digital age

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.

 

Online News Startups Feeling Ad Dollar Pinch

April has been a sobering month for online news startups, as BuzzFeed and other industry leaders were forced to cut budgets, layoff workers or slash revenue expectations for the year. The struggles stem from a perfect storm of plateauing web traffic and faltering ad revenue in the competitive online marketplace. 

April has been a sobering month for online news startups, as BuzzFeed and other industry leaders were forced to cut budgets, layoff workers or slash revenue expectations for the year. The struggles stem from a perfect storm of plateauing web traffic and faltering ad revenue in the competitive online marketplace. 

The story of newspapers struggling to escape an industrywide die-off amid an explosion of digital alternatives is nothing new.   

But you might be surprised to hear that the rising startups of the online news world aren’t exactly raking in the profits either. In fact, as John Herrman of The New York Times wrote last week, some of the biggest brands in online news are already being forced to tighten their belts.

“This month, Mashable, a site that had just raised $15 million, laid off 30 people,” Herrman said. “Salon, a web publishing pioneer, announced a new round of budget cuts and layoffs. And BuzzFeed, which has been held up as a success story, was forced to bat back questions about its revenue – but not before founders at other start-up media companies received calls from anxious investors.”

BuzzFeed appeared to be doing fine until The Financial Times reported earlier this month that the company fell $80 million short of its $250 million revenue goal for 2015. Building upon the dismal picture, BuzzFeed lowered expectations for the near future, slicing revenue projections for 2016 in half from $500 million to $250 million.

The news was a stunning development for an online world that has come to look to BuzzFeed as a content strategy leader. BuzzFeed has become a trend setter over the past several years with the popularity of its punchy listicles and quirky quizzes. Impressed with BuzzFeed’s ability to draw a massive online audience, struggling newspapers looked to the site as a model for how to get clicks. Building on that early success, BuzzFeed later expanded from a news and entertainment aggregator into providing its own news coverage. Fast-forward several years to today, BuzzFeed now fields a formidable investigative political reporting team, which has broken numerous stories about the 2016 presidential candidates.

But altogether, the revenue struggles of BuzzFeed, Mashable and Salon indicate it’s a dangerous time for publishers and a tricky time for advertising, both on the web and in print as neither sector appears to have found a stable business model for the digital age.

“The trouble, the publishers say, is twofold,” Herrman said. “The web advertising business, always unpredictable, became more treacherous. And website traffic plateaued at many large sites, in some cases falling – a new and troubling experience after a decade of exuberant growth.”

Numerous financial challenges have emerged for online publishers in the past several years, Herrman said. That includes anything from ad-blocking tools and automated advertising to the growing trend of readers gathering their news from stories posted on Facebook and other social networks.

“Audiences drove the change, preferring to refresh their social feeds and apps instead of visiting website home pages,” Herrman said. “As social networks grew, visits to websites in some ways became unnecessary detours, leading to the weakened traffic numbers for news sites.”

Of course, advertisers have taken notice of the metrics, leading them to invest heavily in ads on Facebook (and Google) than with online news startups like BuzzFeed, Morgan Stanley analyst Brian Nowak said.  

Posing further challenges on other fronts, Facebook just unveiled a big 10-year expansion plan that looks to give people fewer reasons to navigate away from Facebook. Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg recently spoke of Facebook’s ambitions to launch “TV-style live video.” Some like BuzzFeed and Vox are racing for their own video production deals with sights set on TV and film, and others like Mashable are investing more heavily in expanding their presence on Facebook.   

“Other companies are looking to focus more on branded content like videos, sponsored stories and full-fledged campaigns,” Herrman said. “But publishers have quickly learned that those efforts are labor-intensive and put them in direct competition with advertising agencies.”

The bottom line is if you thought the online startups had it all figured out, well, not just yet at least. The future of the news industry is still just as unclear as ever before. 

Justin Runquist is CFM’s communications counsel. He is a former reporter for The Oregonian, The Columbian and The Spokesman-Review. Away from the office, he’s a baseball fanatic with foolhardy hopes that the Mariners will go to the World Series someday. You can reach Justin at justinr@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @_JustinRunquist.

The Tale of Two Papers

Readers of The Oregonian are watching the at-times-painful process of the daily newspaper's digital conversion, as are the readers of The Washington Post. Both look like running backs zigging and zagging on a football field looking for an opening to break downfield.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos purchased The Washington Post a year ago, raising expectations about its digital conversion. But Jeff Abbruzzese, writing for Mashable, says a grand design hasn't surfaced. The biggest development is the exit of rising star Ezra Klein, who wrote Wonkblog, a primer on public policy debates in the nation's capital that was the newspaper's most read blog.

The absence of visible change at the 137-year-old DC fixture may reflect uncertainty about what digital direction makes the most sense. It also may reflect the lull before the storm. One Washington Post official said recently the newspaper staff is being prepared to "stomach the chaos that comes with digital."