The Ultimate Closing Thought.

Since April, I’ve been working on an experiment for my Twitter feed: I start each day with a bit of #AMinspiration, and I close each day with a #closingthought. A few weeks back, I expanded the latter, and started running #closingthought weeks. I had one inspired by Beatles songs. Another one featured overly-existential 90s pop lyrics.

But yesterday, I took a visit to Biloxi National Cemetery, on the grounds of Keesler Air Force Base, and I realized that I’d been ignoring the most obvious closing thought of all: the ones engraved into tombstones. What could be more final than the words printed on one’s grave?

So this week, I’ll be featuring Biloxi tombstones as my #closingthought. There were dozens and dozens to choose from; selecting picking the final five was an impossible task. One, in particular, is getting left out, but it deserves to be seen.

So below, this is the closing thought that every male journalist wants printed on his tombstone:

Five Things to Rethink the Newsroom: Partner and Grow.

This is the shortest of these posts, if only because it’s more of a pep talk than anything, and because it deserves to be brief.

Your newsroom is shrinking. Your newsroom cannot deliver all the news it wants to deliver.

So find a partner. Make it an exclusive deal or use the Publish2 newswire to bring someone else’s free content in. Decide what kind of content you’re lacking and find someone else who’s delivering it. And then get that content into your users’ hands.

This is an opportunity for you to define what it is you do and then deliver exclusively that. To focus in on that one thing. And to be great again.

Get going.

Five Things to Rethink the Newsroom: Prove It.

When I was in elementary school, I spent a lot of time watching infomercials. This wasn’t by choice; my family had yet to subscribe to cable, and Saturday morning cartoons always came on after infomercials.

So I’ve been well-schooled in the nature of the TV pitch: the Total Gym, the Ronco Rotisserie, the Unbreakable Auto-Lock. All of them were variations on a single theme: whatever it is we’re selling, you need.

Why can’t news organizations buy into this type of pitch?

I’m tired of ads that dance around the point. The sell for news organizations is simple: There are just some things you can’t live without. News is one of them.

You cannot live without water, or light bulbs, or a decent roll of toilet paper. These are the essentials. And a newspaper, a radio station, a TV news show: these are just as essential.

Or: a free press is an essential part of a healthy democracy. Believe in the democratic process? Then you have to watch/listen/read.

Here’s a personal favorite, from London’s The Sun:

News isn’t a product that sells itself. Good stories require time and thought to digest, and consumers don’t give those things up easily. It’s up to news organizations to launch campaigns to remind consumers why news is essential.

Five Things to Rethink the Newsroom: Engage Now.

There’s this funny little joke going around right now that there’s such a thing as a social media expert. These are people who boast advanced skills in the way of Twitter. They’ll teach you how to DM and build a fan page with the best of them.

But what’s so funny is that technically, there’s no such thing as social media.

So we’re in agreement here: there’s such a thing as media, which I’ll define as any platform through which you can distribute information. A newspaper, a TV station and a Facebook profile all fit this description. So does a chalkboard out in the open. So does a TED talk.

But social media? Any platform in which you engage the public could be social media.

So let’s get rid of the title now and get to the heart of the idea: if you’re rethinking your news organization, you need to be thinking about how you work with and talk with your readers, viewers and listeners.

And you can start by considering a few options.

Online

-Commenting forums: Allowing consumers from around the globe to chime in on an issue is a wonderful thing. It brings additional perspectives and ideas to a story. It can also bring unpleasantries; modern commenting forums have taken over where early Internet message boards started. So now’s a good time to ask: are these forums working?

Here’s something to consider: what is it you’d like to get out of commenting forums? Are you really looking to give readers a chance to debate? Because if you are, you’ll first have to set the rules of debate for readers. Or are you looking for reader tips on other similar stories in the community? Because there might be other, more user-friendly forums for readers to suggest story ideas.

My personal favorite use of commenting forums: as a place for reporters to answer additional questions or comments about a story. Sometimes, reporters do this in a live chat that happens after the story is published. But why not put it all in one place, where readers can find it for posterity?

Or, better yet: why not just make consumer engagement part of the reporting process in the first place?

-Twitter and Facebook: Use them. Respond. Reply. Be active. Before/during/after the reporting of a story. It’s okay if your readers help you be the assignment editor. It’s even okay if you open up a forum to actually allow readers to do so.  It could actually open your newsroom up to new ideas.

Offline

The next step is to actually get back into the community and be engaged offline. I’d recommend one of two methods:

-Weekly chats in the community: In the form of MeetUps/TweetUps/FacebookUps(1) to discuss issues or stories being discussed in the news. Instead of having readers merely email in their thoughts, invite them to regular forums in which they can discuss and debate their ideas.

-Lecture Series: Make it a monthly event. Pick a lecture hall. Pick a topic. Publish a few stories leading up to the lecture about that topic, and then invite experts or interesting thinkers to discuss it. (2)

Either way, it’s essential that you offer some sort of in-person experience with your readers. It’s a great way to get feedback on stories, make new contacts and – best yet – to remind readers of the actual humans they’re supporting when they buy your news.

  1. F-Ups?
  2. And while you’re at it, make it a package deal: subscribe to our news outlet and you’ll get first pick/discounts on tickets for our lecture series.

Five Things to Rethink the Newsroom: Create Your Hubs (and Spokes).

What does a newsroom look like?

The thing that’s probably coming to mind is something out of “All the President’s Men”: a large room, with long rows of cubicles stretching out into the distance.

Which is a fine thought — a normal thought, really — because most newsrooms still look like that.

Except for one thing: news has changed; the newsroom should, too.

A modern newsroom needs to reflect modern-day news needs, which means less hierarchy and more collaboration.

So what should a newsroom look like in 2010? The answer might be found up in the air.

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News organizations used to operate in a linear fashion. The news process began at a set point (assignment desk, morning meeting), proceeded along to second (or a third, or a fourth) point (reporter, photographer), and ended up at a final set point (editor). News moved along a pre-determined assembly line, and the system worked fine.

But today’s newsrooms need to be designed to get news as efficiently as possible to its true final destination: the consumer. So what better example to show us the way than the most destination-centric industry on the planet: the airline industry.

Most airlines use something called the hub-and-spoke system, and if you’ve ever flipped to the back of an in-flight magazine, you already know what I’m talking about. Airlines set up hubs — United, for example, has hubs in Washington, D.C., Chicago, Denver and San Francisco — and the majority of their passengers move through those hubs.

The rationale is simple. Just within North America, an airline like United serves customers in hundreds of cities, from Albuquerque to Honolulu to Sioux Falls. Those customers are going to infinite destinations, and it’d be impossible for United to efficiently serve all of those customers with direct flights.

So what the hub-and-spoke system offers is a promise: United will get you from one point to the other, and in the majority of cases, they’ll be able to do it in just a single stop.

They’re able to do it because they centralize most of their operations out of just a few airports, and from there, they reach out across the country to all of those other destinations. So for even the most unusual of routes — say, Sioux Falls to Honolulu — the only thing a traveler needs to do is make a pit stop in Denver.

That’s the beauty of hub and spoke: it’s a simple connection for people in seemingly unconnected places.

The application for a newsroom is easy to see. At the heart of your newsroom, you need to have the heart of your news operation. So decide: what’s most important to you and your readers?

Whatever it is, make sure the people who control it are right in the center of your newsroom. And I mean it in a literal way: you need to redesign your newsroom so that at the very center of the room is the thing that’s most important to you. If you’re going to prove to your staff that you’re rethinking the newsroom, you need to show your staff that this one thing — say, breaking news — is the most important part of your operation, and that it’s the thing that drives the news operation. Be efficient, and put it right at your center.

So build your breaking news desk, or an assignment desk, or a hub filled with top editors. Now that you’ve got your hub(1), it’s time to start building the spokes.

When it comes to news, any member of your staff can play a role. If a member of your sports staff goes driving past the scene of breaking news, he/she might suddenly be sending back quotes or live video, even though it’s not what that reporter would write about on a W-2.

Under the old point-to-point system, that sports reporter wouldn’t have the leeway to do such a thing. But in a newsroom that collaborates, he/she will. So make it easy to share that information. By designating the hub, the reporter will know immediately who to get in touch with and how to share that information. The hub can connect that reporter to the people he/she needs — the producers, editors, the photographers — who can help.

And all along, you’ve got your hub, directing traffic and keeping the story moving forward by making sure that information is moving smoothly from spoke to spoke.

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Here’s the other thing to love about the hub-and-spoke system: it allows for teamwork among staff who otherwise wouldn’t get the chance to work together. If you’re a smart news organization, then you’ve already hired talented people. But give them a chance to work outside their department, and you’ll give them the chance to spark some incredible ideas and projects.

In newsrooms in Brazil, the U.K. and the Netherlands, newsroom re-design is already having an impact on the newsroom culture.

But this redesign can’t just be about the hubs. The design of the spokes needs to be re-thought, too.

I’m talking about building with inspiration and collaboration in mind. So consider this:

Get rid of cubicles.

There’s precedent for this in the modern highway system. Engineers will design a highway to handle a certain number of cars per hour. But what happens when a city’s growth far exceeds what the engineers predicted?

There are just two options:

1. Do nothing, because doing something might make the problem worse in the short term.

2. Tear it down and build something better for the long term.

The second option shouldn’t seem so radical. There’s a known problem, and there are ideas for how to fix it. But out of fear of inconvenience, we often try to work around it, which just makes the problem worse.

Only a handful of cities have been willing to tear down a bad highway and start again. In the end, they’ve succeeded, because they’ve been willing to deal with the short-term effects to ultimately deliver a better driving experience.

These are cities that have been willing to admit that what they first built just isn’t compatible with modern needs. They have decided to change before their systems became obsolete.

Sound familiar?

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So what’s a reporter really need today? Three things: a chair, a working Internet connection and enough chargers for a laptop, a camera and a smartphone.

What’s the point of having a designated desk, anyway? It’s a nice place to store photos of your family or your pets, sure, and maybe to keep a funny calendar.

But in the modern newsroom, the desk is just an obstacle between your reporters and true collaboration.

So get rid of it.

Around the newsroom, set up workspaces, areas where reporters can plug in and make calls. Set up long tables or comfy chairs. Instead of forcing reporters to work in a designated area, let reporters choose where they want to work.

Then watch as your reporters, suddenly freed from the confines of a cubicle, begin interacting and producing great content. And that’s a key thought: once you give them freedom, they’ll understand that they have the opportunity to tell whatever stories they feel like. A change in environment can make a massive impact on productivity.

And you’ll see the change really come during breaking news. Before, the key storytellers might be on opposite corners of a room when news broke. Now, they’ll just need to unplug from wherever they are, move to a central location and get working. Give your team the ability to operate on the move and they will, even if on-the-move is within your own newsroom.

That little spoke will be able to tell the story, and when another person needs to get involved, the hub will be able to easily direct them to the right place.

It’s not radical; it’s just flexible. And isn’t that what a modern newsroom should be?

  1. If you’re a daily paper or a TV station, it might be just a single hub; if you’re CNN, you’ll require a few hubs.

Five Things to Rethink the Newsroom: Choose Your Mission.

In the fall of 2005, I entered college. At the time, the following things were true:

  • Facebook was available only to those with a college email address. Photos could only be uploaded in the form of a profile picture.
  • YouTube was just six months old, and it had yet to make a splash nationally.
  • WiFi was far from ubiquitous.
  • Among the largest photo-sharing sites was Webshots.com.
  • The inventors of Twitter were still working at Odeo.
  • The iPhone did not exist.

In five years, the way information is filtered and distributed has completely changed. It’s time for the newsroom to change with it.

Where it needs to start is with a mission statement.

Consumers are asking tough questions these days. They’re asking, “Why do I care about what you do?” and, “What do you offer that nobody else does?” There’s no universal answer to these questions.

To get those answers, every media organization needs to consider these three questions:

1. What are we doing?
2. Where are we going?
3. Why is what we do essential?

A good mission statement will define your greatness. What is it that you makes your news organization great? What do you do best? Maybe it’s covering breaking news or high school sports or the arts. Maybe you’re the government watchdog.

Whatever it is, know this: your brand is a promise.

Two years ago, Warren Buffet said those words at his annual shareholders meeting in Omaha. He mentioned two brands: RC Cola and Coca Cola.

What Buffet noted is that Coca Cola conjures up certain emotions in consumers. They think of Coke and remember certain times in their lives, times of great pleasure or joy.

They do not just drink Coke; they love it, and they trust it.

But no one, Buffet, suggested, would say the same about a generic brand of cola.

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Ultimately, media organizations are no longer just competing against themselves. They’re competing against anyone who has a publishing platform — a WordPress blog, a Twitter account, a Vimeo page — and who distributes information via that platform.

The best bloggers and Twitterers all do one thing well: they build a loyal audience from the ground up. They define what it is they’re going to deliver, and they find a niche in the market.

Established media outlets can do the same, because there is still something powerful about the trust that exists between a respected news organization and the public.

The first step to rebuilding that trust starts with finding that mission statement: Who are you, and what are you going to do?

Whatever it is, come out and say it. Tell your audience what you’re doing. Be transparent. And put it at the heart of your newsroom. It’s the only way we’ll know whether or not you’re living up to your own standards.

The rethinking of your newsroom starts from here.

Five Things to Rethink the Newsroom: An Introduction.

“It seems to take a very unique combination of technology, talent, business and marketing and luck to make significant change in our industry. It hasn’t happened that often.”

That’s Steve Jobs in a 1994 interview with Rolling Stone. He’s talking about personal computing, but he might as well be discussing the state of journalism in 2010.

We’re at an incredibly exciting and incredibly dangerous time for journalism. The field that’s considered the ‘rough draft’ of history could soon be history — if it doesn’t start reshaping itself for the future. But where should innovation start?

Over the next week, I’ll be writing about five ideas that I’d implement if I was in charge of a traditional newsroom. You may not agree with all of them, and that’s okay.

But all journalists can agree on one thing: now is the time to do what great reporters do best: Question everything.

We can start by asking some tough questions of ourselves.

Graphics Gone Wild (A Blog Maintenence Update).

I’ve been working on an extended journalism-related blog series that will launch tomorrow, and I worked up a little logo for the series. But in the process, I decided that the old logo for the occasional “Things Journalists Can Learn From…” series wasn’t cutting it. So I put Photoshop to work(1) and came out with the logo above. You can find it — and the soon-to-be “Reworking the Newsroom” series, and all related stories — on the right sidebar.

You’re welcome, mom.

  1. Hastily, if you note the edges on the outlines of some of those cutouts.

JetBlue’s $1 Million Twitter Hashtag.

Two different airlines announced an incredible deal yesterday: for $500, the buyer can fly anywhere the airline flies, with unlimited flights, for one month.

This made a big splash, obviously, in the news. But I found out about it first through Twitter. One of the airlines offering the sale is JetBlue, who frequently pushes exclusive deals on Twitter and is very active in replying to customers who tweet at @JetBlue. I saw the all-you-can-fly deal when a friend starting using the designated #AYCJ hashtag.(1) Hashtags aren’t always useful, but in this case, everyone who’s using #AYCJ is promoting JetBlue for free. The campaign is both viral and easy to share, and that’s a huge win for JetBlue.

But there’s a second airline that’s also hosting an all-you-can-fly package: Sun Country. They also fly nationally, to destinations like D.C., New York, San Francisco and Las Vegas. So why isn’t Sun Country’s deal getting the same kind of exposure as JetBlue’s?

The obvious reason is that JetBlue has hubs in New York, Boston and L.A. — all big cities with major media outlets — whereas Sun Country is based in Minneapolis. JetBlue has more flights, and JetBlue has more name recognition.

But there’s another key factor: social media. JetBlue’s presence on Twitter and Facebook — they’ve got 1.6 million Twitter followers and 300,000 Facebook fans — means that they started to sell out of their all-you-can-fly deal before it ever appeared in a single edition of a newspaper or onto the 6 p.m. news. If JetBlue sells just 2,000 of their $500 AYCJ packages, they’ll make a million dollars, and I’d bet they end up making a few million more. And the kicker? They’ll just be filling otherwise idle seats during a slow time of year. Social media pages that cost nothing to own or operate are generating them millions, and potentially millions more in goodwill.

Now look at Sun Country. They don’t have a hashtag. They don’t offer regular, exclusive Twitter deals. Their Twitter account has 6,000 followers. Their Facebook page has 6,000 fans. JetBlue might end up selling more AYCJ deals on Twitter than Sun Country has Twitter followers.

The point is this: if you’re running a business on Twitter — particularly one that sells things — use Twitter effectively. Offer big, outrageous sales to your followers. Build loyalty. Build followers and fans. Let them advertise your brand for you.

Because even if you do it just once a year, like JetBlue is doing, it could still be a million-dollar idea.

  1. The shortened version of #AllYouCanJet.

Hello, Stry.

They said it couldn’t be done.(1) They said it shouldn’t be done, really. They said I would have to be an idiot to quit my paying job in San Antonio, move to Biloxi, Miss., and start my own news bureau. They said that I should find a more enjoyable way to blow my savings.

I did it anyway.

This week, the pilot project for this news bureau finally launched. It’s called Stry — pronounce it with an ‘O’ right in the middle, please — and it’s ready for your consumption at http://stry.us.

The brief pitch:

Like most good ideas, this one was born on a cocktail napkin. ¶¶ What if, we asked, we could create a new type of news organization? One that covered the issues that affect our lives. One that didn’t care about the headlines or news of the day. ¶¶ A news organization that wasn’t easily distracted. ¶¶ So that’s what we created: Stry, a band of reporters in pursuit of storytelling. We travel the country for months at a time, and when we find an issue worth talking about, we dig into it. We won’t stop digging until we’ve covered the story as thoroughly as we can. ¶¶ The stuff you’ll see on Stry isn’t like the stuff you see elsewhere, because we only do the types of stories that require patience and time. We hope it shows. ¶¶ We know that what we’re doing is different, and we’re okay with that. We’re Stry, a place that’s topical, not typical. ¶¶Welcome.

Yes, right now, I’m essentially doing this for free. But it’s been challenging and exciting and different than anything I’ve ever done. And a truth I’ve learned this week: I’m finding that I’m more productive and more satisfied with what I’m doing now than I ever was when I was gainfully employed.

Turns out that I had to quit my job in order to enjoy work.

  1. They = my parents, siblings, relatives, friends and others who generally care about my sanity.