Friday, January 04, 2008

Open Letter to Gary Wortel

Welcome to Fort Worth and congratulations on your new position as publisher of Fort Worth's only daily newspaper. I know you are really busy right now, so I'm going to cut straight to the chase. I'm kind of an anomaly among those in online Fort Worth -- I actually subscribe to the newspaper. That's right. Sometime in the small hours of the morning, a real person inserts a real newspaper in a real plastic baggy and leaves it somewhere in the vicinity of my front porch.

That makes me kind of a Luddite because most of my friends don't subscribe to or even read the paper. Maybe they look at it online. And I know that is one of the problems you are trying to solve. So I'm here to offer some advice.

You see, I believe in newspapers in general and your newspaper in particular. I believe that a free press and education are two of the essential ingredients of American democracy and for most of our history, the newspaper has both informed and educated. I worked there for almost 10 years, and I believe the Star-Telegram is an essential part of this community. It's like Ol South Pancake House, except without a smoking section. Yeah, the Startlegram is that important.

I know you are buried under opinions about how to move the Star-Telegram forward in 2008. So I figured I would throw a few on the pile. Here goes:

  • It's about the local: The people I talk to want to read local news but they don't feel like they are getting it from the Star-Telegram. If you tell this to your editors, they will tell you that what I just said is a bunch of bullshit ... there's plenty of local news. But that's how a lot of people feel. So who's right? I think the people are. If so, where is the disconnect?

  • Call out the liars: OK, I do have an idea about the disconnect. I wish I could take credit for this one, but credit goes to the Online Journalism Review. Lemme read a little. I highlighted a few of my favorite parts: "How do you distinguish yourself among all this information competition? Don't rely on the value of and goodwill toward your publications "brand." If that was gonna bail you out, it would have already. No, news publishers need to provide information that is more timely, more accurate, and above all, more useful and rewarding to their readers in order to claim a larger share of what might be in 2008 a shrinking ad revenue pie. Readers today are drowning in lies ... The news sites that prosper in 2008 and beyond will be the ones that do not leave their readers hanging with 'he said, she said' coverage, but that report aggressively to reveal to readers who's lying and who is telling the truth. The online medium is changing journalism. But not just to make it a 24/7, global, clickable and interactive. By unleashing fresh competition on the field, it is pressuring established newsrooms to wake up from their lazy practice of stenography-as-journalism, and start calling out the liars again." There's a pretty good roadmap right there. In a sort-of-related topic, a step in the right direction would be disclosing the terms of the gas drilling lease that the Star-Telegram signed a gas drilling lease agreement with Chesapeake Energy. If the S-T has a business arrangement worth a lot of money with one of the most controversial companies doing business in Fort Worth, the public has a right to know of a potential conflict of interest. It's the right thing to do.

  • Make the paper smaller: I know, I know. I've read the stories in the paper. People love the redesign. But the people I talk with think that there is too much clutter to find what is really important. Be respectful of readers' time. You aren't just competing against other news sources, you are competing against the Mavericks game, YouTube, IM, 30 Rock, dinner, sleep ... just about everything. You are the filter. Make it more efficient for readers to go through you than gathering news on their own.

  • Give me a Web site worth clicking on: The paper was redesigned last April. We are still waiting for the new Web site. Why? If anything, the Web site is even more important because that's where the future of newspapers is headed. If you'd like some very specific ideas about how to fix it, please read my post from last summer. I know the Wall Street Journal recently enthused about McClatchy phasing in Yahoo services in 2008, citing that early tests in Fort Worth produced a 4 percent traffic increase the first month. Imagine what those numbers could be with a clickable, searchable, truly interactive Web site?

  • Moderate the comments: The comments I find on your Web site make me shudder. For some reason, it draws out the bottom feeders who dispense the most vile tripe but don't add any value to the great conversation of Fort Worth. OK, that's pretty esoteric. Lemme break it down another way. It prevents your Web site from building affinity with its readers. I think that's how they say it in newspaperspeak. Look at it this way: its the online equivalent of a bunch of teenagers hanging out in front of the store. It drives people away.

  • A little link love, please: I blog a lot about what is written in the Star-Telegram and I follow Fair Use guidelines -- paraphrase a little, provide proper attribution and insert a hyperlink (BTW, permalinks, please.) And I do this with any other blog or news site I refer to. It's proper netiquette and really not that different from what your reporters do every day. However, that hasn't proved to be a two-way street. When your reporters find out about things from my blog or aother local blogs, there's no mention of where this insight came from. It is passed off as original reporting. I know the ethics of blogging have still not fully gelled, but I think this is wrong. If I reporter finds out about a story from a local blog, a little attribution would be nice. There are lots of bloggers in Fort Worth who work hard to record the world as they see it around them. Give them a little recognition.

  • That's enough to start with. Good luck with the new job, Gary. I'm rooting for you.

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