It’s news when they say it’s news

I had the privilege to be the guest of Nancy Kirby’s media class at North Central College in Naperville this week. I always enjoy speaking to college students because it gives me the opportunity to learn firsthand the media habits of our young adults.

What I found with this group was that young adults, in general, are very much interested in what’s happening in their world, keeping in mind that their world may have a different view than our world. The majority of the class are still tuned in to and seek out news, but how they do that has significantly changed.

As I had expected, few read newspapers or watch TV news. Many get news through the use of  Google, Yahoo or various RSS feeds. More are going mobile in their news gathering. Many more find and pass along news through social networking.  In other words, the young sample I viewed acted as their own gatekeeper in obtaining their news.

But our discussions took us into the concern over the quality and credibility of the content they find. Many were concerned about how media — both mainstream and new age — produce content that can be trusted and credible. The concern about posting incorrect information for the sake of immediacy, correcting stories on the fly, or trusting stories from sites with a defined agenda.

I noted recent studies that show that news organizations that had trust and credibility in their print and on-air products will see that trust translate to online. Most of the class seemed to agree with that — that is good news for the traditional media.

However, this microscope of young readers may reveal the fatal flaw in the argument for online pay walls. While readers may trust your content, they are not necessarily loyal to your product. Google, Yahoo and RSS have made our sites simply dishes in a giant smorgasbord of content, and our young readers are selecting pieces from each dish to satisfy their news hunger.

So should you charge by the slice? Or charge the spoon that taps into your dish? I’m not sure what the answer is here, but I do think the industry needs to examine this pattern further before they rush to throw tollbooths in front of their sites.

It’s no longer news when you say it’s news. It’s news when the reader says so.

Addendum: It was also encouraging to also see a couple of members in the class who were still serious about getting into journalism after graduation. It’s a tough time in the industry right now, but it was refreshing to see there are still young people who have the idealism and tenacity to stick it through.

The Times of London last weekend had an article about this new flood of journalism grads into the marketplace. Although it was written for the British market, I believe this story should be read at every journalism school commencement ceremony, as it is encouraging but realistic. Here’s the link.

When bad things happen to good people

I can still remember it well.

It was in the late ’80’s when I was Lake County bureau chief for the suburban Chicago Daily Herald. I was sitting at my desk, looking at my watch. It was almost 7 p.m., an hour after deadline.

Nearby, Kevin Dougherty was busy punching the keyboard of his computer. He’d type some, stop, stare at the screen, and type again.

“Kevin, I need that story. NOW.” I yelled.

“Almost finished,” he replied, waving one hand at me while typing away with the other.

“No, I need it now, or you’ll have to send it straight to the copy desk.” That usually invoked fear in all my reporters, for the copy desk chief was known to be a real ogre with reporters, especially those who missed deadlines.

“Give me one more minute,” he’d plead. For some unknown reason, I did.

A minute later, his story finally popped into my editing terminal. “Done!” he yelled back to me as he came over to my desk.

I read the story he’d spend way too much time working on. It was immaculate. Not only was it complete and well organized, it was also typographically clean.  After admonishing him for being so late with his story, I congratulated him on a great job and sent the story along.

That was how Kevin operated. You’d never guess it from his disheveled appearance, but he always took great care with the small details, both in his writing and in his interactions with others. It was that genuine care that earned him so many friends — friends he kept in touch with through all these years.

Kevin left the Herald in 1990 to pursue a lifelong goal to walk across the United States. His quest fell short, and he eventually went to work for Stars & Stripes. His work took him to the hot spots of the world. Occasionally, he would stop back to see his friends at the Herald and we’d have lunch. He’d tell us about his experiences, from walking through mine fields to walking away from a helicopter crash.

I’m reminded of the good times because today Kevin lays in a hospital recovering from serious injuries he received after being hit by a car in northern Illinois. The accident occurred as he was restarting his cross-country trek. There are few details on the accident, but Kevin’s recovery will be long and arduous.

Fellow friend and Daily Herald colleague Burt Constable has more about Kevin here. 

I hope you all join me and Kevin’s friends and colleagues in praying for Kevin’s recovery.  Kevin is an exceptional journalist, but more importantly, he is a genuinely nice guy.

Maybe failure should be an option

In  looking at the recent disappointing ABC circulation reports, and the subsequent first quarter ad revenues, I’m left with scratching my head as to why, after 4 years, the newspaper industry still hasn’t found new and exciting ways to regain readers and advertisers.

It’s especially frustrating when the industry has been handed a fantastic new platform from which to do new and exciting products — the Apple iPad — and the industry responds for the most part with the same old same old.

At a time when Steve Job is disappointed with what the New York Times has done with its iPad app, you have to wonder why the industry hasn’t spent more time developing new, innovative things that will attract new readers and revenues.

Could it be they’re too afraid to take a risk for fear of falling off the edge? It would seem to be the only logical answer. The newspaper industry has had a rich history of being risk-adverse and, with few exceptions, tends to wait for someone else to find success before they enter into the fray.

The culture of  making financial ends meet while doing more with fewer resources has created a corporate climate that accepts “just getting by.”  Innovation is whatever meets the immediate need, or grabbing the low-lying fruit. But, as we’ve seen, those efforts have not offered any return. Forward thinking and looking beyond the low branches is discouraged in order to meet the demands of now.

As a result, any possibility of failure is enough to quash a good idea. But the opposite has historically held true … that from failure comes great innovation. The best innovations did not come about on the first try. For every patent Thomas Edison created, he had hundreds of failures. Editorial management consultant Edward Miller recently quotes a Fortune 500 CEO saying: “We become uncompetitive by not being tolerant of mistakes.  The moment you let avoiding failure become your motivator, you’re down the path of inactivity.  You can stumble only if you’re moving.”

The industry needs to shake off its fear of failure and start taking steps. Listen to your customers. Look at innovation. Miller even suggests creating “experimental teams.” Take steps, stumble on occasion. But at least get moving.

Maybe it’ll make Steve Jobs happy.