The Tribune newsroom just got its back up, 55 staffers signing a letter protesting a joint editorial/marketing initiative that had the public passing judgment on unpublished stories. Media writer Phil Rosenthal reports that twice in the past two weeks about 9,000 people were sent synopses of stories in the editorial pipelines and asked what they thought. Editor Gerould Kern met with the staff Thursday, said the survey was a bad idea, and called it off. "We've stopped this," Rosenthal has Kern saying. "To prematurely disseminate information about stories in progress compromises reporting. ... There are a lot of reasons, such as potential legal [issues], fairness, accuracy and completeness."
And aside from all that, the idea of prescreening content with consumers strikes at what newspaper people consider fundamental to the print newspaper experience -- albeit a print newspaper experience that more and more of the public is rejecting. And that is the element of serendipity, the quality of unexpected surprise and discovery that any well-managed newspaper provides. Tell any self-respecting reporter that the subject of his or her latest work in progress just laid an egg with a focus group, and the reporter will reply, "Maybe so, but wait till they see what I do with it!" (While thinking, "What in God's name has happened to our business?")
Media consultant Amy Gahran in Boulder, Colorado, has an entirely different take on the matter. On Poynter Online, she says the Tribune survey didn't go far enough. As for "the distrust of marketing. . . so deeply ingrained in traditional mainstream newsroom culture," Gahran asserts, "I'd dare say that it's a big reason why news organizations are struggling for relevance and revenue these days. It's hard to update your business model when an important part of your organization is inherently wary of market research."
Maybe she'll also have a good word for the latest Tribune Company money-saving efficiency --modular news packages, designed in Chicago and Los Angeles and dropped into the pages of the other Tribune Company papers, allowing them to lay off bunches of their own copy editors and designers. Blogging designer Charles Apple reports, "The modules are built mostly in half-page and quarter-page increments, we’re told, that fit with the new standard company-wide advertising sizes. Everything is tightly formatted."
We've been hearing about this move for the past few weeks. If the Tribune were going to suffer the consequences to anything like the degree that other Trib Company papers will, we'd have heard a lot more. Apple links to a Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild statement posted by Jim Romenesko that says the Tribune Company fired "18 senior editors and newsroom managers" at the Baltimore Sun this week and intends to lay off 40 newsroom staffers by May 27. Cet Parks, executive director of the guild chapter, protests that “Tribune is siphoning good jobs from Baltimore and sending work that talented editors, reporters, photographers, copy editors and designers have done here to its home base in Chicago. That is not right.”
And this just in: The Huffington Post made itself a major Web presence by aggressively aggregating news stories from mainstream media and combining them with original reporting and commentary, most written gratis. The Tribune is now cooking up a Web site that will operate along the same general lines. Expect it in June, and expect the Tribune to make a big deal of it when it's launched.
UPDATE: The staff letter mentioned above, which was addressed to Kern and managing editor Jane Hirt, said in part:
"Why are we doing this? What stories -- specifically -- have been used in this practice? Who specifically have these readers been? Have any been advertisers? Have any been sources? Have any stories been significantly altered or held as a result of reader comments? What is the end game for this policy if not to alter how we do our jobs and what stories we write...?
"It is a fundamental principle of journalism that we do not give people outside the newspaper the option of deciding whether or not we should publish a story, whether they be advertisers, politicians or just regular readers. What happens the next time a source asks to see your story before it's printed? Can you still tell them, 'We don't do that?'
"Focus grouping as done in the past is one thing. But this appears to break the bond between reporters and editors in a fundamental way. What we do here should stay here until we publish. Many of us have become increasingly uncomfortable that the marketing deparment appears to be playing some role in the newsroom -- a role that has never been fully explained.
"Much has been made in the recent months about the future of the Tribune. We share those concerns and are just as interested in the paper's survival as anyone who works here. But the greatest contribution we can make to this newspaper is to maintain the highest standards of journalistic credibility and integrity..."