This is a sentence I never thought I’d have the occasion to utter.
That tweet was really important to me. (That felt strange. But I meant it.)
I’m talking about a single sentence that Brad McElhinny, co-editor of the Charleston Gazette-Mail, tweeted a couple of weeks ago.
“If you are a traditional WV news org, you are competing against clean, vibrant websites.”
At the time, Brad was sitting in the second row at New Story, a shindig The Hub threw to dive into the changing role of the media in this weird and wild time in West Virginia, and to highlight some of the many innovative and brave new media initiatives going on here.
Traditional media, new media, future media. All in the one room. All trying to figure out how they could connect to each other. Pretty awesome.
Brad’s tweet about clean, vibrant websites came during a session on Weelunk.com, an online community news project out of Wheeling that has spread to a number of other cities across the state. Coming from the leader of the biggest newspaper in the state, Brad’s comment was recognition that our traditional media leaders can learn a lot from the new grassroots punk upstarts like Weelunk.
And it made it clear to me that Brad is a savvy dude. In all walks of life, those people who are aware of the changing nature of their landscape and that are willing to be responsive to it are the ones who survive and thrive.
Editors and publishers are business people, and success in business typically requires an ability to recognize and predict the future. Most importantly, successful businesspeople have the courage to accept that weird new future as an opportunity for growth, not a threat to stasis. At the very least, glimpses of that future should be catalysts, and reminders that in business if you are not evolving you are dying.
My guess is that Brad knows this, as do his media peers that got involved in New Story. From the tiny Wayne County News to West Virginia Public Broadcasting, that’s why they were there – to learn more about what the future might look like and explore ways to stay connected to it. Kudos to them.
Unfortunately, too many of their colleagues across the state seem firmly committed to the continued placement of their heads, upside down in the sand.
In the months leading up to New Story, I met with a number of editors and publishers who seemed more fit for a passionate debate about whether the earth was flat or round than about the creative possibilities of changing media models.
I heard dismissals of the value of social media as a way of getting news content to their customers, and an overwhelming distrust of online news initiatives like Weelunk and WeHeartWV.
I heard that stories that were about positive community action were somehow not “real news.” (But of course drug arrests are, which is why our local newspapers often look like a gallery of mugshots. The hidden truth here is that crime and court stories are not actually more representative of the community, they are just a whole lot easier to find and write. And so we end up with a newspaper than reflects the energy and creativity levels of its editors, but does reflect the interests and ambitions of its readers.)
And I was amazed to hear pronouncements that in five years time no one would be using the internet to consume news, and that digital read rates were, in fact, secretly manufactured.
For people entrusted with the responsibilities and privileges of the 4th Estate – to keeping our citizens and communities informed – this just isn’t good enough. The people of West Virginia deserve better.
Too many publishers and editors in West Virginia are stuck in editorial and sales models developed in the 1960s. Not only is their media product and bottom line poorer for it, our communities are poorer for it, because they are less informed about what’s happening around them and less engaged.
As Jim Brady wrote in the Columbia Journalism Review recently, it’s not like we haven’t had long to adapt to the new digital world. Google was founded in 1996. Facebook has been around, and massive, for more than decade.
If I was running a newsroom in a city where a community news site had started up (a situation I have been in before), I’d figure that I had two options: 1. Make a friend. 2. Make an enemy. At the very least, it would make me realize that I needed to lift my game.
At a time when newsrooms everywhere are short on staff, the presence of an eager and well-connected group of citizens producing local content must certainly present a collaborative opportunity of some kind.
Whether a majority of traditional newsrooms in West Virginia can rise to the challenges presented by New Story remains to be seen. But in a single tweet, Brad showed us that at least some of our media leaders understand that in order to stay relevant and profitable, it’s a case of innovate or capitulate.