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At the nexus of the now and the next.

The mobile revolution demands that journalists ultimately reinvent themselves

Forty-three years later, I remember my first professional newsroom like it was yesterday. There was crazy Bob Feit, from Hungary, whom we simply called Feit (as in yelling, Feit!!). He ran our financial wire service with utter joy, leaping atop his desk and waving his arms when big breaking news hit. Then there was Dave, the slot man. A Brit, he ate onion sandwiches for lunch every single day and re-edited the copy that young rim men (it was always “man” or “men” back then) like me produced from copy we ripped off a wire machine. Dave would then pass his work to Carmine, better known as “Ace,” from Staten Island, a gruff but lovable teletype operator. It was a fast, clean system. We mastered it.

I like my nostalgia, but recognize I must resist clutching onto it as the path to the future. Such restraint is critical for all journalists as they face a Herculean challenge: how to build workflows that produce journalistic experiences that meet the needs and expectations of audiences that live their lives on mobile devices. Across the industry, 60% to 80% of any news site’s traffic comes exclusively from mobile users with devices that vary in form factor, format and connection speed. Complicating this is the distributed nature of news consumption. Social can no longer be seen solely as slinging traffic-driving links. Every newsroom must also create mobile content that lives independently on the multiple distributed social platforms. Still, journalists remain steeped in processes that service print paradigms. These procedures can be self-defining, forging identities that are often reinforced by imposing buildings. The stately Time-Life Building in New York with its rabbit hutch offices comes to mind. For decades, it drove a mental hierarchy that made digital transformation, yet alone mobile transformation, almost impossible.

For me, the mobile challenge faced by the Los Angeles Times is exhilarating. Throughout our newsroom — and others owned by Tronc, our parent company — it requires editors, reporters, photographers and graphic artists to think expansively about their roles. Everyone needs to work with one another to understand how each does their specific job, in turn putting an end to silos. A number of years ago, I attended an event at Harvard for the launch of Riptide, an oral history of how the digital revolution disrupted the news industry. On stage, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., chairman of the New York Times Co., said he advised his “new reporters to take an engineer to lunch.” His point: They needed to understand a developer’s role. Today, that message applies to editors and reporters who must grasp the ins and outs of visual storytelling on phones.

I was thinking about this last week as I watched a skilled Los Angeles Times photo operation kick into action as Santa Ana wind-driven fires ravaged the area. It was a well-oiled machine, producing compelling images for print and digital distribution. Of course, reporters braved the fires too, capturing the devastation in words. Many of them did exactly what is required in the new mobile era. They posted photos and videos they took to their personal social accounts. In some cases, editors placed these same photos and videos in the reporters’ stories or as part of photo galleries. Here you can see a video of dogs sheltered at the Ventura Country Fairgrounds taken by one of our reporters that became part of one of our Instagram stories.

Much more than that can be done. The news business faces continued audience fragmentation as social platforms like Instagram and connected devices offer news enthusiasts compelling visual and audio experiences for important stories. Since I’m always watching the competition, I saw this on the New York Times mobile site last week, a great example of visual storytelling of the California fires that looks a lot like an Instagram Story. The reality is clear: Newsrooms must move closer to platform experiences that are now capturing the attention of hundreds of millions of people.

Of course, breaking news, tragic or otherwise, gets any newsroom going. And many breaking events provide lots of great visuals. The trick for journalists is to develop mobile visual expressions for investigative projects, enterprise stories, profiles of movers and shakers and lifestyle content (check this out from Thrillist.com). Today, most visual storytelling on mobile news sites is desktop presentation shrunk to fit smaller screens through responsive design. That simply is not good enough in a world of social-sharing-minded consumers who want to tap out individual elements to friends rather than 1,000- to 5,000-word pages with embedded graphics and such. Staff structures will need to change to produce such news experiences.

That’s where new publishing platforms must play a role. At the Los Angeles Times, (and eventually across all Tronc news sites) we’re rolling out Arc Publishing, digital publishing software from the Washington Post that will give us great ability to deliver new experiences for consumers. That includes new home pages, story templates, section pages and special report screens. Most important are so-called cards that serve as modules for video, graphics, etc.

Even though Facebook is effectively the mobile home page for a billion-plus consumers, a news site’s home page remains critical. It creates a brand narrative for the audience, marketers and the industry itself. And, in a world of questionable content, a traditional newsroom’s home page presents a credible filter that helps consumers cut through the noise. That’s why I’m working with our producers and product team on a highly visual and conversational mobile home page in sync with audiences that are gravitating to social networks and newsletters dominated by narrative and voice more than clinical headline lists.

With reluctance, traditional newsrooms accepted the desktop and laptop revolutions in theory, if not practice. To grow and prosper and to serve new audiences in a mobile world, reporters and editors must do more than talk the talk. They need to reinvent themselves. It won’t be easy, but far less painful than putting up with those horrible onion sandwiches.

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For The Times, the moment is now to build its future

I believe life is about moments — and last week marked the anniversary of a big one for me. On Thanksgiving morning in 2006, I was at my then home in Washington, D.C., reading an article in the Atlantic. The author put forth a novel concept for the future of news not unlike one I was developing. Furiously waving the magazine, I barreled down some steps shouting, “This guy’s got the same idea I do!” My wife, amused by my behavior, calmly said: “How would you feel if someone did it before you?” On that day I became an entrepreneur.

Let’s fast-forward to late last August. I was at a farmer’s market in New York when I got a text that would be a next moment. It asked if I’d be interested in learning about the changes afoot at the Los Angeles Times. I was intrigued, knowing that Ross Levinsohn and Mickie Rosen, two people I’ve long known, worked with and respected, were behind it all. Looking up from my iPhone, I took a deep breath and said to my wife: “What would you think if I interview for a job in Los Angeles?” Her response: “Go for it.”

Two moments and whoosh — here I am at The Times, a storied brand unlike any other in American media history (just pick up “The Powers That Be” by David Halberstam to learn why). To be its editor in chief is equal parts humbling and daunting. I say that even after five years at the New York Times, where legendary editor Abe Rosenthal once upbraided me in his private office for making a wisecrack at his 3:45 p.m. news meeting; and Katharine Graham, on a train from Cuzco to Machu Picchu, grilled me on my job at Newsweek (once owned by the Washington Post); and Norman Pearlstine, then Time Inc.’s editor in chief, critiqued my start-up business plan line by line and number by number.

As for the task before the Los Angeles Times, well, it’s as challenging as any news organization has ever faced. Technological disruption, changes in consumer behavior and shifts in the ad market show no signs of stopping. Our company itself, after years of corporate confusion, has yet to reach its true potential in terms of reaching digital consumers and growing subscriber and advertising revenue. Fortunately, premium journalism can jump-start brands across the digital universe. For The Times — and the other iconic media brands owned by its parent company, Tronc — that can lead to capturing bigger audiences that live on social and technology platforms.

With new leadership, this 136-year-old brand is charging forward on each of those fronts, backed by a community that wants nothing more than to see it succeed. Days before I arrived in Los Angeles, I received an invite to a dinner event in New York City for the USC Annenberg Center on Communication. I was struck by the level of support I received from longtime city residents. Over and over I heard, “How can we help?” Los Angeles “is having a moment,” one guest told me, “and The Times needs to be at the center of it.”

That’s definitely our plan. To do so, we must be at the ready to ferret out tough truths about the world we live in. The Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Daily News and other Tronc newsrooms have won dozens of Pulitzers, speaking to the fearlessness to which we approach our journalistic watchdog roles and the respect bestowed on us by our peers. At the same time, we must shine the light on the people and institutions changing the face of the cities and states in which we live. In Los Angeles, the city’s extraordinary diversity and income disparities carry a different set of responsibilities. To represent the community, we need to bring a dose of empathy to our coverage.

For me, a simple belief system can put The Times on the right path. We must unite the values and standards of traditional media with the dynamics of digital publishing. That’s an easy statement to make. Execution is far more complex. It calls for a deservedly proud newsroom to reorient its collective mind, largely still wrapped in newsprint. In speaking about companies in general, Peter F. Drucker, the management guru, is famous for saying that “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” He further warned that ingrained processes and procedures can defeat the need to change and ultimately prevent an organization from carrying out its original mission. We must take these observations to heart. A century-old culture of print publishing still largely dominates traditional media, even 20 years after the launch of the first news website.

So, where are we headed? First off, we need to break a paradigm that’s governed most news organizations for two decades. The print experience can no longer drive the desktop experience, and the desktop experience can no longer drive the mobile experience. Shrinking pages to fit the devices of one generation after the next will no longer work. It’s imperative that we flip the script. Mobile, 60% of our daily traffic and climbing, needs to drive our efforts. That means getting our stories to audiences much faster; a new more conversational tone; and visual storytelling that combines long-form text with the elements that mobile and social consumers want — video, photos, graphics, gifs and more.

Next comes a new kind of content strategy that works both for the Los Angeles Times and Tronc’s other media properties. California is both a global cultural and economic force. It’s time for Tronc to be a global player in those and other areas, too.

Imagine a content vertical for culture — the intersection of entertainment, music, fashion, food and more. The Times and Tronc should “own” this given the role Los Angeles and California play in shaping how we live. Imagine the gravitas and scale we can bring to these areas with deeply reported stories plus a range of content partners. E-commerce and events can play an important role, too. Then imagine us sharing this content horizontally with the Chicago Tribune, the New York Daily News, the Orlando Sentinel and other Tronc properties. Then, as the news organization centered in California (which would be the sixth-largest economy in the world), imagine us exporting, or syndicating, our culture-based content throughout the world. As consumers are increasingly willing to pay for credible content, the Times and Tronc’s well-known brands can find new revenue streams in such verticals. The same strategy holds true in covering the intersection of Silicon Beach, Silicon Valley and entertainment technology.

With everything we do, the journalism comes first. My career began nearly 45 years ago in a college newsroom as I lived through Watergate, the Vietnam War, Roe vs. Wade and racial conflict. My first professional job was at a wire service, then I found my way to newspapers, magazines, television, an internet portal and my startup. At Forbes, my previous employer, the editorial team reported to me. That included all magazine and digital editors and staff writers. I was also deeply involved in product development and technology. I’ve come to understand reporting the news and creating and delivering content to print and digital audiences alike.

As I kick off my life at The Times, I have three priorities: great journalism, digital transformation and diversity in the newsroom. I strongly believe new and leading voices reporting and producing our content will appeal to loyal readers and attract new ones. These same voices can help drive us toward the digital culture that can propel this great company forward.

I celebrated a big birthday in July. I turned 65. On the run-up to that day and ever since I’ve been reflecting about the interlocking events that carried me through a life and career so far. Perhaps more than ever, I’m recognizing and embracing the moments at hand. I’m confident The Times and our newsroom are ready to do the same.

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