editor on the verge

Online musings from the newsroom and beyond . . . by Yoni Greenbaum

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Not quite a blog post, but still worth a read

September 14th, 2008 · 2 Comments

I thought I would share this address that I gave at the Bi-Co Boot Camp at Bryn Mawr College. The event was a gathering of students from both Bryn Mawr and Haverford College who work, or are interested in working at the student newspaper, the Bi-College News. I was invited by Dave Merrell, a former editor of the newspaper and a recent intern at Philly.com. Feel free to share you comments, questions or thoughts.

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Bi-Co Boot Camp, September 13, 2008, By: Yoni Greenbaum ©2008

Thanks, Andrea for that introduction and thank you all for this opportunity to speak with you today.

Now some of you might laugh, especially since we just met, but the truth is I already owe you an apology. I know that may be hard to believe, but it actually gets worse, because not only do I owe you one but so do my colleagues at newspapers throughout the country.

As you all know the newspaper industry is in horrible shape. Circulation is declining, advertising is disappearing, revenue is shrinking, the news just isn’t good. But all of this didn’t just suddenly – happen. These problems didn’t just materialize overnight. Frankly, some of them didn’t have to occur at all.

Somewhere along the way we dropped the ball, we screwed the pooch, we lost sight of the goal line, hell, we just blew it.

As publishers, editors and department heads, many of us were arrogant, ignorant or just plain lazy. We thought that we knew what was best for our readers and, all too often, ignored their complaints, their requests, their suggestions and even their compliments. We thought we were immune to the economic problems that were sweeping the country and failed to adjust our spending and our budgets. We thought technology such as the Internet, Mobile and Digital Media were niches and not areas we needed to address. When it came to too many issues we were content to say not us. And, as a result, we individually and cumulatively allowed these problems to develop and grow.

And to make matters worse, reporters, copy editors and other employees sat by and watched. Sure they grumbled, they might have even complained to their co-workers, but too few took a stand, too few tried to do anything so they too share some of responsibility.

So while you might not hear it from the likes of Gary Pruitt or Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., and I can’t promise anything for certain from my colleagues, let me, Yoni Greenbaum, apologize for everything that I did do and, more importantly, everything that I didn’t do. I am truly sorry, you deserved better.

Thanks. Thanks for letting me say that. I meant it, I am sorry. I am not however one of those who believe that as an industry we are doomed that our institutions are lost and that it is only a matter of time before I and thousands of others are out of work. Actually I think this is an extremely exciting time to be working in newspapers. And to be honest, I think that the answers we need will come from people like you. Not that I’m trying to put any pressure on you, but I really believe that you can save this industry and skills and drive that you will need you are getting by working at your campus publication.

I’m not kidding and I’m getting paid by Dave for saying that.

Throughout my career I’ve been fortunate to have worked at some great newspapers and to have learned from some really talented people. Sure those experiences have helped to shape the type of journalist that I am today. But you know, when I think about it, it was not the Pulitzer Prize-winning writers, the reporting abroad opportunities or the awards that have had the biggest, longest-lasting impact on me. Actually, the experience I find myself most often reflecting on was the years that I spent at my college newspaper.

See, in 1992 I was making my second go at college and was working at my campus’s newspaper. The Beacon at William Paterson University, one of New Jersey’s state schools, was, at the time, your typical student-run weekly newspaper. We had about a dozen students who served as editors, reporters and photographers and who handled ad sales, billing and receiving. Production was a cut and paste operation involving lots of razor blades and hot wax – I’ll skip the S&M jokes. We typically started assembling an issue at 5 p.m. and ended in the wee hours of the next morning at which point a staff member would drive the boards over to the printer and everyone would head over to the local diner for coffee and disco fries.

We were a passionate and dedicated bunch. A mix of stoners, skaters, geeks and outcasts. None of us were making any real money – certainly not the student government association which technically oversaw the operation of the paper. With very little guidance or support from our school we tried our best to improve and grow. We read the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal and dreamed of the big leagues. We looked at our local newspapers and said “if they could do it, why can’t we.” So we decided to evolve.

We used some of the money that was in our club account and purchased new computers, a server and best of all, a large format printer. Suddenly, production went from pasting together multiple pieces to hitting print. Instead of taking all night, production now took a few hours. We purchased newspaper boxes and placed them not just on campus, but in the surrounding communities. We created a media kit to get better advertising and redesigned the office, even going as far as to hire a receptionist. Suddenly we were feeling like a “real” weekly newspaper. Now in hindsight I’ll admit that the writing sucked and the layout was boring and for some of us, working at the paper was more of an excuse to miss class then to develop our journalism skills. But at that time, we thought we were cutting edge.

I remember at one point we tried to sell our newspaper to one of the local newspaper companies that at the time was owned by Dean Singleton, CEO of Media General. I know, we didn’t even technically own the newspaper to be able to sell it, but our thinking was that the daily could use it like their minor league team and as a result, how a steady flow of reporters, photographers and copy editors to hire upon graduation.

Long story short, the sale didn’t happen, but what I remember from those meetings is that we were paginated and they weren’t. We had new distribution boxes and a circulation strategy based on census data and they didn’t. At that moment, we sure as heck didn’t feel like your typical student newspaper. I think that experience made us all believe that we could do anything. So we tried many things and in the end some failed but others worked. We made money, actually a lot of money. We got taken seriously by the local press and, in the end I made connections that resulted in first job at a daily.

In the years that have passed since my college days, I have relied on that “do anything” or “try anything” spirit at each job I’ve had. It was behind my decision to try the Nextel two-way radios that enabled my staff to effectively report from ground zero when the cell networks went down; it provided me with the confidence to ask for cell cards and laptops longs before they were popular; and it gave me the guts to send reporters to a variety of locals including Baghdad right after the U.S. led invasion.

I share those examples with you knowing full well that they pale in comparison to what each of you would offer a newspaper or media company given the chance.

For example raise your hand if you send text messages.

As I thought.

Would you believe that I’ve encountered editors who won’t let their staff’s use text messaging because they don’t like it?

There are editors and publishers who still don’t have broadband Internet access in their homes; who don’t know how to setup voicemail and who can’t even open email attachments. And we wonder why they can’t get us out of the mess that we’re in.

But as I said previously, I don’t believe all is lost. There are newspaper companies where the staffs are fighting for a future. Places that “get it.” Places where people with your skills would be welcomed.

I think Philly.com is one of those places and, not just because I work there.

Before joining the philly.com team some six months ago, I had a choice, go back to the newsroom and lead the fight for survival or join an outfit that was taking an ambitious and decidedly different approach. Having always straddled the online and the print worlds I saw philly.com’s graying of that line as exciting, as a chance for me to combine my two passions and skill sets and, frankly, an opportunity for me to help create a model for the rest of the industry.

Philly.com is more then just a website for the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News. We are not, like you see at so many newspapers, an adjunct to the newsroom – a group of poorly dressed people sequestered in a corner of the newsroom or holed-up in a former janitor’s closet.

If anything, we are more dot com.

Our offices are not even in the same building as the two newspapers, but on the 35th floor of a Center City building that features panoramic views. In moving to our new location, something that we did bout four months ago, we combined an operation that was stretched out among eight different floors. Now, content, tech, sales, and biz dev can all work together and that is important because our job, the job of philly.com is not to right wrongs or win awards, but to grow as a website and, most of all, to make money.

So, we consider anything. We don’t believe we have all the answers. We pay an ever increasing amount attention to our visitors and advertisers. We frequently ask them how we are doing and what can we do different, what can we do better?

All of our employees have a say. And by all I really mean all even interns. We explore new technologies and new approaches. We try something and if it works, we stick with it and if it doesn’t we move on.

Additionally, we believe in a personal touch. While you can look at the homepage of nytimes.com and washingtonpost.com and see lots of automated headline lists, at philly.com nearly everything that appears on our homepage is there because a member of my team has chosen it to be there.

And as part of that, metrics rule. At least every 30 minutes we are looking at our stats and seeing what is doing well, what is doing poorly. What is rising and what is falling. And we use that data along with our journalistic sense to then power our decisions.

In addition we’ve embraced video and not just news video. Philly.com now produces three daily shows and half a dozen weekly shows. Our videos are viewed nearly 300,000 times a month.

We’re launching new products including a new music site, a site for sports fans, others online products.

I think we have a good strategy. Our traffic is growing, this month alone we’re looking at more then 40 million page views and 4.2 million unique visitors and online revenue is up.

But the truth is we can’t do it alone. Those companies that are going to survive this period, including philly.com, who have embraced the Internet and who see technology as a salvation and not a distraction need individuals like yourselves. I hope you recognize how much we look forward to working with you. Ultimately, the future of our industry rests in your hands.

So please, don’t believe the naysayers and continue the fight to help newspapers survive and thrive. And check out philly.com and let me know what you think my email is on the site, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Thank you.

Tags: Careers · Editor on the verge · Editor on the Verge · Editors · Education · Industry · Leadership · Online

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Impassioned pleas for newspapers « Ink-Drained Kvetch // Sep 15, 2008 at 11:44 am

    [...] newspapers — Wendy @ 11:44 am Tags: convergence Philly.com executive producer Yoni Greenbaum offers an apology to students and potential journalists about the state of the newspaper industry: Somewhere along [...]

  • 2 The Bi-College News Online » Blog Archive » Off the Record: Boot Camp Debriefing // Sep 17, 2008 at 12:40 pm

    [...] thanks to the Editorial Board for all their help pulling this event together, to Yoni Greenbaum for perhaps the most entertaining speech in Boot Camp history, and a very special thanks to Isabel Clark, for stepping up big time when The Bi-Co News needed her [...]

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