Since I left the newspaper industry six years ago, rarely a week goes by when I’m not asked by someone: “Do you miss the newspaper business?”
My answer never wavers. “I miss the news. I miss the people. I don’t miss the business.”
But like anyone who’s ever had a failed romance, or a failed project, I’ve often pondered, “If I could do it over again, what would I do differently?” Here are my answers to that:
- I would spend at least half my time out of the office and in my community. Like many editors and publishers, I think I was caught up in the act of producing the newspaper with regular meetings and routines inside the building. As my work today has taken me into the community, I have discovered so much that we did not report. Or worse, stories we reported on my watch that were shallow or missed the point. I think that if I had known about my community what I now know, that my newspaper would have been seen as one that really knew the people, and not just when the city council met.
- (Related) I’d get “airline flu” almost every time there was a corporate meeting. Especially in my last years in the business when I worked for someone who loved such meetings, I wasted weeks on airlines and in corporate meetings. Most of these meetings involved political posturing and number comparisons. Rarely did any good journalism come from them.
- I would hire differently. For too long, we have labored under the impression that our hires need to have “x” number of years of experience and a degree in journalism. And I certainly hired good people who fit those criteria. But I have learned that so many good journalists can come from different backgrounds, work history, experiences and college degrees. A lot of people can learn how to write for newspapers. But you can’t teach people to have the 360-degree views of a history major; the questioning of a philosophy major; the thoughtful processes of an engineer.
- I’d be far more transparent about how we do things. We demand such transparency and openness from government officials, but we do a terrible job of explaining our news gathering and decision making process. We’d use the First Amendment as a bludgeon to demand the spending of every dime, but we’d hide behind the “We’re a private business” excuse when it came to our own financials. I would write more columns explaining how we produce a newspaper and how we profit by it.
- I would hold more stories for two reasons. First, to give the reporters enough time to connect the dots. Too many news stories spotlight but don’t illuminate. This does little to help most readers and actually damages your credibility with very smart readers. Second, to ensure that stories were fair and gave all versions of a story. The publishing decisions I regret most were not the mistakes we made, but the stories we reported that were shallow or one-sided.
- I would do a better job of understanding how one story can so dramatically affect many lives. I have now seen some clients’ lives deeply affected by a story that was journalistically defensible. You know the phrases we trot out whenever we get complaints. They are convenient. But I have seen stories that affected marriages, relationships between parents and children. I’m not saying I would never print any of those, but I would do a more thorough job of examining their effects on people and shape stories with that in mind.
- There would be many different kinds of storytelling. My local paper publishes short profiles of each teenager named to all-county sports teams. The blurbs tell the athlete’s favorite food, movie, and professional athlete and so on. I read them all—even for the sports I don’t like. It’s great storytelling that doesn’t involve traditional narratives.
- Meet readers where they live. Having sent six children through school I can tell you that there is more truth about education to be learned talking to the parents waiting in the parking lot to pick up kids than there is in school board meetings. In the parking lot, you’d learn about teacher effectiveness, the shocking number of videos your child watches during class time while leaders say there aren’t enough days in the school year. My local paper is making a valiant effort to improve its education coverage by moving off meeting coverage.
- I would not worry at all about what industry peers thought about what I was doing right or wrong. My instincts aren’t perfect, but most of the times when I made an unconventional call (and suffered through plenty of second-guessing), the results were spectacular. When I drew in my horns for fear of criticism, the results were disappointingly standard.
As a coda, let me add a few things I did right that I wouldn’t change: make it fun; wander around the newsroom; know what goes on in every department in the building; write a weekly column; get to know the names of the spouses and kids of the people I worked with; take chances: and finally, answer my own phone.
Tim Gallagher is president of The 20/20 Network, a public relations and strategic communications firm. He is a former Pulitzer Prize-winning editor and publisher at The Albuquerque Tribune and the Ventura County Star newspapers. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.