It’s time for the full-court press

I spent the better part of a Saturday morning at a coffee shop in Cedar Rapids and found an inspirational and motivating article by Malcom Gladwell called How David Beats Goliath.

The basic wisdom behind the piece in the New Yorker is that when underdogs break away from conventional wisdom, they win.

Gladwell uses a true story of a weak youth girl’s basketball team who utilizes a non-stop full-court press to have a better chance against stronger teams, and does it to great success. But yet the full-court press is not widely adopted in the basketball world. Why?

When underdogs choose not to play by Goliath’s rules, they win, ‘even when everything we think we know about power says they shouldn’t.’

This article was increasingly important to my mental status as the place where I work is undertaking another round of reorganization and uncertainty and what our CEO Chuck Peters labeled in an email recently as “reorganization fatigue.”

We are facing the same economic pressures and societal changes as every other media company. We also are in a community that suffered a historic natural disaster almost a year ago which has added to the tough economic situation.

As a company we’ve gotten smaller and recently reprioritized. We’ve focused on the concept of separating content from product, changed roles and responsibilities and have more people wearing more hats than ever before.

I’m not trying to say our current plight rises to the level of David vs. Goliath, but if that gets you motivated, go for it. Rather, it’s a plea to understand it’s going to take unconventional ways, uncomfortable moments and an increased willingness to try new things.

What was perhaps most fascinating in the article was the research conducted by political scientist Ivan Arreguin-Toft. Arreguin-Toft looked at every war in the past two hundred years and found that when the weaker combatants changed the rules, their win percentage went from 28.5% to 63.6%. That’s an astounding figure. (From Dennis Yang who writes how this also applied to the business world).

On that note, I agree with Gladwell when he writes about effort and ability. It resonated with me as we face an uphill battle to transform a media company into a community connection and how daunting of a task that must seem like given all the negativity about the media industry.

David can beat Goliath by substituting effort for ability—and substituting effort for ability turns out to be a winning formula for underdogs in all walks of life, including little blond-haired girls on the basketball court.

We tell ourselves that skill is the precious resource and effort is the commodity. It’s the other way around. Effort can trump ability . . . because relentless effort is in fact something rarer than the ability to engage in some finely tuned act of motor coordination.

I like that we are not sitting back and waiting for something to happen. We are likely to reorganize again and rethink think how we are doing things. And, to me, that’s better than the alternative. Doing nothing and trying only conventional ideas is not acceptable.

The price that the outsider pays for being so heedless of custom is, of course, the disapproval of the insider.

But let’s remember who made that rule: Goliath. And let’s remember why Goliath made that rule: when the world has to play on Goliath’s terms, Goliath wins.

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You can do great journalism anywhere

About halfway through my freshman year of high school, I was approached by my English teach Mrs. Griffiths and asked if I’d be interested in joining the school newspaper. She saw something in my writing, but more intriguing to her – she would later reveal – was the way I asked questions.

Since that day in 1992 when I joined the East High Scroll, I have spent just about every day working for a newspaper, many of those days asking the tough questions.

I’ve never wanted to do anything else. I love news and have become an almost equally admirer of the news business. I still don’t want to do anything else, but I recognized about three years ago the way we do it has to change.

I don’t work for a newspaper anymore. I work for a media company. I’m not just a journalist anymore. I’m a publisher, a reporter, a web editor, a curator, a marketer, an audience expert, an adverting sales rep and a social media guru.

Last night, I watched “State of Play” with three others journalists. I think they’d all agree that I am more comfortable with the changes in our industry than they are, but a part of me has great admiration for those like the character Russell Crowe plays in the film, Cal McAffrey. I wanted to be him.

McAffrey is as old school as they get. He is a die-hard print journalist with the contacts, intelligence, ego and manipulative personality that is needed to always get access to the right information. Even the opening scene is dead-on: Eating a bag of Cheetos in the car, singing to a tune on the radio, driving a 18-year-old car, throwing the empty bag of Cheetos into the backseat filled with notebooks and more empty food containers.

Some of suggested this is the death of the hero journalist.

Watching “State of Play,” I couldn’t help but think that I was witnessing the dying of a cinematic archetype: the Hero Journalist. – From Simon Dumenco

But it doesn’t have to be.

I’ve said this before. I work for Gazette Communications, a family-owned media company that owns a newspaper, a television station, a state-of-the-art printing facility and a few digital products. We are under the same financial pressures as most media companies. Cedar Rapids, IA., also experienced a catastrophic flood last summer that had already weakened the local economy.

For about the past 18 months, the company has acquired a young group of journalists who love what they do and I’ve had the privilege of working with them and calling them my friends. Most of them shined brightly during the flood coverage last June, and have continued to do so. Some are comfortable with change in the industry and other struggle with it.

Whenever I talk to them about leaving for a bigger newspaper or moving onto a different career, I always tell them this: You can do great journalism anywhere.

You don’t have to be at the New York Times of the Washington Post to be a great journalist or tell a great story. Likewise, great journalism isn’t just done in print. Today’s tools and reach of digital platforms and applications only increases the ability to do great work.

So remember, you can do great journalism anywhere. Be the Cal McAffrey of your community.

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Geography, genre and local news

Many people in the industry say local news and information is the last great frontier for media organizations. Some cover a Little League team like they’re the New York Yankees. Others offer a database of information of crime, real-estate and school information for a specific region.

Whatever your philosophy on local news, my view is that media organizations have a fundamental responsibility to focus more on it. Local news is easy to overlook, and often not as glamorous as working for the Washington Post. You’re not going to uncover the next Watergate. But local is the one common a majority of our audience shares.

And when it comes local, it is all about the audience. I feel strongly that audiences should be looked at in terms of geography and genre. Each has it owns strengths and weaknesses, but the key thing to think about is which of those two (there are probably more ways to divide the audience, I’m just sticking with those two) the audience you are trying to reach fits into, and what will work best to create a lasting connection.

When it comes to geographic areas, I will use the example of where I live, Cedar Rapids. The city is divided into four quadrants. Every street address ends in a SW, SE, NW, NE. I proposed an idea today to my boss Steve Buttry that we should create a quadrant team within the newsroom with a journalist/entrepreneur assigned to each of the four.

Think of the journalist as doing what law enforcement agencies have termed as “community policing” efforts. This person would be everywhere and know everyone in those areas of town. The journalist would recruit others in the area to supply content. Nothing would be off limits in terms of story, photo or video possibilities. The journalist also would be in a position open up a new avenue for local small businesses in those areas that we don’t currently have a relationship with.

When it comes to genre, think in terms of Gannett’s mom sites. Sure Gannett screwed up a bit in launching the mom sites in specific geographic locations like Des Moines, Cincinnati and Indianapolis. I say screwed up because they only got it half right. What they found, whether they admit it or not, is that there was not enough of a connection between moms in geographic locations.  But the power of Gannett is that they can now connect moms from all over the country by genre or topic such as ‘parents of autistic kids’ or ‘shopping tips’. They create a networked connection between moms across the country with similar interests. Brilliant.

Over the years, Gannett has built out 60 or so local niche sites dedicated to moms. And now the media company is pulling them together into a network called MomsLikeMe.com . . .Very smart. Some media companies have attempted to launch a nationally-branded site by partnering with other media companies in its unrepresented markets, but the patchwork approach has shown little traction. Gannett’s national push all on its own is one of the most promising local online media efforts I’ve seen to date. – lostremote.com

Media companies are in a prime position to connect local audiences whether it be by geography or genre. They key is doing it right for the right audience. But it presents more than just an opportunity. It is our responsibility. Society has changed. People are more mobile, but also more connected than ever before. It is our job as media companies to adapt, change, innovate and create new connections.

. . . newspapers thrived when they were run by publishers/editors who paid close attention to changes in society and fashioned their newspapers to fit with their communities needs. – Howard Owens

Think of it in terms of online dating, just to use one example. Some people (not me) seek out that special someone using social networking sites. But if there is a connection, what do they do? They meet in person.

We are social creatures who crave connections with flesh-and-blood friends and family. Online communication is fun – and greatly expands our reach of friends and associates – but it’s no substitute for running into an old friend or uncle at the local coffee shop. As long as I’ve been involved in online communities – approaching 14 years now – I’ve observed the overwhelming desire for people to want to meet their digital friends at local bars or industry conferences.  It happens over and over.  We depend on those real connections. – Howard Owens.

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An experiment that would make Walter Lippmann cringe

There has been some pub recently about an experiment by Howard Owens and Ryan Sholin working with Gatehouse Media to launch a website in a place, Batavia, NY, where Gatehouse doesn’t publish a newspaper. You can read more about it here, here and here.

Here are the basics:

  • Set up an office on Main Street
  • Have one hired journalist/lead blogger in town everyday to connect with the community
  • Build a site around a blog
  • Allow any registered user to submit content, seek them out and promote them as much as possible
  • Offer all the standard community tools
  • Think about hiring a journalist to cover local sports
  • Link liberally to other local blogs and content
  • Post videos of events and breaking news
  • Pull in feed from several sources

Here are a few of the comments being circulated about this experiment.

. . . the strategy is to launch an innovative news and community site that will eat the lunch of an incumbent newspaper that has ignored the web.

The Batavian is an experiment in whether a new web-native journalism can better serve a community. Here’s Howard on “Exploring the complexity of community issues as a community

The Batavian lets any registered reader contribute posts, and it treats all registered readers as equals. One full-time reporter, and a couple of other Gatehouse employees who contribute occasionally, make sure The Batavian has new posts every day. The rest of The Batavian’s content comes from residents.

The company I work for, Gazette Communications, is based in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The company owns a TV station, a newspaper and a commercial print operation. We have a bureau with a few reporters in Iowa City which is about 20 or so miles to the south, and Iowa City also has its own newspaper, as does the University of Iowa.

All of these traditionally run media sites, including the one I have some influence on, operate on a print-centric workflow, philosophy and approach. The biggest argument for doing this experiment is that a digital-only operation will not operating under any rules or constraints.

A lot of people in the building at Gazette Communications believe there is tremendous opportunity in the Iowa City market. I feel those opportunities, however, go beyond entertainment and University of Iowa students.

Digital communication allows all members of the public – the press, the politicians, the government agents and the citizens – to discuss choices, consequences and conditions as equals. Reporters need no longer be bound by the limitations of print and present just the so-called objective report, but rather explore, examine, raise and answer questions, and start conversations.

So what do you think? Can this type of experiment work in Iowa City? Anyone willing to try it?

Note: Howard Owens on Walter Lippmann: Lippmann was an elitist. He believed that the modern world was too complex for the average citizen to grasp, and that Joe Public probably didn’t care anyway. Modern democracy worked best, he argued, if the governing class was comprised of experts and professionals who set the policy and then manufactured public consent. The role of the press in this model was to merely transmit the decisions and actions of the elites  in simple terms, with little questioning or interpretation, aiming to maximize emotional impact.

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