While everybody's patting themselves on the back today over the Pulitzers' look at journalism's past, news industry "scourge" Google is once again inventing journalism's future. Take a gander at the newest toy out of Google Labs, the Google News Timeline:
Just saw this in my Yahoo Entertainment AP RSS feed, timestamped 9:48 pm EDT:
AP – Advisory: The NASA Colbert story is embargoed until 11:10 p.m. EDT and will be resent at that time.
NEW YORK – One small step for NASA, one giant running leap for Stephen Colbert.
NASA announced Tuesday that it won't name a room in the international space station after the comedian. Instead, it has named a treadmill after him.
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.
I never knew or had the privilege of working for Jim Bellows, but I was fortunate to be a regular reader of his mid-'70s Washington Star and became a total fan. He was the kind of newspaper editor they just don't make anymore, a bold, creative, aggressive leader who wasn't afraid to tweak anybody in print. In fact, he seemed to revel in such tweaking, and in playing the underdog to more powerful competitors. His newspapers had real personalities and attitude, something you just don't see these days—and probably a reason why newspapers are losing readers.
- When he suspected that The Washington Post was lifting a syndicated item from the Star (long story!), he tinkered with the first letters of the first few paragraphs to that they spelled out something like "Hello Ben," to tweak rival Ben Bradlee—who was thus caught redhanded when the Post reproduced the altered copy verbatim. Gotcha!
- The Washington Star's gloriously irreverent Ear gossip column, written by Diana McLellan, which seemed to be mostly about the Post (aka "O.P." or "the Other Paper"), Bradlee and Sally Quinn (aka "The Fun Couple"). It was endlessly entertaining, a daily soap opera of high life in Washington. (Come to think of it, I think Bellows' Star also ran a daily soap opera feature that was mostly a thinly veiled insider version of life at the Post. Great stuff.) When the Star died in 1981 (post-Bellows), the Ear—and Doonesbury—moved to the Post, but it was never the same.
- What may have been Bellows' greatest moment, which happened when he was editing the Los Angeles Herald Examiner: In 1979, President Jimmy Carter was allegedly attacked by a crazed rabbit while out on a solo fishing trip. Not surprisingly, the story was a little hard to believe, especially when the White House was unable to produce a photo of said rabid rabbit. Bellows had the solution: He ran a large blank rectangle on the front page of the Herald Examiner, above the fold, with a tiny caption that said something like, "This space reserved for photo of rabbit when it is released by the White House." Absolutely hilarious—the best use of white space on a newspaper front page ever. I still have a copy somewhere.
A Congressman–a Democratic Congressman, at that–has given public voice to something a lot of journalists don't want to know about or talk about: A large number of people are actively rooting for newspapers and other media to die horrible deaths.
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.
It's widely argued that the mainstream media did a fairly poor job of holding George W. Bush accountable during his presidency by failing to adequately challenge the administration's claims and positions. And it's just as widely argued that the press is in the tank for Barack Obama. Neither position is exactly true, but perception is reality, and those alleged media failings are undermining a lot of the public's faith in journalism at a time when the news business is already struggling for economic and business reasons.
Many years ago, in my ink-stained days, a couple of newsroom pals and I invented the Golden Concorde Boondoggle Award, given to the colleague who managed to pull off the year's most outrageous reporting trip. You know, the kind of story that required exotic travel but might have been a little hard to justify journalistically, if you get my drift.
After struggling mightily with the concept of updating their Web sites more than once a day, newspapers are finally figuring out what cable news networks and all-news radio stations have known for years: There's an audience for constantly updated news. It may not be a huge audience, but it's there–and keeping the news fresh keeps the site looking fresh for every site visitor.
- Twitter, of course, is the current flavor of the month for quick-news junkies, and has been useful for on-the-spot reports–many from onlookers rather than journalists–on fast-moving stories like the Mumbai terror attacks and the recent California wildfires. In my view, Twitter is still a blunt instrument, with a horrible signal-to-noise ratio and a following that may be too insular among newsies (very few "regular" readers know what it is). And it has no visible business model, as Valleywag recently pointed out. But used properly, it's a very interesting reporting and publishing tool for breaking news.
- Philly.com is one of several newspaper sites using a breaking news blog to quickly push stories onto the site. On a developing story, this can be a bit like reading wire-service updates and writethrus, which can be oddly entertaining as the story comes together, not to mention informative and newsy. In any event, it provides rapid updates to the site and keeps things fresh. It would be nice to have more than a simple list of headlines, but it's the right idea. (Oh, and hello, old Philly.com pals: Why is the breaking news blog not clearly labeled or featured on Philly.com's News page?) The Philadelphia Inquirer–part of Philly.com–also has its own Twitter-distributed news feed.
- Politico, on its new Politico44 offshoot that tracks the Obama administration, is publishing brief, Twitter-like dispatches at the top of the page in a space called, for some reason, The Whiteboard. Unfortunately, these news flashes don't seem to be archived anywhere, at least not obviously, so if you don't see them as they pass by, you miss them.
This is cool: Google has set up a page with a map to track search requests for terms like "flu" and "flu symptoms" around the country (using IP address data to provide a geographic fix). Voila: A map that should show very quickly how this winter's flu viruses spread from state to state.