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News Improved: Newsroom Training A Must, But…

If this were, let’s say the year 2000, I would be writing that News, Improved: How America’s Newsrooms Are Learning to Change is a timely, must read. Now in 2007, it is a must read, but I am not sure how timely it is. For me, it is like issuing a CPR manual, when the victim is already down and clutching his chest. All the information is helpful, but he might well die before I figure out how to do what’s outlined in the book. One of News, Improved’s tenets is that change is not easy; in fact, it says, “Reinventing a newspaper can take years.” And one chapter subhead concerning change reads: “Things might get worse before they get better.”

News, Improve, written by Michele McLellan and Tim Porter, tells the woeful tale of how the multibillion-dollar journalism business primarily depends on nonprofits to do newsroom training, even when the overwhelming majority of its employees and executives say they need more training.

The book lays out a strategy to change that culture and provides tips for newspapers large and small to institute better communication channels, devise goals and provide strategic training with measurable outcomes. The book is underwritten by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which invested $10 million in training and research projects and underwrote the newsroom training work by McLellan and Porter. So when success stories are touted in the book I am the skeptic.

However, it is that skepticism, which must be part of very editor and reporter’s toolkit, that often stymies change. The success story that gets the most attention is how the Atlanta Journal-Constitution aligned its training program with its strategic goals. In 2005 its goals were: Improving beat watchdog reporting, creating versatility in storytelling and story form, and making better community connections. One result was 95 watchdog stories in 2005 more than twice the year before.

Since I live in the Atlanta metro area, I subscribe to the AJC, but my first read ever since I lived in New York a few decades ago has been The New York Times. Lately, though I find myself spending more time with the AJC. Each day a story or two catches my eye, often those watchdog stories, and I have put aside the Times for a few minutes to read them. Is its strategic plan working? Yes, for me.on one level. But on the “making better community connections,” well they have not connected with me; it still seems to be a one-to-many model. Plus like almost every major newspaper, the AJC has seen better financial times.

Another example, cited in the book is the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Since I worked there as the Sunday Magazine editor for six years, I still have a kinship to the paper. Speaking of a victim clutching its chest, it’s hard to imagine everyone pulling together to develop a strategic plan after McClatchy kicked it out of bed.

Early this week, the NewsU released survey results that rated respondents’ newsroom’s training programs on a scale of 10 to 100 and came up with an average score of 40, which the the sponsors point out would: “on your school report card gets you an ‘F.’ “

On August 7-8, 2007, the Journalism that Matters team will be sponsoring a conference at George Washington University, we will be trying to devise a prototype for the newsroom of the future. Basically we are asking, if the patient, in this case the present newsroom model, does die, what will save journalism. Of course, as we come up with a new model, it will be well to build it with strategic training plans deeply infused into the nascent model. We don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past. We want News, Improved.

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