Teaching Examples

How to save a newspaper
April 26, 2007, 9:43 pm
Filed under: future, journalism, newspapers, online, television

A very fat issue of Nieman Reports came out a couple of months ago. I thought, yeah, I gotta read that … and put it off, and put it off. Well, today I started reading. You know what I mean. I have the table of contents open in Firefox. The titles are not very enticing, but I’m clicking into each one, reading the first graf, and seeing whether it gives me a reason to read further. For most of these articles, the result of that test is a “no.” I’m not saying they’re bad. (I haven’t read ALL of them yet!) They are well written. But the content is nothing new.

So I kept going until I got to Media Convergence: ‘Just Do It,’ by Ulrik Haagerup, editor in chief of Nordjyske Media in Aalborg, Denmark.

There’s more here than good writing.

There’s hope. There’s a positive attitude. And best of all, there’s a blueprint for turning the Titanic around.

… I asked if we could set two goals to work on together: It should be fun to be a reporter at Nordjyske, and together we should do good journalism.

Arms crossed, the reporters nodded to me in silence. Through the years they had built a reputation of being the heaviest union-controlled newsroom in Denmark and the one with the most strikes in the history of the Danish press. But now circulation was dropping like a piano thrown from a penthouse, and distrust and endless meetings about rules, procedures and contracts dominated daily life in the newsroom. Most of the reporters did their job, but not much more than that.

I was hooked right there. Because I know that the story is not going to end with those guys still sitting there, arms folded across their chests, nodding in silence.

I then told them that in 10 months our regional newspaper, now slipping into a deep crisis, would become the most ambitious media house in Europe. “It will be tough,” I reminded them, “but when we’ve made it, we’ll have a future in which it will be fun going to work every morning and a newspaper in which we will make good stories.”

Oh, man, isn’t that what all of us want? Who wouldn’t say yes to that?

Ten months later nearly the entire staff had changed jobs, offices, deadlines, editors, tools and colleagues. As we launched a new, more focused newspaper and added a free commuter paper aimed at younger readers in the big cities, in our community we introduced a regional version of CNN “Headline News.” These instant updates as part of local TV-news became an instant success. Within six months from our launch, we had more paid subscribers to 24Nordjyske, our cable TV station that broadcasts regional news 24 hours a day, than we had on our newspaper, which dates back to 1767.

Our 250 reporters — no, we didn’t fire anyone — are no longer organized into groups with the task to fill certain pages or sections in a newspaper. They work together in a matrix organization, all under the same editor in chief, and each with the same basic task of telling good stories to people in Northern Jutland using the media best suited to the telling.

We made it voluntary for newspaper reporters to work for radio or TV, or vice versa. We had to since their union contract did not specify anything about working for any other media than the one for which they were employed. In the beginning, nobody dared doing anything new. But when we stopped focusing on results and instead applauded the courage of the few reporters willing to try something new, suddenly more and more got the guts to take a chance at failure.

Telling good stories. Taking a chance. Rewarding risk-takers. What are you waiting for?

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