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.
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 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 firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.