McGuire on Media

Tim McGuire’s take on a Business and Future of Journalism class

In January, Media Shift did a piece about teaching Business of journalism students. The author, Deb Wenger is associate professor and director of undergraduate journalism at the University of Mississippi’s Meek School of Journalism & New Media. Her article focused on whether journalism schools even ought to be teaching the business side to students.

I was featured heavily in the article and the author chose to bold face this argument from me in favor of such business courses in journalism curricula: "The issue is that we need to be independent, not that we don’t recognize the importance of understanding the business side."

I think that pretty succinctly argues why exploring business matters in journalism education and why the old “church and state” arguments about separating newsrooms from understanding business are poppycock.

Shortly after that article appeared, my old friend Al Tompkins from Poynter Institute asked me to talk about teaching the Business and Future of Journalism at a June 10-12 seminar called Teachapalooza VI. The gig sounded like fun but I had vacation plans so I had to decline Al’s Invitation. Al then asked me to write a piece about how I teach this class.

Since I am retiring from Arizona State University’s Cronkite School on May 10, it struck me that this was an opportunity to memorialize my efforts of the last 10 years to make the business of journalism a viable part of journalism education.

Let’s be clear. What follows is my take on teaching the Business and Future of Journalism. I do not pretend it is THE way. I have made a number of subjective choices which support my own views of what journalism students want, need and will effectively handle. I understand there are as many ways to teach such a course as there are professors.

When I started teaching at the Cronkite School in 2006 any course on the business of journalism, especially a required course, was rare in journalism education.

So let’s do this from a historical perspective.

The course was required from the beginning and it met considerable yawns from students. At that point the relevance escaped many of them. I don’t have syllabi from those early days before our move to the new Cronkite building in downtown Phoenix, but I know I tried to teach the basics of the revolution in media. I assigned books such as The Search by John Battelle and The Long Tail by Chris Anderson. I also fumbled around a lot.

By 2009 I was beginning the class with what I called “the Journalism thing,” I established the importance of journalism and why we needed to find ways to support it despite the decline in revenues. In 2009. the second week of class I did a “business primer.” It described where journalism business models had been and where they were going.

A key slide in that presentation was entitled “The model.” The bullet points read like this:

•Product gathers eyeballs

•Eyeballs have value to advertisers

•Advertisers buy the eyeballs the media outlet delivers

•Key to that formula was always mass

•Truth about that formula was not everyone was always ready to buy a car, a house, or a couch.

•Advertisers paid for the total audience and not just for people interested in their products.

•Advertisers have always looked for ways to pay only for those people ready to buy.

•The web offers them that holy grail.

Yeah, I know the slide was too long, but in my mind it was a pretty darned good summary of the issue.

In that second week I also introduced  students to profit and loss statements. I later expanded that subject considerably.

I moved on to the corporate business model and stock market, the past, present and future of advertising, paid content, third party aggregators and discussed whether the industry was ready to move forward.

That year I had various parts of the class read The World is Flat by Tom Friedman, What Would Google Do by Jeff Jarvis , The Long Tail, and Wikinomics by Don Tapscott. I was still focused heavily on the theory of change. In that semester I ended the course with a pretty thorough discussion of new models and approaches. The final project that year was a long paper on students’ vision of the new media future.

By 2011 I had made Ken Doctor’s Newsonomics the main book in the class but I used a lot of readings from the web. I also dramatically increased my focus on a lot of the developments in the business such as local and hyper local publications, niches, pay walls, aggregators, products customized for particular readers, mobile and curation. I also began expanding the concept of advertising to include all possible revenue streams.

That semester I also started my move toward discussing disruption, innovation and entrepreneurialism.  By then I had also made social media am entire week of the class.  With the help of a former student named Jennifer Gaie Hellum I focused much of that on how students should use social media to create and preserve their personal brand. 

It was always important to me to make the class current and focus on breaking news. The summer of 2013 was a big one in media circles so I made the events of that summer the heart of the first few weeks. We looked at the history of media through the lens of the events of that summer. Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post, Aereo was threatening TV, the cable business showed signed of stress  and the Boston Globe was sold to a rich local who also owned the baseball team. We concentrated specifically on Bezos and explored why that deal mattered. Web articles were the primary reading material that year.

We discussed whether we were in a post-advertising world and that was the semester I started making the point that perhaps the biggest disruptor for media companies was the loss of institutional control. I made two other big innovations in the class that semester. Both were pointed toward making the class more interesting and fun.

I introduced a week on creativity and imagination. That commitment would grow substantially in subsequent years. In the fall of 2013 I also started what I billed as the strangest assignment the students had ever encountered in college. I sent them to three hot dog restaurants. I assigned them to concentrate on how the hot dog places differentiated themselves and what kind of customer experience they offered.

My point was that news has become a commodity and the successful journalistic businesses will successfully differentiate their products and offer an outstanding customer experience. I was so pleased students were engaged and stimulated by that approach it is still a crucial part of the class.

Mainstays of the class at this point were a far more extensive discussion of finances and financial statements with the help of John Dille, entrepreneurialism and social media. By this time the students final project was inventing a new media business either individually or in groups.

By 2015 I had made some major changes. I handled the history of business models in one week. I discussed all revenue streams in a week and I  had chosen  Geeks Bearing Gifts by Jeff Jarvis as  the main text. I assigned one of five books to a fifth of the class: Page One edited by David Folkenflik, Creativity Inc. by Ed Catmull, Where Good ideas Come From by Steven Johnson, The Innovators by Walter Isaacson and Entrepreneurial Journalism  by Mark Briggs.

I was so taken by Where Good Ideas Come From I also taught one week of classes on it. For me, it is one of the very best books I have ever read and teaches innovation with wonderful effectiveness.

By this time I had morphed the class into one with a real emphasis on creativity and innovation as evidenced by the above books. I still taught financials, business models of the past and to come, and the hot dog exercises. I spent  two weeks on tools of the future and what kind of innovative future we face.  The  future and how students could create that future had become the core of my class.

One of my favorite tools to get students to think creatively was to break the class into groups of five and assign them to write an outline for a science fiction novel about an alternate universe. That sort of an assignment really discombobulated students who always follow orders and never get out of the box. Some of my favorite results included “Baconland,” where everybody looked liked pigs and a two dimensional universe which came about when students were run over by a street roller and became two-dimensional figures. The students noted turning was very difficult.

Of course, my all-time favorite came about when a group imagined that Tim McGuire sneezed one of his legendary sneezes so hard it opened a wormhole in the universe. That sent everybody to “McGuireland” where every single person looked like Tim McGuire. Frightening indeed, but delightfully clever.

Students usually remember the hot dogs and the science fiction novel because it forces them out of their comfort zone and shows them that they too can become creative and innovative. I now believe that is the most important thing journalism students need to know about the journalism workplace: Innovators will win.

That last semester, and in several others. I also made preparing the entrepreneurial project a cornerstone of the class. I had separate weeks devoted to the entrepreneurial pitch, brand and audience development and entrepreneurial idea generation which focused on solving consumer pains or problems.  In all of these, I invited experts from the university or the community to address those subjects with expertise I simply did not have.

In that fall 2015 class groups of students presented their final entrepreneurial business plans to a panel of local business experts and venture capitalists who provided them with frank, tough feedback.

This semester, my last of teaching full-time, I faced one final challenge. At the urging of innovative Cronkite Dean, Chris Callahan, I delivered the course online. I had to lose the creative novel, hot dogs and even the final project. I loved each of those because they created so much interaction and fun in the class. However, I believe that in the online version of the class I was able to deliver the basics quite well. Here is how I organized the seven weeks:

Week 1—Where we have been, how we got to today and why it matters

Week 2—The business model broke, can it be fixed?

Week 3—Disruption and the new competitors

Week 4—Business basics and making the commodity something else

Week 5—Innovation and Creativity

Week 6—The wild and wooly state of media in 2016

Week 7– Entrepreneurs

So now where do we go? Everybody who teaches a course like this will want to take it in directions they know and appreciate. Some instructors have a lot of emphasis on management, leadership and accounting.

I passed on that. I wanted students to understand how the enterprise worked, but I always believed it was vital they understood the tectonic shifts in journalism. In my head, I was preparing journalists to survive in a rapidly changing industry and even be thought leaders in it. I never strived to train business people. Other journalism departments may want to do just that.

I stridently believe such education is crucial for journalism students. I believe it should be taught by a journalist. I believe that these journalist/professors should understand business and they should be innovative explorers. It is imperative such professors be adaptive and flexible. The more platform agnostic they are, the better.

While I am retiring, I hope to stay active. I would love to continue this conversation on this forum or in your journalism school or newsroom. Next year, I hope I get invited back to Teachapalooza VII. These words will have to do until then.

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Lou Hodges, whimsy and all, made journalism better.

The best way I can think of to reignite my Media blog, after a long absence, is with a mighty tip of my panama to Lou Hodges, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation Professor of Journalism Ethics Emeritus at Washington and Lee University.

I knew Lou Hodges before he assumed that lofty chair and title. Poynter Institute recognized Lou Hodges long before that appointment. When I first met Lou I was a little skeptical as I was in those days of any non-journalist who dispensed ethical advice.

Yet, it was Lou who first catalyzed a wiser, older Tim who now deeply appreciates commentators from outside the journalism profession. And, it was Lou who prompted me to think more seriously about how faith connected with journalism ethics. By the time I retired as editor of the Star Tribune that nexus was so clear in my mind I wrote a syndicated column on ethics values and spirituality.

Lou inspired my belief that ethics is really only about doing the right thing and that right thing is usually connected to our basic values system.

Lou was really smart but I thought his key to success was his understanding that we imperfect beings have jobs which can be made easier with an ethical base.

This excellent obituary on the Washington and Lee website captures the essence of the academic and ethical Lou. However, I am afraid it fails to capture two vital traits that made Lou so memorable for me. I learned those two traits in 2004 or so after Lou had retired and I had retired as editor,. I taught for a term at Washington and Lee as a Reynolds visiting professor. That allowed me to spend considerably more time with Lou.

For my money, the obit fails to highlight the amazing twinkle in Lou’s eye. At formal conferences and important ethics discussions the tall, formal, ordained Methodist minister cut a sober and formidable figure. But when you sat with Lou you found his delightful sense of humor and a twinkle in his eye that made you feel as if the two of you were in on the secret that life is incredibly delightful.

The obituary captures Lou’s interest in guns, beekeeping and hunting but to my astonishment Lou’s passion that most impressed me was missing.

When you went anywhere with Lou he mysteriously carried his briefcase, even to lunch. When he ordered his cheeseburger with fries, Lou would ceremoniously open the weathered brown case, and with that trademark twinkle in his eye almost magically produce a jar of peanut butter.

Lou loved peanut butter. He, with great flourish, called it the “nectar of the Gods” He freely spread it on his cheeseburger and put some on the fries for good measure. Lou offered that he put peanut butter on absolutely everything because “it makes everything better.”

I will always remember Lou as a man who pushed journalistic ethics in the right direction, showed me that my faith and my ethical base were inextricably linked and showed me that a little whimsy and peanut butter can fix just about anything.

Rest in Peace my friend.

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Amelia Rayno’s courageous story teaches lessons of compassion and journalism

Amelia Rayno, the talented college basketball writer for the Minneapolis Star
Tribune, committed outstanding journalism today when she published her own personal account of harassment by Norwood Teague, who resigned last Friday as the University of Minnesota Athletic Director.

Rayno displayed incredible courage, compelling storytelling skills and shone a penetrating light on the devastation and gross unfairness of sexual harassment. She took a big personal risk and disclosed she was also a victim of Teague’s disgusting advances. Her work put a lie to the impression left last Friday by Teague that the transgressions disclosed last week were an unfortunate error fueled by alcohol.

Transparency and disclosure alert. I was the managing editor or editor of the Star Tribune from 1979-2002. I am still profoundly loyal to the paper and to many of the people.  The Sports Editor, Glen Crevier, is one of my very good friends. I  have had two coffee dates and one dinner with him in the last 60 days. He never discussed this issue with me and I decided not to put him on the spot by talking to him for this blog post.

I do not know Amelia Rayno at all but I admire and enjoy her work. I remain a big Minnesota Gopher football and basketball fan. I have thought for some time Rayno brought a special verve to basketball coverage.

With those disclosures in mind my first inclination was to pass on writing this post, but my fiancée argued that if I did that I was buying into the culture of silence on this subject. I hated that idea so let me share a few thoughts on this monumentally important issue.

First, the raw power of Rayno’s account mesmerized me. I am not exaggerating when I say I have never experienced the same visceral impact of the damage sexual harassment can do to a victim. Rayno explains with calm certainty what a difficult spot the harassment created for her.  Her entire career flashed before her eyes and giant questions of the viability of her future must have torn her apart. All because a clod with real power didn’t understand boundaries.

Rayno wrote a follow-up blog this afternoon expressing her hope that her disclosures will start a conversation. Thanks to her talent and candor I think that will clearly be the case.

Some naïve men on Twitter are saying Rayno should have reported Teague immediately. That attitude simply fails to recognize the societal complexities a victim of harassment faces. I fervently hope both men and women reread Rayno’s column and appreciate what a lose-lose situation powerful men like Teague can create for their prey.

I think this sad circumstance may be one of the most important diversity cases I have seen in years. I have taught ethics and diversity for almost 10 years and I have never seen a case where the duties to all stakeholders are so difficult to navigate. From my experience, gender is not addressed enough in ethical diversity discussions and this case should be carefully examined.

Rayno was first openly and seriously harassed on Dec. 13 2013 and after a lot of tears and fears discussed it with fellow women professionals who urged her to report it to her editors and superiors. She did that in April. I appreciate the complexities and trepidation she struggled with and I applaud her actions. In any ethical case discussion her conflicts between doing the right thing and ruining her own career must be deeply respected.

Now the ethical plot thickens. I am going to make an assumption here that the editors of the Star Tribune knew about this issue when Rayno reported it to human resource officials but that is not clear.

I ardently hope editors knew at that time and I wonder if they did the ethical balancing editors required in such a case. The fact that nobody reported it to the university administration seems problematic but I understand that Rayno, the victim, did not want to create a fuss that would jeopardize her relationships with the University. It is a legitimate concern but if the university was not contacted, there are two ethical considerations that may not have been discussed enough based on what I have read.

The first is ongoing harm. When faced with wrongdoing of any sort the prime journalistic question is whether this is an isolated case or is it the canary in the coal mine that indicates a serious pattern of behavior? That needed to be explored carefully, judiciously and thoroughly.

Certainly Rayno and the the paper did not want make Rayno the main story but any knowledge at the leadership level requires follow-up in a newsroom or elsewhere. Every possible trail to prevent future harm needs to be explored. The duty of the newspaper and Rayno’s personal duty must extend beyond themselves. I say that because the larger social context of this sort of harassment by powerful people demands accountability. Now I understand that is much easier to say in retrospect. and that too is an important point worth making. Cases like this are always much clearer in hindsight than they are when they are unfolding.

And that brings me to the second ethical issue and the only thing here I will say that resembles advice. I always suggest to students that before they make a decision or take an action that might be questioned, they consider whether they would want their mother to know or whether they would want to see it on the front page.

I wonder if the newspaper played out what would happen if the Teague story blew up. Rayno herself in today’s story indicates that may not have been the case.  She wrote:

“But as I reread his texts to me and the ones that were released Friday, I regret not doing more initially, especially now that I know Teague continued to harass women. At the time, I was still fairly green on my first real beat and, frankly, unprepared for something like this. I wasn’t bold enough in my reaction. Had all of this developed now, I might have handled it differently. That’s why, in light of the brave women who did step up, I decided to put my name behind my story in hopes that it will never happen again.”

I feel total empathy for Rayno and her editors. This was a horrible position for all of them to find themselves. However, one of the ways to avoid some second-guessing is always to  think out and talk through possible scenarios and results. What’s the worst thing that can happen? What’s the best? How will we react if particular scenarios unfold.?

It can be a lot of work and it is not foolproof, but I think it often leads to decisions that protect your news organization and allow you to do the right thing for your readership.

Here’s hoping the conversation Rayno hoped to start unfolds constructively and with heart.

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Developing a replacement principle for Poynter’s “Community”

I have used The New Ethics of Journalism by Kelly McBride and Tom Rosenstiel for two semesters now and my initial skepticisms about the Poynter Institute rewrite of ethical principles remain. 

The new Poynter code wisely kept the primary ethical value, Seek Truth and Report it. I argued from the first time I read Poynter’s revised code that they had made a mistake substituting Transparency for Independence. I believe they both belong in an ethics code as separate principles.

When Poynter replaced minimizing harm with a standard they called “Community” I was concerned but open minded. I wrote, “While Community is a strong substitute, I think it  will require constant coaching and development.”

I  originally bought into the idea of at least exploring whether Community could work as an ethical principle. I acknowledge some of the book’s intentions about Community. As the book says, Community indeed should be a product of journalism. Community should be the space that defines and informs our work. I can even argue that historically journalism has made a mistake making Community a means to an end.  It should be an end

That does not make it a third ethical principle.

I do think the concept of Community can fuel a new mind set, new work processes and spawn ever expanding set of tools to make this concept possible. I have definitely become convinced that Community as McBride and Rosenstiel define it, is a crucial business principle for the new newsrooms of this century. Communities, indeed, should define and dictate workflow, content, mission and targets of opportunity for news organizations.

All that being said, Community is not an ethical principle.

It is not a concept or statement that can effectively tell journalists how to behave and act.  I argue Community is too amorphous and lacks the ability to guide us in ethical decision making. To me, that is the entire objective of an ethics code. It should help me make ethical decisions.

However, that criticism does not go far enough. I don’t trash things without proposing a solution. In pursuit of a third or fourth principle I took a look at the original Poynter List: Seek truth and report it as fully as possible, Act Independently and Minimize Harm. And, I considered the new SPJ code:  Seek Truth and Report It, Minimize Harm,  Act Independently and Be Accountable.

So as I write my new code I obviously start with Seek Truth and Report It. And, consistent with my past arguments, Independence and Transparency should be separate elements of the code.

So, in my quest for a fourth principle I considered what elements of Community would be good to guide my thinking.

McBride and Rosenstiel had some excellent ideas which I believe can guide our search for a fourth principle. The principle of trusting our community to enrich the news and the news conversation is important. Audience is not the enemy.

I think Poynter is correct that we we need to regard the audience as teacher, tipster and guide to better journalism. If the audience cares, it’s a story.

I believe one of the strongest elements of The New
Ethics of Journalism is the chapter exploring fear. The use of fear, exploitation and sensationalism to manipulate our communities is an ethical transgression, plain and simple. I also believe diversity is an important ethical underpinning of everything we do.

So, I discussed with my ethics class the question of how we write a powerful new ethical principle that guides behavior. What is our trigger word?  Obligation? Respect? Leadership? Authenticity? Service?

After considerable reflection I resorted to Kant to develop my fourth principle:Respect the dignity of every person and our collective audience.

To me, this means we will serve and respect diverse audiences. It means we respect the capabilities of our audience to guide our work. It means we will not frighten, titillate or bully our audience and our community for ratings or page views. It means we will not do unnecessary, mean-spirited harm.

My good friend and fellow ethics professor at the Walter Cronkite School, Rick Rodriguez,  raised a fascinating issue when he asked “Do we really respect the dignity of people like Jeffrey Dahmer?” My reaction was everything you’d expect from a Catholic-school educated man: We hate the sin. We love the sinner. Or, in the context of this ethical document we probe and expose the bad behavior  but respect every human’s basic dignity.

So as I go forward with my teaching my advocacy for journalism ethics, my personal ethics code looks like this.

Seek truth and report it

Be Transparent

Be Independent

Respect the dignity of every person and the dignity of our collective audience.

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It’s time for a shift in focus

This McGuire on Media blog bores me a bit these days. There is simply no easy place to land when I try to come up with topics. 

The newspaper business is unraveling more than it is unwinding. Harping on the short-sighted moves of a suffocating business just isn’t any fun.

And the silly unethical maneuvers by so many in the business would be easy pickings. I could write a scathing column about engagement editors who only want to print “happy news.” Or I could write about the in-fighting in Cleveland between the print operation and the digital operation. The editor who thinks “off-hand” comments critical to the debate shouldn’t be printed would make good fodder for discussion. Certainly the mass reorganization at Gannett papers would be an easy target, too.

Yet, kvetching on poor, desperate journalism decisions in a time when hanging onto profits without improving the product is the rule, seems like shooting fish in a barrel.

I don’t want to be the scold who weeps and gnashes his teeth over the destruction of newspapers. Newspapers had a great run. Digital technology changed our world. A business model got destroyed. An industry simply couldn’t react quickly enough. And, the smug folks in television ought to lose those smirks because they are probably the next to go down.

Regional newspapers will survive for a while as a service to the elite only if their parent organizations stop their short-term thinking and simultaneous destruction of their product. I just don’t find it very exciting to wait around to see if publishers are going to get a clue and figure out that top-line revenue increases are the only way to extend their business and that they can’t continue to cut costs to prosperity. Jeff Jarvis  argues against that point in his fine new book Geeks Bearing Gifts. He believes cost-cutting is crucial.

All of this is to say I am switching academic and personal directions. I have already found a lot of joy and challenge in writing a new blog called McGuire on Life, Disability and Grief and more reinvention is on the way.

As a start I seldom used the word newspaper in my 21st Century journalism class last semester. I talked about news organizations, reinvention, innovation, creativity and inventing radical new models.

For a time I thought that was the best way to deal with the graduate students I am teaching, but I have now decided it is the best way to make all ASU students unique in the marketplace. It’s also pretty important to keeping me sane. (I know, probably too late.)

I don’t think a lot of people would disagree that when I was an editor I tried to stay at the front of invention and innovation. And from the day I walked into the Cronkite School I looked to the future and thought hard about inventing a new one.

I now hope to reinvent myself again to become the journalism professor out here in the desert exploring creativity and innovation and figuring out better ways to teach students how to think about those things. I have just agreed to invent another new course for Cronkite and to make my Business and Future of Journalism class an online course.  I decided I did not want to come to the end of my teaching career in a few years without having dipped my toe in the future of teaching.

In all these efforts my dream is to get students thinking. We need to get students and journalists to understand the theoretical underpinnings of innovation and creativity.

The Walter Cronkite School needs to teach skills and it needs to be on the cutting edge of the teaching hospital movement which is a lot easier since the school now operates Public Television Channel 8 in the Arizona market. However, if our students are going to change journalism I have decided they need to think about critical thinking, creativity theory, virtual living and innovation.

This broken-down newspaper editor may not be the perfect choice to fight that fight, but I think the record shows I have always been willing to break from the pack simply to spice things up.

I’d love to have a Creativity and Innovation Center for journalism students and practitioners at Cronkite but for now I am going to spend my time exploring the connections between all the words written on creativity and innovation and a changing journalism world.

And, I plan on writing about those thoughts in this space from time to time.  I may still speak out on big media issues, but I hope you notice a shift to creativity and innovation in this blog and in journalism education.

Tim J McGuire is the author of “Some People Even Take Them Home” A Disabled Dad, A Down Syndrome Son and Our Journey To Acceptance

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The “priesthood” is real and we do not need another one.

With trepidation I enter the mild debate between New York Times Editor Dean Baquet and now LSU Visiting Professor Steve Buttry.

Buttry wrote a blog post last week in which he said, using Twitter is” the best indicator in journalism today of someone who is refusing to embrace change.”

Baquet responded this week by contending that people like Buttry are creating a new “journalism priesthood.” Here are Baquet’s own words:

“One of the biggest criticisms aimed at my generation of editors is that we created a priesthood, that we decided who was a journalist and who was not. If you hadn’t done cops and courts you weren’t a journalist, etc. That characterization was right on. We deserved the hit.

As I observe the criticism nowadays, you will forgive me for noting that it sounds like a new priesthood is being created, with new rules for entry.”

To me this isn’t a straight-up debate that requires taking sides. There are two valid points here but Baquet’s warning must be taken seriously.

I agree with Buttry that all editors should be tweeting, not for the sake of show or innovation. but because it builds community, it makes the editor crucial to the publication’s immediacy and because it smashes the 24-hour news cycle mindset for an entire organization.

Twitter strikes me as a very small nod to the kind of innovation that will make news organizations strong. Read a book like “Creativity, Inc,” by Ed Catmull, and you can appreciate that much more fundamental changes are required to make innovation and creativity a defining element of your organization.

Twitter should be a part of your digital toolkit because it works, not because it is a merit badge for innovation.

That merit badge kind of thinking has been an essential part of “the priesthood.” As Baquet implies, the priesthood has always had certain markers that legitimize a “real journalist.”  Catching public officials’ hands in the cookie jar, horse race political reporting without substantial perspective, and quoting two opposing points of view no matter how far they take you from the truth, are examples of the portfolio of journalistic priests.

In Thomas E. Patterson’s book “Informing the News” he quotes studies which show how important weather stories are to readers.  And yet too many of the “working priests” hate weather stories.

I believe the “priesthood,” our commitment to our own insular, arrogant view of the world has separated us from readers and made it almost impossible to find our way back to the audience.

The last thing we need is a new priesthood. We need to break with the old ways with far more certainty and clarity than I am observing, but we must not search for a new orthodoxy.

A lot of important writers these days are talking about dramatic and real innovation. Catmull beautifully translates his experiences at Pixar to ways to help a reader rethink every business.  Patterson’s take on knowledge journalism could force a basic rethinking of our approach to reporting. Reddit, Buzzfeed and Vice have much to teach us about connecting with audiences, keeping in mind there is no right way. There is no new Gospel.

What is crucial is to get out of our comfort zone. Catamull uses what he calls “the door metaphor.” He writes that on one side of the door is all that we know. On the other side is what has not been created and what is unfathomable to us. Catmull says the goal is to put one foot on the knowable side and another foot on the murky, unknowable side.

He knowingly adds that we fear the other side of the door because we crave stability. That craving may be why some people resist Twitter. Twitter definitely has its own considerable value but I argue Twitter is not the canary in the coal mine for innovation. The failure to entertain and dance with the journalistic unknown is a far better indicator of whether journalists will innovate in time to save their hides. 

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The “religion of journalism” and how do we break from it

The second item in Wednesday’s Need to Know from American Press institute was worth savoring. The Harvard Business Review article on thinking like a customer rather than a manager is so simple yet so powerful.

The author, Graham Kenny, makes the powerful point that if a management team develops an strategic plan it is probably an operational plan in disguise because the managers know operations. He says a plan only becomes strategic when we view our company from “outside-in,” that is from the customer’s perspective.

I remember an incident 20 years ago when I was trying to make changes at the Minneapolis Star and Tribune. A talented reporter told me, “Tim, our job is to write and edit the paper and the reader’s job is to read it.” I responded gently, “but they don’t have to take that job.”

I believe practically every journalist has passed that stage now and knows that the competitive environment requires us to be compelling enough to challenge Buzzfeed, Vice and Big Bang Reruns for our reader’s time.

And yet, what I call “cultural beliefs” of journalism hang on as tightly as firmly held religious ideas in any church you want to name. For example, the belief the article is really the only legitimate way to tell a story. This Poynter story and this provocative Mashable piece propose ways to rethink story telling  but when I see the occasional experimentation it seems as rare as a purple squirrel.

But as Kenny says the real experts on how we should tell stories should be the customers. As I read newspapers and watch television I have a difficult time believing customers want to be bored by stories that don’t matter to them.

Thomas E. Patterson in his fine book Informing the News says journalists make a mistake in thinking people have a need for the newspaper or newscast when “in fact, what people have and what they have always had, is a need to know.”

Patterson discusses the fact that readers don’t care about policy and politics until if affects them directly. Patterson specifically addresses  a “cultural religious belief” when he writes, “Journalists’ sense of the audience  is wrong side up. What’s happening at the top as it affects the fortunes of those at the top is not what interests most people. As Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel note, ‘Journalists need to focus on people and their problems, not on politicians and theirs.”

I know a lot of journalists nod in assent at that advice but so much of the journalism I see seems to ignore it.

If a newsroom made people and their problems the center of the news report their individual articles would look fundamentally different and so would the overall report.

Again, certainly the process of rethinking everything we once believed has begun in many places. But starting over and shoving our “cultural beliefs” aside would not describe the approach most journalists prefer.

If I could be so bold, let me share the three things I am going to tell my students this semester as they attempt to reinvent public television and the new digital State Press.

1. What are the things you absolutely KNOW about journalism? Assume those things are wrong. Now where does that lead you?

2. What do your aunts, cousins, parents and non-journalism friends care about?  Dig deep into their health, emotions and fears. Does your publication reflect those concerns?

3. Audit your news product and ask a simple question: What percentage of your output is compelling, really compelling? What would it take to increase that percentage?

Let me know if you use the process.

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Worrying about Digital First, simple explanations and proper recognition

I woke up worrying the other day. I have plenty to worry about on my own personal plate but I was bedeviled by a few journalistic issues as I got ready for work.

Digital First Media has announced it is researching strategic alternatives for its individual newspapers and the parent company. The company’s leader, John Paton, has been an industry scold urging a total shift to digital  in America’s newspapers, thus the name Digital First.  

My worry is that a lot of vindictive people who oppose change in the newspaper business are going to use Paton’s latest predicament as an example of the failure of a digital first strategy. That would be utter nonsense.

It is true I worried for a long time that Paton and Digital First should moderate its tone. In May of 2012 when I wrote a blog post entitled, “This I believe, I wrote this:

However, Digital First is not necessarily the Holy Grail and I will be more comfortable when they lead more by example than by mocking. Preaching collaboration in your work environment and then giving the finger to the industry seems short-sighted. I like it when they modulate and take this approach. The news industry desperately needs constructive leaders, but I do understand the frustration when print publishers don’t follow because they are desperately clinging to the past.

And that’s where I still stand today. Digital First did a lot of important things for the industry including wagging its digital finger. Things are dire for newspapers as I wrote a few weeks ago. The example Digital First set in refocusing newsroom efforts was a good one. Through Steve Buttry the company shared a lot of important ideas about reinventing newsrooms and the company reoriented a lot of thinking.

What did not work for Digital first was the print dollars to digital dimes strategy. It was a noble effort but, in the end, there weren’t enough dimes and not enough leverage to switch out of a business model too long dependent on advertising. The ad model is close to bankrupt and the magic bullet remains elusive for everyone.

Just as Alan Mutter did in April I worry that some of the folks who can’t see the future will delight in what seems like Digital First’s demise. That would be a tragic mistake. Digital First should be viewed as the organization that took a good hard push at the applecart and got run over by reality.

That should not stop other companies from following their courageous lead perhaps with a little less hubris. Digital First’s digital only approach was correct.

I guess I fear and worry a lot about oversimplification. Another thing I worried about this morning was something I read  in a paper a student produced evaluating The book Page One, edited by David Folkenflik. The student quoted James O’Shea former editor the Los Angeles Times and managing editor of the of the Chicago Tribune who wrote this in Folkenflik’s book: “The lack of investment, the greed, the incompetence, corruption, hypocrisy of people who put their interest’s ahead of the public’s are responsible for the state of the newspaper industry today.”

O’Shea may have had as bad a day as I had this morning. He might also be guilty of either omission or gross oversimplification when he fails to mention that the people who ran newspapers saw their ad model blow up.

I would argue O’Shea touched on some real truths but then fell off a cliff. The single-minded focus of Publishers and CEO’s on short-term profits and the total refusal to hear dissenting voices was shameful. And, the lack of investment was a joke. But corruption and hypocrisy seem to require more proof for my taste. And, O’Shea’s failure to discuss the total collapse of advertising because of the digital revolution, which affected countless industries,does a disservice to students. I will need to fix that this week in class.

A lot of people are trying to explain the last 20 years in journalism, but let’s not take shortcuts to the whole truth. There are lots of culprits to go around including editors. Solely blaming publishers and CEO’s is inaccurate and self-serving.

Finally, I worried this morning that the journalism industry does not appreciate the gift that is Roy Peter Clark of Poynter Institute. Early this morning I read what I found to be a brilliant essay on how the ethical philosophers give us clues on how the video in the Ray Rice case should have been handled.

I have been in some debates recently with people who are not totally convinced the great philosophers are particularly relevant to teaching modern ethics. I tell those people unequivocally they are wrong and Clark eloquently explains why and how the great philosophical thinkers can be terrifically relevant to a current case in the public eye.

Roy Peter and I are friendly, but not close. Yet, whether he’s commenting on writing, arguing with the best and brightest in our business or representing Poynter with class, Roy Peter Clark deserves a toast from our industry.

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API’s Need to Know is an important part of my Business and Future of Journalism classes

For the last few years I have required students in both my graduate and undergraduate business and future of journalism classes to keep up on the news about journalism business.

This semester in my 21st Century Journalism and Entrepreneurship class I have gone an extra step and assigned API’s daily newsletter, Need to Know.

The future of our business is so fluid and so much in flux that I simply can’t expect that the readings I assign at the beginning of the semester will keep students as current as they need to be on the volatility of our business. 

After a lot of trial and error I have discovered that Need to Know has all the elements I need to teach the first 30-35 minutes of my class from contemporaneous events. It provides me with the latest news and perspectives.  It provides deep and rich context and it makes connections students could seldom make.

And, probably most important, it is not legacy-media-centric. Recent editions have certainly discussed the Washington Post and the New York Times but Vice, Buzzfeed, Facebook and mobile usually dominate.

Students don’t read the national newspapers but they all consume news via  mobile devices and Facebook and they have experimented with Vice and Buzzfeed. By pointing students to things they are familiar with I can make the macro points about changing journalism.

At the beginning of each class I ask students to tell me what they read.  I want them to set our discussion agenda based on what interests them.

Now some professors might not like the way I manage this part of the class because I fly without a net.  I ad lib my responses and feedback. If we’re teaching a class like this, our grasp of the subject should be strong enough to survive.  And, I always have the most important three words in the English language at my disposal: “I don’t know.” Students really appreciate those words and value them a lot more than B.S.  

By using contemporaneous material my class covers stuff I would never have thought of in planning the class ahead of time. Last week students were really engaged about whether Twitter and Facebook should control our news values.  We had an energetic discussion that I am just not sure would have arisen without Need to Know.

I am convinced this newsletter adds urgency and realism to a class that is essential for our students’ understanding of the changed journalism world they are going to encounter.

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Steve Isaacs should be defined by his vision, not by a few ill-advised acts

This piece appeared on MinnPost September 4, 2014.

Steve Isaacs should be defined by his vision, not by a few ill-advised acts.

I was very sad last Friday morning when David Isaacs called me to tell me his dad, my benefactor, friend and mentor, former Minneapolis Star Editor Steve Isaacs had died in Austin, TX. I became a lot sadder and quite angry a few hours later when, in response to a Facebook post I wrote about Steve’s death, a respondent lit my fuse.

Amid several commenters praising Steve, one man recalled Steve’s notoriety for cutting down trees in front of his Lake Harriet home. That act earned Steve a citation, a fine and solidified his reputation as a community character.

Those damn trees wrongly defined Steve and his legacy.

Now, Steve Isaacs was a character. There is simply no denying that and for many it was part of his charm. This outstanding Washington Post obit is a fair portrait of his bluster, his outrages and his inherent genius.

But I worry that the genius of Steve is not being appropriately represented, especially in Minnesota. The very act of joining The Minneapolis Star as its editor, when its exact date for extinction was the only issue in question, was courageous, rebellious and pugnacious.

Isaacs knew his mission to save a dying afternoon paper was a 100-1 shot but he relished in reinventing journalism and embracing long-form writing as it had seldom been embraced. He made bold hires, me among the boldest. He committed to a year-long energy project and he raced head-long into a culture change of a rigid journalistic tradition.   

Steve Isaacs was a brilliant provocateur. He once was so disappointed in  the morning front page offerings for the Minneapolis Star that he sent the editors back to find stories that better fit the mission. He sometimes chose deliberately outrageous stories simply to build a culture that said risk and failure was okay. This was in 1979 years before most people realized that journalism had become hopelessly entrenched in a military–like hierarchy that discouraged experimentation.

Isaacs knew even then that newspapers were not connecting with readers as they need to connect. He didn’t claim to have the answers but he knew the status quo was not it.

Tact, diplomacy and long-term political assessment were not Steve’s gifts. He would rather blow something to smithereens with an incisive, cutting comment just to see how people would fix it.

As bombastic and cutting as he could be Steve was incredibly loyal and kind. He took several steps to make sure the demise of the Star did not hurt my career and that of several others.

Steve Isaacs was as complex a human being as I’ve ever known. He was also one of the most exciting, intelligent and future-oriented people I’ve known.

It would be tragic if a few bleeping trees on Lake Harriet defined the man’s legacy. 

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