In a Changing Market, News Organizations Need Freedom to Innovate, Journalists Tell NPC Forum
November 3, 2008
MILWAUKEE – The editor of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel says he is able to succeed because the paper's local ownership gives him the ability to make changes quickly and to concentrate on what he thinks will work.
Marty Kaiser, the paper’s editor in chief, said he could make the decisions to keep an emphasis on investigative reporting and to make quick changes to take advantage of the Internet because he did not have to wait for approval from a corporate headquarters.
“It gives us great freedom in our newsroom to do the kinds of things that we want to do and also to experiment,” Kaiser told an NPC forum that was co-sponsored by Marquette University’s Diederich College of Communication and the Milwaukee Press Club.
While many news organizations are cutting back on investigative reporting because of its high cost, Kaiser said he prefers to cut back on some of the routine news to concentrate on major stories.
“Maybe we were chasing after a lot of small things in the past,” he said, “but now let’s do the things that are going to make us different and make us stand out.”
To take advantage of the immediacy of the Internet, he said he built a hub in the middle of the newsroom staffed by an online producer, editors and reporters who start work at 6 a.m. monitoring what’s happening on television and online.
“If we were in a chain, I’m not sure I would have the ability to say all of a sudden, let's create this news hub in the middle of the newsroom, send someone to Best Buy in the afternoon to buy some flatscreen TVs, get the desks moved and say let's go to it.”
Kaiser was speaking at one of the Club’s forums to mark its 100th anniversary. At each forum, the Club gathers a panel of leading local journalists to talk about where the news business is going and how to protect its core values.
Lori Waldon, news director at WISN-TV, predicted that local television will suffer large revenue losses after political advertising ends and the economic downturn dries up other advertising.
The first thing to go in television news when revenues fall is usually the investigative team, she said.
“That is a huge, huge mistake,” she said. “That’s the core of what we do. But admittedly, we do it leaner, and we do it meaner. Rather than traveling the world to find a story, maybe we are a little closer to home. We often find that the stories that are closest to us are the most compelling.”
Jeff Mayers, president and editor of WisPolitics.com, said he is able to carve out a niche business on the Internet that caters to people who care deeply about politics and government.
To make it work financially, he said, he offers two levels of service. A free Web site attracts advertising, he said, while he offers more detailed information to people who are willing to pay for a subscription.
“Content is king,” he said. “People will pay for good content.”
Being so small, Mayers can change what he does instantly, he said, but people will depend – and democracy will depend – on the success of the large media companies.
“If there are all these cutbacks, and good journalism goes by the wayside, if it rushes to the lowest common denominator, then we are all losers,” he said. “I don’t view myself in competition with these big media institutions. In fact, we sometimes partner with them because we do certain things well, and they do a lot of things well.”
Bonnie Brennen, a Marquette journalism professor, said she sees too much sameness in the way media companies handle the news. She said she looked at the Web site for the Newseum that posts the front page of many newspapers every day. On the day of a big stock market drop, nearly every paper had the same story with the same photo dominating the front page.
“You have to ask maybe that’s why the industry is in a world of hurt,” she said. “Maybe there is not enough diversity out there. Maybe they need to think outside of the box and really challenge their reporters, photographers and editors to dig deep about what is going on in this country.”