Disruption isn’t an inconvenience, it’s a lifebuoy

Life Preserver
From a link tweeted by Kevin Anderson this morning I wound up at a new-to-me blog by John L Robinson called Media, Disrupted.
Sometimes it feels like I work in Sesame Street – Journalism today is brought to you by the letters D and C… Disruption, Data, Distribution, and Curation, Collaboration, Content – so a blog with a title like that had appeal before I even started.
Anyway, I read the post and it didn’t so much ring a bell with me as clang one of Poe’s ‘loud alarum bells‘; I mused on it for most of the morning. 
In fact, it made me think so much that I tweeted Kevin to say, well, just that, and he replied with another clanging phrase – that “local journalism isn’t just about speaking to power but also about communities speaking to themselves”.
I can’t say it anywhere near as well as John L Robinson does; he hits the nail right on the head pretty much with this paragraph:

Newspapers hurt themselves. They began charging for obituaries. (The paper wants to make money from a death in my family? Who does that? Not a friend) Newspapers developed attitude. Snark was in; folksy was out…That’s not how you talk to family.

I understand the point he makes as what I had with various communities, at different points in my career, was intimacy with the readership.
When I worked on the Western Telegraph I knew my readers (not their social demography, I mean I literally knew most of them because I saw them. If I didn’t know people to say hello to, I knew them from court, council, from them putting in adverts at the front counter, or because they worked in W. H. Smiths or Woolworths).
When I moved to the Gloucester Citizen, even though I had a news patch and I knew a little more about my paper’s reader demography, I didn’t have that same connection and I suspect that even if I had lived in the heart of my patch it wouldn’t have happened. Because the Telegraph was ‘our paper’ or, just as interestingly, ‘THE paper’ but the Citizen was ‘The Local Rag’.
I genuinely heard it called that on a number of occasions, and bear in mind this was just at the time Fred and Rose West’s horrifying secrets were being revealed; the Citizen’s sales figures were at an all-time high, so it was being bought – it just wasn’t respected or (I suspect) particularly liked.
There was no intimacy between paper and reader. The old Grade II listed St John St offices didn’t even have – and were unable to install – a disabled access, so if you were in a wheelchair or unable to mount steps, an advertising rep or reporter would have to come and talk to you in the street – how’s that for looking after your customer?

Other papers I’ve worked on had the same issues – the Southern Daily Echo didn’t have the same feeling of connectivity with its readers as the The News, Portsmouth – just 15 miles down the M27 – while Liverpool felt connected (there was even a Foning The Echo Facebook group, set up to celebrate that landmark moment in a consumer’s life when, while complaining about shoddy goods/services, the local paper is invoked).

Maybe sometimes the physical barriers contribute to that loss of intimacy too – when you close a district office, move from that expensive city centre address to a more remote industrial site, when you shift to automated switchboards or – as Johnson says – start charging for things people would expect to get for free.

However far we’ve shifted, I think the opportunities for reconnecting (or connecting with new people) are vast, thanks to online tools and social media, and it comes back to those letters D and C.
By disrupting old ways of working – whether it’s the full-on change to digital first, or taking the decision to more transparent, or by – we open up new channels to reach people. By distributing work across 3rd party platforms (from Twitter to Scribd, Flickr to What Do They Know? or collaborating with others (blogging an unfolding story, or simply hashtagging a breaking news story), acknowledging that content does not begin and end with a 400 word story and side panel but is maps, spreadsheets, pdfs, photos, timelines, graphics, adverts puzzles, horoscopes… and then there’s data and curation, which don’t just allow us to do all of the above, they demand we do all of the above (as does Hyperlocal, I guess).

Newspapers have lost their audiences; evening titles managed to balance things somewhat by publishing earlier in the day, and some have shifted to become weekly publications but I wonder how and whether they are reconnecting with people.

As part of my Journalism Leaders Course studies I’ve been reading papers examining at how businesses cope with change. This paragraph…

Some individuals will be able to change and to adapt to even the most difficult circumstances whereas others will not. This is true for organizations as well. Some organizations are slow to react to a challenging environment whereas others are able to do so more easily

… from How Flexibility Facilitates Innovation and Ways To Manage It In Organizations  sums up the challenge anyone bringing disruption to a regional media business faces. Individuals might change, departments might change, but it’s wholesale business change – disruption – that’s key.

Disruption makes for uncertain and occasionally worrying times, but it also clears the way for the new. So I’ll say it again: Disruption isn’t an inconvenience, it’s a lifebuoy.

Sesame Street
Image via Wikipedia

* Flickr photograph by cncphotos

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3 thoughts on “Disruption isn’t an inconvenience, it’s a lifebuoy

  1. Hi Alison,

    Good post as always.

    Are newspapers connecting? You're right the tools are there to a certain extent, but I think you have to remember that a lot of this connection using social media platforms is going to a certain demographic which is middle class,white and left of centre which is not where the traditional evening and regional newspapers reached.

    Facebook probably bucks that trend but there is little evidence that it is being used in that way as far as I can see.

    It is a difficult one and don't profess to know the answer but I strongly believe that small is the answer and the way that regional newspapers have become virtual monopolies (and I understand the economics of why they have) is not the way forwards.

    There is an opportunity here but as you say, it is difficult for organisations to change.

    I think that there is still a certain,shall I call it snobbery,among certain news organisations and the journalists within them that they are the sole arbitrators of providing information and simply by paying lip service to social media and using the tools of the digital world that it solves the problem.

    I still believe that we are just a fraction of the way down the disruption of the media by the internet,still trying to use basically the old model with what I would call digital addons.
    The final version that we end up with may well be something that none of us could yet comprehend or understand


  2. Yes I see your point Nigel – at the moment we connect with a slice of who we could once reach (and I think it's no surprise that, of my papers most ingrained in their communities, it was the worker-oriented dock towns/cities of Pembroke, Portsmouth and Liverpool that had closest ties.)

    I couldn't get Jay Rosen's The People Formerly Known As The Audience article out of my head while writing the above post; reading your comment now I think maybe I was thinking people don't have the same need to re/connect with journalists at all really; self-publishing is so simple.

    I agree there has been an enduring sense of “no one can tell a story like a journalist” although hat is declining and, from my experience, you're more likely to hear that where the collective Big Names from the NUJ and SOE are gathered together than from your average news person.

    I am optimistic about the future but you're right – it's hard to see what shape it will take. I reckon we'll see it within 3 years though.


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