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Restoring the magic of a newsroom

A CEO remarked this week that a newsroom sounded like a terrible place to work. All the politics and jockeying for the best story.

He was referring to the newsroom as described in Michael Connelly’s novel, “The Scarecrow.” In the book, Jack McEvoy, a tough, seasoned cops reporter at the L.A. Times, tries to outwit a serial killer while wrestling with an all-too-common problem: he has been downsized. Given a few days to finish reporting his final story and then kicked out.

At one point, McEvoy walks through the Times and declares the newspaper newsroom to be the best place to work in the world. He recalls the energy, adrenalin and constant tension in pursuit of a story. A place where ideas and debate intersect. Then he laments the empty desks sapping the newspaper’s magic and vitality.

Switch to the real world. Martin Langeveld, writing for the Nieman Journalism Lab, compares the latest newspaper circulation figures to a bus driving off a cliff. The news is grim: circulation in the six months ending Sept. 30 fell more than 10 percent from a year ago. Like the bus gathering momentum, the losses are growing from the preceding periods.

Dan Froomkin, a journalist associated with the Nieman Lab, recently wrote that journalists are translating the same gloom to their digital news reports.

“We’re hiding much of our newsrooms’ value behind a terribly anachronistic format: voiceless, incremental news stories that neither get much traffic nor make our sites compelling destinations. While the dispassionate, what-happened-yesterday, inverted-pyramid daily news story still has some marginal utility, it’s mostly a throwback at this point — a relic of a daily product delivered on paper to a geographically limited community.” 

Too few Jack McEvoy’s sleuthing out the great story.

“We’re all in a state of despair these days over our inability to monetize our journalism online the way we’ve been used to doing in print.

“A big part of the problem is that we’re doing a really poor job of connecting buyers and sellers on our newspaper Web sites. Solving that problem should be the top priority for the folks on the business and technology sides of our business.”

But there are newspapers that appear to be getting it right. Seven months after it abandoned its print edition, The Christian Science Monitor is thriving, reports the Poynter Institute’s Rick Edmonds.

Page views at the Monitor’s Web site are up 20 percent since April. In addition, a weekly print product is thriving. Still, the news organization continues to fight for a good return, according to editor John Yemma.

“Financially, Yemma described the changes as ‘close to a wash’:  the money saved on printing, paper, distribution and a reduced staff balances the lower circulation revenue (subscriptions to the print daily went for $219 a year). Advertising revenue, a minor factor for the Monitor, was soft earlier this year but has started to trend up.”

Now consider the growth at other online news organizations that have learned how to use fewer resources to generate more content.

Would McEvoy be encouraged by such signs of news vitality online? Probably not. But he certainly would have to wonder. Are news organizations figuring it out? And will newsrooms restore the “magic” that attracts the Jack McEvoy’s of the world?

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