Newspapers: Innovate or die

At an Alabama event last week for journalists, I was promoted as the “conscience of community.” But my own conscience told me I had missed the mark in my talk. If I could do it all over again, here’s what I’d say about the future of newspapers in America, plain and simple. I want to be clear; I offer these 10 steps because I care deeply about newspapers. I’ve been working with major metro and small town newsrooms, the national Journalism Values Institute, and other efforts since the mid-1980s.

Even with the advent of the Internet, cable TV, and other news sources – no, especially because of their rise – I believe society needs newspapers to help people and communities make their way in the world. So, here are my 10 steps newspapers must take to survive and flourish.

  • First, newspapers have lost their readers and are losing their soul. They must regain their relevance in people’s lives and reinvigorate their bottom line. Both steps are imperative. But this will require newspapers coming to grips with the need to re-imagine their position in a fast-changing marketplace. Tinkering won’t do.
  • Second, journalists must see that Americans have retreated from public life. Next step: Combat this retreat if they want active readers and a vibrant community. Translation: Learn how to truly engage people – or die.
  • Third, newspapers must answer the following question: “What space do they wish to occupy in their community?” Right now, chasing readers, trying online gimmicks, dumbing down news, and mindlessly cutting costs obfuscates this underlying question. Stop! Answer the question. Focus.
  • Fourth, newspapers should position themselves as boundary-spanning organizations in communities. Few organizations, if any, cut across dividing lines today and help people connect the dots in their lives, gain depth on important matters, and engage people with consistency over time. Seize this comparative advantage.
  • Fifth, newspapers must build their actions on a deep understanding of their communities. Promoting the one-time story, the special project, the new “public life team” simply won’t cut it. Newspapers must know their communities like the back of their hands.
  • Sixth, people are in search of coherence, a sense of possibility, and meaning in their lives. And yet, as one senior member of a news organization bluntly told me after my Alabama speech, “If I was a single mother, I wouldn’t read my paper. She can’t see herself in our pages.” Help people and communities figure out what’s happening around them.
  • Seventh, newspapers must be ready to go out on a limb. They must hold up a mirror to people so they can see themselves at their best, their worst, and when they are indifferent. Communities need a candid friend. Prerequisite: guts.
  • Eighth, newspapers must avoid becoming mechanistic in their drive to re-position themselves, even open themselves up. Simply listing reporters’ e-mail addresses at the end of stories, providing online chat rooms, or holding forums aren’t enough. Mechanisms can help, but only when they have a soul.
  • Ninth, current newsroom staffs weren’t hired with today’s challenges in mind. To succeed now, journalists will need a new set of sensibilities and practices in how they see and do their jobs, especially in relationship to their communities. Get ready for some tough sledding.
  • Tenth, when all is said and done, the people who work in newspapers must hold affection for their communities. Traditional skepticism too often comes out as cynicism; seeing the glass half full, often produces a lack of hope. Journalists must know that their world view casts a shadow.

Of course, there are some folks who believe newspapers are anachronistic. But I believe they are needed today more than ever. Speed, fragmentation, isolation, hype, and sensationalism – these all call for a counter-balancing force in our society, one that helps people make sense of the world around them, see beyond themselves, and engage with others.

Newspapers, it’s time: Innovate or die.