Rieder: Newspapers seek Silicon Valley magic – USA TODAY
PALO ALTO, Calif. — Talk about venturing into the belly of the beast.
The two leading organizations of the embattled newspaper business held their annual convention over the weekend in Silicon Valley, the stronghold of the digital revolution that has totally blown up its business model.
Maybe the idea was that some of the valley’s entrepreneurial brilliance and innovative spirit would rub off, that suddenly the elusive formula for surviving and thriving in a radically new era would be revealed.
There’s no doubt that the keynote speaker who kicked off the meeting of the American Society of News Editors and the Associated Press Media Editors on Friday night was an inspired choice. David Kelley, founder and director of Stanford University’s School of Design and one of the nation’s most lauded designers, did his best to help the editors unleash their inner Steve Jobs.
The biggest blocks to creativity, Kelley told them, are fear of failure and fear of being judged. “Editors are just as creative as anyone else,” he said. “It’s just a question of unblocking that creativity.”
Mike Antonucci, a senior writer at Stanford Magazine who was interviewing Kelley, explained that the assembled editors were “people in a bloody fight for their industry.”
“They don’t have any choice but to innovate,” Kelley responded.
Kelley told the story of one of his students, Evan Spiegel, who went on to invent the wildly successful disappearing photo app Snapchat. “Why aren’t you Evan? You can be Evan,” he said. “You should always be doing an experiment or two to see if they catch fire. You’ve got to think of yourself as Evan, not as the editor of an existing newspaper.”
And for a design guy, Kelley showed he has a pretty good idea of how this journalism thing works. “The story you were given to write is not as interesting as what you discover when you get out there,” he said.
The rest of the convention was pretty much about filling in the blanks in Kelley’s template.
The ASNE convention is a very different affair than it was back in the glory days, when newspapers were money-making machines and top editors were often towering figures. Then ASNE was all about the schmooze, and the program was studded with heads of state and potentates. Now a combined event with APME, which always had a much more practical flavor, the convention emphasizes survival skills. Nothing like an existential threat to focus the attention.
News surfaced at the conclave of a new initiative aimed at solving one of journalism’s most vexing challenges. While it’s clear news outlets have to adopt a digital-first approach, many newsrooms remain severely constricted by old print habits. To help break the logjam, the Knight Foundation, a leading force in journalistic innovation, has ponied up $1.3 million for a program to be honchoed by Temple University. The first three news outlets to participate are the Miami Herald, The Dallas Morning News and Philadelphia Media Network (the Inquirer, Daily News and philly.com), with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel likely to join the roster soon. This is a very welcome development.
Also welcome to people who care about quality journalism, was much of the advice offered up to the assembled editors by an array of panelists.
Tom Rosenstiel, executive director of the American Press Institute, said research shows readers like ambitious articles. Problem is, news outlets aren’t doing enough of them. “People like long stories,” Rosenstiel said. “Tell unique stories. Do more major enterprise.”
What doesn’t work at all digitally, he added, are incremental, for-the-record stories.
Rosenstiel also advised news organizations to “become indispensable on a few topics” because “the Web rewards specialization.”
Contrary to popular opinion, it’s not that important to be first with a story, Sachin Kamdar, CEO of analytics firm Parse.ly, told the editors. “There’s a lot of noise out there,” he said. “People want clarity and context. They want authenticity.”
One of the convention’s highlights was a discussion of how news outlets can attract Millennials. While the panel was called “Next Generation News Habits,” that’s really a misnomer, moderator Jim Brady pointed out, since they are already here, the largest generation in the nation.
How to woo Millennials “is a crucial topic for news organizations,” said Brady, founder and CEO of Billy Penn, a local news outfit in Philadelphia that targets Millennials on mobile devices.
Jennifer Maerz, who was editor in chief of the San Francisco website The Bold Italic and who researched Millennial readers for the American Press Institute, had a number of suggestions for how editors could do just that.
Maerz said that a strong, distinctive voice is important, along with a sense of humor. And inviting visual content has to be part of the equation, as does an effective social media presence. And it’s all about the phone. “Create content people can consume on the go,” Maerz said.
Sounding a theme heard often at the gathering, she said Millennials “reward experiment, trial and error.”
The bottom line: Newspapers face a long, hard slog with an uncertain ending. But the industry has gotten past digital denial and then despair. And while a recipe for victory remains slippery, embracing the challenge is not nothing. Far from it.