Nicco Mele on why papers like The Roanoke Times should thrive

On a good day, technology increases people’s engagement with each other.

On a bad day, it’s all about the digital me. “It’s narrow-minded and parochial, and people only read what they already agree with,” said Nicco Mele, the man Esquire magazine dubbed “one of America’s best and brightest.”

The technology guru and Harvard media professor spoke to a smallish group of Nieman fellows this week, thanks to Chilean Nieman Fellow Alejandra Matus (who was just named a 2011 Mason fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School; we’re so proud!)

Among Mele’s advice for journalists:

• Remember, it’s not about technology; it’s about people. “The Internet allows people to transact directly with each other and to bypass institutions.” Social media is king.

• How will newspapers fare? “I don’t see the large institutions existing in their current form in five, 10 years.” Accountability journalism — 80 percent of which has historically been done by newspapers, according Web guru Clay Shirkey — will instead be undertaken piecemeal, with no dominant model leading the charge. Damn the digital me.

Mele foresees enterprise journalism being funded by a cadre of foundations, old media, new media start-ups, and, gulp, corporations. “I think we’ll struggle with accountability journalism for 10, 25 years — but eventually it’ll get sorted out because hard news is important.”

• It’s 24-hour pajama time: Journalists should prepare to become freelancers mainly working on their own. “It’s the 1,000 true fans theory: the idea that if you have 1,000 fans who subscribe to you for $100 a year, you can live off that.” (See Paige Williams’ astonishing profile on Dolly Freed and her efforts to crowd-fund the story after it was killed by The New York Times Magazine.)

Mele told an interesting story about how he self-published the lesson plans of his grandmother, a retired middle school teacher — and sells 400-500 copies of it a year via

• Forget institutions; it’s all about people and social networks. “I don’t trust The New York Times. At the end of the day, the people I trust are my social network. They’re my old college roommates — the people whose faults and biases I already know!

“Large institutions to whom power is important will struggle and struggle and struggle with the Internet.

• • •

Just as I was beginning to get totally depressed (again) about the state of the print media, someone asked Mele to forecast the fortunes of medium- and smaller-market newspapers — and the picture brightened. Mele is a big fan of putting local news on the front page, even when there’s big news happening elsewhere.

Papers the size of The Roanoke Times should strive to become the “google groups” of their communities, offering hyperlocal news and connecting readers with one another in new and innovative ways. (Kevin Myatt’s fantastically popular weather blog came to mind here, as did the diehard followers of Doug Doughty and Randy King on all things sports. And I’d put Tad Dicken’s local music reporting up against anybody in the country’s; Tee-man has definitely helped turn our town into a happening music scene.)

In other words, forget trying to be sophisticated, big-city wannabe papers and embrace the local. “I don’t get the Boston Globe putting the Taliban on the front page instead of the major local story of the day,” he said. “They’re not going to be the international news source, and they shouldn’t even try.”

The Internet is about relationships — whether it be professional relationships via Linked In, or Facebook for socializing, or specialized networks that connect local chefs to local organic farms.

“The problem in the U.S. is that we’ve gone mass. And the Internet in my mind is lethal to anything mass.”

Get busy and get creative — not depressed, he added.

“I see lots of opportunity for hope, as long as you get back to the local and build it out from there.”

Searching out change lessons from the center of the storm

For a Kennedy School class I’m taking called Public Narrative, today I was tasked with presenting a paper about continuity and change as it affects the journalism industry — and what leadership lessons my peers and I can take from it. As I was writing this yesterday, I learned that one of my dearest reporter friends was laid off from the Associated Press. Talk about a reality check. Sometimes I feel like the proverbial fish who has no idea he’s in water — because that’s all he knows. It’s hard to sort out the lessons of this journalistic storm when you’re still stuck in the eye of it. But here’s one rambling attempt. . . .

Last year was the worst year ever for journalism in general and for my newsroom in particular. While we didn’t suffer layoffs at my paper (a rarity in the industry), we have had furloughs and buyouts. Our staff shrank mightily, with so many empty desks that the bosses finally had the maintenance guys rearrange the furniture — adding a red couch and a seating area to camouflage the loss. It didn’t work. The truth is, the few of us remaining are so busy that nobody has time to actually sit a spell on the couch.

Morale, as you might guess, is at an all-time low for journalists everywhere. As veteran journalists, we’ve all had several choices presented to us: Do we join the hundreds of other journalists who have jumped ship pre-emptively, getting out of the business before they’re forced? Or do we stay and fight? If we do stay, how as a reporter do we continue doing what we love as the industry shifts from old media to the new? How do we embrace change when we can’t even count on having a job from one week to the next?

Last week, I wrote about my attempt to turn the story of my industry’s loss into a story of redemption; how I’ve tried to reframe the dread-filled conversations that dominate newspapers across the country by inspiring other reporters to remember why it is we were originally called to tell the stories of the downtrodden and the corrupt; how to make the public’s business known. Some call me a Pollyanna, but I’m trying to convince the naysayers in my industry that we can reinvent ourselves but only if we invent new ways of working — and of working better together. That we have to change is evident; what’s less clear is whether we can hold onto our core journalistic values as we commence the metamorphosis. In this age of politically leaning blogs and shouting cable TV hosts, remembering our values of fairness and civic responsibility may be the only thing that saves us. Waving the white flag of surrender sure won’t.

I’ve come to Harvard this year to learn more about families, immigrants and the elderly, which are my specialty areas. I’ve also begun to study theories of collaboration, because I believe that journalists are going to have to learn to share their toys. Papers that used to compete vigorously are already starting to share resources; TV, radio and print are beginning to form unprecedented partnerships. I’ve also decided to use this year away as a time to learn new skills in radio, video and Web design — something few reporters have the luxury of doing because of all those empty desks I mentioned at the start.

The reporter who outlasts the apocalypse, I predict, will be the one who trains herself, in effect, to be a multimedia producer but still knows how to tell the hell out of a good story. She’ll also learn to give younger, Web-savvy readers a reason to go to newspaper Web sites — by offering personal commentary and by interacting with readers/viewers.

It’s an awkward time for journalists: We’re trying to prepare for a Web-based future — but we’re scared because we don’t know exactly what that future is, or whether there’ll be a place for us in it. And oh-yeah-by-the-way: We still have a little thing called a newspaper to put out every day.

Honestly, I don’t know how this narrative will end, or what leadership lessons, if any, we will have learned. I attend at least one “future of news” panel discussion a week, and — reading between the lines spoken by the smartest people in this business — it seems like no one knows.

But if we retain our core values of fairness and public responsibility, I think it’s possible that we’ll look back on this tumultuous period as a time when our century-old institutions kicked it into high gear and birthed a new kind of storytelling — one that still helps people understand their world and each other. Instead of writing our narratives as obituaries, I hope we’ll look back and tell a story about how we changed so much on the surface — but how, down deep, we didn’t change at all.

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