Thursday, July 14, 2011

Passion Topics | Back to the future won't work

I don't envy the editors of Gannett's top 31 U.S. newspapers, who are gathering next month for a briefing on how Corporate expects them to run GCI's newsrooms following June's layoff of 700 U.S. employees.

In a memo, News Department Vice President Kate Marymont said they had a critical question to answer: "How can we create unique, high-impact journalism with smaller staffs?"

That question might be better phrased as: "How can we create unique, high-level journalism with even smaller staffs in the future?"

That is because U.S. newspaper division President Bob Dickey has virtually guaranteed there will be more layoffs due to work consolidations. For his division, that means the loss of hundreds of jobs to the five News Design Studios, which will produce newspaper pages for nearly all the 80 U.S. community newspapers. The timetable is now in flux. The five hubs were to have been up and running by about summer 2012.

More broadly, Corporate confronts growing skepticism among the several thousand newsroom employees, whenever a new quality-control initiative is announced. In the Aug. 16-18 meeting, it appears editors will learn more about the as-yet defined "passion topics" that have been the source of speculation on this blog. We've heard about a Content Evolution Team that's been studying the newsrooms' future for the past year. In her memo, Marymont did not mention by name passion topics, nor the team, however.

Back to the future
I can well imagine Corporate publishing a summary of the meeting, one that might read as follows:


It has been four years since Gannett editors have gathered for a group-wide meeting, and not even a hurricane could prevent them from getting together this week at corporate headquarters in McLean.

Perhaps it was symbolic that the winds were blowing strong, for the meeting's theme was that we needed to breathe fresh life into one of our traditional mainstays: local-news coverage. This is especially true in this world of varied media choices for readers and potential readers.

So, editors heard about a new approach to local news aimed at becoming much more relevant to readers and much better at intersecting with their life experiences.

The winds-of-change approach introduced at the meeting is called: Passion Topics.

Passion Topics is reporting on people, places and events significant in the everyday lives of readers and covering other news so that it directly connects to them.

The program was developed by a group of Gannett editors, publishers, researchers and Corporate News Department executives who, earlier in the year, gathered to explore strengthening local-news coverage.

Based on research on readership and observations and experiences of the group, it was determined that too often our newspapers don't cover topics in ways that intersect with the everyday lives of readers. Thus, Passion Topics is designed to help newspapers rethink coverage approaches to connect more often and more meaningfully with readers and potential readers.

Key elements include covering breaking news and key topics in ways that are more relevant to readers, carrying out exclusive enterprise and First Amendment stories with readers' concerns in mind, extending the democratic conversation in our communities -- particularly through online, and respecting and writing more about the Passion Topics that are especially important in our readers' lives.

All of these elements are to be delivered in print, online, and in other ways that bring this news to readers, users and listeners. Or, more simply put, the news is delivered where they want it, how they want it, when they want it.

Editors not only heard about these themes, but they also spent time in breakout groups doing some of their own brainstorming on Passion Topics aspects.

Why staff is skeptical
In fact, what you've just read is the slightly edited text of a News Watch article that then-News Department chief Phil Currie published Sept. 19, 2003 -- nearly eight years ago. I've added or substituted just two words in bold-face type. Otherwise, the text I've quoted is 100% the same.

What's my point? Corporate has a history of pushing top-down initiatives that are long on buzzwords, and very short on substance. One sounds just like the next. And they all boil down to the same obvious conclusion:

Exclusive local news with broad impact is the key to our industry's survival. That requires a newsroom with more -- not fewer -- resources. Pretending otherwise is folly.


  1. Furloughed Fury7/14/2011 8:46 AM

    News 2000, the first Five Graphs, Real Life, Real News, any of these sound familiar? Passion Topics sounds like the name of a bad Cinemax late night adult show.
    As for this graph, "In a memo, News Department Vice President Kate Marymont said they had a critical question to answer: "How can we create unique, high-impact journalism with smaller staffs?"
    The English translation is "we have to get a bigger whip to make the horse pull more."
    How about using that effort in to coming up with a 21st century business plan, dummies?

  2. Brilliant post. Absolutely brilliant.

  3. Notice not one reporter is involved in this high level discussion. Editors who USED to be in the trenches 10-20 years ago don't count. The landscape has changed out there. Suddenly it's 1988!

  4. From "The Deal From Hell" by James O'Shea...

    [The top brass at Chicago Tribune] "...started laying the groundwork for a future that resembled the past - steep budget cuts and austerity, that debtor's two-step that would hit newsrooms hard. Frankly I don't think they had a clue about how to grow revenues, other than "think local" and nebulous projections about a better life on the Internet."

    History repeats itself!

  5. "Passion Topics is reporting on people, places and events significant in the everyday lives of readers and covering other news so that it directly connects to them."

    Except this is something we should be doing anyway.

  6. @9:43, Just goes to show you how out of touch corporate really is with what goes on at their community papers.

  7. I think 8:51 makes a good point. No reporters involved in this process. That means the top editors, who probably haven't worked a beat in decades or been out of their buildings and into the communities, will be outlining the future. They are likely so far out of tune with their communities, the whole thing will be a disaster. Reporters are on the streets daily. Their input is needed more than so-called top editors. Trust me, I spent 15 years with this company and came in contact with a lot of top editors and the wattage just wasn't very high.
    Based on Marymont's track record, they'll probably come out with a White Paper that calls for putting Passionate Mo-Jo's on the street.

  8. Passionate mo-jo's, LOL.

    "Two self-proclaimed 'journalists' were detained this evening for their actions involving a camera, a man-on-the-street, and displays of passion."

    "Police were called when shouts of "It's All Within Reach!" and "Deal Chicken!" disturbed several local pharmaceutical purveyors and entertainment hostesses."

  9. Same shit; different year.

    reminds me of the long-gone Metro Editor at the C-J who back in the "News 2000" days constructed a News Pyramid hat and wore it in order to tap into its mystical powers...

  10. Wonderful!!!! In my two decades with Gannett, my newsroom endured News 2000, mainstreaming, Real Life Real News, Nut Grafs, First Five Grafs, Moments of Life, local-local, targeting 28 to 35 year olds, then boomers, the whole Mojo thing, citizen journalism, power moms, watchdog crap, no jumps, then long-form everything, then breakout fever..... None of it amounted to shit. We all treated these 'brilliant initiatives' like a bad meal: This too shall pass.

  11. To my former worker-bee colleagues at Gannett: Be strong. YOU -- not corporate initiatives and not the assholes corporate sends down to be your bosses -- are the only reason Gannett's papers and TV stations often produce good journalism.

  12. "reminds me of the long-gone Metro Editor at the C-J who back in the "News 2000" days constructed a News Pyramid hat and wore it in order to tap into its mystical powers... "

    My best laugh of the day so far :-D

    A lot of these initiatives are not only clueless but insulting. "Mainstreaming" is what, in education, is the practice of putting developmentally disabled children in regular classrooms. How insulting to compare minority groups to people who have lower intellect!

  13. Sounds like 1:14 has all the "Flavor of the Month" buzz words that the idiot Phil Currie used to spout at us. And "endured" is certainly the right word for what the newsrooms had to put up with.

    And yes, 9:43, everything "suggested" by idiots like Currie is exactly what local newspapers should be doing anyway.

    Too bad Gannett would never leave the newsrooms alone long enough for them to actually do their jobs.

    When will they ever learn (never) that almost total autonomy at a local newspaper is the only way they will thrive? LEAVE US ALONE.

    Stop layoffs, cutbacks newshole reductions.... all that crap that fulfills the philosophy of self-defeat. In our communities, we need to act like winners, act like we have faith in our own newspapers and products, and above all, faith in the communities themselves by providing the resources needed to do the job right in editorial, advertising and circulation.

    If they would do THAT, Gannett papers would not be 8 pages most days of the week.

  14. Passion topics, great idea! Let's cover the environment like we're supposed to, except we never replaced our long-gone environmental reporter. Or the health writer. Or the arts-and-entertainment reporters. Or the court reporter. Or any of the other specialized beats we once believed were important to readers. That's OK, we'll give it to reporters who don't know anything about those beats and everything will be fine.

    Just fine.

  15. Don't forget "the journalism of hope." Late 80s.

  16. Don't forget "charticles!"

  17. Nice work, Jim.

  18. Come on people, you're disappointing me.

    All these great initiatives are not being done in newsrooms.

    They're being done in information centers, remember?

  19. Passion topics. Real life, real news. Both sound a lot like News2000 to me.

  20. The real passion topics for readers are old school news beats, which Gannett's gutted newsrooms can't begin to cover.

  21. So does their brilliant plan call for rehiring all those experienced, "passionate" journalists they've laid off? What a joke.


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