Interview with Italian newspaper

This morning, I’ve been receiving e-mail from folks in Italy, which I think means that Corriere della Sera has now ran a story about the new-media strategies used by some U.S. newspapers. (At least that’s what I think the story is about. I haven’t seen it, but even if I had, I can’t read Italian.)

Since I did the interview with Alessandra Farkas, a New York-based correspondent for the Italian newspaper, I’ve been told by a couple of my colleagues and friends that Corriere della Sera is a really great European newspaper. In the reporter’s note to me, Farkas said Corriere della Sera is the oldest and most widely read Italian daily newspaper with a circulation throughout the world that exceeds 6 million.

The interview was conducted via e-mail during the recent holiday. The questions were definitely not what I expected, or what I’m typically asked.

What’s wild is that some of the dates I gave in this interview just a few weeks ago have already changed!

Anyway, here is the transcript:

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1. Can you explain your strategy in reviving the Washington Post – Newsweek Group in detail, citing specific examples? In other words, how do you plan on curing the patient?

To be honest, I’m such a tiny part of the overall strategy that it’s almost unfair for me to answer this question.

I can tell you what my team is focusing on, if that’s what you’re asking.

When our team was in Topeka or Lawrence or Naples, people called a lot of what we did “hyper-local journalism.” And for as long as I can remember, it’s been said that what we did in those cities could never work in a major market.

Well, we’re working very hard to show that it can be done.

Our hope is that our first take on what “hyper-local” content looks like for a site that is the size of washingtonpost.com will be available to the public in March or April. It will be for a suburb of Washington, DC.

If you’ve ever seen the guides we’ve built in the past for churches, restaurants or schools, or seen the depth of our calendar of local events, or any of the other databases we’ve built, and then seen how we’ve layered it all with multimedia, new technologies, community publishing tools and a big dose of journalism that embraces the Internet, then make it work on any device you can dream of, then you’ve got an idea of what this might look like on washingtonpost.com. Not to mention, one heck of a run-on sentence.

We’re also working very closely with the incredibly gifted journalists in The Washington Post newsroom on special projects that expand their stories with all of the things that make the Internet such a powerful story-telling environment.

And my favorite part of our team’s responsibilities is that we’ve been asked to dream up new tools and gizmos that we hope will excite our readers as much as they excite us.

To be honest, I can’t believe I get paid to do this. It’s my dream job.

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2. Historically newspapers have had to reinvent themselves every ten years to keep in step with the times. Does this present challenge follow the same pattern or how is it different?

Relevant newspapers that connect with their audiences have always been changing … and not just every ten years.

I think our industry’s opportunity right now is to show our audience that we really want to engage in a dialogue with them and we want to work with them when big events affect our community to help keep our community informed. We also want them to turn to us in any format they want. If they want us on an iPod, we need to be there. If they want us to send live scores from their favorite team’s games, we need to do that. If we can figure out how to beam content directly to our readers’ brains, we should do it.

But in doing that, we can’t overlook our journalistic responsibilities. We’ve got to understand that all of this technology is just another way for us to balance little “j” journalism with big “J” journalism — covering the biggest stories and the smallest stories and connecting with our community.

In my opinion, what were going through right now is nothing more than showing our audience that we are relevant, both from a content perspective and a technological perspective. Though our relationship with our readers is different than the relationship their parents might have had with us, it’s still an important connection.

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3. Today, what do newspapers in their print form represent?

There is all of this doom and gloom out there right now, but people forget that the print editions of newspapers are still a hugely powerful way of reaching a mass audience. If they didn’t have an impact and great reach, stores would quit buying ads in them and politicians wouldn’t care what we wrote in them.

But if you’re looking at it from a literal perspective of what I think newspapers currently represent, the print product is just one of the ways we reach an audience. It’s one of the platforms we use to keep people informed.

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4. How would you describe or define consumers who use newspapers as their primary or sole source of news?

Informed. Smart. Charming. Good-looking.

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5. What do you feel the future holds for print newspapers? Is the writing on the wall? What must newspapers do in order to survive?

Newspapers are going to survive. Will we be doing things the way we’ve always done them? Absolutely not.

In the United States, there are two types of newspaper publishers — those who think the most important part of the word newspaper is “news” and those who think the most important part of that word is “paper.” If you work for a publisher or a company that thinks “paper” is the most important part of that word, then my suggestion would be to get your resume ready.

We can’t be afraid of reaching our audience in new ways. It will be one of the keys to our industry’s successful future.

There’s another big factor to future success that we better understand and that is that we better understand and appreciate that people consume information differently now.

I used to work at a newspaper where if something big happened in Israel at 7:30 in the morning our time, the managing editor at that newspaper would still insist that we lead with that story in the next day’s newspaper because that is what this newspaper had been doing for decades. So, when our readers woke up the next morning, our newspaper’s lead story was at least 24 hours old. With the Internet and 24-hour news channels and a million other ways to keep informed, newspapers can’t keep pretending we’re the only game in town.

Yet that’s what a ton of editors in the United States still do every dang day. Should we have that Israel story in our newspaper? Absolutely. Should we pretend that the only way that people get the news is through us? Not if we want to send our kids to college.

The newspapers that pretend they are still they only way people learn anything are going to fail. As my friend Bob Cauthorn says, “Having a seat at the table is more interesting than sitting at the head of the table.” And if we just embrace that idea, our industry will be fine. If we keep pretending that nothing has happened until we print it, then the newspaper industry is going to be in a lot of trouble.

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6. If you were to speak with a publisher in Italy whose media group was facing the same challenges as an analogous American media company, what are some precise suggestion you would give in order meet those challenges?

  • Own breaking news. Don’t let any other media in your community ever beat you on a developing local news story. As soon as we know something, we need to have it on our Web sites, on our mobile-phone editions, and in the e-mail box of every subscriber who wants it. We have to train our readers that they should want to turn to us several times a day, and absolutely turn to us when they know something big has just happened. Regardless of what some traditional print reporters think, you can’t scoop yourself by posting something early on your own newspaper’s Web site. Get over it. That sort of thinking will kill us in this new era.
  • Hyper-local content. The Internet may be a global medium, but it’s local content that sets most newspaper sites apart. And getting granular with everything from local kids’ sports stories to neighborhood politics is how newspapers will win. National and international news is a commodity that every site can have. For most local newspaper sites, local news produced by its newsroom is how our industry will win on the Internet.
  • Embrace databases. Calendars. Restaurants. Churches, Taxes. Home sales. Traffic tickets. Crime. Anything that can be searched like that should be on your site. People want that sort of information, and we should want to make sure that they know the newspaper can give it to them.
  • Multimedia. Using video, audio, Flash animations, etc…, should be a key part of a “new” newspaper’s toolbelt. Youtube.com and iTunes are successful for a reason — multimedia is now a hugely important part of the Internet. If your publisher hasn’t heard of youtube or iTunes, get your resume ready.
  • Evergreen content. Evergreen content is content that you build once that can last forever on your site. Sometimes amazing evergreen content appears in our print edition, and all we need to do is compile it and make it easy to find on our Web sites – things like local guides, etc… But sometimes evergreen content needs to be built or collected just for the Web site. Evergreen content can be anything — the history of your city, all of the information you can gather about someone famous from your city, maybe an overview of your local sports team’s greatest season, etc…
  • Make sure your content can work on any device imaginable. Web. E-mail. RSS. iPods. Mobile phones. Other mobile devices. Sony PSPs. Right now, I really think newspapers should be focusing in on content for mobile phones.
  • Make sure your newspaper isn’t a monologue, but a dialogue with you audience. Can readers’ post comments on stories? Can they easily contact reporters and editors from each story? Are public-produced blogs on your site? Can readers easily post their own photos, video and text on your site, etc…?
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    7. Is it possible to harness the challenge of new interactive media (blogs, YouTube, etc.,) in a way to help relaunch newspapers or will these different mediums always be competing entities?

    Is it possible for us to function in an interactive, two-way environment? Absolutely. Newspapers absolutely need to embrace these sorts of things. Several very smart newspapers already are doing this in very powerful ways.

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    8. Do you feel that European media faces the same challenges as their American counterparts or is there a difference? Please specify.

    I can tell you that from this side of the ocean, it looks like some European newspapers are very open to trying new things. The success of all of those new free dailies and that several European newspapers seem much more advanced than U.S. newspapers when it comes to things like text messaging to mobile phones seems to show a lot of promise. I travel to Europe at least a couple of times each year to visit different media companies, and I always learn new things and am always impressed.

    I was at a newspaper conference in Vienna earlier this year and I heard this very smart newspaper executive, I think from somewhere in Scandinavia, say something to the effect he’s heard all about the problems of our industry, but that he just wasn’t seeing it. He basically said that any way you could gauge the success of a newspaper showed that his paper was stronger than ever. Revenue was up. Circulation was up. Everything was great.

    I’m not a futurist. I can’t emphasize that enough. But that being said, I think it would be foolish to pretend that European newspapers are immune to the sorts of problems that newspapers in the United States are experiencing now. I agree with others who feel that European newspaper publishers who think the problems American newspapers are facing is something unique to the United States are making a grave error in judgment. If things are going great for many European newspapers, which I honestly don’t know either way, then I would say this is a perfect time to get aggressive. I think it makes much more sense to put together a strategy based upon foresight and logic instead of desperation. There are a lot of newspapers in the United States whose new-media strategies sure seem like desperation to me right now.

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    9. If you were to look into a crystal ball what would you see as our information sources in 50 and 100 years?

    As I said earlier, I’m not a futurist. But I do have some guesses about a few things.

    You know, most of the members of my team are younger and smarter than me. And one of the things that I find so interesting about them is that they call the organizations that produce music “record companies.” Yet there probably isn’t a single member of my staff who has ever bought a record. They’ve bought CDs, maybe cassettes, and they definitely use mp3s. But not actual records, and yet that’s still what they call these companies.

    If there is any industry that has screwed up the Internet more than newspapers it’s the record companies. But maybe what’s happened with the record companies, at least as far as general perception is concerned, is similar to what might happen to the newspaper industry.

    What if everyone still calls us newspapers, even if in the future we’re producing content that is available in just about any format except on paper?

    I think in the future, we’ll still be called “newspapers” but what that will really mean is the organization that documents the living history of a society, and does it in every way that our audience wants it.

    And that might include paper. But it might not.

    What I’m trying to say is that the definition of what a newspaper is will likely change.

    One of my favorite quotes about the future of journalism was said nearly 75 years ago by the publisher of small daily newspaper in rural Kansas. His name was William Allen White, and he was hugely influential publisher in the United States during his time, and I think it’s a shame that he’s not as influential now. He’s definitely a hero of mine, and not just because we’re both newspaper guys from the same state!

    Look at this quote from him that he wrote in a personal letter back in 1931:

    “Of course as long as man lives someone will have to fill the herald’s place. Someone will have to do the bellringer’s work. Someone will have to tell the story of the day’s news and the year’s happenings. A reporter is perennial under many names and will persist with humanity. But whether the reporter’s story will be printed in types upon a press, I don’t know. I seriously doubt it. I think most of the machinery now employed in printing the day’s, the week’s, or the month’s doings will be junked by the end of this century and will be as archaic as the bellringer’s bell, or the herald’s trumpet. New methods of communication I think will supercede the old.”

    What that quote from William Allen White shows me is that a publisher from generations ago knew more precisely what our industry is about then many of his modern counterparts.

    One essential strategy or philosophy I also swear by came from another Kansas journalist: Bill Snead. Bill and I worked together at the Lawrence Journal-World and I learned more about journalism from him than I have from probably anyone else in my career. Bill always told me that the most important thing we could do was to have a connection with our audience, a relationship that meant as much to them as it did to us.

    That’s important because being a great newspaper isn’t about the medium. It’s not about if a paper version of what we produce exists in the future. What matters most is that the relationship with our audience survives. That’s the real issue that newspapers should be focusing on.

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    10. If you were offered a position as a consultant to an Italian media empire, would you accept?

    I don’t speak the language. I don’t know the local cultures and history. I don’t know all of the little things that make a newspaper Web site successful. Because of that, all I really could do is tell you what our team has done here in the United States, why we did it, and why I think it worked.

    But if you’re offering me a trip to Italy, can I bring my family?

    🙂

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    rcurley

    Dad. Journalist. Nerd. Music lover. Baseball fan. Puckhead.