McGuire on Media

Newspaper Next workshop was a pleasant surprise to a skeptic

I’ve been around way too long to believe that the answers to ANYTHING reside in a one-day workshop. So I wasn’t in search of a panacea to newspaper problems when I attended a one-day Newspaper Next workshop here at Arizona State last week.  In fact, my expectations were not high.

Since I am teaching a Business and Future of Journalism class again this coming spring I thought it was important to get a feel for what newspaper executives are learning from outfits like the American Press Institute which has made Newspaper Next a centerpiece of their activity.

Again, solutions to the newspaper pickle are not going to come in a box, but Newspaper Next raised some important issues and I think their work represents a reasonable path to be pursued.

I had to overcome substantial initial pique when I realized the crowd was going to be abysmal. I am talking eight people plus six ASU professors in a room designed to seat 120.  Either API’s marketing was frighteningly bad or Arizona newspaper executives are convinced they have this future thing knocked. I guess abject apathy and/or despair are also possibilities.

Then Steve Buttry, the API instructor, took over and he was very effective. He’s not a climb-on-the-desk-and-shout kind of instructor, but he led the group through some strong material with great examples and patience.  Again, people who have been immersed in innovation would not find the approach earth-shaking or or ground-breaking, but there’s plenty of meat for publishers and editors who want to start making a difference. I also thought the presentation tried to steer clear of jargon, though some is inevitable. The need to move from a monolithic product to a portfolio of products, from readers to audience/participants and from advertisers to business customers may seem like old hat to the pioneers, but there are a lot of newspaper folk who have not figured it out yet.

I was especially taken by the “jobs to be done” approach to figuring out what customers and potential customers need. This excerpt from the Newspaper Next report explains the concept. “The jobs-to-be-done concept requires
first understanding the problems a customer faces in life or business. The most promising problems are those that people do often and consider important and where current solutions leave them frustrated. Next, it is important to understand the precise “hiring criteria” a customer applies.”

Once again that’s not radical, but thinking about what the customers needs to get done, like finding a place to eat, is a solid way to focus on both reader customers and business customers.

I couldn’t help but be amused at the same time I was impressed by one of the key messages of Newspaper Next.  Any honest newspaper veteran should admit the debilitating amount of time and energy newspapers put into getting every new section, idea or approach “just perfect” before launch.  For years that albatross has slowed innovation, sapped the energy of progressives and made everybody snappish. Believe me, I include myself as part of that ugly syndrome.

Recognizing the destructiveness of that approach, Newspaper Next” advocates a “good enough” approach to problem-solving and advocates for two assessment and testing approaches they call “Invest a little, learn a lot” and “Fail fast, fail cheap.”  The whole point is to urge newspapers to stop trying to perfect rocket systems when they really just need to  appeal to a new market.  Introspection makes it obvious to me I spent a whole lot of time seeking perfection when I should have been throwing ideas against the wall to see what stuck.  Buttry defined “good enough” as opening doors. Too often, projects I was involved with tried  to build a palace rather than opening a few doors.

The basic Newspaper Next “game plan” is to: maximize the core, use new models to fulfill “jobs” of current/new advertisers, build audiences by fulfilling “jobs” beyond news and create innovation structures and enablers. The biggest thing I liked about that approach is that it attempts to broaden the definition of what a newspaper is and can be. I think that is a crucial mandate for future success. The narrower we define ourselves the more inevitable is our demise.

Newspaper Next makes you think and that’s the moist important thing a seminar like that can hope to accomplish. The material was well-organized, efficiently presented and the content of the session was actionable.  Actionable is high praise because many sessions of this sort can’t claim that.

API is making an important contribution to the dialogue with Newspaper Next, but they sure have to improve their marketing. Educating eight industry people at a time sure isn’t going to create transformation ins the newspaper business.

“CONTENT”  DOESN’T BUG ME, BUT “NEWS” IS BETTER

When I first started reading David Callaway’s commentary condemning the use of the word “content” I labeled him  a crusty contrarian. By the time I finished the piece I became convinced that the focus really does need to be on the “news,” especially on the web. 

The word content probably does allow executives to minimize the importance of “telling people stuff they don’t know” and that has to be key to the future.  Callaway is correct when he says he’s not going to successfully eradicate the word content from the language, and neither am I; but it is important that professionals keep talking about “news.”  It’s news that matters and its news that’s going to drive us into the future.

IF YOU’RE NOT GOING TO ENDORSE FOR PRESIDENT, DON’T ENDORSE AT ALL

The Virginian-Pilot has announced  it’s not going endorse in presidential races, but because of it’s emphasis on local news it will endorse in state and local races. I think the paper is on the right path, but for all the wrong reasons. As I’ve written before, abandoning a national perspective on national issues is not the right solution for regional newspapers. Sophisticated editorial readers want to read opinions on a wide range of issues from national to local. 

Where I think the Norfolk paper has it right is on endorsements. Drop all of them.  I have argued, futilely, for some time that editorial pages are anachronistic.  I know that’s radical. Here’s my reasoning. If I’ve got my history right, editorial pages were developed as a marketing tool for newspapers who courted certain audiences in the days of  special interest  newspapers.   As newspapers morphed into “big tents” for diverse audiences I am convinced editorial pages may be the most divisive element of those pages. 

I argue editorial pages need to reflect a broad spectrum of voices and should be community gathering places and amplifiers for all sorts of community opinions and conversations.  If you want endorsements made, let the community do it.

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