Innovate or Die

Sixth in a series of essays humbly titled “Fixing Journalism”. First posted on November 14, 2005.

The news from Philadelphia isn’t good: the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News, which share a news research library, basically eliminated it by reducing the staff to “no more than two people” who mainly do archival work. Ten years ago there were 15 staffers.

To adapt to this change, the rest of the newsroom will be given “extensive training” in online services such as Lexis/Nexis and Internet resources in general, according to top newsroom editors.

Now, I think this is a bad idea: the quality of both papers will suffer, and the reporters and editors who relied on the researchers could easily take their loss as a sign that Knight-Ridder, the corporate parent, does not understand how vital a good research department can be to a newspaper.

That said, what K-R has done in Philadelphia is challenged its news staff to develop and increase their research and reporting skills. If they provide adequate training, rather than sending reporters and editors off into the new information landscape alone, they could eventually wind up with a group of journalists with a skill-set appropriate, even necessary, to succeed.

Perhaps “challenged” isn’t the right word, since this is a cost-saving measure that may turn out very badly for the newspapers involved. It’s more like an ultimatum. But it should be closely watched by many journalists, because however poorly the message was delivered, the need for journalists to more fully learn the skills of research is spot on.

The value of a news research department to the newsroom depends on many factors, including the paper’s budget and its leaders. Some do archival work first and research second, others try to balance the two. At the Post, we’re luckier than most: nearly all of our research staff are involved in what essentially are reporting tasks: backgrounding individuals and organizations, finding records or phone numbers or getting specific information from printed materials and the Internet.

But in light of the changes in Philly, news researchers can rightly ask, “Do our managers know what we do and understand its value?” In too many instances, the answer surely is “No.” Given the incredible advances in information storage and retrieval over the past 10-15 years, it’s not surprising that top newsroom leaders aren’t fully versed in the expanding range of research skills and tasks.

If any newsroom honcho has the idea that the news library is just the place where we clip old editions and file them away, then we who work in news libraries need to do a much better job of communicating about our roles and offerings. And not just to management, but throughout the newsroom.

So how do we do that? Greater openess, for one. Particularly at larger organizations, the known quantity that comes from working one-on-one with researchers doesn’t naturally translate up the ladder. So let’s literally show the newsroom what we do: let’s make our work as transparent as possible.

Mike Meiners of The St. Louis Post-Dispatch writes in the Fall issue of News Library News (pdf) that the P-D’s library has established a wiki for researchers to share and maintain information. The advantage is two-fold: not only are we providing more information to the newsroom, but it’s easy to see the contribution. Even if you have to keep certain information behind a password, it’s still there to show editors and others. For each project or story, a wiki serves as a notebook that can be searched, archived or linked to other research efforts.

Too often, we in news libraries work in ways very similar to our colleagues in the newsroom: we bounce from story to story without managing our information. If we’re supposed to be the information experts, shouldn’t we do it differently, and better?

M.J. Crowley, the Information Editor at the Newark Star-Ledger in New Jersey, asked several questions on the Newslib listserv in the wake of the Philadelphia announcement. They included:

  • What is our worth to the news organization…and the bottom line?
  • Are we an asset or a liability? How can we demonstrate our value?
  • Have you served your boss today? And does he/she know it?

The third is a local question between employee and boss, but the first two are broader. To my mind, there’s no department better positioned to be the innovators in the newsrooms. Reporters and editors don’t have time, particularly at smaller papers with fewer training opportunities. They also are removed from the breadth of information in the entire newsroom, seeing only their individual pieces.

We need to show our newsrooms things they haven’t seen before – mapping applications, combinations of information resources that they haven’t thought of, automated feeds from crucial sources, custom-built collections of resources using our expertise. If we drive innovation in the newsroom, we become invaluable to the growth and success of the paper. If we anticipate the needs of our reporters and editors – and fulfill them – we become an integral part of the operation.

The Philadelphia papers probably think that they can save money by replacing their true knowledge workers with a bunch of online services. While they just might save some money, chances are they won’t make the papers any better in the long run. Not because reporters and editors can’t learn how to search Lexis or the Internet, but because they’re not the natural innovators of the newsroom. The innovators are the ones who know their organization’s information best.