By FERN SHEN
“It’s not in decline,” Baltimore Sun editor Monty Cook said, of his news organization, in a speech yesterday at Johns Hopkins University. “It’s in transition.”
The two-hour talk was a primer for those interested in figuring out where Baltimore’s hometown daily is heading under Cook, who took over in January:
Prepare for blogs, blogs and more blogs, plus Twittering. Learn about “the platform-neutral” newsroom and check out The Guardian, which has one. Read “The Long Tail,” by Chris Anderson and look for more mobile content. “This is the future,” Cook said, brandishing his BlackBerry.
And how about “stories,” especially longer ones produced after weeks or days of reporting? Ehhh, not so much….
“The days of the six-part series are gone,” Cook said, arguing that there are other vehicles for good journalism. “Watergate was beat reporting.”
These were among the takeaway messages Cook conveyed to the audience of about 30 people, a group whose composition captured poignantly the critical juncture reached in the narrative of local journalism, here in Baltimore and across the country:
There were former staff writers for The Washington Post and The Sun, now working in academic public affairs or publishing their own news sites. There were young students asking questions about the availability of jobs with benefits in journalism.
And there, sitting silently, was the Abell Foundation’s Robert Embry, one of the key behind-the-scenes players in an effort to purchase the Sun from its bankrupt owner, Sam Zell’s Tribune Media.
Adding to the oddness of moment was the fact that Embry is almost as famous in town for being un-webby as he is for caring passionately about Baltimore and Baltimore journalism. (He’ll tell you himself that he doesn’t really read email on the computer and has an assistant print out all his messages on paper.)
The trend story reporters hate to write
What drew them together was a talk by Cook organized by Hopkins’ Institute for Policy Studies entitled “Content and News: Protecting What Matters Most.”
Cook began by retelling the story of the collapsing newspaper industry, running down the list of dead or dying papers including local ones, finishing with The New York Times’ latest cutback: the plan to kill off a couple more special sections.
Likening the tectonic changes wrought by the Internet today to those produced by the development of the printing press in the 1400s, he said “when classic monopolies meet disruptive technologies, it’s not pretty.” (He noted that movable type inventor Gutenberg himself died essentially bankrupt.)
The not-so-pretty part in Baltimore is the Sun’s shrinking size and staff, its huge page-one photos and shmooshed-together inside content, its closed foreign and suburban bureaus and its plummeting print circulation and revenue.
The Sun’s daily circulation numbers released in November (218,923 for the six months ending in Sept. 2008, compared to 232,749 for the same period in 2007) represented a six percent year-to-year drop. Sunday circulation fell 3.9 percent during that period, to 350,640.
Cook declined to talk about profits (“we are a private company”) but was enthusiastic about the good news, which is over on the web side. Web traffic for the Sun is up (from 2.5 million unique visitors per month in 2007 to 3.4 million in 2008). The monthly page-view total is “approaching 40 million,” he said.
While declining to say whether the Sun will euthanize the print version soon, as is rumored, Cook did confirm unequivocally that its days of ascendancy at Calvert Street are over.
Explaining how the organization will re-tool itself for the future he said: “we stop being a newspaper company. Right now. The end.”
So what are they? The Sun will soon be shifting to a “platform-neutral newsroom,” he said. That’s a New Media concept and it means fully integrating the news and online operations – thinking of the web, mobile and other non-print platforms not as an afterthought but as equally-important vehicles for the delivery of content.
“We’ll think of content first,” he said, “and platform second.”
Wake up and smell the platform-neutrality
What that will mean in practice, for Sun readers and reporters, remains to be seen, though Cook gave some clues yesterday. The paper is moving away, for instance, from the practice of withholding prime content for the printed paper. “If a story is ready at 9:30…we are not going to sit on that,” he said.
Reporters will continue to be encouraged to blog and use social networks (Facebook, Twitter, etc.), he said, praising writer-bloggers such as restaurant critic Elizabeth Large, Gus Sentementes, nightlife reporter Sam Sessa and schools reporter Sara Neufeld for cultivating loyal readers who interact with them frequently.
“We want reporters to think of themselves as a brand,” he said, noting that Neufeld assembles gatherings of readers in Tweet-ups to give her feedback.
The restructured Sun also will be encouraging reporters to allow more of themselves in their work, he said.
“The journalists of the past were required to be professional and dispassionate,” he said. “Today’s journalists are required to be professional and passionate,” he said, adding “that does not mean advocacy or bias.”
So, how many reporters does it take to staff the platform-neutral newsroom (or platform-agnostic, as some call it)? Fewer than are there now, he said, declining to announce specifics on the next round of personnel reductions, rumored to be coming at the Sun for weeks.
“We’ll be smaller at the end of this transition,” he said.
But even with more trimming of the payroll, is there enough income these days to support this re-structured journalism in Baltimore? That was the subject of the very first question at Q & A time: “is online advertising enough?”
Cook’s shoulder-shrugging answer was pretty much all anyone in the business can offer right now:
“Everyone’s searching for the next business model,” he said. “We’re exploring niche products.”
Here he cited Chris Anderson’s book, “The Long Tail,” about why successful businesses in the future will deliver small volumes of tough-to-find stuff to many customers. His main example of the kind of niche product they have attempted so far? The Sun’s free youth-oriented tabloid “b.” He said “b” has 125,000 readers. (Which must just mean, that’s the number that disappear from the honor boxes?)
Good Evening Mr. & Mrs. Dundalk
What else will change? There will be shorter stories, stories turned around more quickly, stories “not done in typical pyramid style,” Cook said. “Quick-hit information as well as in-depth information.” There might even, he speculated, be a return to a style of short-blurb columns seen “in newspapers in the 40s and 50s.” (A Herb Caen or Walter Winchell reference?)
Content-sharing with other media (the Sun has made such deals with WJZ-TV and The Washington Post) is another useful strategy, he said, as is aggregating from local specialty news sites and blogs. Don’t you worry, he was asked, about the quality of that information?
“Some blogs are screeds. But there are a lot of very important blogs out there,” he said. “It’s a bit of a Wild West situation,” he said, comparing the media landscape today to that of America in the 1700s and 1800s, when people could choose from a plethora of papers, each with its own explicit point of political point of view.
(Cook didn’t mention it yesterday, but the Sun is trying to tame the west a bit, with legal action against a blogger. The paper recently sent a cease-and-desist letter to Inside Charm City’s Jeff Quinton, saying he was taking too much copy and simply reprinting it, according to a story on Wired magazine’s website.)
Cook praised the Sun’s successful enterprise projects from the past year – coverage of the indictment of Mayor Sheila Dixon, the ground rent series, the profile of Baltimore Schools Superintendent Andres Alonso – and said the organization remains committed to local enterprise reporting. But he acknowledged that the need to narrow the paper’s focus is frustrating.
“Would I love to be able to produce the 1995 newspaper?” he said. “It would be my pleasure.”
Still Cook seems to relish the challenge of playing the hand he’s been dealt, judging by the newspaper movie he was touting to young grad students: the 1952 Humphrey Bogart film, “Deadline U.S.A.” The basic story? A crusading Bogey battles to get out a story about a violent mobster and he’s only got three days to do it: the paper is about to be sold.
BONUS FOR HANGING IN FOR 1,406 words:
Brew media blogger Joan Jacobson recalls what it was like when Baltimore’s public officials had nosy journalists from three different newspapers falling all over themselves to find malfeasance and hold government accountable.