Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The new world of journalism -- if Rob Curley is right, it will take coffee, shoe leather and genuine love of the stories that make communities live

I wish I could be twenty again.

Not for the reason you're thinking. I wish I could be twenty again because I wish I was fresh faced, full of energy, and entering this brave new world of journalism.

You just did a double-take, which I understand. Old curmudgeons with decades of ink in their veins aren't supposed to be excited about the brave new world of their profession. But last weekend I had the opportunity to hear Rob Curley, chief content officer at the Las Vegas Sun, speak and I was jazzed.

Curley won my attention early by comparing the approach many journalists and journalism teachers take to the old-school approach of baseball purists to the world of statistics. He advocated applying the principles of Bill James to the world of journalism, in other words, he advocated a world based on knowing as opposed to a world based on mythology.

At the Las Vegas Sun, knowing means using data to understand precisely what readers are reading and to tailor journalism to fit their needs.

The example that sticks involves headlines on the Sun Web page. The newsroom keeps tabs on its Web stories on a big, real-time, electronic board. The board tells staffers exactly how many people are reading a story at any time. If they have a story they know deserves an audience, they keep rewriting the headline all day until they hit “the sweet spot” and readership grows.

This is a wonderful idea to a writer. The story is, in this case, not static. It’s dynamic. It exists for more than 24 hours. And somebody cares about who reads it. Somebody works on getting it to an audience.

But, you can also back up from the headline to the story and the reporting. The emphasis, Curley says, is on relevance at the Sun. It’s on meeting the readers' needs. I have preached this in my classes since the day 20-some years ago that I became a teacher. “What does the audience need us to do?” is the mantra. Right. Exactly right. Think about the audience first and last.

The test he likes to give reporters? “Would YOU read this story?” Then, “Would your mother read this story, if your byline wasn’t on it?”

And the Sun, he says, is about two really important goals, goals traditional journalists might find too chauvinistic but I think are just right. The first goal is building a sense of community. He says this is particularly important in Las Vegas, but I think it’s important everywhere. The second is to protect the community. Again, I agree, even though the traditional reporter in me feels a bit queasy about the idea.

He told his audience about the working life of a reporter at the Sun. That’s when I really got excited. He talked about reporters being everywhere, but especially on the street, especially not at their desks working the phones. The paper uses technology to show the readers where the reporters are in the city at any given moment. By my calculation, a reporter typically files five to 10 stories a day at the Sun.

I began to wonder how my students would fare in that environment. Some would flourish but, to be honest, many would not survive the first morning. I don’t think they intend to work that hard once they graduate. They’ve been conditioned by too many sit-coms, too many beer commercials, to see work as a place of cubicles where you play basketball with waste cans and break out the Bud-whatever for spontaneous parties. Boy, will they be surprised.

One student – who is absolutely among the few I think will flourish in that environment – asked, “Well, don’t you think once we graduate and we don’t have to work part-time jobs and do homework, that we will be more able to handle the work?”

No, actually, I don’t. I say that with all due respect. Journalism, especially the journalism of the future, is not a click and paste world. It’s not about Control-C, Control-V. If Rob Curley is right, it’s about shoe leather and gumption, lots of energy, and a sincere interest in people and their communities. I like that. She will, too, if she gets the chance. So will a couple of others. The rest are in for a shock.

Oh, to be twenty again. Maybe I'm the one who should be applying for a job at the Sun... It's about time I had a real job.


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