The great newspaper editor Harry Evans once said a newspaper is an argument on its way to a deadline. As a former city editor, assistant managing editor and editor-in-chief while at two dailies, I’ve always thought that was a pretty fair assessment of the process of putting out a newspaper. Everyday, the newsroom worked hard to put out a big book of facts that sometimes fought with each other; opinion pieces that always fought with each other and always in a fight against the clock – the nightly deadline.
But that was then and this is now.
(Yes, That’s J. Paton And, Yes, Those Are Typewriters. And Yes, Many Of The Desks Are Empty Because Reporters Are Actually Out Covering News)
In world of social media where the audience is now assembling itself, how do we, in the journalism business, even know what the argument is anymore? And what does deadline mean in an era of mobile alerts, iPhone apps and Smartphones?
We no longer control the process of making and disseminating news. We now co-exist in a world where the people formerly known as the audience use the tools of the trade and often beat us at our own game.
The means of production are available now to anyone with a Smartphone and a laptop.
It is now our job to determine what role we play in this new eco-system of news.
How Good Are We?
The first step is to assess the journalism itself. To that end, I have asked Jim Willse to read and critique all 18 of our daily newspapers and their websites over the next four weeks. The focus of Jim’s critique will be on the quality of the journalism – the writing, editing, story placement etc. both online and in print.
Jim has a stellar career as a journalist (http://tinyurl.com/ycd2knp). He retired last fall as the editor of The Star Ledger in Newark after 15 years. The paper won two Pulitzers on his watch. Amongst other accomplishments, he is also the former editor of the New York Daily News and former managing editor and city editor of the San Francisco Chronicle. He is currently teaching at Princeton University.
Everything we do has to start with the journalism and it is crucial it be as good as it can be. I think we are good but it is important to stress test that assumption.
But Jim, while highly experienced, is only one voice. I want to hear your thoughts on the quality of our journalism. Now isn’t the time to be shy. If we don’t get the journalism right it doesn’t matter how many media platforms we are on. Lousy journalism on multiple platforms is just lousy journalism available in multiple ways.
The Ben Franklin Project (http://jrcbenfranklinproject.wordpress.com/) : A Bold New Experiment
If going forward, we are going to be part of the new ecological system for news then we need to learn how to harness the power of that system and earn our place in it every day.
How do we learn about the arguments in our community? How do we work with the people we used to call the audience and who are now participants in the collection and dissemination of news? What is our role here? Is it to add context and our expertise as journalists? And do we bring value to the community by creating a place for ideas and stories to be shared and discussed with a mixture of professional and amateur content? And always how do we do this when the deadline is right now?
Well, in our case we are just gonna try. And if we fail we are gonna try again. And we won’t stop until we get it right.
In the next 30 days, we are going to attempt to produce one single edition of one of our newspapers using only tools available for free on the web. Using social media and other digital tools available to us we will crowd source the news assignments, creation, editing and publishing of content. And we will do all of this in real-time with constant updates to that newspaper’s website.
Our focus will be on working the new news ecology to see where we as professional journalists fit in this new system and how we best serve our communities. We will also use free software available on the web to create tools to help us manage our relationships with advertisers and readers as well as invoicing tools.
We’re calling this The Ben Franklin Project and it will be led by Jon Cooper, our head of digital content. Coop will be joined by me, Dan Sarko, our chief digital officer; Adam Burnham, our head of sales and Bruce Hollows, our director of planning and development. Jay Rosen (www.pressthink.org) and Jeff Jarvis (www.buzzmachine.com) from our Advisory Board will be helping us along the way.
We’re looking for volunteers. Will it be your newsroom?
Until next time, John.
p.s. More next week on your thoughts on a possible name change for our Company.