I'm happy to be here in Eugene, recently home to a great football tradition. Go Ducks! As someone who went to college in California nearly 30 years ago, I recall another of Eugene's legacies that goes back to the 1960s.
This was the place where the hippies, the anarchists, and early Green Party revolutionaries came to find peace, happiness and enlightenment. That tradition has continued. Eugene is the place, in fact, where last year's World Trade Organization protesters found their leadership.
So it is fitting, I think, for me tonight in Eugene to talk about a coming transformation, perhaps even revolution, in the newsrooms of America's newspapers, TV stations and online news operations.
Tonight, I want to talk about the internal and external pressures I see building toward that change, and why I think some of what we have learned about civic journalism can be useful in helping newsrooms weather the coming upheaval and even emerge stronger and more relevant from it.
What suggests that a big change, a tumultuous change, is coming or has already arrived?
Let's scan the environment in which newspapers and other mass media exist today. What we see are external pressures that are extremely powerful and may soon be overwhelming.
Utne Reader, a magazine that I trust because it recently named Spokane one of the most underappreciated cities in America, last month offered up an essay on the five signs of the coming revolution. "Beyond the empty campaign rhetoric that passes for public debate today," the magazine wrote, "lie the seeds of dramatic cultural and political transformation." Here are the five signs of a common revolution that Utne cited:
Now, let's take a moment and explore these forces that are at work in the world just outside the newsroom.
- Corporatization of America, including newspapers.
- Resurgence of citizen movements.
- Rediscovery of the world's mysteries, the spiritual, the communal.
- Graying of America and its impact on communities.
- A new connected generation.
The corporate control issue:
Scarcely a week passes that another publicly traded media company doesn't announce further staff reductions to drive up the stock price. Talk to the journalists in these newsrooms over a beer and you get a clear sense of the dispiriting impact this corporate culture is having on journalism. Squeezing the bottom line is also squeezing the purpose, the passion and the joy from journalism.
For mainstream journalists, part of the problem is that shifting political winds locally result in big media being swept up into local controversies and debates. Many newspapers, from the Los Angeles Times to The Arizona Republic to The Dallas Morning News, have not helped themselves in this instance by striking megadeals for the naming of sports stadiums.
Many other newspapers, my own included, have found themselves embroiled in local controversy where the paper is tatooed for boosterism, elitism, and a lack of caring for neighborhood concerns.
Then there are the ongoing, cultural and environmental barriers that newspapers face: wasted paper, toxic inks, X-rated movie ads.
In the political realm, newspapers often find themselves at odds with local concerns over privacy and the corrosive effects of negative political races.
And what about those ads we are putting in the comics or on TV - the ads we broadcast that interfere with big games and Saturday morning cartoons.
To many of our readers and viewers, we are part of the big business of America that isn't always appreciated and is often resented.
The mysteries of the world:
Honestly, newspapers don't get this. Spiritual growth is now the very element of life to 82% of Americans, according to a recent Gallup Poll.
Instead of exploring these spiritual matters, most papers and TV stations opt, instead, for more coverage of XFL football.
The spiritual side of America suggests our readers and viewers might well be open to different kinds of beat reporting and a very different tone that appreciated uncertainty, faith, and hope.
The graying of America:
Related to the increasing interest in the mysteries of life is the graying of America.
Our strongest and most loyal readers and viewers are either retiring and moving to Cabo, or appearing for the last time on our obituary pages. The old assumptions about what was news to them are assumptions that are fast-changing and disappearing.
Retirees like to read about retirees. But who has a seniors beat? Who in the newsroom, in fact, is over 60?
A new, connected generation:
This is the mirror image of the graying of America. This is what I call the Gen Y challenge.
The next generation of Americans is wired, worldly and wondering if the news their parents read isn't a bit like an Oldsmobile, a vehicle for an earlier generation. Their music is different: their cultural icons are different, their values are different from the generation X and Baby Boomers before them.
Pop quiz: Shout out the name of any of the top three MTV music video artists of this week: (Answers: Crazytown, Outkast, Offspring. Eminem is fourth).
And there is something of a storm cloud ahead. An informal poll I learned about at the University of Washington found only 10% of journalism students were reading the daily newspaper.
Those are some of the external environmental pressures that are shaping and squeezing mainstream newspapers and broadcasters. Let's go inside the newsroom and examine the internal pressures within. They are great and growing, too.
First among them may be the incessant search for Super hires.
Recall the cover of the American Journalism Review in December 2000. The cover story headline read: "Superhire 2000 - Today's ideal journalism recruit should have a firm grasp of the basics, be Web savvy, have a TV presence, and be able to write really, really fast."
Then there is the quandary of public inattention versus public hyper-attention.
Does this sound familiar? You write about or broadcast a far-reaching overview of a big, local story. Say it is a proposal to build a new highway, a shopping center or a plan for a rezoning of open space.
You cover all the public meetings, county commissioner debates, Chamber of Commerce reports, and hear virtually nothing.
Then, at the 11th hour, the neighborhood groups and activists rise up, criticize the media for both not informing them and for being too boosterish.
A growing inability to make sense of what is happening.
It's not that reporters are getting more stupid. It's that the world is getting far more complex. The ag beat isn't about tractors anymore but about biogenetic engineering. The business beat isn't about running a local shoe store but about manufacturing shoes overseas for sale to international markets.
Sports have become girl's basketball, the XFL, and Tae-Bo aerobic boxing.
Weariness over the pace and tenor of the news.
Reporters and editors are people, too. They grow weary of being manipulated, ignored, lied to, and criticized. The callous can grow big and hard, until one day a knock comes at the editor's door and a veteran sits down and says, "I've had it. I'm done; I can't stand another letter from someone canceling their subscription because the paper is so pro-Clinton (or Bush). And, by the way, I also got tired of covering all that bad news; it was too depressing at a time when I'm trying to be upbeat in my own life."
Not my kind of people anymore.
For decades, newsrooms have been a place where like-minded people with similar interests could find a home in virtually any community in the country. The culture of the newsroom quite honestly, isn't much different in Twin Falls or the Twin Cities.
Journalists, for decades, knew what the story was, knew what it takes to kick some butt, and knew they could go into any newsroom and enjoy a healthy dose of black humor and cast an occasional cynical eye at the community where they were only making a temporary stop on the way up.
Now, there is all this talk about connecting to the community, interacting with them, trying to find stories that go beneath the surface and move in from the edges of conflict.
The newsroom doesn't seem familiar anymore.
Think for a moment of this outline of the external pressures and the internal pressures facing journalism. What we face today in the newsroom, I think, is an intersection of external and internal pressures and the definition of a serious fault line that foreshadows big changes, even a revolution.
The corporate grip on newspapers helps create the demand for the super journalist. A rising tide of citizen movements, in turn, make it much more difficult, and in some ways more frustrating, for even a super-journalist to operate in this mass media model.
Why? The reason is that under the old model, the media assumed a common vision of the world that could be fed to the masses. But that old model of journalism misses the mysteries of the world, misses the emerging differences between the Gen Y reader and the aging journalist, misses the spiritual, technological and political advances of our time and, in the process, makes a journalist's work so much more difficult.
To succeed today, journalists have to be smarter, clearer, and more immediate than ever before. And struggling to keep up, struggling not to burn out, or retire to the bar or the priesthood.
Indeed, some don't want to keep up. The graying of America, where people are turning away from their traditional roles and turning inward, or toward warmer climates, affects journalists as well. Heck with it. Cruise until retirement; hope the company stays afloat so your 401(k) will hold.
And there, hormonally charged in the wings, waits Gen Y. Gen Y won't want that old newsroom culture. Gen Y won't want the traditional definitions of news.
Gen Y will change the world first, then it will assault newsroom culture where journalists of a different generation desperately are trying to make good hires.
Let us talk, for a moment about Gen Y.
Without question, this generation represents the future of journalism as consumers, citizens, and the next generation of news professionals. They will be paying my retirement pension, if I have one, so I'm particularly interested in how they view the world and journalism. I'm not worried. I've saved enough that I could have a comfortable retirement - as long as I died tomorrow!
I have two Gen Y children, Sarah, 18, a student at St. Olaf College in Minnesota. Oregon was her second choice. And Cody, 15, a high school freshman. Oregon is his FIRST choice!
They are teenagers, which makes them very, very different from the rest of humanity. They may grow out of that, but they will always be part of Gen Y, a very different audience for journalism and part of a very different labor force that will one day fill newsrooms.
Their life experiences make it inevitable that they are different from the generation that now runs newsrooms - the baby boomers - and the generation that mostly works as reporters and photographers, that iconoclastic group know as Gen X.
By Gen Y, I mean young people born between 1977 and 1995. Today, they are between 6 and 24 years old.
There are more than 70 million of them. This decade, they will exceed the number of baby boomers and become the largest generation in American history.
How different are they?
Well, they are a generation for whom;
But they aren't that threatened. They have not lived through a major war and at least half of them live in prosperity.
- Richard Nixon is now eight presidents ago.
- Watergate is an obscure mention in their high school history books.
- World War II was something their grandparents, or even great-grandparents fought in.
- Saddam Hussein, not Adolf Hitler, is their image of evil and their generation's threat to peace.
Unfortunately, one-in-four of this generation lives in poverty, in a household earning less than $15,000 a year for a family of four. Overall, one-in-three of the Gen Y young people were born into a family where an unmarried woman was the only adult present in the home.
And there are other differences between them and the bosses in newsrooms.
Gen Y is a majority non-white generation. Over 50% of this generation's peers are classified ethnically as black, Hispanic, Asian or some combination.
To them, civil rights is an issue that has long been decided and shouldn't be debated, not on a computer or a cell phone, two devices which are routine appliances of their daily lives.
They think differently, too. Gen Y is open-minded, inclusive and global.
They are suspicious of big corporations. They see themselves as innovators and like others who innovate. They value free expression.
There is one more bit of good news: Gen Y likes newspapers.
Research by Northwestern University's Media Management Center last year found that this generation trusts newspapers as a source of news and that they use newspapers more than any other media, including TV and the Internet, as a source of news.
Local news, in particular, is the reason this generation goes to newspapers. The Northwestern research found that 70% of Gen Y readers look to newspapers for local news - when they want to find it. Television attracts only 25% of this generation when they want to find out what is going on locally.
Still, Gen Y readers don't go as often to the newspaper as earlier generations. At my newspaper, readership among 18-24 year olds has declined about 10% over the last decade. That means about 50% of Gen Y readers in Spokane will look at the newspaper on any week in 2001, compared to 60% a decade ago. By contrast, 80% of Gen Y already has Internet access.
There you have it: Both the challenge and the opportunity for the future of newspapers and mainstream broadcasts rests in the young hands of Gen Y.
Hands born since 1977. Optimistic, confident and computer-savvy hands.
They aren't opposed to holding a newspaper in their hands, but they have busy, overwhelmingly multimedia fingers. They don't care much about traditional news, but will thumb through a paper when it is local news that they crave.
The importance of reaching this generation cannot, in my view, be overestimated. We know that reading habits and news habits are established early in life and tend to remain solid. Most newspapers and TV stations today have a core readership that has been with that media outlet for years, even decades. In Spokane, for example, our largest and most loyal audience of subscribers has been taking the paper an average of 16 years.
The Northwestern readership research also shows that most people who start reading the newspaper between the ages of 18 and 24 were still reading it at age 36-42.
So, the door of opportunity is open right now for Gen Y. The burning question for all of us is: Do we have the vision and courage to walk through that door. And, what will it take for us to find that doorway in the first place?
This brings me to my last point.
I want to close by outlining a map which I believe can lead today's newspapers and broadcast media to that doorway that opens to Gen Y, and the next generation of newspaper readers and broadcast television viewers.
I think the evidence is mounting that much of what we have learned in nearly a decade of experimentation with civic journalism offers the media the best hope to build readership and viewership among Gen Y. Civic journalism has taught us two great lessons: One is about connectivity and the other is about interactivity.
People want to be connected to their communities. The tools of civic journalism facilitate that connectivity.
People also want to interact with each other and with the media. The practices of civic journalism facilitate that interactivity.
Now, traditional newspapers and television stations have always had a degree of connection and interaction with their readers and viewers. These contacts were mostly informal, random and not reflective of the core culture or design of mass media.
By design, newspapers and TV newsrooms have been separated from the public. They have viewed this separation as a virtue. They have looked from afar, from an impersonal vantage, from a detached perspective. Len Downie Jr., executive editor of The Washington Post, proudly pounded the table at one of the first civic journalism forums I ever moderated and proclaimed that he didn't vote because journalists had to remain detached observers of the political process.
And, the traditional model for newspapers and TV newsooms has been one size, one broadcast, one edition fits all. The masses get lumped together and given a message. Occasionally the phone would ring in the newsroom. But the culture of modern newsgathering hasn't been designed to be particularly receptive to the interactions. Phone mail, message slips, and a good receptionist most often are put in place to catch news tips and provide some barriers to genuine connection or interaction.
I believe the 21st century newsroom must break this mold and be far more connected to and interactive with Gen Y readers, or the traditional media will simply wither and die.
To keep this atrophy from occurring, some core assumptions and practices about what it takes to be successful in the newsroom must change.
This isn't bad. More of an Indiana Jones moment: The impending disaster reveals a path to salvation. I think a serendipitous convergence of internal and external pressures, plus the growing recognition of the different needs of Gen Y, have set the stage for a different kind of newsroom culture.
A culture, again, that will be built around better connections with the community and more interactions with readers.
Connectivity and interactivity, it seems to me, can begin to bring an alignment between the business goals, the journalistic goals and the needs for the emerging Gen Y community in the years just ahead.
Let me explain how:
There is an old Grateful Dead song, called "Truckin." Some of you may recall it. Others can find it on albums in the recycled vinyl bins.
There is a line in the song that says, "One of these days you know they've got to get going, out of that door and down to the street all alone."
That's where I think journalists find themselves today. We are at the point where owners, managers and readers realize something has to change. Now is the time for the journalists to take the lead, time for journalists to get out from behind their closed, corporate doors, and get down to the street all alone.
That's what being connected to the community requires. We no longer can put out newspapers by phone, e-mail, government reports and unnamed sources.
These traditional sources of news too often miss the perspective that comes from spending time in the largely undercovered communities that exist in every town and city. Gen Y is an example of an undercovered community. There are others, including the poor, the working white middle class, the elderly, and the newly arriving ethnic communities in many regions.
A key revelation about the importance of connecting with these communities is not just that these communities will one day be dominant in the community, but that they already are. They don't meet at the Chamber of Commerce but they do, in fact, increasingly influence local politics, government and public life.
George Liebmann, a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate in Maryland a couple of years ago, has written extensively on what he calls sub-local politics.
He believes that 21st century local politics will be dominated by neighborhood and other sub-local entities that exist below the radar of the national parties.
Why? Because it is at this level that politics means something to people and can be effective.
The Dutch have a name for these groups: woonerf, or voonerf. Roughly translated, the word means "residential state-government regimes."
The woonerf-voonerf, and their cousins all around the world, control things like traffic on local streets, crime patrols and where to put bus stops. Many people participate. Many people interact. The roots of powerful political movements often take hold here, long before they are picked up and used at the national level.
Quoted in Governing magazine in 1999, Liebmann noted that all across the democratized world, from Scandinavia to Turkey, sub-local institutions are moving into roles of governmental responsibility and helping bring order to a world of otherwise bloated institutions.
I know in my community, these neighborhood groups and specialized organizations wield enormous power. Sometimes they are organized to stop projects, sometimes they are organized to promote a special interest, but their force and influence continues to grow. Yet newspapers and local TV struggle to get a good read on these groups.
Too often, the newspaper, or the politician, or the major institution tries to bulldoze ahead with its own agenda at the local level only to be blindsided and thwarted by the sub-local organizations and movements.
Yet how are most of our newsrooms still organized? Where do we send our people? To the big edifices where the big desks sit.
I say get out of that door and down to the street.
Start there, on projects large and small. Get a feel for the stories and story lines from street level, from people with real experience and knowledge, before writing a word. The results will be better stories, more authentic stories and stories that don't miss the emerging interests and values of Gen Y and other undercovered communities.
And that will be just the first skirmish in the revolution. Once our newsrooms have these connections, it will be essential that the transformed newsroom continues to interact with these new sources and emerging communities.
Interaction means giving and taking. Listening and talking. Sharing a space.
Frankly if newspapers don't do this more intently, the new media will.
As I said, my daughter is a Gen Y girl. If you have an 18-year-old in your family, you know that the Internet is, more than anything else, a way for girls to communicate with friends. Instant messaging. Quick notes dashed off to someone who is just across campus, or across town. They will send an e-mail, then follow it up right away with a telephone call. Then they will put down the phone and rush over to say, "hi!"
First, the Gen Y young people yearn to be connected. Once connected, they compulsively must interact with one another!
For the media, and for newspapers in particular, this offers a tremendous opportunity.
The printed page, combined with the Internet, offers unending means to, first, connect people and then allow them to interact. But these must be purposeful acts in the newsroom. They are acts that will move the content of the news in from the edges, closer to where people live and be less focused on those in society who are anomalies because of their crimes, their wealth, or their easy access on a slow news day.
Here is a pop quiz.
Let me see a show of hands of newsrooms that have the capacity for getting and receiving e-mail.
Now, let's see hands for how many newsrooms encourage e-mail letters to the editor.
Now, the hands of newsrooms that solicit e-mail comments on local topics.
See what I mean. The untapped opportunity to interact with our readers via the new technology is only beginning to be understood.
You will hear tomorrow from one of my editors, Ken Sands, about the value of interacting with readers via e-mail to generate source lists, story ideas, and full pages of ink on paper letters.
Ken will also tell you how once this interaction has been established, readers can be invited to work with trained editors to write for newspapers. Indeed, the very staffing constraints that many newsrooms face can be lessened, if not eliminated, by developing community-based writers.
This idea of growing your own staff is being tried by The Spokesman-Review in its zoned "Handle Extra" section that covers Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. Other versions of grow-your-own staffing are being tried in places like Savannah, Georgia and Milwaukee.
These efforts are not all clustered under the umbrella of civic journalism. They are all grounded, however, in purposeful efforts within newsrooms to be better connected with the communities being served and more open to a whole new range of interactions with those in the community.
In this kind of newsroom, the role and definition of a journalist must change.
To get this sort of a newsroom in place, editors will have to begin hiring journalists who possess an interest, willingness and a talent for working with the public, engaging the public and helping the public understand journalism.
In his book, First Break All The Rules, which I recommend as one of the best management books I've read, author Marcus Buckingham talks about the importance of hiring people whose talents reflect the outcomes you want to achieve. In other words, editors who want to begin building a newsroom that is more connected to the community and more interactive with readers, need to start articulating these goals and actively seeking out reporters, editors and photographers who can take the newsroom in that direction.
That means, as well, that educators in the journalism schools must begin training a new kind of journalist who recognizes this need for connectivity and interactivity. The superhires will surely need the basics of journalism. They will need an easy familiarity with new media. Perhaps most important, they must grasp the critical shift in thinking about the role of the journalist. They are not detached, cynical, aloof journalists. They are connected, interactive and engaged journalists.
This will be a humbling change, in some ways.
When this revolution comes, as I think it will, journalists no longer will have the only key to the pressroom.
No, the space in the paper, the content and the direction the news takes will be a shared, interdependent responsibility between the community and the journalists. This cultural change won't make the job of journalism any easier. In this emerging newsroom culture, the journalists will have to be more talented, more committed to fairness and accuracy then ever before.
Of course, this should be viewed as another benefit of the revolution. There will be less hiding behind a security desk or telephone. In this culture the professional talents and skills of the journalist will be tested, expected to be credible and more valued within the large community. Right now, it's not that way. As University of Montana journalism ethics professor Deni Elliott recently noted in a speech to the Montana Chapter of the Public Relations Society of America, mediocrity is savaging the journalism in many newsrooms these days. Too many journalists, harried and under the gun, have come to accept a press release rather than doing serious work on a story.
In the transformed newsroom culture that I have described, the challenge of getting the story right, on deadline, will be heightened and the newsgathering processes will be more open for more people to see. If we can get it right, which I think is far more likely in a connected, interactive environment, then the honor of journalism will be restored.
And it will be fun. The journalists will be meeting real people, hearing real stories.
Journalists will still edit, illustrate, design and present the news to the highest standards and ethics of our business. We'll be in the thick of the fray, trying to the save the world.
We will invite partners to the table as we shape the decisions and allocate the journalistic resources of our community. We will be more aligned with where citizens really live.
They will see us for who we are, just as we see them for who they really are.
And when we get there, we will have revolutionized journalism from within. We will have led a revolt, quietly and creatively, calling forward heroes from deep within the ranks of those reporters and editors whose work will have become indispensable to those who live around us.
And that, finally, will get the attention of Wall Street. I think the day is coming when the stock price of media companies will be based at least in part, on the value that the newspaper brings to the community.
This idea, in fact, is being actively promoted on Wall Street by at least one man with connections. He is Dan Sullivan, a 14-year-veteran of business operations at The Star Tribune in Minneapolis, and now a private newspaper consultant who helps explain the newspaper industry to stock analysts.
Sullivan is promoting what he calls "a different business proposition." He is suggesting to analysts that the stock of publicly traded media companies be tied, in some direct way, to the service the newspaper or TV station provides to the communities they serve. Citizens, in effect, are shareholders, too. As such, they may well be willing to view their newspaper or the newspaper Web site as a utility worthy of a monthly payment.
It may take 20 years for this model. Or it may happen much more quickly if Wall Street grows impatient and a new set of stockholders storm the boardrooms.
The revolution to re-claim journalism can start to happen tomorrow, in your newsrooms, if you take up the cause.