Decomposing the News Organization

We know that news organizations are in trouble as businesses. It’s convenient to blame the Web for this (although I have asserted here that corporate news was plenty sick before the consumer internet emerged — and I say this as someone who worked in a newsroom back in 1992 and saw what was going on firsthand).

While it certainly pounded its share of nails into the coffin of corporate newspapers, it’s clear that the Web has really disrupted corporate news-gathering organizations. When I say “disrupt,” I don’t mean it in the pedestrian sense of “screwed-up,” I mean it in the sense that Clayton Christensen uses in his book on business disruption The Innovator’s Dilemma). Think of business disruption as an attack (either overt or accidental) on an incumbent business, using technical means to produce a new product that is a lot cheaper and (almost necessarily) a little bit worse than the incumbent’s product.

The part where the new product is a little bit worse is important; it’s at the core of Christensen’s thesis. The “dilemma” is the fact that for incumbent businesses to survive, they have to disrupt themselves, but they don’t want to do this for various reasons (partly because of entrenched patterns of behavior, partly because the incumbent business may be profitable and they don’t want to give up that profit in exchange for a better long-term business, but principally because the disruptive business seems non-threatening because it is by definition worse than the incumbent’s).

With respect to news businesses, I think the angst is that the new news product will be a lot worse than what it replaces, particularly since we hold up a vibrant press as a cornerstone of a healthy polity. I don’t think that’s necessarily the case, although it may be difficult to see from where we are today. I have to say that as a San Franciscan, I was never a huge fan of the Chronicle, and I’m actually eager to see what replaces it, if it’s indeed true that the paper will be sold or shut down in coming weeks.

Anyway, for corporate news, there’s more to it than a simple disruption. I’d argue that the Web has decomposed the various roles that news organizations have served throughout history. Newspapers have historically done a lot of things, not all of which are synergistic, and one could make the case that a single organization shouldn’t be doing all the things that traditional newspapers have done. It could be the case that what we’re seeing in the news business is a constructive dismantling, and it’s totally conceivable that that process will be viewed as positive once we break through the cloud of the angst and uncertainty that surrounds it today.

It occurred to me that it might be useful to come up with a shared lexicon to describe the various roles that a corporate newspaper plays. What are the things that the “traditional” corporate news organization has provided, historically? There are actually a lot:

News Reporting

When I was reporting the news, the majority of my stories came from a daily visit to the police station. I also sat through a few court cases and public meetings, but I also got to watch a few corpses being recovered. Going out and getting the story is what reporting is about. It’s expensive and time-consuming, and it’s something that people who are concerned with the future of the news business are justifiably concerned about, but it’s difficult to see how the professional news reporters are paid if all the corporate newspapers go bankrupt. (That said: None of this is new. Newspapers have been shedding reporting staff like it’s been going out of style for more than a decade now. Have you noticed?)

News Writing

Most people think of news reporting and news writing as the same thing, but they’re different jobs and in some news organizations they’re performed by different people. The reporter is the person who pounds the pavement, attends the meetings and jawbones on the telephone; the writer is the person who takes that information and converts it into sentences.

Opinion and Analysis

A surprising number of the intelligent, educated people that I talk to are of the opinion that this is not part of the news. They could not be more incorrect. Objectivity is an ideal, not a law of the universe, and it’s not even possible to get a complete understanding of what’s going on (the “why” and “how” of a story) without reporters, writers and editors injecting their experience, common sense, and yes, their agendas, into the story.

In the past, this role was nearly exclusively performed by executive editors and senior news schlubs who had put in 40 years at the same paper so they could operate in semi-retirement and bloviate for six column inches per day. Today, this role can be done for free by any schlub with a blog.

Delivery

The act of getting the news from the newsroom office to the consumer. Formerly the purview of child laborers (such as myself) and retailers, now largely performed by maniacs in beaten-up Town & Country station wagons (and, of course, the internet).

Syndication

Syndication is a special case of delivery. It’s existed since the advent of the printed word. In the 20th century it was done by wire services, today it’s done by the Internet. My sense is that newspapers do not do enough of this today; one thing we could repair about today’s news model is to provide ways (both business and technical) for all kinds of newsgathering organizations to share resources more effectively. There are legal and business chasms that need to be crossed here; RSSifying your news content is necessary, but not sufficient.

Content Aggregation

Aggregation is the flip side of syndication. If I syndicate something, I am publishing it with the idea that someone else will pick it up and republish it; the person who republishes it is an aggregator. Historically this has been done by individual newspapers with content taken exclusively from wire services, but television does it a lot, too. I remember when I used to have access to the raw feed from the Associated Press, I’d go home after my work day and watch CNN reporting the same stories, often without bothering to rewrite the AP’s copy (which is kosher under the AP’s terms of use).

The NY Times recently started aggregating posts from blogs under special partnerships. It seems like the strategy here is to plug holes where their news organization has been traditionally weak. Technology is a prime example of this, and I’ve posted here many times about how poor the Times’ tech coverage is, so it’s great that they’ve recognized this and taken steps to plug the hole. It would not be challenging to think of lots of other scenarios where this strategy would work for other papers.

Fun fact about the Associated Press, by the way: did you know that the AP is a non-profit collective owned by its contributing members? I thought I would mention this here because their model is decidedly non-corporate and it has met with some success over the years. Recall that when we talk about the death of news, we’re actually talking about the death of the news business.

Reader Engagement

This used to be exclusively letters (and phone calls) to the editor. Now it’s comments on blog posts. Corporate web sites seem to be doing a poor job with this today, mostly for technical reasons — blogs have set the bar very low for the quality of user experience on comment threads and newspapers have no motivation to make them better. (I actually just dumped a comment on a ZDNet.com blog today because they make you register and log in to comment, and I didn’t want to pay a tax for the privilege of contributing content to them for free.)

One of these days, some smart cuss at a newspaper will start realizing that at least one comment out of a thousand is good enough to become the germ of an op-ed piece. At that time, the news organization will need a way to make that happen. Nobody that I know does this today; blog comments are treated like the bird cage droppings of the corporate news web site.

Another possible reason why newspaper blog comments generally suck is that news organizations think that moderating comments is going to be challenging and expensive (it’s really not). Another is the perception that there’s no tradition permitting the unwashed consumers of news to publish on an equal footing with professional journalists. Well, we’re done with that tradition now.

News Editing, Copy Editing

News editors oversee copy editors and can be responsible for writing headlines (so if you ever see a story with a nonsensical headline, don’t blame the news writer). They are the middle managers of large and small news organizations.

I’ve stated before that News 2.0 is going to need to find a place for the dedicated, talented news editor. I am sure that the wisdom of crowds is not going to cut it here. Woodward and Bernstein didn’t act in a vacuum, they acted with the backing of a news organization and an editor (Ben Bradlee) who pushed them and challenged them as they pursued the Watergate story.

Executive Editing

This mostly involves setting the agenda for the paper. Job titles here include managing editor, publisher, assignment editor, and so forth. Although these roles are nominally “editors,” they almost never work with actual copy (except maybe after the fact, typically when a reporter has screwed something up). The role of an executive editor is really to manage other editors and reporters.

There is (or there should be) a community outreach aspect to this; a few years ago the NY Times created a dedicated ombudsman role (the Public Editor) to handle this.

My sense is that most papers, large and small, have too many executive editors and not enough newsgatherers, but that could just be my bias as a former reporter who never really worked under a particularly inspiring executive editor. For me, one comforting way to reinterpret the death of the news business is to recast it as the death of the executive editor. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing at all.

Photography and Videography

The pretty pictures. It’s interesting to see how traditional print outlets such as the NY Times have been dragged into the video realm by the internet.

Web-based news aggregation sites are doing a terrible job with this today, probably because it’s challenging to aggregate photos under fair use, and identifying photos that can be syndicated in a timely fashion is a big technical challenge. There is probably an opportunity for a technical solution to this problem, but I have no idea whether there’s a business in it, which is probably why the problem hasn’t been solved yet.

In a world in which nearly everyone walks around with a cameraphone, outlets such as CNN and others have been turning their consumers into videographers, but this always seemed less like news and more like infotainment to me.

News Graphics

USA Today is largely responsible for unleashing these on the world in the 80s; I’d say that the NY Times probably does the best job of it today. This is very tricky to do well because you need to have a timely confluence of information, artistic ability, and a good story. But I can tell you with confidence that America’s supply of smart, young, computer-savvy graphic designers is huge at the moment.

Entertainment

Different than news. Comics, fashion, entertainment reviews (which can also be categorized under opinion/analysis), book reviews.

Local Listings

Different than news because they generally get generally submitted to a paper from venue owners and event promoters (i.e., prospective advertisers) and published verbatim. (By the way, the “published verbatim” part may have a role in an emerging definition of “what is news versus what is non-news”. I am on the fence as to whether automatically republishing a police blotter and placing it in a geographical context is really news or something else, but my gut feeling is to put it in the same category as entertainment listings — which is to say, it has a place in the news package, but may not be news as presented).

Sports

I’m not what you’d call a huge sports fan, so I was surprised to see surveys of newspaper readers stating that the biggest single reason that readers buy the physical newspaper is the sports page. But it’s definitely true. (Comics rank way up there, too, especially among a certain demographic. You know who you are, you Family Circus-lovin’ grandmas.)

Anyway, even as a non-sports fan, I know that there are huge areas where big urban papers are blowing it — two examples off the top of my head are prep sports and club sports. Historically the excuse was that the surface area of these beats is too large and typical sports departments are stretched too thin. In the age of the internet this argument no longer holds water.

I’m sure there are more things to add to this list, but one thing that jumps out at me is that there are a lot of things that the corporate news organization concerns itself with that aren’t textual, “traditional”, bylined news stories. You can divide these up like so:

  • Listings of various kinds. Real estate, entertainment (movies, concerts, etc.), upcoming civic events, directories, police blotter. Gradually being absorbed by various web sites.
  • Editing. Probably inexorably intertwined with the actual news bit, although proponents of wiki-style community authoring (of which I am not one) would have you believe differently.
  • Delivery and syndication. Both being replaced by the Web, although there’s still work to be done in this area, and in many cases the business gets in the way.
  • Sports. No idea what the state of the art is here, but I suspect it’s poor.
  • Agenda-setting. Formerly reserved to the newspaper’s editorial board and executive editorial management, now devolving to writers and consumers. One hundred years from now, this outcome may be held up as both the best and worst outcomes of the death of corporate news.