New York Times

A Reimagined Version of Local Newspaper Storytelling

The New York Times  shows the way to reimagine newspaper journalism in the digital age with its eye-popping special report on how iconic Notre Dame Cathedral was saved from total collapse by the daring and savvy of Parisian firemen.

The New York Times shows the way to reimagine newspaper journalism in the digital age with its eye-popping special report on how iconic Notre Dame Cathedral was saved from total collapse by the daring and savvy of Parisian firemen.

It is common knowledge newspapers are wheezing on their deathbeds. But before you pronounce the last rites, take a gander at The New York Times special report on how the iconic Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris was barely saved from a massive fire.

The special report is a combination of journalistic storytelling, eye-popping imagery and informative animation. You really forget you are viewing a “newspaper” as you scan spectacular photography of the fire and learn through animation how close the roof came to collapsing. There are even artistic scenes from a firefighter’s notebook that would make Leonardo DaVinci applaud. 

And it’s all in a newspaper.

Granted, The New York Times isn’t just a garden-variety newspaper. But it does produce daily editions in print that land on people’s doorstep, including mine, just like hundreds of other daily newspapers around the nation. The Times has grander resources than virtually any other American newspaper, but it doesn’t have a monopoly on imagination.

The digital revolution may make the printed page obsolete, but that doesn’t have to extend to the concept of newspapering. The digital page can extend the reach of a physical page and is bounded only by the limits of ingenuity.

Having worked for small daily newspapers, I understand the sense of limitation that can exist in newsrooms. But just as small dailies innovated with offset and color printing, so can newspapers of any size innovate with new digital tools. 

The Columbia River Estuary is a complex eco-system that supports fisheries, marine transportation and local economies. It would be a perfect subject for a digital storytelling project undertaken collaboratively by local newspapers from Astoria to Portland.

The Columbia River Estuary is a complex eco-system that supports fisheries, marine transportation and local economies. It would be a perfect subject for a digital storytelling project undertaken collaboratively by local newspapers from Astoria to Portland.

While working for The Daily Astorian, we covered stories about the Columbia River estuary, a sprawling and highly sensitive ecosystem that extends from the mouth of the river all the way upriver to Bonneville Dam. In retrospect, we wrote stories about the estuary in segments – fisheries, marine transportation, pollution from runoff and recreation. We presented great photography in full-page spreads, but never connected the dots. Frankly, we didn’t think about it.

If I was in my same job today as then, I would propose to the daily newspapers in Longview, Vancouver and Portland a collaborative project that would tell the complete and coordinated story of the estuary of one of America’s most important and seminal rivers. The story could live online as well as on print. It would be an ongoing story that charts changes in the river and the evolution of issues affecting the river and its constituents.

Without websites and digital tools that perform on laptop computers, telling the rich story of the Columbia River estuary would be hard to imagine. With those tools, the story could be told with a wealth of visual imagery that brings text and statistics to life – and to kitchen tables, coffee shops and school classrooms.

Newspapers are undergoing existential change as they struggle to monetize digital platforms and content. Subscribers who want local coverage will also want quality content. The Times special report on Notre Dame Cathedral points the way for presenting significant content in a compelling fashion.

To carry off this sophisticated level of presentation will require different skills than my staff and I had at The Daily Astorian in the 1970s. But many journalists today are digital natives who interact and think differently about content acquisition. Challenges that my age-cohorts would view as insurmountable may only be road-bumps for the new generation of journalists.

This form of deep-information storytelling fits well with “solutions journalism” by offering more than a superficial, fragmented and intermittent picture of serious topics. Readers/viewers will appreciate and benefit from the effort. They may not get the same small-town thrill as reading the police log to see if their neighbor was arrested as a peeping Tom. However, they will be able to engage – at their convenience – with a story with informational depth, visual reinforcement and entertainment value.

As The Times reportage demonstrates, you don’t have to know Paris, French culture or Catholic history to be enthralled with the story about how an iconic building nearly collapsed because a newly hired security guard went to the wrong building and courageous firemen took a risk to save the building and its invaluable treasures. The only thing missing was Tom Hanks as Robert Langdon in The Da Vinci Code.

The future for newspapers – and perhaps for public affairs – will be in telling complex stories – and perhaps some little understood common stories – with some digital flair that marries a visual world of storytelling with newspaper reporting integrity. You can’t get that reliably on social media or cable news. You could get that kind of storytelling from a reimagined version of local newspapering.

Don’t forget, the Times special report was fundamentally about a fire and the skill of firemen, which exist in every city large enough to have a newspaper.

Gary Conkling Image.jpg

Gary Conkling is principal and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

 

The Time Has Come for Video Op-eds

Bill Gates explains his idea for a clean energy “moonshot” in an extended video op-ed posted online by The New York Times. Video op-eds are emerging as one of the best ways to convey an unfiltered message that people will view and share.

Bill Gates explains his idea for a clean energy “moonshot” in an extended video op-ed posted online by The New York Times. Video op-eds are emerging as one of the best ways to convey an unfiltered message that people will view and share.

Video op-eds may be an idea whose time has come.

Op-eds are a tried-and-true way to convey an unfiltered message in news columns. However, with shrinking editorial pages and newspaper readership, the op-ed has diminished in value. Getting an op-ed published is still valuable, but mostly as a source of solid content to share on social media. 

If social media is the ultimate target for an op-ed, then social media rules should apply. The number one social media rule to obey is video gains more eyeball contact than text.

For traditionalists, this trend may appear as an aggravation. It’s actually an opportunity.

Op-eds published in newspapers or other print outlets are one dimensional. There is a catchy headline and 500 words to make your point. In a video op-ed, there are many more flexible options.

In its simplest form, a video op-ed can consist of the op-ed writer voicing what he or she wrote. This allows a viewer to see the person speaking and observe their expressions and body language. It permits a speaker to establish a “face-to-face” rapport with an audience and inject appropriate emotion into his or her content.

A video op-ed can capture two or three people discussing a topic, offering a mix of perspectives or even contrary points of view. A carefully edited give-and-take can be very informative, quick-paced – and highly shareable. 

Robert Reich has become a social media mainstay with his illustrated political commentaries that feature him talking to his audience while using a sharpie in the background to show his point.

Robert Reich has become a social media mainstay with his illustrated political commentaries that feature him talking to his audience while using a sharpie in the background to show his point.

Adding presentational elements to a video op-ed can be entertaining as well as informational. Robert Reich, the former Cabinet officer-turned political commentator, uses sharpies to make drawings that punctuate his commentaries.

Specifically designed for social media, Reich talks over sped-up imagery of him creating his engaging illustrations. The sketches reinforce his words, making it more likely viewers will get – and retain – his point. 

The Washington Post employs video op-eds in a wide range of forms to discuss topics such as “Grand Juries 101,” why gerrymandering could be okay if done better, a Thanksgiving message from Teddy Roosevelt and a remembrance of columnist Charles Krauthammer. The WaPo op-eds take advantage of film clips, illustrations, charts and anything visual to grab eyeballs and stimulate thought. The video op-eds live on the publication’s online newsroom, providing evergreen content that can continuously draw clicks. 

The New York Times has created an online channel for wide-ranging video op-ed contributions. Samples include Robert Redford expressing opposition to the Keystone Pipeline, Bill Gates discussing a clean energy “moonshot” and a video essay contrasting Siri with a human assistant. The video op-eds can be as short as 90 seconds up to more than six minutes in the Gates’ contribution.

In-house video production is no longer a pipe dream. Credible high-definition video can be shot with a smartphone. Video op-eds don’t represent any greater technical challenge than explanatory or training videos. 

Previous Rules of Engagement blogs have offered tips on how to conceive and execute quality video content. Like any other type of video, video op-eds require producers to zero in on the point they want to make, then think expansively about how to show it. Drop all inhibitions and let your imagination go to work. Seek professional help, if needed, to carry out your dream plan.

Public affairs can be a stodgy, change-resistant wing of public relations. If you want to reach target audiences and be relevant, contemporary tactics are essential, including video op-eds. Experiment to get your creative sea legs, but don’t hesitate to take the plunge.

Gary Conkling Image.jpg

Gary Conkling is principal and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

Quarreling with People Who Buy Ink by the Barrel

For a long time, people in the PR business urged clients to avoid picking fights with "people who buy ink by the barrel." It is another way of saying, "don't bring a knife to a gunfight."

But Walmart isn't accustomed to taking advice, as evidenced this week by its response to a New York Times column that accused the giant retailer of paying "humiliating wages" to its workers and being a "net drain" on the U.S. economy because its employees rely on food stamps and Medicaid.

David Tovar, Walmart's vice president of corporate communications, decided to apply his red pen to Tim Egan's column, with this note attached: "Tim, Thanks for sharing your first draft. Below are a few thoughts to ensure something inaccurate doesn't get published." 

Walmart posted the Tovar editing job on its website, then let the fur fly. The "Fact Check" post quickly attracted media and blogger attention in a way that a press release or ordinary rebuttal would never have achieved. 

So does this mean that the advice about avoiding fights with guys that buy ink by the barrel is no longer valid? Not quite. 

First off, Walmart, which is the frequent target of a wide array of critics, is a special case. When other people routinely use you as a punching bag, you might be entitled now and again to punch back. Especially if you punch with some flair, as Tovar did.

However, for most companies and organizations, staging a public quarrel with the media usually doesn't turn out so well. You appear defensive. And you often don't get the last word. Depending on your ability to project your protest, you might not even get noticed.

There are constructive avenues to express concern or correct facts. Most publications will afford someone the chance to rebut an editorial or respond to a major story aimed at them. A well-reasoned op-ed becomes a valuable PR tool well beyond its publication date. It can be shared with stakeholders and customers, and it can be posted on a website. It even can be the basis for a special-purpose website that tells your side of the story in more detail, with supportive validation.

Insider Dope on Digital Health

Leaked New York Times report provides insight into how to achieve digital health by finding an audience, making a personalized connection and pursuing a strategy based on viewers, not you.Many people puzzle over how to prosper online and now a leaked internal report from the New York Times provides useful insight on "digital health."

Some of the key insights include the need to go find your audience, the value of fresh content and the importance of packaging your material. There also is a section on drawing back the curtains on your operation to establish a more personal connection with viewers. Perhaps the most fundamental insight is that digital outreach will flounder without a clear strategy.

None of these insights represent radical revelations. But they add weight to the importance of these actions to digital success based on the direct, high-profile experiences of one of the major digital content generators in the nation. 

Charting a Communication Course

Blending a chart with the design qualities of an infographic can result in a clear picture of what you want to say. Two examples in the Sunday edition of The New York Times prove the point.

The first appeared on the newspaper's prestigious op-ed page and was called an "Op-Chart." Running in a vertical column, the Op-Chart consisted of a series of squares that showed the relative value of a $1 in purchasing square footage in a number of American cities.

The least space per $1 was in several New York City neighborhoods such as the Flatiron District, Greenwich Village and Chelsea. You could get the most square footage for your $1 in the Berclair-Highland Heights section of Memphis.

In addition to the raw information, the Op-Chart conveyed the context of "space," which was the factor being compared. You could see, without any computation, that $1 would get you twice the square footage in Brooklyn as in the Upper East Side of Manhattan and four times the space in Sherman Oaks in Los Angeles.

The chart did its job with one paragraph of text and a blurb indicating the source of the information. It was efficient and effective.

The second chart showed up, again somewhat improbably, on the front page of the sports page. It showed the hole-by-hole results of the final round of the Masters Golf Tournament between the winner, Bubba Watson, and his 20-year-old challenger, Jordan Spieth. It quickly told the story of how Watson won.

You could read the accompanying story to find out the turning point in the match, but the chart told you all you needed to know. Spieth lost in the middle of the round on Holes 8-11, after leading after the 7th Hole. The chart contained two explanatory notes documenting what you could easily see

The Thought Behind Thought Leadership

Thought leaders aren't circus barkers who scream for attention. They are men and women with rich experience or meritorious ideas that attract our attention."Little boys and girls in ancient Athens grew up wanting to be philosophers. In Renaissance Florence, they dreamed of becoming Humanists. But now a new phrase and a new intellectual paragon has emerged to command our admiration: "Thought Leader."

Columnist David Brooks said a thought leader is "sort of a high-flying, good-doing, yacht-to-yacht concept peddler." They are the go-to guys and gals who get invitations to speak to prestigious groups, participate in deep think-tank discussions and author widely shared op-eds in major newspapers.

The thought leader, Brooks says, "doesn't have students, but does have clients."

Despite the sardonic commentary by Brooks, thought leaders aren't all peppy cheerleaders for a cause they are paid to embrace. Many thought leaders are, well, thought leaders in their field. They can be recognized experts or just average people with meritorious ideas.

Ringing in New Year of Media Relations

Media relations hasn't disappeared, but it is evolving along with media itself, requiring successful story pitchers to be nimble, adaptive and creative.Media relations hasn't gone away, but it has changed as media has multiplied and evolved. There are more outlets to monitor and pitch, including your own self-publication platform.

Even the press release has managed to survive in a faster-paced, highly segmented media world, but it also has assumed new shapes and purposes.

The overlapping crazes of social media and content marketing have lost some momentum here and there, but they also are adapting and adjusting.

So the key is not to arrange eulogies for positions and tactics. Instead, be alert for change and learn how to capitalize on new circumstances. Most important, concentrate of delivering quality, useful information with sharp story hooks, which remains the hallmark of attracting media attention

Focusing to Survive

The Washington Post is adapting to business pressure by focusing, sometimes painfully, on what it does best.It says a lot when a fierce competitor tips the hat to another. I am not talking tennis with Federer vs. Nadal. I am thinking about gladiator-type business competitors where the last guy standing is alive and the rest aren’t. New York Times vs. Washington Post-type competitors.

On Sunday, the Times tipped its hat to the Post, acknowledging the iconic DC daily is making the necessary and painful changes to survive in the changing newspaper world. Cutting staff from 1,000 to 640. Closing bureaus in three major markets. Moving online aggressively. Using web metrics to assess success.

Similar efforts are being played out in Portland, Oregon. At The Oregonian, Scott Bernard Nelson, Business Editor, has been a change agent at the paper and closely follows changing business models for newspapers across the county. At KATU-TV, executive producer John Tierney is working to bridge the gaps between broadcast and online news.

In the modern news landscape, changing and remaining profitable is difficult.

ABC’s New Math Excites Publishers

Extra! Circulation numbers bump up for some newspapers. But wait, there’s a twist in the plot.The start of November means there’s always a fresh dump of circulation figures produced by the Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC). Last week The Oregonian, for example, claimed 1.6 percent growth over a year ago for the April-to-September time period.

The Portland daily was ranked 21st in the nation's top 25 newspapers, right behind the Seattle Times in 20th place.

But wait. There is a twist. The growth for The O and other major dailies is because paid online subscriptions may be counted along with the latest count for print circulation. Online page views don’t count, but paid e-subscriptions — however that is defined — do count as part of the total number.

The changes in accreditation went into effect last year. The agency warns against putting too much stock in comparing this year’s to last year’s figures as a result of the change. Still media trend watchers are taking note.

“Some of the nation’s largest newspapers are recording gains in digital circulation as print circulation continues to weaken, a trend that is helping to ease what has become a relentless overall decline in recent years,” reports Jeremy W. Peters in the New York Times’ Media Decoder blog.

A Free Digital Device With Your News Subscription?

Will your new news subscription mean a free computer tablet. It's part of the digital thinking at the Tribune Company.Where we get our news and the tactics news outlets may use is leading to some intriguing possibilities. How about a free Android-based tablet for the cost of a subscription to the Chicago Tribune?

News organizations are exploring a variety of new business models, including pay walls – charging to view all or some content online. The New York Times has received a ton of attention with its new pay-to-view model, for example.

“Other newspapers are watching us and hoping that it works,” Martin Nisenholtz, head of digital operations at the New York Times, told The Economist in a lengthy article about the future of the news industry.

“Since it put up its paywall, visits to the paper’s site have dropped by about 10 percent and page views by about 20 percent. But more people than expected are signing up,” the Economist reported.

Another new source of digital revenue is charging for content on mobile devices such as smartphones and tablet computers, The Economist added. Now, CNN reports the Tribune Co., one of the largest U.S. news enterprises, is working on a touchscreen tablet that it plans to offer to newspaper subscribers.

Times Documentary Exposes Newspaper in Transition

Anyone who needs to know how newspapers work and how the news business is changing should make plans to see “Page One: Inside the New York Times.” Director Andrew Rossi spent a year inside the NYT newsroom to make the documentary, which debuted in New York last Friday and will be released nationally July 1.

The Times represents the epicenter of events and trends shaking the news world, ranging from the search for a new business model – known as a paywall, getting ahead of the social media curve and the use of controversial news sources such as WikiLeaks. The film starts in 2010 with the WikiLeaks hot potato.

To delve deeper in the issues, Google the name of Bill Keller, who just announced his retirement as The Times executive editor.

“Page One” zeroes in on two contrasting figures on the staff, writes columnist Tommy Christopher of the website Mediaite: “The film focuses on The Times’ Media Desk, particularly on David Carr and Brian Stelter. They are fitting proxies for the audience, as they’re each outsiders, of a sort.”

“Carr is the nucleus around which the film gathers, and his musings form much of the narration. While a 25-year veteran, much of Carr’s career has been with alternative publications, and his backstory reads more like a pulp novel than the resume of a media reporter for the world’s most prestigious newspaper. His emergence from drug addiction and crime give him a hard, weathered edge,” says Christopher.