Overcoming burnout on the road to ‘digital first’

“We will be and are burning people out.”

That quote from John Paton led the final paragraph of a Jan. 15 Los Angeles Times profile on his “digital first, print last” transformation of Journal Register Company and Media News Group.

My finger reached out and pointed to that part of my laptop screen when I saw it. “This. … This!” This is important. It won’t keep us from getting where Paton is leading us. But it has slowed us down, no doubt.

When asked whether journalism would suffer as newsrooms juggle Twitter, video, blogging and other digital tools, Paton said he’s afraid it might in the short-term, “not because of (digital) tools,” but because of burnout.

Burnout, you say? Didn’t newsrooms invent burnout?

Actually, Journal Register Company took it to another level in the pre-John Paton days. After years of cost cutting and bankruptcy, the theme song of our newsrooms could have been a cross between something like this:

and this:

Then Paton came along and laid out this urgent plan to completely change the workflow of newsrooms, which required we learn a whole bunch of new tools, a whole new skill set. Even longtime top editors, even the most curmudgeonly members of our city desk or sports department, would have to learn and change.

And we’d have to do it while continuing to get a print edition out the door and satisfying the expectations of our print readers.

Paton described it at the time as “trying to change the tires on a moving car while driving down the highway.”

Remarkably, he sold tired and cynical editors on that message. They went from burned out to enthused to rally behind a vision for preserving and reinvesting in local journalism. Paton’s playbook is a great guide, actually, for companies who are dealing with their own digital first burnout questions.

But two years into the JRC turnaround, we’re dealing with a different and perhaps more critical stage of burnout.

If folks who’ve bought in to “digital first” become overwhelmed or discouraged, the danger is that they’ll slip into a going-through-the-motions daze, holding us back from the next stage of real cultural change in the newsroom. As one editor said, “I just don’t feel like I’m doing any one thing well. I don’t even know where to start sometimes.”

They bought into Paton’s message because there was a clear strategy, communicated well and executed with transparency. He has treated them with respect, focused on the important stuff, provided the tools needed to get the job done and empowered them to try new things.

Preserving those conditions as the company grows in size and advances to the next stage of “digital first” will keep them buying in. But to keep them from burning out, we’re at a juncture in which top editors must step back, prioritize and recognize human limitations, starting with themselves. That means a ban on the words “do more with less.” It means deciding NOT to do things that are less important or to at least place a lot less focus on them.

If we believe producing quality journalism and connecting it with as wide and engaged an audience as possible is our number one goal, let’s learn about and use every tool possible that will help us do that. But if we’re doing things that don’t support that goal, we have to stop doing them. And we have to stand up to our own publishers, our own staffs, and our own sense of tradition, to draw that line.

Respect for journalism and journalists

Paton got JRC editors’ attention literally on day one by inviting them to a seat at the adults’ table. When he gathered publishers to a meeting near JRC headquarters the day after he started as CEO, he surprised both by inviting editors, too.

He said things like “quality journalism is our business model,” and, with raised voice, that we would never let advertisers dictate or compromise newsroom decisions under his watch.

Treating journalism and journalists with respect is a great weapon against burnout.

Treating someone with respect means listening to them – really listening – and it didn’t take Paton long to hear about how much lack of investment in basic hardware was holding newsrooms back, especially as they peered into the digital first future from around their Windows 98 PC and tube monitor.

Paton launched an “evergreen” program that replaces computers at least every three years. He backed up his emphasis on video by giving every reporter in the company a Flip camera. And he backed up his call for top editors to lead by example in learning new tools by sending each of them a smart phone and iPad.

Providing proper tools to do the job is a great weapon against burnout.

Empowerment and Experimentation

Paton used two projects in his first year as CEO to give newsrooms a sense of confidence and empowerment when it comes to the world of digital journalism.

The Ben Franklin Project involved publishing the print edition and website of every JRC daily newspaper for a single day using only free, open source, web-based tools.

By proving we could do it without them, it enabled Paton to win major savings from software vendors, savings that helped fund the aforementioned hardware upgrades.

But the real genius of Ben Franklin was that it forced newsrooms to behave like startups. By necessity, they were turned on to a whole world of online storytelling tools. And editors who’d rarely shared resources or knowledge naturally reached out to each other without prompting to compare notes and share discoveries.

Paton followed Ben Franklin with the JRC Idea Lab, which freed up 15 employees to spend 25 percent of their week to experiment, plus a monthly stipend, smart phone, Netbook and iPad.

The Idea Lab had direct benefit to the newsrooms where members were assigned. They saw through ideas and projects that would otherwise never have materialized from the daily grind.

But it sent a broader message to newsrooms across the company. It’s OK to experiment. It’s good to experiment. And experimenting means failed experiments. And that’s OK, too. It’s part of the process.

Empowering staff to try new things and fail is a great weapon against burnout.

One foot in digital, one foot in print

So here we are, two years in, and we’ve improved our journalism. Digital audience and digital revenue have grown tremendously. And just over the horizon we catch glimpses of Paton’s “crossover” point where digital growth exceeds print losses and local journalism is saved.

But there’s a lot of truth to Paton’s analogy of changing the tires on a moving car. It has felt like that at times. Hey, at least he warned us!

JRC is a company of small newsrooms – dailies and weeklies where top editors are laying out pages for the print edition after a day of live blogging, tweeting and editing video, and motivating the team in between.

It’s amazing how much they’ve willingly placed on their shoulders over the past few years.

We’re at a stage when some key remaining pieces (a new, integrated CMS, for example, and the Thunderdome project that will provide print pagination and national news coverage) are coming soon, but not here yet.

Rather than complain about the difficulty of jumping into digital first with both feet when they still have one foot in print, they’re finding ways. They’re masochists. Or they really believe in what John Paton is saying. Probably both.

You can keep that up for only so long, though, before burnout endangers the mission.

And if a local editor is attempting to put the whole thing on his or her back, chances are they are putting off some difficult but inevitable decisions.

What’s not part of the mission? Why are we still doing it?

Is the newsroom still organized around print or the premise of a larger staff than exists today? How should job descriptions change?

Are you working more hours, juggling more stuff and obtaining more gray hairs to avoid answering these questions?

Old way or new way, staff of 50 or staff of 25, every day you arrive at work and make decisions about what you are not going to cover and not going to get to.

If learning new tools is important, if dedicated training time is what it will take to get there, you have to decide (for you, or for one of your employees, or both) to do one less thing that day.

If using a new tool improves the quality of your journalism and/or helps you connect that journalism to a wider audience, but takes longer than the old way, you have to decide to drop something that’s less important.

The first step to overcoming burnout is knowing that it’s OK to make those decisions.

If they came easily, it would be much smoother sailing in my own newsrooms right now, and I wouldn’t be thinking so much about whether my staff is burning out. But I do think it’s the conversation we need to have.

Is linking a ‘keystone habit’ that can convert newsrooms to ‘open journalism?’

Elaine Clisham was shaking her head at the latest dust-up over whether media organizations should link to other news outlets and sources of information in their reporting on the web.

On Twitter recently, Mathew Ingram and others again debated media organizations' failure to link to other sources.

Clisham said that newspaper industry leaders such as her former American Press Institute colleague Steve Buttry had been preaching the importance of linking for years.

“The fact we’re still talking about this is exactly the problem!” she wrote on Twitter in response to a discussion among MG Siegler, Mathew Ingram, Charles Arthur and Caitlin Fitzsimmons that was sparked by Siegler’s scoop of the Wall Street Journal on a story, and the Journal’s subsequent refusal to link to his original story when they followed up on the news with independent confirmation.

But the fact is, the newspaper industry wasn’t listening to Buttry. Linking is still a foreign concept if you are still writing the same story you used to write for print, except that it’s also published on the web. And linking does not come easily with content management systems built for print editions.

(Full disclosure: Buttry is now community engagement and social media director for the company I work for, Digital First Media/Journal Register Company, which means we, at least, have to listen to him).

Buttry makes the case far better than I could in a recent blog post referencing the Siegler-Wall Street Journal spat, “4 reasons why linking is good journalism; 2 reasons why linking is good business.” See also this 2010 Jonathan Stray post he references. And Ingram’s recap, “Is linking just polite, or is it a core value of journalism?

But I wonder if the practice of linking – or reporters’ and editors’ failure to do so – could be far more significant than we realize in the transition to digital journalism.

In his new book, “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life and Business,” New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg writes about “keystone habits” that have defined or transformed both corporate cultures and individuals’ lives.

He tells the story of how Paul O’Neill shocked investors when he first took over as CEO of Alcoa by saying nothing about profits, but instead telling executives that the company’s number one goal would be to improve worker safety.

“I knew I had to transform Alcoa,” O’Neill told me. “But you can’t order people to change. That’s not how the brain works. So I decided I was going to start by focusing on one thing. If I could start disrupting the habits around one thing, it would spread throughout the entire company.”

O’Neill’s approach at Alcoa led to record profits. The focus on worker safety prompted a cultural change that instituted a more disciplined and conscientious approach to all aspects of the business.

O’Neill’s success at Alcoa is just one example of a keystone habit, a pattern that has the power to start a chain reaction, changing other habits as it moves through an organization. Keystone habits, I found in writing my book, can influence how people work, eat, play, live, spend, and communicate.

What could be a bigger “keystone habit” of journalism that is part of the open and networked web than linking?

And what could be a bigger “keystone habit” of just plain and basic good journalism than what Buttry calls out as “honesty, transparency, attribution and context?”

We are teaching reporters and editors to link out as part of our Digital Ninja School newsroom training experiment. And a new content management system built by Saxotech that we are rolling out across Journal Register Company combines print and digital and incorporates the ability to link at every step in the process.

But I wonder if it should be moving closer to the top of our list. Maybe linking is the “keystone habit” that could be the lynchpin to creating newsrooms that are truly “digital first.”

UPDATE: Alex Howard had this to say on Twitter about my last sentence:


I agree we aren’t “digital first” without linking. The “maybe” part is wondering if this one key aspect of digital first is a behavior that, if embraced by all, could become the catalyst for bigger change.

A new kind of newspaper severance: Help laid-off journalists be entrepreneurs and partners

As I was packing for a trip north to speak at the Maine Press Association convention this weekend about our Newsroom Cafe project in Connecticut, this story came across my Twitter feed this morning.

The Portland Press Herald, my hometown daily, is laying off 38 employees and eliminating 23 additional jobs through buyouts, with the “majority” coming from the newsroom. I’m guessing that’s going to have a severe effect on the mood at this conference.

The size of this layoff is dramatic for a paper its size – (Portland’s newsroom has already been winnowed significantly during a rocky ownership change from the Seattle Times to a group of investors). And the Portland newsroom is one full of veteran, longtime journalists. We’re not talking about layoffs of just-out-of-college J-school grads.

This is huge. And it’s a good opportunity for the industry as a whole to stop and reflect on how we do this.

I’m not questioning the need for these cuts. I wouldn’t anyway without knowing the financial circumstances the Press Herald is facing, but as a community daily newspaper publisher myself I know how difficult of a print advertising environment they must be facing.

But what if a newspaper such as the Press Herald engaged the journalists affected by these cuts in an entrepreneurial brainstorming session on the news and information gaps that exist in Maine?

What if they – in a formal process – helped them use their severance checks as seed money for new, independent journalism enterprises?

There are niches and opportunities out there better filled by the start-up culture this would create than the legacy media brand.

It’s bound to happen with a layoff like this anyway. Check out Connecticut, where former legacy media journalists have launched enterprises such as CT Watchdog, CT Mirror and CT News Junkie.

So why not help set them up as “competitors” that could really function as independent partners to the Press Herald? Use your legacy base to aggregate and curate the work of these new efforts. Help sustain them – and your own operation – by taking on part or all of their advertising sales for them.

If the Press Herald doesn’t do that, the Bangor Daily News should, or one of the Portland TV stations.

The ideas here are straight from the preachings of Jeff Jarvis – and there are more and more resources these days for stoking entrepreneurial journalism, including Jeff’s one program for that at CUNY.

Portland – or the next legacy media company to lay off journalists – should reach out for help and pursue an approach like this. It will be good for journalism, good for your community and may be your only chance at spinning a cutback into growth for your brand.

Bloggers teach community inside newly opened newspaper building

Fifty community members showed up for a local blogger's presentation on Irish genealogy at the Troy Record.

What if a newspaper could unlock brand new areas of content and news coverage via citizen journalism, use this to connect with audience members yearning for information on these niche topics, and become a virtual and physical center of community information and discourse in the process?

Well, take a look at what’s happening at the Troy (N.Y.) Record under the leadership of Editor Lisa Robert Lewis and newsroom digital specialist Tom Caprood.

Over the past year, the newspaper has recruited 50 local bloggers to be part of its Community Media Lab. (The Troy Record is a Journal Register Company paper, and it’s part of a company-wide effort that has led to a network of more than 1,000 local blogging partners.) According to Caprood, 90 percent of them are blogging for the first time due to the newsroom’s outreach and training of citizen journalists.

Others had “hobby blogs” with small audiences. After partnering with the Troy Record, which links to their posts from its website and promotes their work, they saw their traffic explode. One blogger said the big bump in traffic that the newspaper brought him and interaction from new readers moved his blog from off the radar screen to near the top of Google searches on the topic he is writing about.

Recognizing the gold mine of interesting content being produced by these new bloggers, and the newspaper office’s great location in the heart of downtown, Lewis, Caprood and Troy Record Publisher James Murphy started working on plans for a physical space showcasing these new community connections.

The Troy Record renovated an old circulation office into a community room with free public wifi and a flat-screen monitor for presentations.

They turned an old circulation department office on the first floor of the Troy Record building into a community meeting room. And in early March, they scheduled their first public workshop. A local CPA who blogs about tax advice and is a member of the Community Media Lab put together a program on tax tips ahead of the April 15 Tax Day crush.

“Not one person came,” said Caprood. “That was our first learning experience.”

The newsroom adapted quickly, spreading word about their next event, a program on Irish genealogy presented by another Community Media Lab blogger, by reaching out to local organizations, posting it on message boards and publishing a story about it in the print and online editions of the Troy Record.

“We went from having zero to having 50 people show up two days later,” Caprood said. The room was packed to the point where there was just enough room for emergency exits.

Newsroom staff scrambled to take down names and email addresses of community members in attendance, seeing the opportunity to build something for the future.

The newspaper quickly scheduled a second night with the Irish history blogger, and another 50 people showed up, including a big contingent of new faces.

“Then we had a bass fishing forum,” Caprood said. Again, it was hosted by a Community Media Lab blogger. He shared secrets about the best local fishing spots, and even brought lures and equipment to show off.

A Community Media Lab blogger shared tips and secrets on the best local fishing spots at a workshop hosted by the Troy Record earlier this month.

Twenty-five people showed up this time. “Afterwards, people stuck around for half an hour looking at his lures and asking questions,” Caprood said.

A workshop on social media followed, with 20 community members attending in addition to Troy Record staff themselves, eager to learn more as they integrated Twitter and Facebook into their news reporting.

Last night, the newspaper’s longtime horse racing columnist presented a workshop on the ins and outs of handicapping and the unique features of the nearby Saratoga racetrack as compared to other tracks around the country.

Each workshop the Troy Record hosts is live-streamed on TroyRecord.Com, and Caprood is working on a landing page that will archive replays of each session for future viewing. He has also run live chats during the workshops to field questions and comments from people watching at home or from afar.

The newspaper has also opened the space up for use by community groups, including a recent work session by an organization attempting to promote regional tourism. Free public wifi has been added to the space, and a large flat-screen monitor installed for presentations.

“The end game right now is to get people down here into the building,” Caprood said. “I think the perception among community members has been that it’s not OK to just walk into our building and engage with a reporter or editor. We’re trying to get rid of that mindset.”

Caprood said there is opportunity all around for the newspaper to become more involved as a facilitator of community engagement and problem-solving.

In May, the Troy Record will host a forum with the heads of local theater companies, facilitated by a Community Media Lab blogger who writes about the arts.

The newspaper is planning to open up its first floor on city Election Day for community members who want to watch the votes be tallied and participate in live-streamed commentary and reaction.

Tom Caprood is the Troy Record newsroom's digital specialist.

Caprood said the newspaper wants to be a resource for the growing number of neighborhood-specific organizations who are attempting to revitalize Troy.

Tonight is the monthly “Troy Night Out,” where businesses stay open late and art exhibits are hosted throughout the downtown.

And in a symbol of literally being more “open” than ever before, the newspaper is participating for the first time in the four-year history of the event. It will host a lecture and exhibit of photos taken in the aftermath of 9/11 by former Gov. George Pataki’s official photographer.

Tomorrow, the Troy Record newsroom is crowdsourcing an effort to document a citywide Earth Day cleanup. Neighborhood leaders are sending in “before and after” pictures and videos that will be mapped out on TroyRecord.Com as a display of what a community working together can accomplish in one day.

Murphy said that the good will these kind of outreach projects and creativity have generated for the paper has been significant.

“When I first got here as publisher, people asked about the newspaper like they were talking about a funeral because of our company’s recent bankruptcy and cutbacks over the years,” Murphy said. “Now it’s nothing but positive feedback for what we are doing for the community. The buzz has been terrific and it builds every month, and the result has been significantly larger audience for both our digital and print products.”

“People are noticing,” Caprood said.

Other newspapers attempting to figure out “community engagement” should take notice, too.

Why our small-town daily is adding a full-time curator

We’re adding a full-time curator position at The Register Citizen.

Jenny Golfin, whose duties have included morning shift web updating, social media management and reporting, will be devoted full-time to this new role. Her mission will be to provide our audience with links to breaking and comprehensive news and information relevant to their community and interests. Putting the reader first, she’ll link out to blogs, Twitter feeds, YouTube videos and even the work of our longest-standing “traditional” competitors, not just to content produced by our staff writers at The Register Citizen, or by sister Journal Register Company publications in Connecticut.

Why does a local paper our size need, and how does it justify, having a full-time curator on staff?

Well, 10 years ago, it was us, a competing daily newspaper a few towns to our south, a local radio station with a morning news report and the TV stations from Hartford and New Haven.

Scarcity of news sources. High demand for information. Let the good times roll.

Today, our audience turns to thousands of niche websites, blogs and online hyperlocal startups devoted to a single town, neighborhood or interest. Patch.com is arriving on the scene as big media (AOL)’s attempt to scale hyperlocal across a national footprint. The audience itself is now the biggest source of local information out there, equipped with mobile smart phones, free WordPress and Blogger accounts and YouTube logins.

And audience members’ connections to each other via Facebook, Twitter and other social media trump connections, if there are any, between audience member and legacy media brand.

In Torrington, we’ve established a Community Media Lab, partnering with local bloggers and niche online sites. Similar efforts across our sister publications have established a network of more than 1,000 citizen blogging partners across Journal Register Company.

We have computer workstations loaded with open-source blogging and video editing software in our open newsroom for citizen journalists and bloggers to use. We offer free classes and workshops in our newsroom classroom, including “Blogging 101” and how-to’s on social media, video production and journalism basics.

In December, we established a community engagement editor position, in part, to partner with and train bloggers and citizen journalists.

The curator position will help us share that work with our audience, and make sense of the exploding range of information sources out there. Jenny’s first assignment was to study the work of Andy Carvin, the NPR staffer who has provided some of the best coverage of the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya over the past few months in a very non-traditional way. Carvin has used his Twitter feed to curate the Tweets, Facebook posts, YouTube videos and blog posts of eyewitnesses in real time.

She’ll use tools such as lists and hashtags on Twitter and Google Reader and Google Alerts to find and present content relevant to Northwest Connecticut communities and to niche interests including moms from Litchfield County, local and statewide politics and local arts and entertainment.

Another goal of our new curator position will be to make sure that our original content contains links out to referenced and additional information. Failing to link remains a big failure of traditional print media, and we aim to fix it on our sites.

Journalism School of the Future: Where You Start On the Job and Never Graduate

In a great #wjchat hosted by Jay Rosen Wednesday night on “radicalism in the newsroom,” this question was posed:

“Are J-schools today part of the problem or solution? How should they change? Should something replace them?”

I’ve gotten a lot of questions about my answer, envisioning journalism schools that are “integrated into newsrooms, creating (a) continuous learning environment for the student and the experienced.”

In the old days, journalism schools prepared students “to be published” by news organizations that had authority because they owned printing presses, broadcast licenses and radio towers.

Today, everyone can be a publisher, and news organizations can range from a single-person kitchen table blogger to a crowdsourced network of otherwise disconnected and “unorganized” people coming together around a common purpose.

Every one of today’s journalism students has been published, and is in effect a publisher themselves, before attending a single day of class. That’s a strong argument for an “on-the-job learning” model similar to what is happening at the University of Missouri.

The same “everyone’s a publisher” reality argues for both newsrooms and journalism schools opening their doors to the community to be part of what Journal Register Company CEO John Paton is fond of calling “the new news ecology.”

Newsrooms should have a relationship with students pursuing journalism as a professional career. But they should also be teaching, and learning from, the soccer mom who blogs about every twist in debate over her school district’s new curriculum policy, the retired coach who maintains the world’s best statistical history of girls’ field hockey in Northwest Connecticut, the local United Way director who is blogging about the people behind the 24 nonprofits the group raises money for, and the resident who gets up every morning to test water quality in a local river and posts results on his website advocating for regional watershed protection.

We’re taking steps toward this at The Register Citizen Newsroom Cafe, launching one of Journal Register Company’s Community Media Labs for bloggers and citizen journalists, but also building a classroom right into the newsroom and offering free workshops for citizens, bloggers and staff.

But most important in relation to the most pressing issue for traditional media, newsrooms could use a journalism school environment themselves right now. As an industry, John Paton has said, “we’re no good” at migrating to a digital model. We have a lot of learning to do, at every level of our organizations.

So here’s my idea:

A traditional news organization should start – or merge with – a journalism school. Just a guess, but starting over would probably be easier from a pure P&L standpoint.

The Anytown News and Journalism School would employ professional reporters and editors, and journalism professors, and many who are doing both simultaneously or alternately.

They would accept students/apprentices into a formal work/study program. Instead of paying tuition, maybe these students would get paid to learn, and work.

It would be funded by creating an organization whose “student projects” are money-making, entrepreneurial journalism platforms.

But importantly (and different from any model I’ve heard about), every single full professional (or “journeyman” or “master” if you want to carry the traditional apprentice methodology of other trades) staff member would be required to continue their education, formally, until they resign or retire.

Student apprentices would graduate with a bachelor’s degree and a new title and pay grade. And then move into the next phase of their education and professional career.

This would provide a better journalism school experience, in my opinion, while opening the profession to a wider and more diverse population by making it affordable (we pay you instead of you paying tuition!). And it would create the world’s best formal staff training program, something we’d all be thinking about if we paid attention to the wisdom of Steve Buttry.

And why limit it to the newsroom?

Lord knows traditional media needs a new model for ad revenue. Why not bring business school professors, and students, and the community, and advertisers, into your finance and advertising departments, or mash up the whole thing a la Jeff Jarvis’ entrepreneurial journalism program?

Washington Post shows it values accuracy, audience engagement in step away from ‘fortress journalism’

The Washington Post made a huge statement yesterday about the accuracy of its reporting, engaging with its audience and building a stronger relationship of trust with its readers.

A link to this page – asking readers and sources to bring errors to editors’ attention – now appears on every online story the paper publishes.

We launched something similar – a “Fact Check” box on every story page on RegisterCitizen.Com – earlier this year.

The Washington Post goes much further, and hits all the right notes in seeking to engage with and learn from its audience. In addition to asking for a simple report on mistakes in a story, its form also asks, “What do we need to know to improve future stories on this topic?” It suggests that readers suggest “additional people to speak with, areas to explore, etc.”

The Washington Post corrections/fact check page even has a “yes/no” opt-in to the question, “Would you be willing to help with other stories?”, suggesting that the paper is building a foundation for future crowdsourcing efforts, perhaps by specific topic.

This is a huge symbolic shift, I hope, away from the “fortress journalism” that traditional media has clung to even as the web and social media have completely changed the audience dynamic out from under them.

And the fact that it comes from a Top 5 major American newspaper that has been criticized strongly for allowing “the print guys” to win must offer a glimmer of hope to new media thought leaders such as Jay Rosen, Craig Silverman and Craig Newmark, who have been beating the drum on fact checking and corrections for some time.