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Last night, I realized we’ve started bitching about the Daily Emerald in the peanut gallery without offering any positive advice for change. I’d like to offer my thoughts on how to turn the struggling newspaper into a successful digital news enterprise.
Step one: hold a transparent weekend (or weeklong) jam session to develop a strategic plan. Invite as many intelligent stakeholders as you can to a retreat, and put together a website for that retreat with the agenda, list of everyone involved, and goals. It might also be useful to have a open community forum in the week preceding to hear strengths and weaknesses from the perspective of the audience, or launch a website where the community and submit and vote on ideas for the news organization. When retreat happens, however, make it open and participatory. Make sure everyone at the retreat is documenting the discussion on Twitter, and livestream as much of the discussion as you can. Have a designated “community manager” for the retreat who looks for suggestions from watchers and brings those to the meeting. Tap the intelligence of the digital crowd, especially because you’ll be able to bring even more smart brains from afar.
Step two: campaign over summer 2009 amongst the Daily Emerald alums to raise the funds necessary to implement the strategic plan. Shop the plan out to them to get their feedback and insights, and use CRM (or customer relationship management) software to track these interactions. When I left, they were using a FileMaker database system and analog mail. I would ditch this system immediately, and my first investment would be software like Salesforce.com (which a news organization could also use to sell advertising more effectively). Using the new CRM, it would be wise to fundraise amongst the alums who want to see their old newspaper experiment with this platform called the internet. Including them in the process, by sending them the strategic plan and a link to the website with an archive of all the video, will make them more invested in the process (if they like what you’re doing at least).
Step three: implement the strategic plan starting in Fall 2009. If I were the publisher of the Daily Emerald, these three are of many things I would attempt to drastically right the direction of the news organization:
- Quit the College Publisher habit. Being on a locked, proprietary content management system is probably the worst foundation you could have for a digital news organization. Focus heavily on recruiting a few developers out of the computer science program, and build a basic website on Django that you can grow from. If you ask nicely, the Daily Gazette at Swarthmore or Daily UW might be willing to lend enough code to get you started.
- Move to once a week in print. I know that this would be very, very difficult, especially because the bulk of revenue comes from the print product, but it needs to happen nevertheless. Necessity is the mother of invention. Do it, and publish daily online.
- Empower your community. Break down the ivory tower, and hold workshops to teach interested community members how to report on the issues they’re passionate about. I am quite certain that club sports at the University of Oregon don’t get the coverage they deserves, and there are probably at least several people who could tweet at games and submit high quality images for a photo gallery.
Right now at the Daily Emerald, though, they’re going about it the API emergency meeting way, and this is just one of the many reasons I think startups make more sense in this climate. I mean, look at all of the effort it’s going to take to turn this ship around, let alone reinvent it.
There’s also been discussion that student news will be largely unaffected by the tornado ripping through regional newspapers right now. Even if that is the case, I would like to propose an analogy: if you’re driving towards the cliff of irrelevance, your direction is what is most important. It doesn’t matter that your car’s engine hasn’t seized up yet.