"Thinking outside of the box...
waaaay outside of the box."
by Tom Hubbard
Newspapers have been static for most of this century...static destructively, where it counts. The leading activity has been technology and display, not gathering new insights into the human scene. Advertising sells ads and accounting sells staff reduction, but who is selling new editorial ideas? Let's hold off on the next big technical question, truck delivery vs. digital. Leave this to circulation for a while. Let's concentrate on journalism. 

In journalism coverage, we've tried thinking outside of the box but the trouble is, we start from the the same box that got us in trouble. I always think of a Jack in the box. He's got his head out looking for new ideas, but his feet are stuck in the box. Nothing changes until our ideas change. 

Let's think like paratroopers. They land in strange and uncomfortable places because that's where they should be. 

Let's land on some strange and uncomfortable ideas and work our way out, even if it's uncomfortable. Here's an idea, the newsroom is designed to handle movement, not ideas. If it moves, it's news. Journalists love to cover change, they just don't like to do it themselves. Recycling yesterday's or last years ideas is more comfortable than change. 

Celebrities are recycled news. They are easy to find because they are made to order for the media. How did celebrities take over management of the news? Do we need celebrities or do they need us? Celebrity news management of news flow is ridiculous. It's sad that news operations will carry any idea handed them. It's more convenient to rely on other's ideas if we don't have any. 

No one discussed this celebrity phenomenon when it was forming because media jobs are vertical. Everyone gathers news and pushes it straight up to an editor. Editors must make sense of these individual reports.  

There is a convenient model of how photographers, editors and reporters work. Hold your hand up with fingers spread out. That's it. The fingers represent individual reporters, photographers and editors, each going off in different directions. Now imagine a rubber band pulling those fingers together into a coordinated unit. That symbolic rubber band is the vital coordination missing from the newsroom effort. The only cooperation is on movement, not ideas. 

Vertical is an ancient type of organization not suited to semi-autonomous, creative workers. It worked in the galley ships, the hierarchy  was oar people at the bottom and whip people at the top. 

In the newsroom, the strength of reporters, photographers and editors is wasted.  There is no real collaboration. This enforced vertical-aloneness fosters jealousy, contempt and anger. True cooperation would be finding and working on an idea together from the start. 

The exquisite difference between a reporter's observations and a photographer's is not cross fertilized in the competitive vertical arrangement. Both are competing for the same space. Their final product is prepared for an editor, not the subscribing reader. 

It takes a crisis for people to really embrace change. Do you notice there is a media crisis, and it's not just a technology crisis. In the long run, digital or newsprint delivery will not matter. Ideas delivered will matter.  Journalists are so busy chasing everyone else's crisis they don't see their own. The newsroom questions the world, but not itself. 

Scrutinize the newsroom the way you do the world and you will see the waste of creative talent from enforced routine coverage. News becomes simply a chronicle of losers. Oh, it's necessary to chase losers, but the report is not accurate if you ignore winners. 

Accent, fashion, sports and business departments write about winners. Maybe news people should pay closer attention to winners news. You can build winning into your method of working. It's better than hoping for something to go wrong. 

In a healthy organization, change for the good originates at lower levels and moves up. Think of this. How many petty directives and conventional wisdom's do you violate daily to get your job done? That's progress oozing up from below. 

Here's one proposal worth trying. It may not be the only alternative but one thing is sure, continuing to do the same thing, even improving on this same thing, will not work. The idea is a real cooperative relationship between editors, reporters and photographers. If you think these three really cooperate now, you are not qualified to report on other people's lives. Move this editor, reporter, photographer cooperation up a notch to symbiosis; make each vital to the other. 

Each works equally, conferring regularly, throwing out ideas while working on the story. Each tries to advance the other's idea in their own work on the subject. Remember, this is cooperation on ideas, not just movement. The editor's job will be to coordinate and develop synergy. 

This can be a vital team, unmatched by any other mass medium, and can be a truly integrated effort of a reporter, a photographer and an editor. (Stop saying you are already doing this because you are not.) You may cooperate on stories, but you don't cooperate BEFORE the story. If these three come together for several hours a week to discuss what SHOULD be covered, you are cooperating. The key is sharing before, during and after the story because after it's a story, everything is set. 

This kind of cooperation is more than journalists just seeking adrenaline highs, confusing adrenaline with news. Some news is quieter. It can be fashioned in new ways by this team. An editor, photographer and reporter fashioning a report from its inception will advance the best in each. By cooperating, journalists could fashion the story, and avoid the spin experts. 

The news staff has lost control. The profit side looks at the popular market and does what marketing does, produce more of whatever is popular and what is easy to produce. This means celebrity and public people coverage. 

The strength and weakness of a newspaper compared to other media is the time lag between the event and the reader getting it in ink on paper. Let others chase event blips. Newspapers can use their lag time to reflect and report significance. No other media can beat a well fashioned report by a newspaper reporter, photographer and editor. 

As a guide, think of a good friend who's been in your life for three or four years. You know them well now, but remember meeting them. What story would you write when you met? What would you write now. Think about a place in the same way. 

This is not to suggest three to five year deadlines, but it does say people are more complex than a 45 minute interview or photo shoot. Anyone can perform for 45 minutes. Establish newspapers as the media willing to devote time and energy to get it right. 

Newsroom lip service says we are working together, but rock solid procedure decrees that reporters, photographers and editors are enemies of each other. For each, it is an "I win, you lose," situation. Let's redesign the system to reward cooperative winning. 

Change is vulnerable, it's easy to shoot down. If you say to yourself, "I don't have time to think about this," you are arguing for doing things in an unthinking way. Remember that "thinking outside of the box" is an invitation to limit your thinking. If we ignore that box, we might even find solutions where there used to be a box. Newspapers can have a team at the core of their operation. The team members are already there. They are under-utilized and counter-utilized. They expend more energy fighting the system than gathering. 

Look at your hand again. The isolation of reporters, photographers and editors allows the quickest and most plausible report to carry the day. All the world's great literature shows us the quickest and most plausible is not always the last word. It's time for journalists to join this literature. Life is more complex than the harried journalist's first impression. 

A newsroom team working on the life and times of the community will discover real heros in neighborhoods, government buildings, hospitals and schools. 

We can change, or history will record the last half of the 20th Century as a time when journalists systematically trashed or ignored all potential heros and substituted celebrity pseudo-heros just because celebrities offer a predictible, continual flow. 

Tom Hubbard 

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