Wick Communications

Don’t be the one-third

In Online media on 27 Sep 2012 at 4:50 pm

Photo: jimbrady.typepad.com

Jim Brady is the editor-in-chief of a one-time newspaper company that has been rebranded Digital First to remove all doubt about the direction it’s headed. He used to be an editor with The Washington Post. In addition to his role at Digital First, he is now the president of the Online News Association. He is a middle-aged guy who saw the light and is committed to moving inexorably toward it.

That doesn’t mean he finds it easy to move others from an ink-stained past to the digital future.

“I go right to the economics of it,” he told an audience at the ONA annual conference in San Francisco. “I tell them we’re focusing on digital because that is where the future is.”

Brady was speaking last week as part of a panel for a session called “Healthy Ecosystems in Digital Newsrooms.” Panelists were sharing ideas for blending Millennials born with iPhones built into their cradles and “industry elders” … like me. It is a crucial challenge and one that I have had occasion to ponder as I have traveled to various Wick news organizations.

Brady notes that some of the people in what the hipsters call “legacy” newsrooms see “dark clouds instead of the blue sky” and that can be a downer. It’s also counterproductive for an organization dedicated to riding the wave of change rather than drowning in the undertow.

Well, some of you industry elders have good reason to be skeptical of some of this digital stuff. So let’s talk about some of your complaints.

It is just a trend. Friendster, MySpace, Napster … The Web is littered with the carcasses of last year’s Next Big Thing. There is an uneasy feeling that Pinterest, say, will be as irrelevant as Groupon by the time you master it. …

It doesn’t make money. Publishing to the Web is notoriously hard to monetize. You may have 4,000 Facebook “likes” but it’s hard to see how that pays the bills.

Social media is a garbage pit. Just look at your online comments to get the gist of the intellectual playing field.

Participation takes away from our core mission. It’s simple math. There are 24 hours a day. If, like a 15-year-old, I spend 12 hours a day in a back and forth with my online “friends,” that leaves precious little time for journalism.

Because of all that and another dozen excuses, Brady says that about a third of the people he encounters in his own company will never fully buy in to the importance of digital tools. I know how he feels. It’s exasperating to try to convince curmudgeons of the value of web-based tools.

Let’s take the excuses one by one.

  1. Social media and the engagement tools that are proliferating on the Web are not going away. The individual tools will come and go. Facebook may be a fond memory in a matter of months, but the concept behind Facebook – that we want to reach out to old friends and connect with new ones — is everlasting. Embrace the concept. Use the tools available now. You simply have no choice.
  2. Many good things have value beyond the bottom line. Take your mother’s rhubarb pie. Maybe it’s the best thing you’ve ever tasted. But I bet she’s never sold one of the things. That doesn’t matter; it is one of the many reasons you love her. Think of your Twitter account that way. It can build credibility, it can add humanity to your reporting, it can bring new readers to your journalism. Does that stuff have value to you?
  3. What about all those mean-spirited trolls? Well, what about them? Were you laboring under the impression that your readers agreed with you all these years? Democracy is not pretty, ladies and gentlemen. The First Amendment means that every last voice will be heard. You can bet that some of them will be profane and insane. I’m a big believer that out of the din, the truth will emerge.
  4. But it just takes so much time. True. The trick is working a social media strategy into your day. Share the passwords with other trustworthy people in the newsroom. Make social media a group project. Leverage your entire staff as an asset. Something miraculous will happen. You will find participation in the social network leads you to sources you wouldn’t have found, alerts you to news you wouldn’t have known and makes you a more thoughtful producer of news.

There are very, very few pure print journalists any more. The world has changed. No one is waiting six days for your review of the local theater production. By the time you get back to the office, a dozen people will have already posted their own equally valid impressions of that play in 140-character dispatches on Twitter. You can curse the dark clouds or join us in the sun of a new day.

Incidentally, you can read the discussion over ONA seminars on Twitter. This one can be found at #econewsroom.


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