A debutante’s tea party: dinner

“Journalism in the digital age: Lessons learned by leaving the newsroom.”

Janet Coates, a 1984 Mizzou grad and former Executive Editor at the “Tampa Tribune,” shared her thoughts on where she sees the future of journalism in a talk on Sept. 3.

After 25 years as a reporter and editor, she left the “Tribune” in Dec. 2009 and is currently working to push journalism in her personal universe into the digital age.  As she has said in many interviews, “journalism is worth fighting for.”

Her first point – and question for those in positions of power – was to take a critical look at which industry norms held inherent worth.  The digital future is the boat we’re loading, and we can take with us whatever we need from the shores of print.  She emphasized that the industry has to keep a sharp focus on the distinction between values and practices.

There is no room for comforts and conveniences of a past age in the digital future.  Keep the meritorious values, lose the outdated practices.

Coates argues that legacy media’s most important contribution to the digital age lies in the network of connections formed in the print industry and the transparency the journalism still harbors.

Despite sliding public opinion, journalists are still required to do 6th grade math.  We still “show our work.”  Many bloggers don’t have original reporting in their posts; the public can only track an idea to a certain extent.

Any worthy piece of journalism has sources, the currency of credibility and the precursor to trust.

Despite fears surrounding the demise of the entire print medium, magazines and newspapers have a tangible advantage over television and radio.

People still enjoy holding what they read.  E-readers are great, but print media need to focus on keeping their content high-quality while simultaneously exploring options to replace the ad-based revenue model.  It’s not working.

“News is a conversation, not a lecture,” Coates said.  “We need to focus on innovation.  Let’s think smart, use existing technologies in better, more efficient means.”

“We’re trying to put together a banquet,” she said, “but we realize we have to start with McNuggets.”  I don’t care for McDonald’s or McD’s comparisons, but she’s absolutely correct.  Print media need to look at how they can engage readers through multiple, dynamic avenues.

Still, Coates believes print media is sitting on the high ground in comparison with TV.  Remember the tangibility reference?  Television is neither as mobile nor as flexible as print media.  Television is television.

What’s happened to print in the past few years will “look like a debutante’s tea party compared to what’s coming for television,” Coates said, citing no Olympics and no election races to float the numbers.

Coates also argued that print media should realize that the competition is the clock, not each other.  My question to her was whether or not the people in power would buy in to this enormous paradigm shift.

She responded that some of her contacts in the industry still hold faith that the trends of today are headed for a turn around, a relapse into the yesteryear of 40 percent margins.  Coates saw this year’s slight rebound as a precursor to a longer, harder fall.

“You can throw a dead cat and it will still bounce a few times before it finally comes to rest for good.”  She admitted that it may realistically be a situation where the old guard in the industry has to turnover.

In a Northwestern University Media Management Center study, the publishers, editors and managing editors constituted 5 percent of the composite.

Among the study’s recommendations: “leaders should encourage all employees to use downtime to edit video, tweet, upload mobile photos to Facebook pages and otherwise keep current in online trends.”

Hopefully industry leaders who haven’t figured out what’s going on will heed the gospel Coates and others are preaching.

Katharine Weymouth, publisher of the Washington Post, is on board.

“We have to have a smaller cost structure and experiment with new platforms” such as iPhones and podcasts, she said in a May 2010 interview with Karen Dunlap, president of the Poynter Institute.

Some people in high places do understand, but it’s a matter of volume. One person can change the world, but this is a revolution, and we need an army.

To be continued tomorrow.

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