Excerpted from Deadlines and Disruption, by Stephen B. Shepard, published by McGraw-Hill, © 2012
With the traditional business model collapsing, several things become urgent if quality journalism is to survive. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll focus on newspapers because they still do most of the original reporting in America and because they are the most endangered of the journalism species. In formulating these thoughts, I have in mind a large metro daily. Call it the Daily Bugle.
Here, retrieved from the archive of my imagination, is a strategy for survival for the Daily Bugle, expressed to me in a very virtual interview with the Bugle’s CEO:
Me: Newspapers like the Daily Bugle are clearly in crisis. What are you doing about it?
CEO: Let’s start with our editorial product. We can no longer be all things to all people. In a fragmented world of niches, it doesn’t make any sense to try. So we need to focus our coverage on subjects that play to our advantage and can’t be easily duplicated.
Me: Like what?
CEO: Strong coverage of local news is essential. It’s our city, and we can report on it better than anyone else. Despite cuts, our newsroom is still large enough to cover the hell out of city hall, as well as major neighborhoods. We need to make sure that we own the coverage of our local sports teams. Ditto for this city’s important cultural institutions—the museums, the symphony. We need to step up our reviews of the shows, write about artists and donors, and cover the scene. We need to do better coverage of our State University campus and its medical center, writing more about the educational and science issues that affect them. Give everything else a pass.
Me: But won’t readers miss a lot? What about national news or foreign coverage?
CEO: We can link to that stuff. We don’t need a Washington bureau or foreign correspondents in Beijing or Paris. That’s what they do at Reuters, AP, Bloomberg, the BBC, NPR, and The New York Times. Or even those new places, like Politico, ProPublica, or GlobalPost. All the good stuff is easily available. Hell, we don’t even need a movie critic. We can aggregate the smartest movie reviews from everywhere. Let’s focus on what we do best.
Me: Is that what consumers want?
CEO: I hate to sound like a journalism professor, but we need to emphasize editorial value—what we can bring to the party. There are too many alternatives just a click away. The world does not need one more publication churning out routine stories. We must use our own reporters to add editorial value in nearly everything we do if the Daily Bugle is to have any chance at all. We must be a premium brand in our community. That means smart ideas not available elsewhere, original reporting, good writing, an analytic voice, and the highest ethical standards.
Me: How can you do that if you’re laying off reporters?
CEO: We’ve stopped. In fact, we’re hiring in a selective way. We can’t keep reducing editorial quality if we are to have a newspaper worth reading.
Me: Music to my ears. But even so, do you have the staff to dominate local coverage?
CEO: Some people may think I’m crazy, but we need to cooperate with local bloggers. They’re all over the place. Some of them write about schools or immigration issues. Some review local restaurants or write about food or music. Let’s find the good ones and post their best reports on our website. And why can’t we team up with the public radio station in town on some stories?