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New insights for the future of your newspaper born at retreat

Saturday, July 7, 2007 | 2:00 a.m. CDT; updated 1:49 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Tom Warhover is the Columbia Missourian's executive editor for innovation.

Dear Reader:

A couple of weeks ago, 15 Missourian editors went to the woods to talk. I described the goal this way in an earlier letter to you: What is the new compact between the Missourian and the citizens it serves?

It was an exhausting and liberating week. One editor said he couldn’t believe his whole body could hurt so much from just thinking so hard.

I have no extraordinary announcements. There were incredible insights, though. Mostly, the editors came away with a shared sense of purpose to the job ahead.

If the Missourian was built from scratch, they agreed, it would be great in four areas: Constantly updating the information you get, around the clock; creating deep stories that hold government accountable and help us understand ourselves and our world; creating new knowledge that citizens can exploit for themselves by using the power of today’s computers; and facilitating the conversations mid-Missourians may be having or want to have.

The first two are hardly new; they are the plates from which journalists have eaten for generations. How to do more, better, and with new tools like the Internet are questions that will occupy the staff over the next two months.

Newspapers need to provide more, quicker, to help you understand your world and to deal with daily life. As I write to you, the following came across to my cell phone and e-mail: “Traffic on I-70 is backed up from Rangeline past the city limits after a two-car crash. Nobody was hurt in the crash.” That’s news I can use now. It won’t be of much use to me tomorrow morning. The newsroom does a great job, occasionally. It’s set up to publish a single product — one print edition a day — rather than publish constantly.

The Missourian also will commit to even more enterprise work. Perhaps the oldest and most sacred mission of the press is to uncover stuff. “Our citizens may be deceived for a while, and have been deceived,” Thomas Jefferson wrote, “but as long as the presses can be protected, we may trust to them for light.” Fearless investigative reporting, insightful narrative storytelling that helps us understand ourselves, important explanations of complex issues — none of these things should or will be abandoned. Each week, you get at least one in-depth project in the Weekend Missourian. How could the newspaper do more?

It’s easy to imagine more. It’s harder to decide what the newsroom has to give up to get there.

Many newspapers across the country have reached the point of doing more short and quick stories. Some at least say they still aspire to great enterprise work. The changes I’ve seen mostly stop there. It’s a question of reacting to the need to be Web-centric.

The editors spent most of their time, though, deliberating the final two core competencies of building knowledge through databases and of facilitating more conversations. Both in some ways threaten the notion of “stories” and of the role of a newspaper in its community as defined more traditionally.

I’m out of space, dear reader. I’ll take a shot at explaining those next week. Expect to see changes in what and how you read as the heat of summer slides into cool fall days.


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