Silicon Valley Watcher - Former FT journalist Tom Foremski reporting from the intersection of technology and media

NewspaperRX: A radical medicine is called for

Posted by Richard Koman - May 30, 2007

John Batelle wrote this yesterday:

Up until recently, the Chronicle had 400 journalists working at the paper. FOUR HUNDRED! When I wrote for the LA Times, I often wrote two stories a day. Is the Chronicle pumping out 800 stories a day? Is it breaking all sorts of amazing stories and being a leader in the community with those 400 journalists? Hell no! 400 reporters and what is the paper DOING with them? Not much, I'm afraid. The paper should OWN the Valley Tech story. Does it? No. It should OWN the biotech story. Does it? No. It should OWN the real estate/development story. Does it? No. It should OWN the California political story. Does it? No!

Why? Well, maybe it has THE WRONG 400 journalists working for it?! And the wrong tone/approach/structure? Just maybe?

I'm not sure the Chron has the wrong journalists working for it. I would argue it has much more to do with approach and structure. But, ultimately, it may have to do with a basic fact no one can escape: putting ink on paper is no longer the appropriate way to do news.

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In newspapering there is a choice. Either you are in the Bob Woodward camp - the reader should pick up the paper every day and exlaim, "Holy shit!" - or the USA Today camp - the paper should make you feel warm and fuzzy. The Chron is clearly in the latter camp.

What would a newspaper look like if it dropped the hierarchical structure of reporters-sr. reporters-copy editors-editors-managing editors-editor in chief? Thinking about the Chron's piece on James Currier this morning, what if newspapers were run like Ooga Labs?

The small staff is organized into two-person speed teams, each pair an engineer and designer, who are the only employees working on one of the five businesses. They sit side by side in an open pit in Ooga Labs' Financial District office so people can get to know one another and what everyone is working on.

What if newspaper writing could be more like blog writing? What if it didn't have to be third-person, inverted pyramid, what if writers didn't have to refer to themselves in the story as "a reporter"? What if business reporters could quote people other than Wall Street analysts? What if Mike Arrington were considered a go-to source?

What if newspapers weren't afraid of saying when a bunch of facts add up to an obvious truth? As in, Al Gonzales is lying. Larry Ellison is a son-of-a-bitch. Google shouldn't be trusted with your data.

There was a day when newspapers were wild and wooly affairs, highly partisan, seeking out controversy, willing to make stories happen. Fremont Older was a newspaper editor who exposed graft in San Francisco at the turn of the century. He was not above paying for a source to stay at an undisclosed location and plastering something close to this in the morning paper: "The Bulletin has first-hand information that the mayor was involved in last night's murder. If the mayor doesn't come to our offices by 2pm today to explain, we will print all in tomorrow's paper."

Maybe that's not quite appropriate these days, but newspapers have forgotten how to sell papers. But consider this quote from Mike Arrington: "If I say outrageous things that are more controversial, I make more money." That is a sentiment William Randolph carried close to his cold heart. It is one very far from the way today's Hearst-owned Chronicle operates.

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The Holmes Report names Tom Foremski one of the top 25 Innovators of 2013.




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