At the centre of things: John Juliano on opening up publishing

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The wall between the public and the media organisation has changed to a wire mesh fence and at some organisations, customers are invited into the newsroom and editorial meeting (writes John Juliano).

The newspaper industry has increasingly lost its place as the centre of the community where news was reported and public discourse took place. By concentrating on returning to being the centre of the community, our industry stays relevant, engaged and profitable.

Despite the phone hacking scandal, where the morals associated with news gathering in some quarters has been poor, we remain a trusted source for news. The facts of what were reported have never been questioned. As the internet population became exposed to the freewheeling ability of anyone with an internet connection to blog, the population temporarily lost its way and gave bloggers the same validity as seasoned, trusted and vetted professionals. Within a remarkably short time the world returned to professional media outlets for trusted news reporting.

But in that interim, the relationship between the news organisation and its customers was changing. The single channel for discourse between the publication and its customers, letters to the editor, expanded to comments on every article. While in many publications it was customary for journalists to respond to individual letters, it is becoming increasingly common to expect journalists to respond to public comment.

The wall between the public and the media organisation has changed to a wire mesh fence and at some organisations, customers are invited into the newsroom and editorial meeting.

Concurrent with expecting customers to give feedback is the dramatic drop in media organisation staffing. While we have seen self-reliant newspapers reduced to little more than bureaus in the effort to reduce costs, we have also seen the same drop in news gatherers. The logic behind centralising non-market specific operations, such as copyediting, inside sales and web design can be clearly justified as savings through centralisation. Dwindling reporting staff is difficult to justify.

News organisations are trustworthy sources of information because of their pedigree, history and ability to report on stories that can be found nowhere else. It is the value of the unique and trustworthy reporting that give news organisations their potential place in society.

During the years of uncertainty when we couldn’t see how we were to remain both profitable and relevant, we oftentimes lost our place within our community. At least one newspaper in the southwestern United States was shocked to find that a strong percentage of its city’s residents didn’t know they existed.

We find ourselves in an interesting confluence: We must reclaim our place as the centre of our community and our market, we must do so with far smaller operating budgets, commensurate – and sometimes more than commensurate – reductions in reporting staff, and a community of customers who expect to be heard.

These customers are as technically savvy, on the whole, as we are. They know how to use technology to access our product and make their voices heard. And, they use even more sophisticated technology in their day-to-day lives.

Inviting customers to editorial meetings and into the newsroom gathers only those individuals whose lifestyle accommodates that behaviour. It does not increase the amount of coverage, nor does it direct that coverage to the customer community at large.

Our value in our communities is not solely in our ability to gather news; in fact, one might argue gathering news is the small part of our value. Our value is in the curation of news: prioritisation of stories to match our community’s interest, vetting of content for accuracy, and culling from the fire hose of potential stories that reach us through our many news associations.

Our traditional value, which in most communities has completely disappeared, is as the centre of public discourse: Hosting local debates, sponsoring speakers and other live activities that were attended by our customers.

If we change our goals from attaining recipients for the content we broadcast to active participants in a dialogue, comments about our articles are insufficient. If we move ourselves into the centre of our communities, where we become the place where our community comes to learn about itself, and concentrate on this role, both advertisers and customers will follow.

It’s little surprise to any of us reading this, that the steps to success are a combination of self-promotion, technology and timeliness. We will build our success upon the three pillars of engagement, relevance and profitability.

Relevance and timeliness can come from the ability of our users to gather news. Technology makes every customer a potential reporter, if they are encouraged to do so. This takes promotion on the part of the news organisation and its advertisers. Yes, this can potentially open yet another fire hose of stories that may or may not be usable. It is in fact no different than any other feed: Only the barest percentage of stories will be able to be run, and as we would never accept an anonymous story through any other source, anonymous stories cannot be run here either. At my company, we have developed a product to gather news from customers.

The major enticement of this news source is that the stories are unique to your media outlet.

Everyone reading this article commonly attends meetings with perhaps hundreds of attendees in which we engage in discourse without ever leaving our office. The application of the common webinar to the political issues of our community transforms us from a second source of news to the source of news: This was our community role.

Once we look at technology in the hands of our readers blurring the line between news consumer and news reporter we can allow our average customer to steer the direction of our coverage.

Where do we run all of these stories? Like it or not, the ‘digital dimes versus paper dollars’ is a very real ratio that we must work with. We must have enough content through our digital channels to support the necessary number of views for us to attain the revenue we need.

This time in our industry’s history is an exciting time. The value of our product is being re-understood, the technology exists to economically distribute and gather content. Our customers have a thirst for our product and the readily accessible tools with which to consume it.

Through engagement, we regain our place in the centre of our community and our market where we demonstrate our relevancy and retain our profitability.

Newspaper systems industry veteran John Juliano writes regularly for GXpress Magazine, Contact him at john@jjcs.com

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