Saying Goodbye To Thanksgivings With Newspapers

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Thanksgiving at my house in White Plains wasn’t just the day that you could hear the trumpets and trombones warming up at the old stadium for the annual high school football game, or when grandmothers and grandfathers from both sides, aunts and uncles and cousins showed up for Mom’s turkey feast. It also was the day that the Reporter Dispatch thumped onto the driveway, a holiday newspaper stuffed with advertisements and inserts.

It’s still that way in some communities. But the ad-stocked Thanksgiving newspaper just like the daily newspaper itself is — in the parlance of the day — a content dissemination platform whose time is fast coming to an end. 

Earlier this month IBM Global Business Services published a study based on an extensive survey of 2,400 consumers and 80 advertising executives that predicted 30 percent of the advertising revenue now being spent on traditional media — particularly television and print — will shift online in the next five years. Advertisers, aware of the ability of consumers to get what they want when they want it on the Web, also want their products placed where the consumers are. Advertisers look online to platforms and techniques that enable them to see what’s actually happening in click throughs, time spent on Web sites, time spent viewing and reading, the analytics that mainstream media can’t provide.

As a writer and public policy specialist who made the transition to online journalism and communications in 1998, none of IBM’s findings are surprising. They just confirm what is happening in my world. I spend much more time online working, reading, viewing, communicating, learning, and being entertained than I ever did with any other media. I earn my living reporting and editing online. I’ve developed a nice consultancy building the online capacity of individuals and organizations.  My wife is enrolled in online college courses. My kids spend almost all their free time online, and a lot of time besides that. 

But it’s also hard to watch daily newspapers, truly great civic institutions, get hammered by the online transition. What this means for civil society is still playing out. I see it as an opportunity and not a civic tragedy. Still, the near certainty of a day fast approaching when daily newspapers cease to be is producing painful career uncertainty for my friends in the business. Some have joined the thousands who’ve been bought out, laid off, dismissed, and forgotten all over the country. 

Nancy Nall Derringer, who spent 25 years as a daily reporter, 19 of them as an editor and columnist in Indiana for the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, published an essay last year that is among the most perceptive pieces on the subject that I’ve read. Nancy is a newspaper refugee. She lives in Grosse Pointe Woods, Michigan, where she freelances. Her husband, Alan Derringer, is an editor with the Detroit News

 “I think about someone else I’ve been paying attention to lately,” Nancy writes at the essay’s end, “a young Fort Wayne native, Nathan Gotsch. In late spring of 2005, he started a weblog he called Fort Wayne Media Notes. A few months later he changed the name to Fort Wayne Observed (now edited by Mitch Harper) and widened the focus accordingly. Like most blogs, he started out slow and tentative, linking to published reports and adding a few comments. Soon, though, he was finding and breaking stories – not every day, but often enough that you wanted to check the site daily, just in case. He had a fresh and clear writing style, an eye for a story and obviously knew how to cultivate sources. Plainly, he understood the Internet. And he was unemployed, in the ebb tide after college graduation. In other words, he was the sort of bright young man a newspaper editor should be wooing with candy and flowers. It so happens that as a film school grad, Gotsch was more interested in making movies in Hollywood than journalism in Fort Wayne.”

New Midwest Online News Entry

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John Bebow, an active member of the association of newsies-who-became-public-interest-advocates, sent an interesting item in his weekly email alert about the emergence of online news organizations in the Midwest. John diverged from a decorated daily news career,  that included stops at the Detroit News and Chicago Tribune, to become the executive director of the Center For Michigan, a nearly two-year-old non-profit that focuses on state economic and competitiveness issues that was founded by Phil Powers, the founder and former owner of a successful chain of newspapers in southern Michigan.

Mr. Bebow notes that “traditional newspaper newsrooms continue to shrivel. In Michigan this year, the Booth papers closed their Lansing bureau. Gannett papers in cities ranging from Battle Creek to Detroit are cutting staffs with buyouts and, in some cases, layoffs. And Detroit News Business Editor Mark Truby, widely respected as one of the very best journalists in the state, left for a corporate job at Ford and, in the process, became the latest in a long line of veteran journalists (including your newsletter author) to leave newsrooms for other opportunities. In the face of these declines in traditional media, new kinds of journalism — funded by philanthropy — are cropping up all over the place. Michigan is ripe with great stories waiting to be told and meaty issues deserving of in-depth coverage. Journalism funded by philanthropy is a great hope for the future of public discourse in Michigan.”

Part of John’s post is personally satisfying. Of the five independent online news organizations he cited, I’ve been deeply involved in two, the Michigan Land Use Institute and Circle of Blue, both based in Traverse City. They reflect the ability of talented journalists, editors, producers, and graphic designers to make the complex simple — land use and economic policy in the Institute’s case, the global freshwater crisis for Circle of Blue — and produce consistently compelling work that is reaching large audiences. The 21st break-up of mass — mass media, mass audiences, mass marketing — has opened the opportunity for news organizations to be small, nimble, very good, attract significant numbers of visitors, have influence, and be financially successful. 

The other side of that trend, of course, is that the large news organizations of the 20th century, designed to reach the masses, are struggling to develop the new business model. 

The New York Times, which literally shrunk the size of the pages of its print edition a few months ago, is likely to survive as a global news organization because it is great, and it is building an exceptional Web presence that attracts seven or eight times more readers to its online report than its print newspaper. But it’s only a matter of time, probably sooner than later, before the Times decides that all that infrastructure — forests, paper plants, printing plants, delivery trucks and the rest — needed to deliver a paper edition to roughly 1 million readers a day is just not worth the trouble. About 20 percent of what I write for the Times now heads to what editors call the “web-only”  report. 

Regional daily newspapers and many general interest magazines, though, may not survive in print or online. The cost of maintaining 50 or 100-member newsrooms at roughly $100,000 a person (including taxes and benefits) is just too high.

The other intriguing portion of John’s alert concerned a number of prominent old-school journalists in Minneapolis who say they’ve raised over $1.2 million to open Minnpost.com, a new online daily set up as a non-profit.  The roster of staff and contributors numbers 45 people. Though just a handful are full or part-time payroll employees, and the rest freelancers who will earn from $100 to $600 per piece, that looks to me like a sizable weekly and monthly churn. I have no doubt that what Minnpost.com publishes will be useful. Journalists love adventure and challenge and Minnpost.com is both. I wish the group great success. 

But as an observer of new models I have a question. Will this distinctive mixing of strategies — large numbers of reporters seeking to succeed financially in an online news world that rewards compact newsrooms — survive? And if it does, will Minnpost.com have invented something important for readers and their communities?

The new online journalism models that have been successful — Grist, Alternet, MLUI, Sightline, MetroMode, Truth DigTalking Points Memo, Newwest.net, Voice of San Diego, and others — thrived because they were good and small. A few editors, a small number of journalists, a graphic designer or two, a Web producer, a multi-media producer. That is especially important for the online non-profits because attracting donors and foundations is hard work. Though foundations say they admire communications, and call on their grantees to pay attention to what they say and how they say it, grants for communications are some of the toughest money to find. The measurements of success, as defined by philanthropies and donors, can be murky. Is it readership, page views, changes in policy? 

One small news operation that became large is Slate, which operates on a profit model, is owned by the Washington Post, has 59 editorial staff members, and was fortunate to have Bill Gates’ money to get started in 1996.

I don’t know of any independents, especially a startup online non-profit daiy news operation set to launch on November 8, that ever had as many journalists ready to go as Minnpost. com. It is for that reason alone that if they’re still here a year from today it’s a potentially enormous breakthrough for regional media. I join a number of my colleagues in the online news world in wishing our friends in Minneapolis the best.

1Sky, Step it Up, and the Citizen-Media Campaign to Prompt Action on Climate

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When it came to reaching large numbers of people in the 20th century, it was all about mass. Mass marketing. Mass audiences. Mass communication. Journalist David Halberstam published an important book in 1979, The Powers That Be, that documented the influence of a handful of large publishers — Time, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times — and a broadcast company — CBS — in setting the cultural, political, and social agenda in the United States. 

One of the primary trends of the 21st century Mode Shift is that mass has been replaced by groups, communities, individuals. Hastening that development, of course, is the advent of the Internet and all of the attendant global dissemination platforms, readily accessible to individuals and small groups, that the Web spawned. It’s no accident, for instance, that solving global climate change is now the first or second most important international priority.

From 1988, when James Hansen appeared before Congress to alert the nation that global warming was in progress, until 2003, when broadband became widely available, the discussion about global climate change was largely confined to the elite media, the scientific press, academia, environmental organizations, and right wing radio. Broadband made it possible for tens of thousands of new voices, many of them just as nuanced and knowledgeable, to report additional facts and draw more penetrating conclusions about the climate, often accompanied by video and motion graphics. Online audiences were huge. Al Gore used that independent communications infrastructure to help market his message and turn An Inconvenient Truth into a global phenenomen, so much so that the Nobel committee cited the online communications strategy in awarding Mr. Gore the Nobel Peace Prize earlier this month.   

Mr. Gore made an appearance at the Clinton Global Initiative in New York last month. And while he warned of the awful consequences that await people and the planet if we waste more time studying and not acting, I noticed that my good friend, writer Bill McKibben, was involved in an intriguing and promising national civic action to do just that. It is called 1Sky, and it is intended to “galvanize a national movement to deliver real climate solutions and launch a sweeping transition to a clean, secure energy future.” One of 1Sky’s primary tools is the online media — mainstream and new, chatboards, forums, email, video sharing, social media, blogs, and Web sites. The idea is to “assemble a broad cross- section of American constituencies and leaders in an unprecedented campaign to move the US federal government to deliver policies that will create 5 million new green jobs through a massive efficiency program, cut emissions 30% from today’s level by 2020, and put a moratorium all new coal plants.”

Bill McKibben’s involved because he’s already tapped the online world. Last April he used the Web to  help organize 1,400 “Step it Up” rallies across the country to pressure Washington to begin aggressively cutting carbon emissions and protect America’s right to an optimistic future.

Bill and his Step it Up organizers are planning another day of rallies on Saturday, November 3, and this time they have a novel theme. Step it Up is asking people to organize rallies at a spot in their communities that commemorates great leaders of the past. Bill writes that people have committed to climbing Mount Washington in New Hampshire, and rallying outside the Rhode Island church where John F. Kennedy was married. There will be a rally honoring Navajo elder and activist Roberta Blackgoat, who inspired the fight against coal development on tribal land.

Organizers are asked to register their rally on http://stepitup2007.org

Step it Up says it will help gather crowds and invite politicians to local rallies. And mindful of the collaboration with 1Sky, political leaders will be made familiar with the 1Sky priorities. “Basically,” writes McKibben, “we want to find out who is simply a politician and who’s ready to be a leader.”

We’ll also discover once again the power that ordinary people are acquring through adept use of online media to set global priorities.

Onward to Clinton Global Initiative in New York

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Three years ago when he founded the Clinton Global Initiative, which has emerged as one of the most influential and prestigious annual gatherings of world leaders, former President Bill Clinton understood that the new century’s formative operating principles depended on collaboration, not hierarchy. Only through the efforts of  untraditional allies working together could people make progress on any idea or project of real significance.

If you doubt this, just consider that in the 20th century the United States simultaneously built an interstate highway system, put a man on the moon, initiated a world-and economy-changing program of environmental protection, and enacted civil rights safeguards for minorities and women. Imagine trying to achieve any of these outcomes in whole or in part today.

Tomorrow I travel to New York to attend the invitation-only Clinton Global Initiative and see how the new global operating software works first hand. The three-day initiative draws together heads of state, academics, NGOs, business executives, and philanthropist to make “commitments” to produce change in four program focus areas — health, poverty, education, environment.

To date, much of the media attention that the affair attracts has focused on its glitter, the who’s who of global leadership that attends, the wealthy and glamorous that clamor to get into what has become the equivalent of the Academy Awards of the global public interest community.

But much more is at play here. In its basic structure, CGI is now arguably the best example of the diverse and untraditional convening organizations that have emerged in recent years across the nation and the world. These convening organizations, which differ in their form and function from traditional civic and governmental groups — chambers of commerce, rotary groups, Lions Clubs, government agencies, UN organizations — arise out of the need for communities and nations to find a way to negotiate the conflicts that too often occur at the intersection of politics, commerce, advocacy, philanthropy, and investment. Their role is to help resolve big public interest issues — like traffic congestion at the local level, or the freshwater crisis globally — that cross jurisdictional boundaries and the lines between race, income, religion, and the public and private sectors.

In my work with the Michigan Land Use Institute during the last 12 years I helped to form several convening organizations, which are places for people of disparate interests to come together to talk, get beyond their differences, and reach agreement to achieve some particular goal. I helped design a convening organization in Grand Rapids, in collaboration with local governments, farmers, and Michigan State University, that resulted in the strongest farmland conservation program in this state. The Institute formed another that found a better, less expensive, more environmentally sensitive alternative to a 30-mile highway bypass proposed for Traverse City.

The Clinton Global Initiative is a global convening organization — independent but also intimately involved with governments, NGOs, foundations, academic institutions, and businesses. It is now a model for the  new governing infrastructure that is starting to emerge to respond to huge international problems in a way that fits the political, fiscal, cultural, and environmental conditions of this century. Clinton’s initiative understands the new operating tools and principles, especially the fact that governments, businesses, and citizens acting separately and alone are not capable of developing, never mind executing, the scientific, economic, or political strategy to achieve solutions. A second is that new means are needed to organize governments, businesses, advocates and citizens, and new communications tools must be applied to the various global crises that the Clinton initiative is tackling.

This week I’m blogging about the Clinton Initiative and working for Circle of Blue, a new online global journalism project based here in the Great Lakes region that has set out to help solve the freshwater crisis. The project, invited to participate in the Clinton Initiative, rolls into New York with eight untraditional partners from Europe and the United States. In its outline and concept, using original reporting to elevate and inspire people to respond to a global environmental crisis, Circle of Blue fits its time. So does the Cinton Initiative.

You Say Goodbye, I Say Hello

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As a lifelong member of the tribe of career adventurists it’s time to announce another turn in the journey. I am leaving the Michigan Land Use Institute to take a new position as senior editor and strategist for Circle of Blue, an independent online journalism, research, and movement building organization focused on helping to solve the freshwater crisis. What’s especially keen, along with the great promise of a new way to influence a global environmental and economic crisis, is that I won’t have to leave home. Circle of Blue, based in Traverse City, is the second organization devoted to public interest journalism, research, and social organizing in northwest Michigan. The first, of course, was the Michigan Land Use Institute, founded in Benzonia on April 22, 1995, the 25th anniversary of Earth Day.

In many ways the same three factors — trends in news and communication technology, a compelling public interest, and opportunity — that drew me to Circle of Blue also prompted the founding and strategic vision of the Michigan Land Use Institute. Both organizations are devoted to executing the highest standards of journalism and perform that mission at a level of reporting, framing, and narrative that well-exceeds the capacity of the mainstream media. Both organizations understand how to apply email, the Internet, multi-media, motion graphics, and the other evolving communications tools to attract and inform large online audiences. And both utilize the power of great storytelling to support citizen movements that influence the course of events on complex economic, environmental, and cultural issues.

In its  basic outlines none of this is really new.  The environmental historians among us will recall that John Muir, the essayist and founder of the Sierra Club, applied his tremendous reporting and storytelling skills in the pages of Century Magazine in the late 19th cenury to argue for conserving the Sierra Nevada. That work, disseminated to Congress, prompted the United States in 1890 to establish Yosemite as the nation’s second national park. 

Yet all of it is new. What we learned at the Michigan Land Use Institute is that great reporting, well-told and broadly disseminated, helps to shape, clarify, elevate, and support the grassroots groups that are making all the difference now in our state. The Institute recruited terrific reporters – Kelly Thayer on transportation, Patty Cantrell and Dianne Connors on agriculture and local foods, Andy Guy on the Great Lakes, Carolyn Kelly on energy, Glenn Puit on investigations — and gave them the time to dig in and pursue important stories. Though there are exceptions, the opposite is occurring in the mainstream media. My epiphany on this subject came in 1995 when my own newspaper flooded the OJ Simpson trial coverage with elite writers only to discover that the National Enquirer consistently produced the best reporting. 

The Institute’s founding came just six months after CompuServe and AOL offered the first dial-up Internet service. We very quickly recognized that the print publishing strategy we initially developed would move online. In 1998, when the Institute launched its first Web site, the organization’s work was read by the 5,000 families and businesses that received our three-times-a-year Great Lakes Bulletin magazine, the several thousand more who saw our work in mainstream newspapers, and others who caught drift of the Institute’s efforts through events and word of mouth. Last July, in contrast, nearly 200,000 visitors came to the Institute’s main Web site, some 25,000 more visited our Taste the Local Difference fresh food site, nearly 20,000 people read our weekly email alerts, almost 1,000 reporters and editors received our weekly Great Lakes Bulletin News Service feed, and some 4,000 people were attracted to our two blogs: this one and Great Lakes Guy.  

What does a public interest organization do with that kind of capacity? Help make things better. You make the case stick for an alternative to environmentally ruinous and needlessly expensive, energy-inefficient, land-wasting new highway bypasses in Petoskey and Traverse City. You help an alliance of a conservation groups establish safeguards for two new natural rivers, the first designated since 1988. You begin rebuilding the market, processing, and transportation infrastructure to make it easier for buyers and producers of fresh home grown food to find each other. You provide citizens the information they need to ban oil and gas drilling along the Great Lakes shoreline. You convince the conservative state Supreme Court to overrule an equally ideological state Appellate Court and reinstate the right of all citizens to walk every mile of Great Lakes beaches. You help Michigan and the nation understand that prosperity is intimately connected to how communities are designed. And you report on the prosperity that Chicago and Salt Lake City, Ann Arbor, Grand Rapids, and Traverse City are achieving by embracing a new energy-efficient, transit-oriented, neighborhood sustaining, environmentally-sensitive development strategy.

Although I will continue my affiliation with the Institute early next year as a part-time special projects writer, my departure as a full-time senior leader produces two emotions: lament that comes with things ending, and the ferment that accompanies things new. The Michigan Land Use Institute is a superb public interest organization with a committed and capable staff. Twelve years is a long time in the life of a person and an organization.  One adventure has ended. Another is starting. You say goodbye. I say hello.