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Columbia Missourian

Sense of optimism surrounds news industry’s latest innovations

By Reuben Stern
October 12, 2007 | 5:00 p.m. CDT

Dear reader,

Last week I took a trip to our nation’s capital to attend the annual conference of the Associated Press Managing Editors, the industry group for people with my job title. This was the second year I’ve attended this conference, and I was startled at how much has changed in the past 12 months.

Last year’s pervasive talk about the doom and gloom facing the newspaper industry was replaced with optimism. Editors from newspapers large and small showed off a host of innovative ideas implemented in their newsrooms.

Rather than continuing to wallow in the sad news of declining circulations, newspapers across the country are reinventing themselves, embracing the new technologies and harnessing the power of the Internet to deliver news to their communities in new ways.

They are trying to reconnect with readers through blogs and special topic sites, and also by providing opportunities for conversation between the newsroom and the public. The Washington Post, for example, has launched about 80 blogs and hosts about 14 hours per day of live discussion on its Web site.

Many newspapers have put together data teams to compile large sets of data and make them available for public scrutiny. A few leading examples include the Cincinnati Enquirer, the Asbury Park Press, the Des Moines Register and the Rochester (N.Y.) Democrat and Chronicle.

These formerly print-focused newsrooms have also jumped into multimedia, training reporters to gather video and audio and hiring multimedia producers to put it together for their Web audiences.

To encourage this pioneering work, the APME started a contest for an innovator of the year award. The award went to the News-Press in Fort Myers, Fla., which has transformed its newsroom into what it calls a “culture of innovation.” The News-Press has integrated a lot of new things all at once: multimedia reporters, online databases and a team of citizens recruited to help the newsroom report on the news.

The focus on new technology hasn’t obscured the fundamentals of in-depth reporting. On the contrary, the prevailing sentiment held that for newspapers to thrive in the future, journalists must focus on telling the kind of stories that no one else can or will tell, particularly the watchdog investigative pieces that hold public figures and institutions accountable and stand up for the public’s right to know.

Sometimes the new tools can be a part of this journalistic inquiry. For example, the News-Press fought a three-year legal battle to get access to databases of everyone who registered for aid after hurricanes Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne in 2004. Earlier this year, a court finally ruled that the public has a right to see the records, and within hours the paper had the data posted to its Web site. By the end of the second day, readers had searched the database 60,000 times.

The ideas I saw last week paralleled many of the things were have been working on here at the Missourian, making me glad our editors have worked so hard to keep up with the Joneses. Please let me know how you think we’re doing.

Reuben Stern, Managing Editor