Saving The Sun-Sentinel: One View

Occasionally a comment on this forum rises to a level that it demands its own post. The following screed, which came in response to another comment regarding Lee Abrams Sun-Sentinel redesign memo, flies to that height.

It comes from an anonymous journalist who indicates he or she works at the Sentinel. The writer believes they have the answer for the newspaper industry, or at least a start in the right direction. Maybe, maybe not, but it's good stuff (and a lot better than anything we've seen coming from Abrams). Without further ado: ------------------------------------------

This is in response to Angela Connor, who, like many, have asked the question: What would you do differently? This is a very valid point. But I can tell you, sitting in that newsroom, listening to editors like Philip Ward and Tim Frank and Earl Maucker say, “We have to do something. At least we’re trying!” makes me sick. Nixon, evangelical republicans, child pornographers, Cuban dictators—they all try new things. The issue isn’t trying new things, the issue is what’s being tried.

And the answer is shit.

So here’s a few suggestions.

1. Fix the business model. This may come as a surprise to some people, but you can get everything you want at the Sun-Sentinel for free. Well, not entirely for free, you need a computer and a hook-up. But you don’t need to pay the paper a red cent. Now, if you could get a Mercedes, a yacht, a new home, a new book, for free, would you pay for it. (Hat tip to Cory Doctorow, SF writer, who recently penned a story about Third World Nations developing technology to copy anything. Of course, the United States and other First World nations attack them.) I won’t even go into the other big secret: why pay for a classified in the SS when you can post it for free on Craigslist?

This isn’t an original thought by the way, you can read similar thinking online on many blogs discussing newspapers. Check out what the blog Newspaper Deathwatch. recently wrote:

“When most newspapers went online, they slapped the same stuff they were producing in print into an HTML template and uploaded it to a server. Today, few of them offer any reader interaction outside of a basic commenting capability and some shortcuts for bookmarking stories to Digg. The stuff they post online is still cut and pasted from print. There’s been no investment, no innovation and no effort to keep up with Web 2.0 evolution. More problematic is that newspapers have failed to establish and train dedicated online sales forces. Their reps did okay when online ads were a simple add-on to free value-add to an ROP advertiser, but now that the online business is becoming the engine of growth, those simple upsells don’s work very well.”

2. Get rid of Wire copy. Yeah, toss out the world, the national. Hell, you may even want to jettison AP except for your web site. Go entirely local. Take that savings of space, and perhaps

money, and put staff in more municipalities ferreting out more news.

3. Round up the blogs. I’m not talking staffers here. Toss out feelers to all the local bloggers, get those gadflies at the City Council meetings, seduce Bob Norman, or have him refer Bob Norman protégés to you, offer them a commission, create communities of experts and interests out there. Again, keep staffers away. And if people come a asking with good ideas (which you will actively solicit by begging for them on your website) you’ll give them blogs too. Again, this isn’t new. I’ve had several friends who started blogs who first came to me because, hell, I work for a newspaper. I referred them to the recruiting editor at the paper, which was like sending them to the Dead Letter Office of the Soul.

4. Winnow down the editors. Yeah, I know this is going to go over well. But I’m not talking about laying them off. Make them reporters. Keep a skeleton staff of editors. (Some would say we have that now.) But you can go down further. Now, the first reaction among editors will be that, “My God, have you ever seen raw copy around here?” Well, yeah, I have. That’s why you’d have a rewrite desk—just like the oldtimers remember.

5. Get people the hell out of the newsroom. Have them work out of their homes. Give them any training they need for downloadable video, audio, picture editing, whatever. Training. Training. Training. Yes, this will cost money, but you’re probably going to save it in other areas. Get them driving all over the place. Have them sitting in the police station, like the oldtimers used to. Mobile folks, mobile.

6. As suggested earlier, create unique products for online that expand your print product. And I don’t mean the hand job graphics that my kids could create on their Facebook applications. I mean, expansive links to databases, extra interviews, communities. Yes, some of this is done now but it’s very token, and nobody does any outreach before the products to sell the story.

7. Get qualified people in the online staff, not your friends, kissing cousins, Simple Jack, the local barber, and anybody else you have on there now. I don’t mean firing them. These people can be retrained. But you need pros in this place, real pros. They can teach Simple Jack, but they can’t leave him online with keys. Also, create real video products, not stuff by the cute blonde everyone wants to be with, or the burned out, embittered photographer everyone wants to avoid, but real first-rate, unique video products. Again, nobody’s fired here, because with the right training, everyone can be redeemed. You know good stuff when you see it, and it’s not a video of the rain falling or Butterfly World. That’s why minutes are increasing at the New York Times, and the minutes spent online have fallen rapidly at the S-S.

8. Get your ad people out there selling these products, thinking up new ones. When something big is coming down the pike, make sure they’re finding the online ads, links, unusual combinations that will make sense. Hell, these people should be more web saavy than the online editorial staff.

9. If you’re going to go porno, go porno. I’m kidding. But take on New Times, do those stories about the goddam underbelly, the inner city, the alternative. Get into the minority communities. Just don’t put sexy moms in skimpy clothes for clicks. Hell, do videos in Creole and Spanish and Portuguese and Hebrew. Memo to Earl: it’s worldwide. If you get hits from Israel or Abu Dhabi, motherfucker, they’re still hits.

10. None of this is rocket science. In fact, it’s been discussed in detail for more than a decade on websites and think tanks devoted to journalism. And none of it is dumbed down. Yes, you can write it short, long, mid-size, in hypertext, what have you. Novelists have been trying these things for years. You can offer products of varying sizes. But it’s got to be unique in content, no the giant colored blocks on the print page.

And none of it is being tried at the Sun-Sentinel in any but the most token ways. The ballyhoo over the remake of the print product is bull because it’s about the print product. (And whatever Lee Abrams says, this did not come from the ground up, but from the top down, and writers and word editors were not widely consulted.) To quote Abrams from one of his ganja-influenced think pieces, you have to think about the paper a decade out, and do it today. And yo, that ain’t print. It’s gone. The only print product that’s going to make money is the one coming out of the home printer. What the SS has (barely) is feet on the street and content potential. And Brand. But the brand is going to have to be an online brand, something beamed into the heads through Facebook, Twitter, and whatever else. That has to be prepared for now.

How the hell this can’t succeed is beyond me. You almost have to work to fuck it up. You have a lock on content in a big chunk of South Florida, and if you go mobile, and put more feet on the street, you can get a bigger chunk.

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Bob Norman
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