How to avoid what's happened to American newspapers: Part one

Following my talk in Singapore last month, I’d like to delve deeper into the question about what newspaper publishers outside the United States can do to avoid the market meltdown that’s already claimed a few papers in the U.S…. and endangers the survival of many more.

This advice applies not just to newspaper publishers outside the United States, but to all news publishers, including online start-ups and still-profitable U.S. papers, who haven’t yet had to resort to crippling staff or feature cutbacks to remain in the black.

Of course, much of what I’m going to say today is reflex for OJR readers. Consider this, instead, a second source that you can quote to a boss (or print out to show), to, uh, persuade her or him to do what you’ve been urging her or him for months to try.

My advice will come in two parts, the first today and the second half next Wednesday. So, let’s get started.

Step 1: Management should use and consume technology like a starving man at a free buffet

The leaders of any news business must be able to understand new communication technology – not simply as an executive, reading reports from an underling – but as a consumer.

Every successful newspaper person I know started learning the business by reading the paper as a child. They all had a passion for the paper, and for news, and started reading their local papers, cover to cover, at an early age.

So when time came that they worked within the industry, they understood – from thousands of hours of reading its products – what a paper was and what the people working there should produce.

Just as every great writer and editor first learned by reading, every great tech developer I know learned by playing with, tinkering with, then hacking and rebuilding technology, from computer programs to entire systems. You learn to become a producer by being a consumer first.

So why should anyone be surprised when newspaper companies led by executives who communicate via printed memos and land-line telephone calls fail to produce digital products that resonate with their local audience? (Please don’t make me name names here. I’m trying to keep this positive advice, not a hit piece.)

If you want to connect with today’s online audience, you need to ditch the memos and land-lines. Make the next round of layoffs target the executives’ secretaries and administrative assistants. Lose the filters and be a leader; it’s past time for upper management to communicate electronically, to communicate directly with their co-workers, customers and audience.

  • Everyone in the organization should have a smart phone, and use its Web browsing capabilities. (This will also help kick reporters off their desks and out into the community, where they belong.)
  • Management should communicate via text message (for short messages) and e-mail (for rare, longer messages) – never via a printed memo. In fact, smart news organizations should ban all paper communication within their offices.
  • Managers should quit communicating via phone calls, unless they first schedule a call through an electronic message. (This doesn’t need to, and probably shouldn’t, be a long-term change, but it’s an important short-term change to force tech-phobic managers to change their communication habits.)
  • If a manager needs to have a voice conversation with someone not in the same room, he or she should try to use Skype or a voice chat service instead. (Hey, let’s see how many reporting jobs we can save by cutting phone bills!)
  • Instead of banning employees from having Facebook profiles and Twitter accounts, they should be required of all managers, top editors and beat reporters.

    (Banning a newspaper employee from having a Twitter account is like telling a reporter that he or she can’t talk in public anymore. How stupid is that? How can someone report if he or she can’t communicate? And if you’re limiting where and how reporters can report, you’re limiting what in the community your organization will cover. Not smart when you’re fighting for market share.)

  • Don’t know what’s the appropriate way to use Twitter or other social networks? Not sure what to say? Fine. As I said, you have to consume first, before you can learn to produce. So get started reading others’ Twitter feeds. Here are 10 great ones with which journalists and newsroom managers can start:

    Complement these by following existing feeds from your organization’s staff. A manager should follow every feed that his or her company produces, too. If that’s information overload because you’re producing too many redundant feeds, well, shouldn’t you know that so you can do something about it instead of just turning off your audience with that overload?

  • While managers and reporters should experiment with new tech, they don’t need to stick with stuff that’s not working for them and that others aren’t adopting it. Google Buzz? Bleah. Second Life? If you want to spend your life in a virtual room with no customers and a bunch of other marketers, go ahead.
  • Ultimately, the CEO, publisher, editor, ad manager and all section editors in a news business should be blogging.

    Use the combination of Twitter (in short messages) and the blog (for longer thoughts) to communicate with the public what you’re doing, and why. And these managers should accept and read the comments appended to their blogs, as well. (Note: I have no problem with publishers screening replies and denying to publish ones that they deem offensive, spammy or wildly off topic.)

    News executives must find time to answer questions asked in their comments. If they want to rebut certain comments, go ahead, but do so judiciously, no more than once or twice a day, depending upon the volume of comments received. The point is to show readers that you’re engaged, not that you’re game for a fight. You’re trying to organize a community, not bully it.

  • Ultimately, however, the larger goal here is to get managers comfortable with, and conversant in, online communications technology.

    This comfort can’t be outsourced or delegated. As news communication businesses shift from print to online, their managers must become as comfortable and conversant in online communication as they were with the printed word. Otherwise, their leaders are reduced to followers, and their businesses run adrift.

    So here’s your to-do list. Get started.

    Next week: Step two.

    About Robert Niles

    Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at


    1. Robert,

      I think news people could be a lot more accessible and smarter about the kind of content they offer, but a big part of the problem is advertising. Both online and print publications are still operating in a pre-Internet mode. Advertising is good, readable content. Advertising departments need to figure out how to pump up the volume, more user feedback, more coupons, more, more more.

    2. Jennie,

      You are so setting up part two of this…. 🙂

    3. Two more Twitter feeds I should have included:

    4. says:

      Also @mathewi and @judy_sims


    5. A good post, Robert, and I’m linking to it at right now. Gee, though, aren’t there any non-Americans you’re noticing on Twitter or in the blogosphere? It’s a little ironic you’re pointing to Americans for us non-Americans to learn how not to fall into the same trap as Americans.

    6. In my view, not only in journalism, journalist need to be customer first to know the customers’ thought, but in other field, other workers must have this ideas in their mind first, that way, many jobs can do better and better.

    7. Kirk,

      I offered those suggestions as “Americans who could have kept the U.S. newspapers industry from screwing up had the rest of the industry listened to them… or, at least they’re ones who now have figured out some useful stuff. Either way, folks who remain a few years behind the econ development curve for newspaper collapse should follow them.”

      How’s that?

    8. This is so True:

      “Every successful newspaper person I know started learning the business by reading the paper as a child. They all had a passion for the paper, and for news, and started reading their local papers, cover to cover, at an early age.

      So when time came that they worked within the industry, they understood – from thousands of hours of reading its products – what a paper was and what the people working there should produce.”

      I totally agree with this and by the way great post.