Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Making a Difference -- a Different Way

What's it like being the editor at an Internet startup? My former newspaper colleagues keep asking me this. And I've had to come up with an answer. So I asked them to think about starting a newspaper from scratch. While I've never done it, I assume this is what it's like. But I bet the conversations are similar to some I've had in the last six months. They go something like this...

Co-worker: Hey, what's the font going to be?
Marisa: What font? For what?
Co-worker: For the web pages....
Marisa: We don't have a font?
Co-worker: That's your job.
Marisa: Ohhhhhhhhhhhhh.
Co-Worker: So what's it gonna be?
Marisa: Well, I dunno.
Co-worker: Umm, you might wanna think about it.

As you can tell, I'm usually the one without the answers. And that means I occasionally make it up as I go along. Fortunately, I have had lots of practice at this --I've worked at newspapers. In my career as a print journalist, but particularly as an editor, I've been forced to "play it by ear" a lot.

For instance, I've directed the birth of a number of new -- if not long-lived -- products. You know the kind. One minute you're quietly sitting in a meeting and the next minute you're sideswiped by the Mack truck of an idea for a new product being slung by a manager in a flailing department trying to deflect attention from the fact that he can't meet his goals this month.

As an example, when I was a newspaper editor in a blue-collar, steel town some years ago, one such person suggested that we start a monthly Baby Boomer publication. And between the creation and the journalism, an understaffed, overworked newsroom of talented folks planned, designed and wrote a product that lasted....drum-roll here....a few months. Why? The advertising department just couldn't sell the ads to maintain it.

Another time I was asked to reassess the content in 10 sections and launch a new weekly section before my 90-day probationary period was over -- and do it without increasing expenses. A few weeks into the project, the only editor who was helping me quit to take a public relations job -- imagine this -- paying more money and working fewer hours.

I've even run two community newspapers 28-miles apart with no printing press and a joint copydesk in the middle of an area where a quarter of the folks couldn't read. One time, in the dead of winter, the phone lines and electricity went out, forcing the staff to put out two newspapers with battery-powered lights, a couple of gas generators (Note to former employer: The windows to the second-floor newsroom DID NOT open) and wearing coats and gloves to keep warm.

None of that, though, has really prepared me for being the editor of an Internet startup. It's not that I don't have the expertise or the background to pick fonts for web pages or assign stories to reporters or make certain they've got well written headlines when they're published. To be honest, it's the topic of the web site -- divorce -- that I struggle with the most as an editor.Think about it. What kind of content do you offer to someone who is going through the kind of pain that makes it hard to breathe? Sometimes the burden of that responsibility exhausts me, and I leave here wanting nothing more than to sit mindlessly in front of the TV for hours.

And then, just when I wonder what it is I am really doing, a friend tells me the story a woman who came to the site, a woman she talked to, an abused woman who didn't know how to get herself or her children to safety. And I learn of how this woman read a story on the site that helped her find the strength to leave.

And I am reminded of why I became a newspaper reporter so many years ago. Back then I believed that words could make a difference in the world. In the last few months (though not quite so young), I have recognized that words can still make a difference -- no matter where they're published.

And I realize I haven't strayed that far from where I started.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Getting Journalistic "Street Cred" Online

A few months ago, before our first web site was launched, my boss asked me what our journalistic standards would be. I didn't really know how to answer, to be honest. I figured online news was like print. Were the standards really so different?

Ok, I'm a little naïve - and a bit of a traditionalist to be sure. But after wandering the Internet for a few days afterward, I realized he was right to ask. Between bloggers, social networkers-turned-experts and folks who have become media darlings through their own business savvy, it does make you worry about journalistic standards.

Thank goodness for Linkedin, which has become my online Roladex of some of the best journalists I know in an industry that's struggling so badly that even top editors are worried. ("It's like kicking a dead horse," said one editor, whose name I won't use to protect her from her own company, where she fears losing her position.) During my conversations with colleagues, some even asked what it has been like for me to jump off the traditional print bandwagon and onto a web-only publication. They were curious, just in case they ever had to do the same.

Listening to them gave me the idea for some shameless arm-twisting, I must admit. If I wanted journalistic "street cred" if you will, who better to go to than the folks I know? And so, with many thanks to my former employer for teaching an editor how to "sell", I pounced on their interest. "Hey, wanna try it?" I asked.

And since the site's launch, the question of journalistic standards isn't a question any more. No matter where I've worked, I've always believed, those standards begin with the quality of the people who do the work. In the last few months, I've had the pleasure of working with extraordinary journalists who have a wide range of experiences. They include: a projects editor, a number of reporters-turned-authors and a former-investigative-reporter-now-media-law-expert.

And the list goes on and on.

I figure with that kind of experience behind us, we've got our the journalistic "street cred" covered.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Kudos to Jim O'Shea

Quote of the day from departing L.A. Times editor Jim O'Shea:

"The biggest challenge we face -- journalists and dedicated newspaper folks alike – is to overcome this pervasive culture of defeat, the psychology of surrender that accepts decline as inevitable.....this industry must invest more in solid, relevant journalism. We must integrate the speed and agility of the Internet with the news judgment and editorial values of the newsroom, values that are more important than ever as the hunger for news continues to surge and gossip pollutes the information atmosphere. Even in hard times, wise investment -- not retraction – is the long-term answer to the industry’s troubles. We must build on our core strength, which is good, accurate reporting, the backbone of solid journalism, the public service that helps people make the right decisions about their increasingly complex lives. We must tell people what they want to know and – even more important -- what they might not want to know, about war, politics, economics, schools, corruption and the thoughts and deeds of those who lead us. We need to tell readers more about Barack Obama and less about Britney Spears. We must give a voice to those who can’t afford a megaphone."

Monday, January 21, 2008

The Future of Newspapers, Pink Slips and Don Moore

I hate what the newspaper industry is doing to itself. It's like a trapped animal chewing off its paw. There's been a lot of talk, but no one has the answer to what ails it -- less advertising, declining circulation and more competition for reader time. Before I left the industry a few months ago, all I heard day in and day out was how we'd have to do it better, faster, quicker in order to survive in the new media world. And while that's happening in newsrooms around the country, I'm still having regular conversations with friends in the traditional print industry who wonder whether they're going to have jobs tomorrow.

This weekend involved a flurry of such calls, ending today when I found out my "Journalism Dad," no longer has a job. I met Don Moore more than a decade ago at the Charlotte, Fla., Sun-Herald. He is loud and cranky and always had some opinion to share with the younger journalists revolving through the door on their way to bigger and better markets. In fact, he was a pain-in-the-ass for his deskmate, namely me, who had to learn, over time, to completely drown him out as he was pestering his latest source. At first, my biggest joy was when he'd leave the office for hours on end because Don believed a journalists' job was -- ohmygawd -- not done in the office on the phone. I used to plan my days around it, so we'd never be in the office at the same time. That's how I'd get a break. Until he returned, (usually while I was trying to write), grumbling about this source or that one and pitching his latest story to the editor with the kind of passion that you'd expect from a much younger man.

I don't remember exactly when I realized what an idiot I was. But sometime over the next several years, usually over Crown Royals and shrimp at one Southwest Florida hole-in-the-wall or another, I discovered that this grumpy old guy was a part of Florida's journalistic roots. The fact is, Don grew up around Florida and newspapers. And he fell in love with them both. He even owned a newspaper on Anna Maria Island, which he turned into a successful, award-winning publication. Eventually, he decided to retire early and sell it to a large newspaper company, and it was -- grr -- shut down in time. He was coerced out of retirement by the opportunity to help another community paper improve its journalism. And so, he joined what was then-called the Venice Gondolier and turned it into another award-winner.

Don eventually went back to his first love, reporting. That's where I met him. After some months of sitting beside him, I realized Don was a throw-back to a time in journalism that I had never seen -- and never would. What he lacked in writing style, he more than made up for in persistence, passion and sheer force of will. He was a reporters' reporter, a pit bull who never let go of a story until he'd turned over every rock that might hide a fact or two. He wielded Florida's public records law like a sword, slashing through government bureaucracy until he got the answers that "the public needed to know."

When other reporters were frightened off by his in-your-face style, I would tell them: "You may not like him, but he can find a story in a crack in the sidewalk." Don never returned to the newsroom without a story -- or more likely three or four. He even wrote about the experience of waiting (and slowly dying as each day passed) for a new heart. Thank God, he finally got one, allowing him to write more stories, many more -- this time about veterans, their issues, their needs and their lives, many of which would never have been chronicled had it not been for him.

I've been worried about Don since last week when I discovered that Sun Coast Media Group, a private company on Florida's Southwest coast, planned to lay off part of its workforce. It's not surprising, given the state's been in a funk for several years -- battered by a two-year bout of hurricanes, increasingly hard-to-get home insurance and a real estate decline that has spiraled out of control. While every newspaper in the country is beating back, and back again, the problems facing the industry, Florida's newspapers have been particularly hard hit. And so one after another, they've scaled down on home delivery, held open jobs and whittled, through attrition, until there's nothing left to do but look around the room.

This time, that hit that came hit home and struck "my journalism dad" -- the man who shared with me his love of newspapers and Florida and the public's right to know anything about anything, because that's what this country was founded on -- wasn't it? It's struck the man who taught me never to take the first answer, the convenient one, the one they want you to believe because, well, it's just easier than having to explain.

Unfortunately, Don Moore isn't likely to be asking those questions again. You see, he's way past 60, and there aren't many newspapers lining up to hire an old guy with someone else's heart. No, he won't be asking those questions again. But I will. And today I have one big question to ask the industry before it looks around again for another paw to chew off...

What is the future of newspapers -- and who will be left to report it?

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Woohoo Part II

An hour of Yoga, some work and two dog-walks into my yesterday, I'm sitting by the pool reading Columbia Journalism Review's piece on the HBO series, The Wire, when I get another message on my Blackberry (Yes, technologically challenged woman has one. And it scares the hell out of her that she reads it, like a former boss she used to make fun of, everywhere.)

Anyway, there's an e-mail from my MSN go-between, Tracy, who tells me the news site picked up yet another story from our Web site. And she gives me this link to MSN Money, which I happily click on, so I can figure out which story was picked up today. Then I send out the link to a handful of folks who can appreciate.

Woohoo, Part II, I write.

When my cousin calls to respond, I say: "I guess it wasn't a fluke." I hadn't been in a newsroom for so long, I'd started to wonder. (In point of fact, this often comes up in my discussions with former newspaper folk who have taken a job doing something completely different. And like any junkie recovering from a bad relationship or some other addiction, we often overlook the bad moments and are nostalgic about the rest.)

My cousin reminds me (though she's a teacher, not a journalist) that I used to run newsrooms for a living, so it's not a big stretch to think I know a little something about content. As I am walking back home, I think about what she said. And I realize it doesn't matter how long I've been away from a newsroom, she's right. I guess I do know a little something about content.

That just makes the day.

Friday, January 18, 2008

MSN, Christmas, Bylines and Sally Field

Today I feel the way my stepdaughter looked on some years ago when she woke up Christmas morning and found a life-sized Barbie (as big as she was at the time) under the tree. With the Florida sun streaming through the front windows, she danced around the living room with it, giggling about how Santa has been able to find her in a house without a chimney in a place where it didn't snow.

That's how it felt this morning when I woke up and discovered MSN featured one of our stories for the first time -- a link right off of the main Money page. And if that wasn't enough to make my day, I discover more links to other stories inside. Ok, so I kind of knew something was going to happen. We've been pitching stories since shortly after we launched the Web site, a little more than a month ago. But ohmygawd, who knew it would be so cool? Yeah, yeah, 20 years as a veteran newspaper reporter and editor, and you'd think the excitement would be gone by now. Been there, done that, bought the t-shirt, if you will.

Nada, Nope, No way. Besides, I've only been doing this Internet startup gig for a few months. As someone who spent most of my career in traditional print media, I remember feeling this way the first time I saw my byline at The Lake Worth, Fla., Herald, where I began my career working for a crotchety old-fashioned newspaper editor named Deacon Rhodes. I spent my afternoons writing obituaries and community news that he changed without notice. And I didn't care because I was writing stories that people wanted to read.

What can I say? It feels like Christmas and my first byline and Sally Field at the 1985 Oscars. THEY LIKE US! THEY LIKE US! I e-mail the writers to share the good news. I call several friends and family members who can appreciate my excitement. Woohooo! A month and a half after we started, we did it! We're on a major news site. Then, after a half and hour or so, I come back down to earth and remember what Deacon Rhodes said to me on the last day of my internship -- the day he gave a straight-A student a 'B.' "Well, if I gave you an 'A,' you'd have nothing to work for.'

Oh yeah, we gotta do this again. UGH! Back to work.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Newspapers CAN do this

The longer I am out of the newspaper industry, the easier it becomes to see the possibilities that still exist for my former colleagues, who are struggling daily under the burden of fewer readers and less advertising dollars and daily cutbacks in newsrooms. I guess it's because I'm working for an online startup company that produces, well, so far one niche online publication.

A few months ago I was talking to a friend about my new job and she asked me if I'd had any big "ah-ha" moments since joining the "dark side." While I've mentioned this before, I haven't really gone into detail. But having been at this gig for almost half year, I think I can now say it with the kind of clarity journalists expert when talking with someone who "thinks" they have some answers. So I will repeat myself again.

Newspapers CAN do this.

I'll return to my traditional print roots and a few of the experiments of news companies past. One such company, which sold all of its papers before the Internet stole its profit margins, touted "Reader Inc." The idea was simple: make certain newspapers were covering "real people" and the stories written "for the reader." Ok, you'd think that would be kind of a no-brainer, but sometimes journalists have to be led by the nose.

We were just getting good at that when my newspaper got sold to another company and along came "Real Life, Real News," another idea that was supposed to improve a declining circulation. This group of editors decided that we needed to cover the topics that mattered to people - like how to be a better mom, what to look for in a good school, that kind of thing.

By the time the idea was really big in the company, I was working in a state (one I've since returned to) that is prone to hurricanes. After one summer of four in a row, including Charley, (which personally visited my roof) we wrote a series of articles on topics like: how to grill a good dinner when the electricity is out or what to do when your family members - who have no roof - are staying in your home.

I think you get the idea.

Since I'd been an editor under "Reader Inc.," the "Real Life, Real News," idea wasn't a big stretch for me. And truthfully, since I began my career, I've always written stories with my mother in mind. She isn't from the United States, English isn't her first or even second language and she doesn't have a formal education of any sort. So as a reporter, I always wrote stories with her in mind - the "How would you explain this to your mother?" idea.

To get back to my point, I have been thinking about those two "campaigns" if you will. And it's occurred to me a number of times over the last couple of months that a newspaper company could easily pick a topic it's already covering in several markets and use that content to produce a national web site to attract readers. Sooooooooo, it's kind of like a special section, which all its news sites could link to as well.

Yes, you'd have to get rid of the silos (the kind that my friend says is what keeps her company from doing this) and ohmygawd newspapers in the same company or in competing companies might - eek!!! -- actually have to work together to provide content for the site. And forgive me Wall Street, but, yes, you might have to hire a few good people (not many, though) to do what we used to call "re-write"so stories had broad reader appeal. And you might have to get advertising and marketing involved, so there's a plan beyond the content.

But really, think about. Babycenter, WebMD or Caring.com. How "Reader Inc.," "Real Life, Real News," can you get? And there's a long list of successful content web sites. It makes you wonder, really. Why can't newspapers do that, too? Just a question.