I’ve found myself quoting Steve Buttry a lot lately, particularly his posts about innovation in the news business. In an August 2009 post titled “Newspapers’ original sin: Not failing to charge but failing to innovate,” he wrote:
The disastrous error that newspapers made early in our digital lives was treating online advertising as a throw-in or upsell for their print advertisers. Helping businesses connect with customers was always our business. We were facing new technology and new opportunities and we did next to nothing to explore how we might use this new technology to help businesses connect with customers.
We just offered businesses the same old solutions that we offered in print, but pop-up ads and web banners somehow didn’t work as well as display ads. Which was just as well, because we told our business customers the ads weren’t worth much by the way we treated them.
For a long time, the way much of the newspaper industry handled the Web made about as much sense as trying to run a TV news broadcast by sending a newspaper reporter out to write a story, then feeding the text into an Amiga and making people watch as it scrolled across their TV screens. Or trying to make a TV commercial by pointing a camera at a Sears circular and filming as someone turned the pages.
But was this due to a failure of imagination on our parts — or was it something else?
Here’s what I keep coming back to:
If somebody in our building comes up with a unique idea in print — whether it’s for editorial, advertising or both — there are at least a half dozen people in the newsroom, and a half dozen more in the composing department, who know how to make it happen. But if it’s a unique idea for the Web … well, none of us are developers. Maybe we could make it happen, but maybe not.
The first newsroom I worked in after college had four full-time people in the newsroom. Every single one of us knew how to use QuarkXPress; every single one of us could lay out a page. I imagine it’s the same way at nearly every small paper: Working there and not knowing how to design a page would be almost unthinkable. But the chances of a small paper having a Web developer on staff are slim to none.
Most newspapers, regardless of size, are equipped to try new things in print. We have the tools, and we know how to use them. Online, not so much.
So this is my goal for 2010: to become as proficient with HTML and CSS — and Flash would be great as well — as with the tools of the print medium. I don’t need to become a programmer or developer, any more than I can currently claim to be a graphic designer. (I can’t, because I’m not.) But I want to reach a level of basic competence, enough so that if somebody says “Hey, can we experiment with this new way of doing something?” I can confidently say “Yes, we can make that happen.”
- How Programmer/Journalists Are Changing the News, by Leah Betancourt. Mashable, Dec. 11, 2009.
- The programmer as journalist: A Q&A with Adrian Holovaty, by Robert Niles. Online Journalism Review, June 5, 2006.
- 10 ways that ad sales people can save newspapers, by Paul Bradshaw. Online Journalism Blog, Aug. 29, 2008.
- A Blueprint for the Complete Community Connection, by Steve Buttry. (With related posts.) Pursing the Complete Community Connection, April 27, 2009.