Isabelle Roughol – The J junkie

The tribulations of a young journalist and writer looking for work

The Columbia Missourian should look to an online future, rather than strike a deal with the Daily Tribune

with 2 comments

Columbia Missourian editor Tom Warhover, my former boss, is asking readers what they think of a possible business partnership with the Columbia Daily Tribune, the paper across town. I am putting my thoughts down, but taking the liberty of overstepping Tom’s mandate. If we’re going to rethink the Missourian, we gotta rethink the whole journalism school. Bear with me; these thoughts have been forming for three years. Journalism junkies and concerned citizens, please read. Others, move on or put up with a 1200-word essay.
The idea Tom advanced would be for the Tribune to print the Missourian (in exchange for some business advantages not detailed yet), thus eliminating the huge printing costs (and some payroll) of a paper that has been bleeding money for years. More interestingly, I think, the column suggests another solution could be going online only, or online mainly. For more background, read Tom’s column. Many Mizzou alumni have already made comments there.
Let’s start with the question asked. I think striking an arrangement with the Tribune would be an error. Why? Because when a paper loses control of its business side, it loses much of its potential for business and newsroom innovation. The paper simply dies slowly of inertia. My hometown was once a two-paper town; I say “once” because even though we still have two papers in theory, ever since paper No. 1 bought paper No. 2, No. 1 continues its staggering growth and No. 2 hasn’t changed since my internship there in 1998. Case in point, their Web site is simply a static pdf of the front page, without even a way to read jumps. It’s hard to have a definitive opinion when we don’t know the details of the deal, but it would take a deal very restrictive on the Tribune’s involvement for me to be confident about the Missourian’s future. I don’t see why the Trib’ would agree to such a deal.

To those for whom quality of journalism isn’t a primary concern (read, UM System Board of Curators), I would — on a side note — add that cheapening the Missourian is also a dangerous business move. If I didn’t think that working at the Missourian would bring more to my education than a stint at the student newspaper of any other university, I wouldn’t have picked the Missouri School of Journalism. I wouldn’t have buried myself in the Midwest, and neither would have hundreds of out-of-state, tuition-paying, $25,000-a-year students.

I mentioned innovation because it is precisely, I believe, the point of having the Missourian, a paper my friend Matt Wynn aptly called the “canary in the coal mine” of the newspaper industry. If the Missourian loses that distinctive feature, it will be just like any other 7,000-circulation, small town paper, except with staff in training. The Missourian is that paper that’s not afraid to “fall flat on its face,” again as Matt puts it, in the interest of advancing the industry. Asking the Trib’ to save us from financial ruin — I say “us” because, in case you hadn’t noticed, I have a deep attachment to the Missourian — would be just a crutch, a temporary band-aid over the bullet hole, if you pardon the cliché, that wouldn’t change a thing to the sad state of the newspaper industry, which the Trib’ will too, eventually, have to deal with. That is not what the Missourian is about.

That’s where Tom’s suggestion of going online mainly comes into play. Journalism innovators have so far only skimmed the surface of what the Internet can do for our industry. I won’t repeat my common tech-evangelist diatribe, but a quick enumeration will do: interactivity, social networking, participatory journalism, data, hyperlocal, mobile platforms, public service, crowd-sourcing, community forums, Twitter, plenty other things we haven’t yet found a word for… There’s plenty to keep the students busy. With over a hundred unpaid staff, the Missourian has a unique opportunity to experience with everything other newsrooms don’t have the time and resources to do. I’m sure students would rather have the opportunity to dig deep into the issues that will shape their careers, than do the same write a story/edit it they’ll get to do at every other summer internship. And that’ll be something different to talk about in the job interviews. So what if we fall flat on our faces?  Sure there will be growing pains, but who makes a difference: the guy limping on the crutch, or the guy who volunteers to test out the bionic leg?

Don’t get me wrong, I still value a well-written story and thorough reporting. Those should be the primary skills taught to every student. I particularly lament the loss of quality writing in many newspapers, reduced to columns to AP-style, inverted pyramids without style or merit; and to promote better storytelling, I strongly recommend keeping a print weekend edition full of narratives, strong photography and innovative designs. The Weekend Missourian is the best thing we do; don’t lose it!

The biggest challenge will be to figure out how to finance the same quality journalism without print revenues. No one’s figured that one out yet. There was also a time in history when no one had figured out the printing press or Google. Put enough motivated people together in a room, and it will happen. One way to make sure that happens is to promote not just editorial excellence, but also business sense. I know math and money are dirty words to many journalists, but we must face reality. Our industry has hundreds of talented writers, editors, designers, producers, photographers… What it needs now is entrepreneurs. The journalism school should be a business incubator and a think tank for our industry, building partnerships with the business school and private enterprises, staffing the business side with students (supervised) and encouraging careers in publishing and media business.

On the editorial side, too, this is no time for half-measures. Here is the thought I’ve occasionally let slip, reinventing the world at Flat Branch, a honey wheat in hand: merge the newsrooms, get rid of sequences. The J school, which I adore, has got one thing wrong: it still defines the journalism by the platform on which it is published. You got newspaper journalism, radio-television journalism, photojournalism, magazine journalism and convergence journalism (a failed experiment, as a sequence, which I hear is on the out, but at least they risked falling flat on their faces). Keep a sequence to the side for them PR folks (or slide them over to the business school) and merge everything else. I dream of a comprehensive newsroom where student-journalists would be trained across platforms (how I wish I had learned radio, too) and KOMU, Missourian & Co., KBIA and other outlets yet-to-be-created would be partners, not competitors (for media diversity, there’s still plenty around town); where stories would find their expression in whatever medium works best; where students would be encouraged to come up with personal projects, even books, documentaries and start-ups. A place where our work’s only definition is ‘we get the truth out,’ and the only absolute is the ethical standards we all value.

Just my thoughts, respectfully submitted to the higher authorities


Written by Isabelle Roughol

Thursday, 19 June, 2008 at 06:11

2 Responses

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  1. Good stuff. I particularly like the idea of re-inventing the J School experience to reflect how this plays outs — I think the two have to be related.

    How cool and cost-effective would it be to limit the print MOian to weekends, and merge the website with KBIA and KOMU? If you look at some of the strongest markets for major media compnies, that has been one way to corner the online news market. Take, the product of the Arizona Republic and our sister TV station. Constant updates. The best video. It’s not there yet, but it’s the closest I’ve seen to a one-stop shop for all the local news you need.

    I think an answer independent of the Tribune is there. I hope they find it.


    Thursday, 19 June, 2008 at 08:52

  2. Well said.

    Rob Weir

    Thursday, 19 June, 2008 at 09:18

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