Five things haunting our industry, and how we can exorcise our demons

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Reprinted from GateHouse Newsroom

Here's the deal: Newsrooms across the industry are more squeezed than ever, and that is not going to change in the foreseeable future. Indeed, it's almost a sure thing that we will see additional downsizing as we figure out how to replace declining print revenue with various digital revenue streams.

It's the nightmare that haunts us as we try to fulfill our mission as indispensable news gatherers for the communities that depend on us. And there are no silver bullets to kill the "reality" werewolf that we sometimes feel breathing down our necks.

So what are frightened editors and their staffs to do? In the spirit of the Halloween season, here are five demons haunting our newsrooms, and some suggestions for how to exorcise them.

1)    Demon No. 1: Our staffs are sometimes paralyzed by fear of the unknown.

First, we need to acknowledge that those fears are legitimate. Downsizing has happened industry-wide and will likely occur again. The workload to the individual reporter or editor is greater than it used to be. These are morale killers, and they can keep us from thinking about what needs to be done to improve the future. Attack this demon with a dose of honesty combined with a request for help. Yes, the future can look bleak. That's a reality. But that also means that now, more than ever, we need everyone to get involved. Repeat that request as often as you can.


2)    Demon No. 2: All the "change" we've encountered in recent years has kept us from focusing on our news-gathering mission.

Hopefully, everyone agrees by now that the newsroom of the present and future is digital-first. But that has meant learning to use new tools, adjusting workflow, focusing on new metrics and so on. That can distract us from our real mission, which is to go out and find news. This may sound too simple, but attack this demon by focusing the staff on "big" stories. Yes, we need to feed the daily beast. But don't let that get in the way of the hunt for enterprise stories that can right wrongs or expose wrongdoing, or lead to good changes in the communities we serve. The Sarasota Herald-Tribune is the gold standard for focusing on the big stories, and they have a 2015 Pulitzer to show for it. It's an approach to emulate.


3)    Demon No. 3: How can we create a good newsroom structure when we are constantly shrinking?

Back in April, I came back from the GateHouse editors conference and began an effort to restructure our newsroom so we could meet our digital goals and focus our energy on more enterprise. In the middle of that effort we lost multiple positions in our newsroom. That obviously impacted our restructuring efforts. The way to tame this demon is to adjust. Adjust, and adjust, and adjust again. But keep the focus on the newsroom's main goals, the most important goal being great journalism.


4)    Demon No. 4: We just have too much to do.

Guess what? You're right; your newsroom does have too much to do. As newsrooms have shrunk, most of them are performing as many tasks as they did five or even 10 years ago. Killing this demon requires figuring out what you can "stop doing." That's no easy task, and The Daytona Beach News-Journal newsroom is grappling with this one as well. Start by looking for low-hanging fruit. Is there a meeting that can be eliminated, or a paperwork task that no longer needs doing? Next, look at your products and determine whether they're all generating revenue, or are truly valuable to your readers. Finally, examine your beat structure for topics that aren't important to your readers. It's not easy to stop doing something, but it can be done.


5)    Demon No. 5: We can't build a bridge because we're so focused on the past and the present.

It's true that we spend too much time thinking about the good old days, or lamenting present challenges. To put a stake through this demon's heart, do two things. First, keep in mind that what we do for our communities is absolutely vital, and there is more demand for professionally gathered local news than ever before. Secondly, harness all that great talent in your newsroom. At The News-Journal, we are blessed with reporters who are digitally savvy and eager to go after the "big" stories in the communities we cover. We're also fortunate to have a deep bench of veterans with exceptional skills. When all that talent is focused on finding important news and telling our readers about it, then the future looks much better.

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