If you only read one story in the New York Times this month, read this one from the paper’s August 10 issue. That’s true especially if you’re wondering about the changing state of journalism in the U.S. It has insight for journalists, the folks like me who work with them and everyone else who reads, watches and listens to what news outlets produce for our collective consumption.
The story’s author, David Carr, is one of the papers more interesting writers, not just because he’s lived a life with more than its share of ups and downs, but because he’s such a good storyteller. I’ve never met David Carr and it’s doubtful I would ever have the occasion to pitch him a story idea. I just like what he writes for one reason — I always learn something.
In this story, Carr wrote about how his New York Times colleague Brian Stelter used his Twitter feed as a way to gather details about how people were getting around NBC’s refusal to broadcast live coverage of the Olympic Opening Ceremonies for its American audience. Stelter solicited his Twitter followers for information (I was one) and turned that into a blog post.
As Carr tells it, Stelter’s editors liked the blog post enough, they asked Stelter to convert the post into a story for the paper. Stelter’s story was front page news at the Gray Lady. Not bad for a 20-something blogger in his first job out of college.
Stelter is not the only reporter I’ve encountered on Twitter or other social media. Emi Endo at Newsday, Andrew Feinberg with Communications Daily and Etan Horowitz of the Orlando Sentinel have all contacted me via Twitter for stories they’ve worked on. The journalists I follow via Twitter let me know what kind of stories they’re working on via their updates to the site, known as “tweets”. By reading them, I can then easily assess if I can help.
My pitch to them better be succinct — I’ve only got 140 characters. (The sentence you just read was 72 characters, BTW.) I better not spam them, or they can block me from viewing their Twitter feed.
Sound extreme? Not really.
A few weeks ago a reporter at the Washington Post told me that the average reader of the Washingtonpost.com will view a story for about 8 seconds before moving on. She also said that the average NYTimes.com visitor will stay a little longer — about 30 seconds — before going to another page on the site. These reporters are facing incredible pressure to produce stories that people find useful, insightful and well written. Come to think of it, that’s about how long I would skim a print edition of these papers to find the content I’m interested in.
Stelter and his colleagues mentioned above have recognized that the world of Web 2.0 can help them produce better stories with more information and more insight than they could have produced in the pre-New media world.
While I understand that there is much hand-wringing in newsrooms about the declining circulation numbers of print editions and bewilderment with the booming readership of dot.com news outlets, I say everyone needs to calm down and take a deep breath.
What you’re facing is the same thing that’s happening in telecom where I earn my living. The nation’s landline phone companies continually report a decline in subscribers while the wireless industry continues to grow. Just because the traditional rotary dial phone which use to hang on the kitchen wall in my parents’ house doesn’t hang there any more, doesn’t mean the people are no longer interested in telephones. They just want to communicate in a different way.
Our challenge in telecom is the same one facing newsrooms: giving consumers what they want in an affordable and compelling package.
I think American journalism is up to the task, but there has to be an acknowledgement that the world of what once was will never return again. Then you can embrace change.