The bad news: The Seattle Post-Intelligencer publishes its last print edition tomorrow. The good news: Hearst, after needless dilly-dallying over what should have been a fairly obvious decision, has announced that it will continue SeattlePI.com as "the leading news and information portal in the region."
According to the excellent (if depressing) PaperCuts newspaper layoffs tracker, more than 20,000 jobs have been cut from American newspapers since the beginning of 2008—more than 3,500 in the past two months. That quickening trend is going to continue as the industry's spiral worsens and more newsrooms are cut back and/or papers close.
- Don't freak out–This is hard to hear. "I just lost my job, for chrissakes!" Yes, you did. But don't beat yourself up about it. Given the state of the news business these days, a layoff is hardly your fault–it's a failure by your ex-employer. Don't succumb to depression or go into a funk. Get to work immediately getting your act together and finding a new job. And you're going to quickly find out that you're hardly alone—and I don't just mean those 20,000 other newspaper jobs lost since the beginning of last year. Many friends will come forward to tell you that they've been laid off or fired during their careers. They've just never told you until now. It's an unfortunate part of life, and they went through it and survived. So have millions of others. So will you.
- Get your finances in order—Hopefully, you saw the industry faltering and began putting money away for this rainy day. Even if you didn't, look hard at ways to conserve money and get by with less. Sorry, you might have to give up that daily Starbucks for a while, and cut way down on going out. And it's time to finally learn Quicken and how it can help you manage your finances. Take care of yourself, too: Spend some time at the gym.
- Apply for unemployment—Your employer paid into the unemployment pool, and now it's time for you to take advantage of it. It's no shame, it's not welfare–it's there precisely for this reason. Start collecting it–it's a small but essential flow of cash that can run for several months.
- Network like crazy—Get in touch with everybody you know who might be able to help you. Ask them to refer you to others they know. Then do it again, and again. If you're a good reporter, you know the drill–it's very similar to working a beat—persistence and repetition pay off. You've got to regularly let people know that you're available. Out of sight, out of mind is a real problem when you're in the job market, and you never know when you'll contact somebody who just happened to be looking for somebody with your skills. If you don't do it, it won't happen for you. Plus, it's an excuse to get out of the house for to get together with other people.
- Get on Facebook and LinkedIn—These are the modern forms of networking. If you're not already on these essential social networks, register for accounts (it takes seconds), start "friending" people and learn how to use them to connect with others. Again, that old colleague you hadn't thought about in years until you reconnected on Facebook could have a job lead for you. In addition, familiarity with Facebook is a good way to start understanding some of the leading edge principles in new media. It also can be lots of fun.
- Expand your new media horizons—And not just Facebook. Spend some time getting to know and using things like Twitter, Flickr and all those other strange names you've heard about but never really paid attention to. Getting up to speed on these will greatly enhance your knowledge of new media, and that's going to be essential to keeping your journalism career going. Your print skills will only take you so far. You can no longer pay lip service to new media–dive in. And no, you don't need to learn HTML or any computer languages. Really. It's not that scary. But it doesn't hurt to take some classes at a local community college or even the Apple Store to learn about things like Photoshop, video production or, yes, HTML. Don't be intimidated. Getting comfortable with those things—and it's easier than you think—will enhance your skills and make you much more marketable. (Gina Chen's blog is a good resource for helping journalists understand the new media world.)
- Start a blog—If you're not blogging already, start, immediately. Again, it's really easy and gets you into the new media milieu. If nothing else, it's a good way to keep your writing chops sharp. You can blog about just about anything, but here's a thought: Why not be really entrepreneurial and start a blog about your old beat, or about some niche topic that you think is undercovered. Keep at it, and over time, you may find your blog becoming a key to your next job.
- Look beyond journalism for your next job—Journalists have investigative, organization, storytelling, writing and editing skills that are taken for granted in newsrooms but are seen as rare and valuable in other fields. Broaden your range of possibilities by thinking about a new career outside of journalism. I wrote about that at length a while back in a post called Life After Journalism. Check that out for ideas.
- Don't be afraid to ask for help—Misplaced pride can hurt you. Please don't be embarrassed by what happened to you. Don't let your self-confidence crumble (though it's easy to understand why it would be shaken). People want to help; reach out whenever you can and ask them for help. It's not a sign of weakness. And by the way: These are the times when you really find out who your friends are. You'll treasure them forever for what they do for you.
- Take a deep breath—Again, don't freak out. You're going to get through this. If you can hack it financially, take some time for yourself before plunging into finding a new job. You've been through one of life's most traumatic experiences (no doubt on the stressful heels of months or years of uncertainty and fear in your newsroom). It's going to take you some time to emotionally recover, in ways you won't grasp for years. If you can get away and take some time off to decompress, do it. It will really help your mental health and ability to move forward. And you may never get a chance again to take a mid-career break like this, for yourself or to spend time with your family.
This was the week that was:
- The owner of the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News filed for bankruptcy protection; so did Journal Register Co.
- Hearst said it would close the San Francisco Chronicle if it cannot drastically cut costs or find a buyer.
- The Rocky Mountain News ended publication after nearly 150 years.
- The American Society of Newspaper Editors canceled its annual convention because of lack of attendance.
This was the week that was–the beginning of the end. Newspapers, as we know them, are dead.
- Local, local, local–The last truly defensible news franchise is highly targeted local coverage. There are readers and advertisers for hyperlocal government, school and crime and sports news, local entertainment reviews and other information.
- Niches–Some of these new products will cover demographic or subject niches, rather than (or in addition to) traditionally defined geographies. Think focused local sports, for starters.
- User-generated content–Let the audience members help out. They know things journalists will never get to. Give them a forum to share and talk about what they know.
- Professional content and curation–It's not all amateur hour. Put pros on key beats and, above all, get those journalists interacting constantly with readers to find out what's really important to the community.
- Aggregation–Jeff Jarvis said it best: Do what you do best and link to the rest. There's lots of content out there to aggregate. Be your audience's guide to the best stuff. (Howard Owens has an excellent primer on aggregation types, btw.)
- Databases–Find new ways to collect, collate and present information. Everyblock- and CinciNavigator-style info-maps are a good way to start. News and information don't have to always be presented in inverted-pyramid text formats. Really.
- Discussions, comments and forums–Get the readers participating, talking, sharing. The next-generation information product should be a beehive of community conversation.
- Social tools–Leverage Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn and the rest to bring together audiences that already have connections to each other.
- Twitter–It's an obvious breaking-news and newsgathering tool. Take advantage of its immediacy.
- Video–Use it to for stories that are better shown than told. And by all means, make it easy for site visitors to upload their own videos. That goes for photos, too.
- Entertainment guides and calendars–Be the definitive place to find out what's going on around town. Let the audience easily add events, too.
- Multiple forms of distribution–Cell phones, iPhones, Facebook widgets, Kindles, syndication deals, whatever. Be promiscuous.
- Search-engine optimization–Part of being promiscuous: Make it easy for Google and other search engines to find your content (not the other way 'round, as some dinosaurs would advocate).
- Targeted and contextual advertising–Banner ads are soooo 1997. Google is winning because it ties ads directly to the content they accompany. Advertisers prefer that, too–and will pay more for it.
- New advertisers–How many local businesses advertise in the average big-city daily? It's a single-digit percentage, in most places. There's a lot of room for growth there. Find ways to help restaurants, plumbers, party planners, barbers, nail salons and other small business to get the word out.
- Self-service advertising–The key to making advertising for small businesses profitable is to make it cheap to create those ads. One solution: Make it dead-easy for advertisers to place their own ads.
- Business directories–Make it easy for readers to find them and review local businesses. Make it easy for businesses to reach out (and advertise) to readers. Everybody wins.
This list just scratches the surface–the successful next-generation news and information products will have to have all of these attributes, and more. But starting with a blank sheet of paper to design these new products, rather than trying to adapt existing products, will go a long way toward creating modern news, information and advertising services that are far richer (and more successful) than their existing forebears. These will be entirely new and different ways of finding out about and interacting with the world around us.
The New York Times, doing what all smart newspapers should have been doing years ago (and some were), is finally jumping into the hyperlocal game. It's launching community sites in two communities in Brooklyn and three in New Jersey.
In Part 1 of this series, I took a look at what traditional news organizations are doing to push the envelope in online innovation. But not surprisingly, some of the more advanced work in this area is being done by small startups that can be more nimble and aggressive than their mainstream counterparts. Here's a look at some of the best of these efforts; again, feel free to point out more in the Comments.
- The 2008 Presidential campaign highlighted some of the best startup efforts in journalism. Politico took advantage of political-junkie voids left by The Washington Post and other traditional news organizations to quickly become a leading name in political news. While I'm concerned about the long-term viability of the high expense of Politico's news operation, it's done some smart things to spread its reach far and wide, including syndicating its coverage to other news organizations. The other notable political startup from the 2008 campaign was the marvelous FiveThirtyEight.com, whose proprietor, baseball stats geek Nate Silver, applied that same geekiness to handicapping the electoral college. Nobody did a more interesting job covering the election–or a better job of predicting the outcome, with startling state-by-state accuracy. Now Silver has to figure out if there's a second act in applying his statistical analysis to the political doings in between elections. Also good on the political/government beat: the wonky OpenCongress.org.
- A lot has been said and written about the crop of startup online newspapers now covering cities around the country. I'm particularly fond of Voice of San Diego, which I think combines solid reporting and writing with a particularly attractive design that has a more personality and flair than your average news site. Pegasus News, covering Dallas, continues to grow as well. Both of these, as well as sites like Minneapolis' MinnPost, primarily rely on professional staffs and are, in effect, newspapers minus the paper. The business models for this are still up in the air, and some, like Voice of San Diego and MinnPost, are relying at least in part on a PBS/NPR-like user-supported model (Pegasus News is a for-profit commercial venture). Others, like Chicago's ChiTown Daily News, are largely funded by non-profit grants. I worry about the long-term viability of these non-commercial efforts as the initial money runs out. To sustain, they have to find workable business models and revenue streams, and non-commercial status doesn't always provide the right motivation to do that.
- Non-profit support of journalism is taking other forms. Pro Publica is a non-profit, independent investigative journalism project whose work appears on its site as well as in major publications and on TV networks. This is an interesting model for journalism largely disconnected from traditional journalism entities. I'm less sanguine about a couple of roughly similar experiments: Spot.us, which hopes to convince readers to make contributions to fund coverage of stories suggested by the audience (seems like a longshot to me); and Global Post, a commercial effort to establish a sort of international wire service (alas, at a time when newspapers are eschewing foreign news in favor of local coverage). But there will be other efforts to supplement what traditional news organizations do by tapping into non-profit sources to fund specialty reporting, I'm sure. The Kaiser Family Foundation already is moving in this direction with health coverage, an area that's faced significant cutbacks in many newsrooms.
- Another foundation-based effort that has gotten a lot of attention is Adrian Holovaty's EveryBlock, which collates all sorts of local data, including news stories, crime logs, real estate sales, etc., and displays it in lists or plotted on a map. With his Knight Foundation grant running out, Holovaty is now looking for a longer-term business model. He's struck partnerships with The New York Times and other papers; that seems to be a good strategy, since EveryBlock seems to work best as the data support for a more well-rounded news product.
- More maps: Google has been tracking the spread of the flu this winter on its Flu Trends map, which cleverly plots Google searches for words like "flu" and "flu vaccine" and purports to be able to show the spread of flu around the country two weeks before health officials know about it. (The Centers for Disease Control is supporting the effort.) At the moment, it looks like Maine and Texas are particularly flu-prone. The flu map shows how Google maps are particularly useful for plotting breaking news about stories that spread over a geographic area. Google Australia, for instance, has created an interactive map showing the devastating bush fires outside Melbourne.
- Another excellent view of the Australian fire story comes from a somewhat unexpected source: Wikipedia, whose entry on the fires is voluminous, comprehensive and up-to-the-minute. A lot of journalists like to knock Wikipedia because it's user-generated and therefore vulnerable to inaccuracies; in fact, the site is surprisingly accurate for most purposes and is turning out to be a very underrated collector of breaking news coverage. Next time a big story on an obscure topic breaks, check Wikipedia–you'll likely find surprisingly complete and ongoing aggregated coverage of the story that's as good as, or better, than anything from a traditional media site.
- The most interesting non-traditional journalism efforts are those that are using technology in new and interesting ways to manage, display and interact with news stories. Check out NewsMixer, developed by a group of Medill School of Journalism students, using the Cedar Rapids Gazette site as a guinea pig. NewsMixer is like reader comments on acid. Partly reliant on tools developed by Facebook, NewsMixer lets readers comment on stories, ask (and answer) questions about stories and talk among themselves, in an interactive format that brings stories to life in whole new ways. Great stuff. Another interesting news technology is OneSpot, from a startup headed by my former colleague Matt Cohen. OneSpot allows Web publishers to create sophisticated newsfeeds using tools that aggregate and filter news from myriad sources to create smart collections of targeted content. The Wall Street Journal's site is using it, and the company just announced a $4.2 million round of financing–no small feat in the current economic environment. The VCs must think OneSpot is onto something. One more cool news technology: Aggregate Knowledge, which bolts onto news sites, analyzes user behavior and reading patterns, and suggests stories that similar visitors read. Look for it at the bottom of story pages on WashingtonPost.com and Philly.com.
- Two of my favorite areas for news organizations to be exploring are aggregation and niche markets, and Alan Jacobson's Tween Tribune taps into both of these. The site brings together stories of interest to kids between 8 and 14 and invites them to comment on them. It's an interesting effort, and Jacobson is marketing it to newspapers and schools as an updated version of the old newspapers-in-education gambit. Like Gannett's MomsLikeMe, mentioned in Part 1, this is a good example of aiming an interactive news product directly at a particular demographic niche–something that general-interest news organizations have never quite figured out. There's lots of money in those niches if you can get them right.
- If news organizations are going to thrive online, they're going to have to find ways to inexpensively capture advertising from smaller local businesses. A quiet startup called PaperG has patent-pending technology in stealth mode called PlaceLocal that can instantly create online display ads by searching the Web for business information like photos, awards, and logos. Disclosure: I'm an advisor to and investor in the company, so I've seen the technology–and it's very cool. Not surprisingly, it's already attracting a lot of interest from publishers. PaperG also has another piece of advertising technology, FlyerBoard, already deployed at Boston.com and WeeklyDig.com, that can quickly turn any piece of printed advertising into a simple Web ad attached to a mini-site (you can see it in action on the upper right side of the WeeklyDig home page–it's the little bulletin board). Similarly, TurnHere is creating thousands of high-CPM video ads by deploying low-cost videographers to shoot short videos of local restaurants and other businesses.
That's a long list, but there are doubtless other first-rate examples of news (and advertising) innovation worth sharing. Again, please add other good efforts to the Comments. And thanks to Mark Stencel and Chris Krewson, who pointed a few of these examples out to me–Mark especially, who suggested the idea for these posts.
One of the most popular posts I've written for this blog was called Life After Journalism. Written about 18 months ago, it attempted to explain that journalism skills can be transferrable to other professions, and to give hope to those who were facing what were then the first waves of what's now a tsunami of journalism job cuts. It lives on in searches, links and notes I get from former journalists who say it helped them with the transition out of journalism.
Every couple of months, I get a call from an old friend or former colleague facing a newsroom buyout—or concerned that one is in the offing. Their request is always the same: "Tell me there's life after [insert newspaper name]."
My answer is always an emphatic "YES!"
Leaving the cozy confines of a newsroom and journalism career is traumatic. But change can be highly beneficial and even lucrative. Sure, you can look for another journalism job. But odds are that you won't find one that matches what you gave up. Instead, look at the talents you brought to journalism and think about how they can be used in other endeavors. You'll find a much broader array of options.
It turns out that a lot of the skills that make you a good journalist are highly valued in other fields. Indeed, they may be even more highly valued. Newsrooms tend to take good writers, reporters and editors for granted—they've got an excess of supply, in fact. But other businesses are crying for those same talents, and appreciative when they can find them. For instance:
* Writing, editing and storytelling: A dozen years ago, after I'd left journalism for a Silicon Valley company, a consultant came up to me and said, "I've been reading your memos. They're very well written. You've got a hidden talent there." I thanked her and pointed out that I'd spent nearly 20 years writing for The Washington Post, Chicago Tribune and others. "Ohhh," she said. That's how rare and valuable writing talent can be in the business world. The ability to quickly write clear copy has applications in everything from writing business plans to creating PowerPoint presentations (nothing more than a good story outline) to even coming up with the architecure of Web sites (a form of visual storytelling). A friend who recently left newspapers for a (more lucrative) thinktank job says her new colleagues are amazed at how quickly and well she can write—much to her amazement.
* Reporting: When you do a story, you apply prodigious research and analysis skills that have great value in the non-journalism world. Your ability to dive deep for information and ask tough questions is a real asset. When I spent time on the corporate side of The Washington Post, the bosses liked to send ex-journalists in to do due diligence on possible corporate acquisitions. Turned out we were far more fearless about asking hard questions than any MBA. Or you can follow the changed career path of a friend of mine who became a high-end private investigator. Your curiosity, resourcefullness and analytical abilities can have many interesting uses outside journalism.
* Management and organization: If you've successfully run a copy desk or a daily or weekly section, you've probably got organizational skills you don't fully appreciate. Complicated businesses appreciate those skills, however. The same talents that make you a precise and exacting editor and manager probably will hold you in good stead as a corporate product or project manager, pulling together diverse tasks and people to bring a complicated project in on deadline. Oh yeah, deadlines: journalists live by them. That's often a novelty in the business world.
You get the idea. The skills that you use every day to commit journalism have uses you can barely imagine. If you're looking to leave a newsroom and start a new career, you don't have to worry about massive retraining. Just examine what you already know how to do and think about how you can apply it elsewhere.
Alternatively, you don't have to stray too far from journalism; just try a new, modern form. Writing, reporting and editing skills are very valuable in the world of the Web; it's no secret that newspaper Web sites are hiring even as their print counterparts are cutting back. Non-journalism Web sites also need these talents—which is obvious if you merely read some of them. You'd think copy editors would be able to write their own ticket on many sites!
Or you can try to go it alone: Start a blog. Pick a specific topic about which you have a great deal of knowledge and passion, and start blogging about it. Over time, you may be able to create a following that can lead to consulting or job offers. There are successful examples of it all over the blogosphere.
It used to be that if you left journalism, public relations or freelancing were pretty much your only options. But today there are many more possibilities, if you approach a career change with an open mind and confidence in your existing skills and abilities.
These are scary times in the newspaper business. But there is, indeed, life after journalism.
Tim Windsor posts a shout-out to Don Tapscott's book about the new generation of digital natives, Grown Up Digital, along with a telling photograph to illustrate that audience and why it's different from the audience that most of us are familiar with (and members of). As Tapscott writes:
If Wonder bread builds strong bodies in 12 ways, this generation is different from its parents in 8 ways.
- They want freedom in everything they do, from freedom of choice to freedom of expression.
- They love to customize, personalize.
- They are the new scrutinizers.
- They look for corporate integrity and openness when deciding what to buy and where to work.
- The Net Gen wants entertainment and play in their work, education and social life.
- They are the collaboration and relationship generation.
- The Net Gen has a need for speed–and not just in video games.
- They are the innovators.
While you're done breathing a sigh of relief at the lower price of gas next time you fill up your car, take a glance above the pump–you might see a video screen running news, weather and advertising from your local NBC station.
Kelsey Group reports that it's part of a concerted effort by NBC to get its content out in front of as many audiences as possible, in as many ways as possible. That means putting content and advertising in such non-traditional media as online gaming, taxis, supermarkets and others. According to the same report from the Kelsey Group, cable giant Comcast is doing something similar by gobbling up niche sites and services like movie-ticket seller Fandango and networked personal organizer Plaxo.
This is smart thinking, and something that all media companies should be emulating. It's just not enough to merely have a Web site. In fact, a Web site is not nearly enough, because it means you're essentially sitting around waiting for customers to come to you. Instead, news organizations should be working to push their content and advertising out through multiple channels and to get it in front of readers and viewers any way they can.
It doesn't have to be something as non-traditional as gas pump video screens or the back of taxi seats. There are many other more standard–but underutilized–media that every news organization should be exploiting with smart, tailored products, such as:
- E-mail newsletters
- RSS feeds
- Facebook and social networks
- Widgets for blogs and social sites
- iPhone apps
- Mobile distribution
- Syndication to other sites (and its mirror image, aggregation of content from other sites–even competitors)
- Brand-extending partnerships with other sites, such as co-produced videos
- Niche products–not distribution per se, but sites and other products that target specific audience segments, both demographic and geographic
These all should be standard elements of a news organization's playbook for success. But way too often they're given lip service–if they're pursued at all. Major parts of your audience are gravitating to these venues to get their news and information (and to communicate with their friends), and you need to be there to reach them. It's essential to growing traffic, eyeballs and advertising opportunities. (Checked out the CPMs on e-mail newsletters lately? They're often lip-smackingly good.)