Innovation and the perils of “yes, but…”

There’s an interesting post on the WAN-IFRA blog now, which details are the key attributes of an effective editor, leading at a time of industry disruption.

It’s a subject close to my heart as it was the topic of my MA, and I agree with a lot of the points made by David Boardman, Dean of the School of Media and Communication at Temple University, Philadelphia.

Among the points he lists (and if you want all of ’em, this link takes you to WAN-IFRA’s post) that resonate with me is ‘Practice innovation as a means, not an end’; I completely agree with that, especially if it means the end of the dreaded “yes, but…”.

Most projects involving innovation will need a system of checks and balances, and the voice of a critical friend is often the one you least want to hear but most need to. However, to achieve innovation often means suggesting something you can’t quite articulate – it’s more of an idea-in-progress. Of course, every  now and then ideas spring, Pegasus-like, fully-fledged from someone’s brow but more frequently they venture forth tentatively and are encouraged to grow by the wider collective. In the face of a “yes, but…’ they can flicker and die before they have the chance to fully develop.

Journalists are trained to be questioning skeptics, who often want to analyse things and see the stages along a route. Furthermore, not everyone involved in the gestation of a project will feel able to support a burgeoning idea, sometimes simply because of the stark reality of just getting it out of the starting blocks is so tough. Or perhaps the existing CMS won’t support it. Or maybe it’s summer, and too many people are on holiday. Or… or… or…

And so it goes, as Father Kurt tells us.  

Innovation tends to happen when you can see your end point; the game is getting there.I was taking to Dave Brown of Apposing the other day- a true innovator and entrepreneur, if ever there was one – and he explained his approach was to imagine the desired outcome, and then plot the way towards that. And if something didn’t work, you take a detour around it. Ultimately, the way might not be direct but there is a way, if the idea is worth doing. I like that.

So, because the editors/innovation/disruption discussions looked so good, I grabbed the #editors14 hashtags stream from the World Editors Forum and dropped it into a Tweetdeck column to read at leisure.

I’m not sure what ‘editor’ constitutes for some of the speakers – I wonder if the US speakers are referring to managers with a different responsibility to UK editors, for example – but the message is still pretty clear:

  • Know what you should have knowledge of to fulfil your role
  • Accept what you don’t know and employ smart people who do
  • Be the strongest advocate for digital in your newsroom

Ideas thrive in newsroom cultures that don’t have a lot of truck with “yes but…” and when it comes to changing newsroom cultures, I would suggest an editor needs to be a lot more visible and accessible than ever, so the tentative, half-formed ideas have an advocate higher up the food chain.

If, as a parent, you’re not supposed to have a favourite child, when you edit a title I guess you shouldn’t have a favourite platform. However, if you want to make something succeed you have – in my opinion, at least – to advocate for that thing as hard as you can, doubly so if you’re doing it in the face of doubt or uncertainty.

So when I was an editor, my websites were always my favourite children, not because I didn’t believe in print but because that advocacy was important.

To try and make sure their teams believe, I’d argue editors need to believe twice as hard as anyone else in the newsroom, because the “yes but… [the paper has to come out on time]” and “yes, but…[there aren’t enough staff to do X] are compelling arguments.  They’re just the wrong ones to be having at this late stage in the game.

An unnecessary parting shot

I had a bit of a think before adding to the Allyson Bird ‘Why I Left News’ discussion. If you haven’t read it, the link will take you to a post that obviously comes from the heart about a decision that has caused her a lot of anguish and consideration. 
However. 
Days later, this paragraph is still sitting very badly with me: 

 “I can’t imagine anyone outside of an affluent family pursuing a career with so little room for financial growth. And I wonder: Would that well-to-do reporter shake hands with the homeless person she interviews? Would she walk into a ghetto and knock on a door to speak with the mother of a shooting victim? Or would she just post some really profound tweets with fantastic hash tags?”

Right up until that paragraph it was a sympathetic and poignant post about leaving journalism. But it lost me here.

There are plenty of J-students out there, from both ends of the economic scale, slogging their way through school, creating university newspapers, producing multimedia work for their portfolios, and scrubbing up for work experience.
They know anyone who posted fantastic hashtags but came back without the story would have the career lifespan equivalent of a mayfly. 

If you’re in or contemplating journalism as a career you’ll be aware the job market is dwindling and the pay and hours are far better in other trades.
People leave journalism all the time for all sorts of reasons. The pay, disillusionment, the shift towards multimedia, the backlash of said shift, the cutbacks… that’s typical of the workforce in a disrupted industry. 
People also left when journalism was a very good living indeed, with an expectation that expenses were works of fiction, lunches with contacts lasted all afternoon, and features meetings  included a nice cab sav in the office library. 

Over the weekend, some other assumptions were made about why someone left journalism. You should read the repercussions of that, here.

I’ve worked with graduate trainees from wealthy backgrounds who were just keen to get a byline and do a good job – I’m sure we all have. 
I sent one to a hellhole estate where readers had found drug needles in the local playground to do the story. I expect it was her first experience of major scale poverty and deprivation as a way of life, but she pitched in to clean up while interviewing the mums and came back with a good story. She accrued even better contacts – they thought she was great.

But journalism – in the UK, anyway – isn’t just attracting the Trust Funded (I don’t think  it ever did, to be honest).  
It’s not a pursuit of the middle classes; most of my first year as a full-time journalist was spent wearing my mum’s skirts and blouses – and I didn’t even have college debts to blame because I didn’t go.
 

Neither did being broke make me a paragon of empathetic reporting. When I got sent to do my first ‘flea infestation in council house’ story – that hardy perennial of early summer newsdesk calls – I was horrified to find myself perched on a couch in a sitting room where the walls were covered in living black wallpaper.

I was quietly happy the occupier did not offer to shake my hand.  I developed my photos, filed my story,  it went in the paper and that was all my employer expected of me. 
Go out, get the story, file it on time; rinse and repeat. 
If you can do that, rich or poor, you’ll be a good journalist.

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11 thoughts about tolerance. (And why it’s over-rated)

Rage Template

I’m starting to think social media has made me a less-than-tolerant communicator when it comes to certain issues. This is why: 
1. I assume everyone has already seen whatever Twitter is buzzing about and so knows what I’m talking about.
2. “Because it’s wrong” is not a comprehensive and thorough enough explanation of why I detest MSM plundering Facebook photos SO MUCH. 
3. I feel uncomfortable if people I know personally have egg avatars. I also make this plain until they upload a photo in self-defence.
4. I forget Scribd is not a verb, and that using it does not auto-translate into “handy way to share and embed a pdf accompanying an article”.
5. My heart may sink at Powerpoint but should remember any involuntary groan of anguish I emit when confronted by another sodding Prezi will cause the speaker to react negatively.
6. I work on the basis that linking to a source for more information has permeated Real World consciousness. And I get cross when that assumption is confounded yet again.
7. I assume general understanding that correct attribution of Flickr or Instagram photos to rightful, consenting owners is a basic principle of use. This should not be a water-on-stone issue.
8. Talking about adopting an Agile ethos may cause others to believe I want them to run around at speed. I should check for blank or anxious expressions before continuing the conversation.
9. Tweeting to colleagues sat 10 feet across the office is no substitute for a conversation – but it is often faster, more effective and easier.
10. I believe there is a special circle of Hell for people who copy others’ thoughts on Twitter and pass them off as their own. By incredible coincidence, several people all thought of this bon mot on Saturday, for example…
I remember back at nine o’clock when this were all fields.

11*. I don’t understand why the internet seems to demand lists are made in 10s regardless of whether it’s required or not. *frowns at Huffington Post and Mashable*
* See? I also have zero patience with anyone who would admit to doing something “because the internet demanded it”.
My tolerance levels are not what they were. And, to be honest, that’s fine by me.

Flickr photo courtesy of jcoolmoonster

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The responsibility of learning

I always find the Pew Research Centre data fascinating – the information is all based on US findings, of course, but it’s a wonderful insight into the way people think (and, given the right technology, operate). 

The latest one – Learning in the Digital Age – is no exception. It’s packed with stats and graphs, although my personal favourite slide is this one:

74% of smartphone users are sharing where they are and what they are doing there. A later slide says 52% of adults are on social networks (I would have probably guessed higher, probably due to my own bias)  
If mainstream media organisations can’t find a way to tap into these people – collaboratively, editorially and commercially – we may as well pack up and go home. Although some of the information pertains to libraries and librarians, it inevitably has resonance with me as a journalist. 
Like this slide 

From a media point of view, you could say “We report best passively…” has been replaced by “We report best actively” – the engagement, collaboration and transparency that newsrooms should strive for is just the same. 
And, taking the last part of the sentence into consideration, I believe we should manage our own learning. 
Training is vital, and no one should be expected to be able to produce edited video without having some idea of how to go about it but when it comes to learning about social media, data tools, mapping, sharing, online tools that make doing the job or telling the story easier/better/richer – from Audioboo to Zemanta– there is a responsibility to keep up with what’s happening.  

Learning on the job is part of the job. Whether it’s listening to colleagues, reading tech blogs, following interesting people on Twitter (it even suggests who you should follow now, after all) or Quora, asking questions…. learning about the new tools of the trade comes down to putting your journalist abilities into good use.
After all, it is better to light a candle than curse the darkness. 

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In a glass house, throwing stones?

This started out as a tweet rather than a blog post but it’s going to take more than 140 characters. If I were microblogging, I’d settle for saying I disagree with Kelvin MacKenzie‘s views on getting into journalism and the mertits of college courses, and leave it at that.
But I think it’s a bit more complicated than he has it. Here’s an except from the Independent piece (the full article on the Indie is here and I notice that over the space of a day it had moved from being described as his article to an interview with him – see Journalism.co.uk’s post on the attribution here):
“The best way to become a journalist is to go down the route I was forced to follow as not only did I not sit A-levels I only got one 0-level despite taking 15 of them over two different examination boards. Only a special kind of talent can achieve that result. So my advice to any 18-year-old is try and achieve three decent A-levels, go to a local paper, then to a regional, and then head out on to nationals or magazines by 21-22″
Disclosure:  It is my personal view that if MacKenzie knew anything worth talking about with regards to journalism the Sun’s shameful and inaccurate coverage of the Hillsborough tragedy would not have happened. This is an editor whose paper published lies, who then apologised for those lies and then proceeded to backslide on that apology; should aspiring journalists really be influenced by his opinions?

The controversial front page of the Sun.Image via Wikipedia

However, I can (just about) see the point he’s trying to make because my meandering journalism career path started when I left school, aged 18, and started on my local paper as a junior reporter. From there I progressed to a bigger weekly (which paid for my training and got me through the NCE) then on to daily regional newspapers; I wasn’t interested in broadcast, or the PA/nationals route. Eventually I wound up where I am now, editing a newspaper and a website. I’m not sure where Nobu is, or been invited to the Ivy, but I have had a damn good laugh over the years, and some corking stories (some of which were even printable).

But as I’ve said before, I got my foot in the door of my local paper because my mum worked there and the editor knew me. Yes I had to prove myself after that but I suspect I wouldn’t have even got the chance without such an advantage.
And from my own experience of interviewing prospective employees, some sort of benchmark is vital; not many candidates without some form of journalism qualification get far in the selection process on daily regional papers.
That’s because it’s a brave interviewer who gambles on someone just because they sense a spark of something, with nothing other than a gut feeling to back it up. 
Probably that was an approach that worked a few decades ago but now? I suspect not.
The traditional ‘promoted-to-a-position-where-they-can-do-no-more-harm‘ roles are dwindling. How many regionals now have full-time writers whose raison d’etre is solely to write a whimsical Saturday column and putter together the Looking Back round-up from the archive?
If you take someone on, you’d better be damn sure they’re good (or willing to monster them until they quit – and that’s something else that doesn’t happen so much now, thankfully) because otherwise you’re adding a passenger to a stretched newsroom.
But what to make of this, from Hold The Front Page, on April 8 (same day as the Indie article)?

The University of the Creative Arts will no longer accept new entrants for its BA degrees in Motoring Journalism or Leisure Journalism, which are based at its Farnham campus, although current students will be able to complete their courses

I don’t know, because the article doesn’t specify, whether these Motoring Journalism and Leisure Journalism courses are tailored towards print (if so, magazines, one would imagine/hope), digital media or broadcast, or whether past alumni have got jobs in their chosen specialities, or whether it’s geared (no pun) towards freelancers, but those are fiercely-competitive, niche roles if you’re planning on working in mainstream media. 


In regional papers where I’ve worked, press trips got handed to reporters as rewards or allocated in a names-in-a-hat basis. Leisure journalism? It’s often part of feature-writing remit, along with the ability to pen true-life stories, wax lyrical about interior design, and make celebrities sound sensible in print. I’ve met one journalist in my life –one – who’s job was to travel the world testing spa resorts; she worked for a high-end lifestyle magazine in the USA.


Similarly, there aren’t that many motors journalist jobs in the regionals; these tend to buy motors copy off PA, retired ex-staffers who fancy tootling around in posh cars and writing about it, or from staffers who are enthusiasts (A colleague and I once set up a motorbikes section purely so we could play on fast, shiny bikes). 
Motors pages for national titles seems increasingly to be the preserve of celebrities, some of whom came through a journalism route. 
That leaves broadcast and digital media, of course, but the number of jobs on offer is so vanishingly small, and the competition so fierce, would you run up student debts on the off-chance that you would get a post in your speciality straight away?

No wonder there were only three subscribers for the motoring degree, and none for leisure. Those three have moved to the journalism course which is, I reckon, a far safer bet for them and a much better investment of their time and money. 

Many journalism colleges do a good job of providing entry-level journalists for local papers (I can’t comment on broadcast courses but I’ve seen print colleagues who came through the college route cross into TV after excelling in video journalism while working for their local papers). 

And it’s a sweeping generalisation for Kelvin MacKenzie to describe all courses are ‘make-work projects for retired journalists’. There are a number of journalism educators whom I admire and who definitely don’t need me defending them because it’s an indisputable fact that they are excellent at what they do. 
 
If and when newly-qualified students do get a job with their local newspaper, of course they will continue to learn. I’ve been doing this for 20-odd years and every damn week I learn a new, sometimes harsh, lesson; I bet lawyers, teachers, civil servants and care workers say the same thing. Learning on the job is not unique to Journalism.
Ironically, in the penultimate paragraph he asks: “What do you need to know about the law? If you want to avoid libel a) be accurate and b) have the goods. If you haven’t got the evidence you’ll get sued”.

So here’s a final thought from me: Just where was the evidence for the Sun’s Hillsborough front page?  

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"A new kind of thinking is required…"

Image representing iPad as depicted in CrunchBaseImage via CrunchBaseI read Judy Sims’ excoriating blog post on (some) newspaper execs today; it struck a chord with me in the light of my last post on five things I thought newspapers should do next year as she also has an issue with the iPad goldrush:

“So along come the steering committees, working committees, pay walls and subscription models and the dream that consumers will be willing to pay for their rarified opinions despite the countless free alternatives.  And along come the $30 million iPad apps that attempt to recreate scarcity by rolling back the clock to when news was a once-a-day occurrence and the public didn’t expect to comment, contribute or find links”

 You can read the full article here. If you happen to be a newspaper executive, I suggest you move anything breakable off your desk first…

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Why it’s time to throw away the dummy (or whatever it’s called in your newsroom)

If you know what this is…

…the chances are you’ve brushed up against newsdesk or page design in a newsroom at some point. Everywhere I’ve worked it’s been called something different – The Book, The Plan, The Dummy, the Flatplan – but recently I’ve started wondering if it should be called The Box, because we think inside it.
One of the all-consuming parts of a news editor’s day (and a reporter’s too, since they are the ones providing the copy) is filling the paper.
Leads and photos aren’t necessarily the most difficult part of it either; there may be plenty of good newsworthy things being written up but that takes time.
And then there’s the other content that fills the page – your anchors, hampers, basements etc (these also have myriad names depending on which newsroom you’re in) – which always runs short.

This means that the Book is one of the things everyone thinks about – we can’t help it; you want to know how many pages it has (a small Book offers its own challenges), how heavily added is it, and what the colour options are. Which means the HOW of filling a newspaper can become more absorbing and demanding than  the WHAT. Content may like to think its king but, as far as most people working in print are concerned, Deadline is sovereign over all.

God it depresses me; I hate the Book and all its constraints with a passion. It can dictate when your article runs (too many ads, no decent spreads, not enough colour, too few good right-hand display pages etc etc and, indeed, etc), and stifle creativity – yes, print headlines can be awesome but I’d rather have compelling content than a clever header, plus there’s nothing inspiring about knowing you have space for 350 words and one upright pic.

What I’d like to do is plan backwards. So you start thinking how you want to tell the story before you think about the platform.
It’s easier online, of course. There is no book, plan or dummy other than the site template; there’s no constraint on how much you can write (we’ve all had articles that could have run to 1,500 words only to learn there was space on the page for 800), how many photos you can use with it (in print, even a double-page spread only gives you around six photos,  maybe two of which will get a display, to play with) and no ‘the headline won’t fit’ woes. But there is the option for:

  • Video 
  • Podcasts
  • Photo galleries
  • Maps
  • Linking
  • Chunked articles
  • Forums
  • Geo data
  • Search
  • Tagging
  • Interactive charts/graphs
  • Live tweets
  • Live streaming 
  • Live blogs
  • Social media 
  • Reader comments
  • Blogs 
  • Interaction
  • Conversation
  • Soundslides
  • Information sharing 

…and more. Or, if you prefer, to do this*:

In these days of slashed newsroom numbers, achieving even a handful things off the above list can be a big ask – few newsdesks have the capacity to operate with all reporters working on a single story a day, albeit told in multimedia ways. It’s far more effective to have them working on multiple articles, with shovelware online content. Isn’t it?
Actually, I think not. Newspapers that view the website as a place for reverse-publishing articles are settling for short-term solutions that won’t last the course. Multimedia storytelling is vital to engage online audiences – 1,500 word features with multiple page breaks to boost page view counts are not the solution; compelling, thoughtful, interactive content is. 

That’s why I would love to hear the phrase ‘How many words do you want?’ replaced with ‘How do you want this told?’ Is that happening on any editorial floors in the UK’s regional press yet? I’d love to know – because that really would be a converged newsroom.

*thanks, Wordle

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Newspapers and Ronald McDonald – guest post by Neil MacDonald

I was talking to friend and colleague Neil MacDonald (over on Twitter as xxnapoleonsolo) the other day about dodos. It had been a long, rather difficult week, and I happened to express the opinion that dodos deserved everything they got, as they hadn’t been able to evolve fast enough to overcome changing circumstances.The rather tortured parallel I was drawing was with certain sectors of the newspaper industry; it had been, as I say, a rather dispiriting week.
Anyway, Neil (the seasoned blogger behind the truly excellent Scyfi Love blog) came back with much better example of his own. I told him he should blog about it and he did – but since it doesn’t really pertain to science fiction I’m hosting his thoughts here.
Over to you Neil:

McDonald's Canada at a Wal-Mart Canada in Toro...

I NEVER thought I would be looking up to Ronald McDonald as a role model – whether that is because of the ginger curly hair, the fact clowns give me the creeps or the enormous ginger curly hair again.

But that is the position I find myself in today and it is a position every journalist should share too. (Stay with me, this is going somewhere)

If you remember back in the day, McDonalds was the unchallenged king of the high street fast food market. With an essentially unchanged product since it first came to the country, it was the king of the castle and I – like a lot of kids my age, used to get taken there as a treat.

What is more, if you didn’t like it, you could go home.

Realistic alternatives were in short supply unless you liked a slightly different type of burger, and any rivals were crushed beneath the sheer scope of Ronnie and his multi-kajillion dollar business.

But then … something changed.

People started to care much more about the quality of the food they were putting in their bodies as healthy living moved into the mainstream of society in Britain.

The treats stopped as more than ever before people were working out, getting in shape, watching the calories and turning their back on fast food which was seen as unhealthy and even dangerous. To a lot of people, McDonalds became the bad guy.

So what did they do about it? Hope it would all work out for the best? Pretend nothing had changed as they were still making big money, albeit less than they used to?

They changed too, to move with the times and ensure they kept their customers. What is more, they are still evolving. It is a constant process.

How? By developing their core product, for instance by highlighting the quality of beef in their burgers, and printing a calorie count on the boxes.

They also started to sell new, healthier products or use other meats and vegetarian options, while good quality coffee was suddenly on the menu.

Finally McDonalds changed the experience of visiting their restaurants by massively redesigning them using new designs and furniture and offering other incentives to eat there like free Wi-Fi.

So what? So I obviously know waaay too much about McDonalds.

But so this…

Everything they have done can be applied to the news industry to help take advantage of the internet and the opportunities it presents.

* Developing the core product – not rejecting it wholesale – to better fit current trends and tastes.

* Expanding into new areas which you didn’t even think about before. Some will work, some won’t, but it is worth giving it a go.

* Offering something new – a new space for people to experience what you produce
Changing the whole experience of consuming.

The work McDonalds has already done offers a step by step map for any journalist or news organisation to follow.

Or we can do nothing except order the heart attack burger with extra fries.

Me? The ginger wig is on order and I am wearing incredibly large shoes. Just call me Ronnie.

Image via Wikipedia

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Worst work experience email ever?

Today brought what can only be described as the worst appeal for work experience with a newspaper I’ve seen in two decades of working in a newsroom. It is a genuine application – in case you were wondering – and I wanted to share it, verbatim, missing caps and all, because I still can’t quite believe someone thought this would be sufficient.
Names have been removed to spare blushes (honestly, I am too nice sometimes):

hi my name is *** i will love to no if i can do my work X there at the [newspaper title] will u ask your boss for me if i can cal u get back to me plzz asap thank u m8t 

 The email address was equally great – an abbreviation of the applicant’s favourite football team, with the phrase ‘badboy’ tacked on the end.
When I was a junior reporter, a long-suffering and kindly sub gave me my own spelling book so I could note down and correct my many errors. I suspect even he would be a bit thoughtful at the prospect of tackling this applicant’s shortcomings.

Newsrooms – who needs ’em?

The ‘Newspapers are dead’ discussion looks set to drag on (and on) without any real conclusion or particularly illuminating insights but there is a side debate that does interest me: Do we still need newsrooms?
I read the Journalism Iconoclast blog regularly and was intrigued by a post there recently that suggested: Telecommuting can replace the office. Basically, it asks why we still need expensive newsrooms in a networked age.

And it’s an interesting question; I confess that I look around my newsroom sometimes, as I sit on our new central hub in the Liverpool Daily Post & Echo HQ, and wonder whether we all need to be physically ‘at work’ to be at work.
Newspapers have already discovered they don’t need to have their HQ in a city centre. It’s a thorny subject, but I have no issues with journalists being based in purpose-built, modern unit by a ring road any day; it’s not geography that connects us with our audience – it’s how we engage with them, and our willingness to do so.

How would a newsroom operate in a virtual world? Theoretically, I don’t think it would be particularly tricky; the biggest challenge would be convincing people it could be done.
You could conduct news conferences and meetings via webinars, use Skype to talk to colleagues/contacts for free, log into the system remotely – whether you’re a designer working at home or a reporter filing from the town hall – chat to colleagues via Gtalk, hold group discussions in Friendfeed rooms, use Yammer, Ning, Twitter, Seesmic to interact and add that important social element to the working day. Of course you’d need an office base of some description, and there would always be some hardy souls who would have to use it, for real-world meetings, training, appraisals and other mundane workday issues.

But would workers accept it, perhaps even welcome it? There’s the argument that says, you get creative people in a room together, add a bit of banter and gallows humour, and you get better newspapers. And then there’s the argument that says better newspapers come from being connected to the issues that affect those communities they serve.

Personally, I’m leaning more towards that latter argument as time goes on. I’ve never done the telecommute thing in earnest (just on odd days – usually thanks to the weather or transport problems) but I know journalists who have, and who found it made them more productive.

So in considering the question, I have to try and separate what I think could be a working future for journalists from the nostalgic glow I have for newsrooms. Because they can be the most bizarre, wonderful places to work – I’ve seen typewriters thrown through (closed) windows, found reporters sleeping under desks after a night out and witnessed an impromptu whippet race on a lull in an election night. I have also sat and learned from some of the wisest, most tolerant and generous journalists that ever made a shorthand outline.

I would be sad to see newsrooms go the way of the office pub, but I think it’s inevitable – and we will see it start happening within the next couple of years, as the economy picks up and property prices begin to recover.
The loss of the newsroom bubble could be the catalyst that really gets journalists using online social media, becoming more like beat bloggers in their respective patches (be that geographical or specialist subject) and engaging with communities.
I don’t think anyone would mourn the loss of a newsroom if it meant journalists, and the newspapers that employ them, were more connected, successful, interactive and aware of the issues affecting their readers.

* By the way, if you like the cartoon it’s from this site.