Cindy McCurry-Ross is senior managing editor at The News-Press, a 100,000-circulation newspaper serving readers in Southwest Florida, and news-press.com, with 15,000 registered users.
“We weren’t prepared for all the lessons we learned...”
Q. In the past two years you’ve introduced a lot of changes at The News Press and news-press.com. For instance, the word “reporter” -- you tend to use other terms now?
A. We restructured our newsroom by organizing ourselves into collectors and connectors. Collectors are all the folks who fan out across the community every day, gathering information. Connectors are the folks who take all the news and information that’s coming into our information center and connect it to readers and viewers. They send out the news and information on pages designed for the daily newspaper, in news updates posted on the Web site and in text alerts received on phones and PDAs. They do that across various platforms: the daily newspaper, non-daily print products like Hispanic Language Weekly, a parent and child magazine, several community weeklies, and so forth.
Q. “Collector,” “connector” — your goal is to create a different mindset in the newsroom?
A. Now everybody in the organization has to keep the whole process in mind.
For example, on any given day, a reporter, or mojo -- mobile journalist -- might update a news story several times for the Web site. Or create several different news briefs for the Web site throughout the day and then some of those might be turned into text alerts that people need to know and receive on their cell phones right away. And then she might come back to the office and write a narrative story about one of those news briefs for the daily newspaper. And then she might touch base, or one of the editors might touch base, with the editor of our Spanish-language weekly – Gaceta Tropical - and say that this is a topic that is of interest to our Spanish-speaking community, and therefore he might want to get it translated and run it in the weekly.
So you begin to see how the information that is being collected or gathered by one individual journalist then is being pushed out across various portals and connected to different audiences.
Q. Change is inevitable but it’s not always easy. Or pain-free. Was the transition difficult for people who had long been part of a traditional newsroom?
A. Well, I think it depends on the individual. I do know that there are some individuals who are really excited and invigorated by the prospect of change, learning new skills, playing with the new toys and so forth. And for some there was a fear of change. They didn’t know what it would mean for them. And so I guess you might interpret that as painful for some folks. But now we’re pretty far along in the metamorphosis. We’ve really settled into this new world and this new pace -- an “information center” vs. a traditional newspaper newsroom.
Also, in our newsroom we talk about how it’s really a continuous evolution. One thing that has become part of our culture is the expectation of change, and experimentation, and trying new things for our readers. Being creative all the time. Our readers are always changing, and the community is always changing. The available technology is always changing. So we’re pretty much done with the days of “We’re going to be structured in exactly the same way we are structured today.” “We’re only going to put out the products that we put out today.” Or, “We’re only going to gather news in the way that we gather it today.” We know that it’s not realistic to think that way. So that makes any further change, which we know is going to happen, less painful as we move into the future. The expectation is there.
Q. There are consultants who specialize in helping organizational change. Did you bring anybody in from the outside?
A. No, no consultants. I will say that we had a lot of leadership from our corporate offices, in terms of their recognizing that the Gannett Company needed to change, and was going to change. And, again, consumers of news were changing radically and rapidly. When the realization really set in that not everyone is going to get their news from a daily printed “ink on paper” newspaper, we realized that there is value in what we do beyond just printing the news that we gather in the paper.
So our corporate office really played a leadership role in helping us come to the realization that we had to change. From there, I think that they saw some spirit in our newsroom, so we were involved in some experimentation early on.
Q. Isn’t it ironic that the experimentation brought you back full circle, to the most basic principles of journalism?
A. Yes, one of the things that we raised our hands for, and said that we really wanted, was an experiment that has to do with First Amendment journalism. We were reaching into our hearts and into our brains and saying, “We want to figure out how we can connect this change to good old fashioned watchdog journalism.” So that’s one of the things that really set off the momentum that we’ve had for 24 to 36 months now: raising our hands and saying: “Let us be the laboratory for changes as they relate to watchdog work and First Amendment work.”
Q. Tell about the Team Watchdog project that created so much talk within the industry.
A. We have called Team Watchdog “Crowd Sourcing 2.0” because it was the second phase of an exciting experiment related to tapping into the collective expertise of the community.
In the spring and summer 2006, the city of Cape Coral, which is the largest city in our coverage area, was charging folks in that community upwards of $40,000 per household for water-sewer connections as part of a massive public works project.
$40,000 is a lot of money, and it had taxpayers in tears and concerned that they were going to lose their homes and so forth, and we decided to look into how this money was being spent -- why the exorbitant cost -- and dig into this project. Again, that’s our role as community watchdogs.
We can’t be everywhere all the time. We can’t know of every report. We can’t know of every decision made related to something so massive. So we said to our community: Help us investigate.
We literally used those words, in print and online, “Help us investigate,” and the result was phenomenal.
There was this huge outpouring of information – a frenzied response in the first couple of days. And within 24 hours we were tipped to an audit that the City Council had commissioned but had not released. A source came forward, and we broke that audit three or four days after we had first asked for help in investigating the story.
Q. The audit revealed some dramatic surprises?
A. It accused the contractor of all kinds of wrongdoing -- a contractor that had millions of dollars worth of public contracts and happened to be affiliated with Halliburton. It was just something that tied right into our investigation of why these costs might be so exorbitant. It was a breaking point in this news investigation and set off more citizen reporting, and even more of our reporting. By mid-Monday morning dozens of people had jumped into the investigation and we were off and running.
Q. It exploded so fast that the initial story never made it to print?
A. We broke it online, and the community took control of the story. By that evening the City Council was meeting and actually stopped all work on the water-sewer project until they could sort through all the issues that were being raised by the community.
So, before any ink had hit the paper, we had already provided a public service in bringing attention to this issue, breaking the story about the audit, and having the City Council take action. When the story actually hit the newspapers the next morning, the headline was not Audit-Such-and-Such, the headline on the Web all the day before. The headline was “Cape stops utility work after audit.”
Q. What a coup! Then what?
A. We said, let’s try something that taps into the collective expertise of our community, but is a little more formal. Because the process with the water sewer project was crazy exciting and in the end made a difference in our community in lots of different ways, including saving some money for taxpayers. But it was kind of wild and messy.
And we learned that, gosh, we had such a huge response that we couldn’t talk to everybody and we couldn’t follow up on every tip. And it was just, really, an experiment.
We weren’t prepared for all the lessons that we learned.
So then we decided to do Team Watchdog. We announced it one year ago, on Sunshine Sunday, and began accepting applications. The actual launch was in the spring.
Q. Any tips for how you structured the Team Watchdog program?
A. The idea is to tap into these really smart retired people we have in our community. A lot of people move to Fort Myers, Florida to retire, and they’ve held top positions in their industries. Often they’re looking for outlets for their expertise and energy. So we thought, let’s see if some of them want to get involved in helping us investigate stories and do research and get involved in our journalism.
We were going to call this group The News Press Nine, and pick various folks who had certain kinds of expertise and pair them with our professional journalists. We wanted to start kind of small and see how it went.
Well, we got a bunch of applications -- around 100. And we said, well, we don’t want to narrow it down to nine. We want to take as many as possible. We wanted to give more people an opportunity to participate. So that’s how we ended up with the name Team Watchdog. We said we can’t really call it The News Press Nine if we’re going to have 20.
Q. What sort of people make up the team?
A. We have retired military…a retired FBI agent…CPAs…lawyers, educators. Their bios are all up on the Web site, news-press.com/teamwatchdog.
Q. And how do they help get the story?
A. We pair them with journalists in our newsroom -- mostly reporters and sometimes editors -- who are working on enterprise stories, and sometimes just daily stories. They use their expertise, whatever it is, to help us do pieces and parts of stories.
One woman helped us build a database of childcare center inspections by the state’s Department of Children and Families, and then helped the reporter interpret the database in order to write the story.
Right now Team Watchdog members are involved with our Sunshine Sunday project having to do with the cost of public records. They’ve been out asking for public records and comparing costs with us.
Q. They do research, but they’re not “undercover”?
A. No, no, they are announced. People know that they are there. We put their faces in the newspaper. As a matter of fact, every time they contribute to a story we put their name and bio in. We want readers to know that these experts are helping improve our journalism.
Q. Did the News Press staff welcome the help?
A. An important piece of this is that as we were getting started we did a couple of different kinds of gatherings. We held a mixer so that the professional journalists and the citizen journalists could get to know each other and begin to establish a personal comfort level with each other because they were going to be working together. Then we had a more formal office workshop where we talked about journalism and story ideas. And we also went over, in detail, our principles of ethical conduct. We talked to them about “no agendas” and about conflicts of interest.
We want them to bring to the table their life experience and their expertise. And we want them to continue to be citizens because that’s the “citizen” part of citizen journalism. But we did have to guard against conflicts and appearances of conflict, and they needed to be very, very aware that their participation in our journalism meant that they needed to embrace and adhere to our ethics policies. So, no on a normal basis we don’t go undercover as professional journalists, and we don’t ask them to do that.
Q. What motivates a reader to give so much of his or her time?
A. A lot of them expressed interest in the watchdog piece of it, that they believe that the government should be held accountable. And we do a lot of government watchdog kinds of work, looking at budgets and how taxpayer dollars are being spent, and they like that. They like to contribute.
Again, these are folks who were accomplished in their working lives. Who didn’t really want to be retired, but perhaps don’t need paying jobs. All tend to be newspaper readers. That’s how they found out about the program. You know, the profile of the newspaper reader is somebody who cares about the community and wants to be well informed. But it was that itch to become a watchdog with us that is a common thread among many of them.
Q. Does this program take paying jobs away from journalists? The Missouri School of Journalism’s enrollment is up next year, by the way…
A. That’s great! I’m happy. Send some of your graduates our way!
But, no. I will honestly say that I heard a little bit of: “Oh, is this just a way to replace paid journalists with non-paid journalists?” But that is absolutely not the case.
First of all, these folks are not doing journalism on their own, independently, all day, every day. They are partnering with our professional journalists and I think that’s one of the beauties of the program. It’s really a partnership between professional journalists and the community. It really was built for all the reasons that I said earlier: to reach out to our community, to empower citizen journalists, to partner with citizen journalists. But in no way was it meant to replace professional, paid staff.
We recognize that in a time when everyone can consider himself or herself a journalist -- they take their own photos and post them on the Web and write their own blogs and so forth -- we think it’s appropriate to put our arms around our community and invite them in. We want to tear down the walls and allow us to be a part of them and them to be a part of us.
Q. You can’t argue with the results --
A. News-press.com traffic is up 16 percent over the past two years. That growth accelerated in 2007 as forums, mobile journalism, microsites, photo galleries, reader-generated content and other results of our experiments made their impact. Growth was 13 percent in ’07 vs. about 3 percent in ’06. The same trend holds true for unique visitors. Remember that our big crowd sourcing experiment in Cape Coral was in mid- and late-2006. A lot of readers who were part of that might have been first-time news-press.com visitors. But they stuck with us. Now our Cape Coral microsite is our most successful.
Interview conducted by Carole Christie