everything, and that newspaper was a place for everybody. It was a place for journalists to do their reporting. It was a place for the local community to put its news and information, whether that was buying and selling of their own personal goods, or it was a business or service offering information about their goods and services. Weddings and obituaries and the police log and legal notices — everything was in there. It was a place for everybody.

The publisher and editor always had to ride that fine line. They had to be courageous in covering things that the community didn’t particularly want covered or were very controversial. But the bravest did the best service for the community. Even now with some small town newspapers, occasionally you’ll read about how they take a courageous stand about something, even in the face of having some people pull their ads. That’s the same approach. I think that we lost that a little bit over the years because news organizations got very large, and walls were built between journalists, advertising, marketing and circulation.

So we lost that. We journalists thought people were coming to this paper just for what we did, but sometimes people pick up the paper and all they want is the information in the grocery store ads. They don’t care at all about what the journalists have provided. So, if you take that approach in putting together these networks on the Web and you take advantage of what the Web can provide, which is this amazing, instant conversation, and an in-depth and solution-oriented approach, I think that is a good way to go. And it’s not really so different from the way that news organizations started in communities 100 years ago.

Q: Regarding this solutions-approach to journalism, you have worked with students in Oakland, California on crime reporting. Can you talk a little bit about that?

A: The traditional way we report a crime is just the event, just the crime. We choose what we think is newsy about crime. But often that’s not what crime actually is in the community; it’s just what we journalists say is interesting.

So, if you take a database approach where you say this is the range of crime, this is what’s happening, you form a different picture of violence — the types of violence that affect a community the most economically and emotionally. If one of our goals is to reduce violence in a community and take the solutions approach, then you start asking what are we as journalists doing to affect that change.

So you involve all the people who are working towards that goal. In the case of crime, it is violence epidemiologists in public health, it’s community groups, it’s educators, it’s local government officials, and it’s the local business community because they have to provide jobs because if there aren’t jobs, crime goes up. If you look at all the things that affect violence, then you can start taking this prevention, solution-oriented approach and your reporting follows all those threads.

Q: It just sounds so idealistic — that you bring all these players together, each with related, but sometimes competing interests. Most news stories have attempted to point out problems and you’re saying that journalists must not only point out problems, we have to be the vehicle for helping to bring solutions to the table.

A: What I’m saying is that you include everybody who is working toward the solution. It’s not that we as journalists say what people should do to solve the problem. I don’t advocate that at all. What I advocate is making sure that you have all those parts in your coverage.

I’ll give you two examples. One is what started to happen in the coverage we were doing in Oakland. A couple of the reporters at the Oakland Tribune started contributing to this blog that my students started. Unfortunately, because of some issues at the Oakland Tribune — like every other metropolitan daily that is just being stretched too thin — they didn’t continue it. But they started and it was amazing. They were writing stories about what the community was doing to try to grapple with the spate of homicides happening there.

The community was very determined to try to get their heads around it, to start having community meetings involving the police, involving the local government. Trying to say, what can we do? The Tribune wasn’t doing much advertising about this blog, but people found it. So it went from 150 to 600 page views in the space of three weeks with just the few things that a couple of reporters were putting on there. I thought, whoa, if we could keep going, like the LA Times did with their homicide blog, this could be the most popular blog on the Oakland Tribune site. I didn’t have any doubt about that because there wasn’t any other place in the Tribune where people in the community could find this kind of information: regular reporting of what meetings were being held, what bills were being presented in the legislature, what local government was doing or not doing.

Q: What kind of information were they posting?

A: They were blogging about all the meetings. The community was desperate. I mean to have six or seven murders in your neighborhood over a weekend in addition to the daily crime; it was a weekly drumbeat of murder. It was just too much.

I’ve been working on this for a while in Oakland and I remember going to an urban summer camp organized by local teens. They had maybe a couple hundred kids there and they asked how many knew somebody who’d been shot or killed. Almost every child raised a hand.

The community was desperate so they just started having community meetings at churches, asking the police to be involved, having marches. Journalists just started going to all those little things that normally aren’t part of crime reporting and blogging.

That’s the kind of thing is that I’m talking about in solution-oriented reporting: following what the community is trying to do and grappling with this. And then being investigative and saying what have other communities done to reduce violence? So the idea is to say what are they doing that we aren’t? What kind of support do they get from their local government that we haven’t? That’s the role of journalism.

Q: Let’s say an editor loved the idea, but had to let go of ten reporters — the reality of the industry today. How do you address the practicalities that this kind of reporting requires?

A: Most news organizations are between a rock and a hard spot because of the financial situation that they’ve created. So, I’m not sure the answer is in a traditional news organization. In Oakland now, a public health organization has gotten funding to do this kind of thing. And they’re working with a youth organization where one of my former students is helping to educate youth about reporting in their local community. I could see them taking this on and being the go-to place for people in the community who are trying to reduce violence. I could even see them getting funding to hire a journalist to do this.

I think that journalists can maintain their independence if the public health department were courageous enough to develop a violence-prevention site and hire journalists. I would rather a traditional news organization take this on, and that they start making changes faster than they are now, but I don’t know that that will happen.

Q: Are you advocating broadening the field in a way that has not been done before on a large scale?

A: I think it’s happening anyway. MaxPreps started out as an independent organization that was done by a few folks in Camera Park, California. They hired two of the best prep sports reporters in the country to be their journalism nucleus on that site that is mostly user-generated content. So it’s happening anyway.

There is one more example that I’d mention regarding crime reporting. It’s been kind of a bear to get people to wrap their head around taking the solution-oriented approach. But here’s one way that I think people would get it — if you reported crime the same way you reported sports. So, if you took a traditional crime-reporting approach with the local college sports team, the Tigers, you might list the games that had the most injuries or those that had the highest score. You might report the last game, but you wouldn’t report all the games, because you wouldn’t report the ordinary games. In a traditional crime reporting approach, the ordinary is not news.

So, I want to take a sports reporting approach to reporting crime. And that is you report everything. Some stories may not be as complete as others, but you’re reporting everything. You’re reporting about the fans, you’re reporting about the game, you’re reporting about the coaching because the solution-oriented approach in sports is that you want the local team to win. And even though we’re independent journalists, the whole approach in reporting local sports, especially with a pro sports team and a college sports team, is did they win or not? And what’s wrong with them if they didn’t?

So, it’s that kind of thing; the solution in crime reporting is reducing violence. And what’s wrong with our community if violence isn’t decreasing? In sports they just piece apart every little thing. Like, did the quarterback do what he was supposed to do? Did the running backs do what they were supposed to do? Are they getting good coaching? It’s all torn apart and all pieced apart.

With crime, if there are not enough jobs in a community, violence epidemiologists know that crime goes up. If there’s an over abundance of alcohol in a community — too many liquor stores — crime will go up. If there’s not good domestic violence intervention, as well as police involvement, that goes unchecked. If emergency rooms don’t ask if you got this injury because your husband beat you up, or looking at children and saying, this looks like child abuse to me, then domestic violence and child abuse don’t decrease. If you look at all those things, as well as a few other risk factors, in violence reporting, then you have a better shot of helping the community solve this issue.

Q: Were there any other changes as a result of the reporting efforts by your students and the Oakland Trib?

A: I don’t think so, even though they would like to; they’re just stretched so thin. So, I’m hoping to work with a couple of other news organizations that want to make the shift, including the Lawrence Journal World, which has just incorporated a new beat structure. They’ve start talking about how to take the solution-oriented approach to some of their beats, including violence and crime.

Q: Is it too early to talk about your recommendations for the paper?

A: It’s the same thing: building out a Web shell that includes social networking, that includes a solution-oriented approach to providing data and resources for people and organizations who are interested and involved in reducing violence. They are really interested in doing this and just changed their beat structure.

Q: How does the new beat structure work?

A: They have now trained everybody in their news organization to do multimedia reporting or Webcentric reporting, a term I actually prefer. And they’ve combined everybody — their TV, their print, their online folks — into one organization and everything is Web first, print or TV second. Print and TV reporters are all Web reporters now and everyone can spin off stories for TV or print. So instead of having TV reporters, print and online reporters, everybody is a news organization reporter and everybody has a beat. Some beats have two people, but everybody has a beat. And they’re starting to blog their beats, too.

Q: How you think that journalism education should change considering the challenges the industry is facing?

A: Well, definitely put a whole emphasis on entrepreneurship: how to start a news organization in this new medium. I think that’s the best thing we can do for journalism students to add that part of it, to say we’re Web mostly. Why teach people to do all this print stuff and long text stuff when that’s rapidly disappearing.

We need to push social networking: How do you create a place to involve community? How do you manage it? How do you interrelate with your community? And we’ve got to do that now. And if we don’t, we’re not even going to have journalism students because these kids aren’t dumb. This is their medium and if they come to a place that doesn’t reflect what they’re doing, they’re going to find someplace else to go.

Q: As a Missouri School of Journalism Centennial professor and Reynolds Fellow, what do you hope to accomplish?

A: I’m really hoping to develop a couple of prototype networks, one about healthy oceans and one about reducing child trauma. I hope to gather a good team to help me develop open-source networks that can be useful for other journalists and other organizations that might want to take this approach.

In this type of network, the community is at the core and journalists serve that community. It is a very different way for journalists to think, but it’s the way that things are going. Certainly all these very successful organizations, like MaxPreps and CSTV, are set up that way. It’s user-generated content; they share information and the journalists support that. They create a place for it and then they support that community.

Interview conducted byJohn Fennell,Missouri School of Journalism Associate Professor, Magazine Journalism, Meredith Chair in Service Journalism

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