How I want to redefine my role, and the reader’s role, in the newspaper

Once the equipment arrives, I’ll be starting in a new position at The Patriot-News as a mobile journalist, or mojo.

What that means is, correctly, still to be determined. We do know it’ll involve video, still photography, print stories and a lot of updates for the Web. We know I’ll have a laptop and an aircard, will file most of my stories from my car and coffee shops, and will aim to be in the office as little as possible.

What we don’t know is exactly what stories I’ll be covering. I’ll be one of three mojos, and the other two will focus more on being first responders to fires, shootings and other cops-related happenings.

Which leaves an interesting question: What exactly is my role going to be? Why am I better off as a mojo instead of going back to the newsroom in a more traditional role?

To me, the opportunity to take this blank piece of paper and figure out the answer is tremendously exciting. It’s an opportunity to discover a more efficient reporting model that pumps great stories into the print edition, while simultaneously feeding my need to discover building blocks to future news models.

And I think I’ve got an idea that will do both.

If I can sell my editors on the concept, I would be the author and community manager of a new blog. My stated goal will be to have at least one originally reported story per day, usually some combination of text, photography and video. Sometimes it’ll be a three-minute video with 200-word text, sometimes it could be a great photo with 800-word text.

The stories I’m looking for are next-door slices of life that are usually the first to go because of shrinking staffs. A new museum exhibit, an innovative classroom project, a personality profile, a soup kitchen gearing up for a busy time, a little-known hiking trail, a new business opening, etc.

If you check this new blog every day, you will always learn about one new wrinkle in your community. That’s a wonderful promise for a news site to make.

That’s the content. But the fun part is who decides what that content will be.

Every day I’ll solicit story ideas from my readers via comments on the blog. At the end of the day, I’ll post their story ideas in poll form, and my readers will vote on which one they want me to cover tomorrow. And that’s the one I’ll do.

I’ll no longer have an assignment editor. The collective community will be my assignment editor. What a strange concept: Asking our readers what stories they want, then giving it to them! Yes, we’d maintain veto power for outlandish stories (write about why councilman Jones sux!!!) and needs of the newsroom (if no one’s around to cover a court case), but we’d try to limit that as much as possible.

By forcing myself to write one story per day, I’m creating a reliable pipeline of stories that can be repurposed for the print product (this is where you should pay attention, my skeptical editors). No matter how cool it may be on the Web, and whether or not it succeeds in being an important step in our future, at the very least it’s producing a lot of stories for print in an efficient way.

I could also produce some great long-term enterprise through this, while packaging it in a completely new way. I think of a story I did last year in which I occasionally followed a four-year-old around for six months while I documented her transition to a new school. What if I took a video each time, wrote a short story each time, teased to the long-form print story that would eventually come each time? It’d be great to watch the process, and would build a lot of anticipation for the final project.

As for the form of the blog: Very conversational, with a persistent focus on cultivating user participation. Lots of voice, personality, maybe even wit if I’m lucky. Every day I would also offer a bevy of links: The day’s best content from The Patriot-News, interesting posts from local bloggers, thought-provoking material from around the Web, maybe even some funny videos. It would rely on a totally new skill set for journalists, one in which I practiced somewhat at my now-defunct Ning site, the Hershey Home. It’s a skill set I’d love to have a part in figuring out and teaching to other journalists.

For the reader, it’s an unprecedented amount of access to the pages of The Patriot-News. If you called up now and told an editor about the science project your child is doing, you probably wouldn’t get very far. Make that same pitch to the readers of this blog, and make it a convincing argument, and that project will be in the paper. It could be a rewarding feeling to think that you’re actually playing a legitimate part in the news.

For journalism’s future, the goal of this blog will be to foster a self-sustaining, invested community around it. We’ll implement rules aimed on creating that culture (which could be several blog posts in itself), both through the level of conversation and making clear what kind of story pitches we’re looking for.

Community-building is a skill we must, must, must master in many forms, and we’re not spending enough time practicing it. Even if it doesn’t succeed, it’s the kind of trial balloon we need to be sending out, and it comes at little to no cost.

I have my own reservations about the idea, of course, but I’d really like to hear what you all think. if you’ve heard of similar ideas at other papers, if you have any recommendations for improvement, if you’ve found any trouble spots, etc., anything would be appreciated. I’d like to allow for a day or two of comments before I e-mail a link to this entry to my editors, so your feedback could be very valuable.

UPDATE 1: I forgot to make one important point: By virtue of me taking my time to do these slice-of-life stories, that allows all the other reporters to pass their slice-of-life stories off to me and opens up time for them to do the meaty enterprise that we really need to be producing.

UPDATE 2: Wondering if it would be a trademark infringement to use the tagline: “You Decide. We Report.”

UPDATE 3: Jeff McCloud makes an important point in the comments section about ceding editorial control. He writes:

I like the idea. I just wouldn’t want to be framed in to always writing what the majority of your blog readers want. I think you need to reserve your news judgment for yourself and your editors. Of course, the rub is in the balance of that and making readers happy to know they are participating. The rub is also in making sure that readers feel they don’t “own” you and your assignments.

And I respond:

Jeff, your point about reserving news judgment is an important one and probably the trickiest thing to balance here. I think that’s likely to be developed as the process goes along. My feeling, though, is that editorial judgment is best exercised not by yanking control from the readers after it’s promised to them, but by story placement in the physical newspaper. If my readers led me to a great story, editors will see that and put it on A1. Total waste of time, and it’s relegated to B10. I just fear nullifying the entire concept if we say “You have total control…unless we don’t like your idea.” That’s kind of what the current model says.

Now if it turns out all the story ideas are bad, bad, bad, we’ll re-evaluate. As of now, I’ve got faith in the readers.

UPDATE 4: Colin Lenton weighs in via Twitter:

@bydanielvictor nice that youre excited for new role, but why do the work of 3 by yourself? won’t you diminish quality by doing too much?

And I respond:

@colinmlenton Time is probably 2nd-biggest concern. I don’t think it has to be the work of 3, though. I’ll know if I’m stretching too thin.

Colin also expanded his thoughts in the comments section, wondering whether this is the best use of staff time.

UPDATE 5: Via the comments, Daniel Klotz wonders:

I’d like to know more about how you would plan to handle more “hard news,” political, and investigative stories. You’ll get people asking you to report on things they believe are under-reported, and often those stories have a (local) political bent. How will you proceed if that’s what you’re given, rather than a more human-interest topic?

So I say:

I think my moderation skills will have to make it clear that it’s not what we’re looking for. I anticipate cutting-and-pasting the same kind of disclaimer on each entry, clearly stating the purpose of what I’m doing and what stories we’re searching for. And if I’m going to put it in poll form, there’s a little bit of active selection involved on my end.

UPDATE 6: I’ve had to work on some of those pesky newspaper stories today, so I haven’t had a chance to go through most of today’s comments to respond or highlight them. But Meranda Watling offers this interesting idea via Gmail chat:

I can’t remember if I read it somewhere or someone told me but I remember hearing about an editor who would hold office hours kind of at a local cafe.

You could try something like that as a complement.
Posting well you’ll be in certain areas and encouraging readers to come visit, tip you off to ideas.
  • Ken

    Great idea, and seems like a dream job. The beauty of this is the ability to not plan too far ahead. Go with the flow. Attend cool events. Write great feature pieces. For instance, let’s say you wanna focus on the economy. Go to a local retailer, or gas station, or some place that is being creative in how they try to attract consumers. Talk to consumers.

    In many ways I think that this is very similar to the process of a “traditional” print journalist, but you are being more transparent. You are letting readers/viewers in on the process, rather than merely spending your day gathering material and boiling it all down into a print piece by deadline.

    This is web 2.0 journalism. An interactive type of reporting where the story can be updated in real time if need be.

    I really think this could be the new face of journalism, and normally this is done independently rather than under the auspices of traditional big media. The fact that you work for a newspaper that is willing to try this is encouraging. It is this type of enterprise that will help move the newspaper industry forward.

  • Jeff

    I like the idea. I just wouldn’t want to be framed in to always writing what the majority of your blog readers want. I think you need to reserve your news judgment for yourself and your editors. Of course, the rub is in the balance of that and making readers happy to know they are participating. The rub is also in making sure that readers feel they don’t “own” you and your assignments.

    Speaking as a former small-town community journalist myself, it sounds as though your new role steps in to fill the gaps from East and West tabs. I think the idea, fleshed out a bit more, has a tremendous amount of potential.

  • Thanks, Ken and Jeff.

    Jeff, your point about reserving news judgment is an important one and probably the trickiest thing to balance here. I think that’s likely to be developed as the process goes along. My feeling, though, is that editorial judgment is best exercised not by yanking control from the readers after it’s promised to them, but by story placement in the physical newspaper. If my readers led me to a great story, editors will see that and put it on A1. Total waste of time, and it’s relegated to B10. I just fear nullifying the entire concept if we say “You have total control…unless we don’t like your idea.” That’s kind of what the current model says.

    Now if it turns out all the story ideas are bad, bad, bad, we’ll re-evaluate. As of now, I’ve got faith in the readers.

  • Guy

    I think you pretty much nailed it on the head.

  • This sounds like a great idea, I feel like you would be a more relevant source of news then the P-N itself…good luck!

  • Daniel, I tweeted this but it really deserves more than 140 characters… so here it goes.

    Your enthusiasm is great for this, especially at a time when negativity in the industry is running amok and everyone seems straight up depressed about things. I think optimism is almost always positive, and in this case I would agree with that.

    That said, I have to wonder what the point of this mojo project is. Sure it might be more cost efficient to have you do the work of 3 journalists but ultimately that should only prove to diminish the overall quality of the work you’re trying to produce. I know you’re very talented and the work you do is strong, but one person can only take on so much without having to cut corners.

    So my questions are, how do you plan to compete with news teams from TV stations who are doing these types of stories (multi media and all) with large crews, and fancy (very) expensive equipment?

    How will the paper monetize stories about a child’s science project? Stories like that can work well for smaller communities, but when the Patriot’s coverage area is as large as it is, wouldn’t it be better to focus your energy covering something that the smaller papers are not covering? Something that would affect all of the coverage areas?

    My feeling is that papers of the size and capability of the Patriot owe it to their readership to deliver more. I believe original content will be the only thing that saves newspapers, but the content needs to be valuable and it needs to be worth paying for – both online and in print. (Regardless of whether or not they actually charge for it)

  • Dan, this sounds like a REALLY great use of the opportunity. I’m excited for you and eager to hear about the things you learn from the experience! Social media is something to be embraced and you’re doing a fabulous job of that.

  • This could be a very interesting new way to report news, and even change what “news” is. Think about this: You could probably choose a different town each day you are on the job and find one story for that town. It could be a small human-interest piece, or something that a certain town does really well. Each town and person is going to have a different view as to what “news” is. Good luck on the new assignment, and I’m looking forward to seeing where it goes.

  • Rob Ehrmann

    I think Leonard Pitts did something like this for his “What works?” series on African American education. He definitely solicited comments, although I’m not sure how responsive he was in terms of reader preference on topic. Although I live nowhere near Miami, I followed it with great interest as it is a national problem with many local solutions. This is a great idea Dan, will it be this blog that you’ll be soliciting ideas on?

  • The question of reserving the right to make news judgments was the first that came to my mind, also. But I have three thoughts on that:

    1. Newspapers already do too much of the “eat your vegetables” approach. There’s a lot of “ought to read” and not so much “must read,” let along stuff that’s truly fun and compelling to read. Yes, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But guess what? It’s broke. It’s definitely worth trying a new, worthy idea like yours.

    2. I think the main reason for you choosing your own stories on occasion is that we like to be surprised. A story idea can sound dull, but as you dig into it, you may discover that in reality it’s great. I’m not concerned about this, though, because this is going to happen anyway, with the stories the community chooses. The community chooses the subject, not the angle or the way you research or report.

    3. There is the danger that the initial community that embraces this concept may have radically different tastes from the broader demographic, and could thus choose stories that not many other people are interested in. I can’t imagine that this is more of a danger than allowing a single editor to make the same decision, though.

    I think you’ll give people real buy-in through this project, which will lead to real loyalty and word-of-mouth promotion. It’s a great idea and sounds like a lot of fun.

    I’d like to know more about how you would plan to handle more “hard news,” political, and investigative stories. You’ll get people asking you to report on things they believe are under-reported, and often those stories have a (local) political bent. How will you proceed if that’s what you’re given, rather than a more human-interest topic?

    Also, I’d be interested in the prospects that you and your editors see for allowing your coverage area to expand as it may. It seems to be that a mojo could easily cover stories–and, more importantly, build a readership–beyond the geographic boundaries that print publications stick to. South-Central PA could use some solid regional coverage. Would that be a possibility with your blog?

    I think publishing one story a day is a great pace. I’m assuming, though, that you would allow yourself to work on certain stories over the span of many days before publishing them, to give you time to do solid research.

  • Daniel,

    On the hard news issue: I think my moderation skills will have to make it clear that it’s not what we’re looking for. I anticipate cutting-and-pasting the same kind of disclaimer on each entry, clearly stating the purpose of what I’m doing and what stories we’re searching for. And if I’m going to put it in poll form, there’s a little bit of active selection involved on my end.

    As for expanding coverage area, that’s a far more complex answer than I’m able to answer. To expand that would require total shifts not just in editorial philosophy, but in distribution, advertising, circulation, etc. My feeling is, with us having a smaller staff, we’re more likely to see the area shrink and become more direct than become wider and spread thinner.

  • Steve K

    Being a blogger and the stereotypes surrounding them, how about this for a slogan:

    “From my mother’s basement, to your’s.”

    JK.
    Good luck Dan.

  • Ken

    One idea that just came to mind. You could use this as a platform to look at people who are doing what you are doing…but in different fields. Most people who write stories about social media and technology write about it as an ends unto itself. But how does it get integrated into real life and real world applications. For instance, how about stopping by a coffee shop and talking to people who are on their laptops and are working. How has wi-fi, etc. changed the way Central PA is working?

    This doesn’t mean you make this a “technology beat.” But you have the freedom to report on the things that many of us think really matter…that others, within the confines of a newsroom bubble, might not necessarily see, or “get.”

  • This is awesome! I’m really impressed by the Patriot’s decision to adapt, but I’m not sure they would have made that choice if you weren’t there pushing it. There needs to be a Daniel Victor at every newspaper if they’re all to be saved.

  • Sounds like a good idea. We’ll be “neighbors” – I’m down the road at the York Daily Record as the online and “audience/community” editor. Would love to compare ideas with you.

    I don’t feel very “competitive” with my fellow region online editors. You spend enough time online, you realize that people are such voracious consumers of info that they can follow multiple news sources.

    Idea sounds great. Writing what people want to read is NOT what “newspapers” have traditionally been about. I think that’s changing for the better. News is not a one-way message, and all that. Many people in mainstream media talk the talk in that regard; it’s great to see you, now as a representative of a major newspaper, carrying it out.

  • This definitely sounds like a step in the right direction. I wonder if you’ll be able to round up enough good story ideas and be able to get enough readers to vote every day, at least in the beginning. But allowing readers to feel like they have more control over the reporting done in their community is a great idea, so hopefully that won’t be a huge problem (especially if your blog gets mentioned enough times in the paper and on its website).

  • Good luck, Daniel. I’ll be interested to see how this turns out. My friend Ryan is the mojo at the Lansing State Journal. His job has shifted and changed so often it seems he’s doing something entirely different every time I talk to him. It’s crazy but sounds like a lot of fun. Check out some of his work on his blog.

    I’m a little envious you get to try this out, even if I think I’d miss the focus a beat gives me. There are so many ways to approach this, but I like adding in the blog and asking readers to be your beat contacts and running the whole coverage area as your beat. Keep us posted on what you learn.

  • Dude…. this is hot.

    There is no reason you couldn’t be the Scoble of Hershey – except you won’t have to focus on tech all the time.

    “Who are you and what are you doing in Hershey” – the start of every interview… conversational and keeps you wanting to see what you do the next day (IMHO).

    Rock on.

  • Anything that lets you use the job title “mojo” is starting out great!

  • Jeremy Long

    Dan,
    How big is your coverage area?
    Do you anticipate any problems featuring Sally Q’s science project in Harrisburg rather than Tommy T’s from Lebanon? How do you plan on making those types of decisions?

  • Jeremy,

    My coverage area would be pretty much the same area the P-N covers now…loosely defined as Carlisle to Lebanon, Perry County to Northern York.

    And here’s the beauty of the idea: I won’t make the kind of decisions you mention there. The community will for me.

  • Dani_PA

    Another reason why i think this will work is the PN has already seen an online frenzy stretch into a couple days’ print coverage – your infamous restaurant tipping story. And it’s becoming increasingly important for papers to leverage online content as well as their traditional print stuff, at least according to the folks I’ve spoken with at PNA and MANSI.

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  • Mabel Park

    Sounds great in concept. Wonder what your former PN reporting/editing colleagues and (those across the newspaper industry) have to say about the MOJO concept after their involuntary buyouts?

  • You’re tackling MoJo, blogging, and community management all in one?
    Fantastic!
    That’ll be another feed for my RSS reader then…

  • I know I am late reading this, but I am thrilled to see these kinds of unwritten, no-holds-barred positions being created at newspapers. After a month, I’m curious to know how your editors have reacted? How much freedom you are getting? I’m a new visitor to your blog (shamefully, since I’ve followed you on Twitter for a while) but I’m psyched to read more.

  • Congrats on the new job. It sounds great, and you have terrific approach planned.

    We had a mojo at our newspaper, and he did much of what you describe, although his focus was a bit more on chasing cops, than enterprise.

    I like you ideas of letting the reader be your assigning editor. I try to do that on my beat (parenting), and, you know, it works. Readers have to feel connected enough to you to be comfortable voicing an opinion and knowing it will be heard. (That’s where building a community of readers really helps.)

    But almost every story I’ve done in the past two years (since I started on this beat) has come from a reader.

    When a reader suggests a story, the first thing I ask is: Can I interview you or will you do a guest blog on that for my blog. I find reader will even help you find other sources for the story.

    Any way, good luck on your new endeavor. Look forward to reading about it.

  • I love this concept. It’s the natural progression of promoting your favorite content after its been created (digg, reddit, etc) — we’ll actually be able to help shape what content is worth creating.

    Great use of crowd-sourcing! Central PA will be better off for having this resource. Looking forward to participating…

  • A good writer can find an angle of interest in any story idea, I think, but you could have the right of veto if you’ve decided Paris Hilton is a ‘no-write zone.’ Poll or no poll.

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