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Monday, June 14, 2010


While daring dashes into the unknown can be exhilarating, humans by and large prefer comfortable routines. Especially as we age, sharp course alterations threaten, scare, even debilitate us.

“There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things,” wrote Niccolo Machiavelli 500 years or so ago. The Florentine diplomat was, himself, a provocateur and change agent who approved of using any and all means, including cunning and deceit, to shake things up and get one’s way.

And dealing with change hasn’t gotten any easier.

“We would rather be ruined than changed,” wrote the Anglo-American poet W.H. Auden.

“If you want to make enemies, try to change something,” rued U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, who couldn’t get his own country’s Senate to approve his League of Nations idea.

Leo Tolstoy, the Soviet author of War and Peace, understood. “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself,” he noted.

Far from the world stage, entrenched in ordinary jobs and lifestyles, most of us particularly resent and resist change when someone else thought of it and is forcing us to go along.

For millions of Americans who have lost their jobs in the current economic downturn — or have had to learn strange new skills to keep them — change has rattled their world, assaulted their peace of mind, depressed and angered them.

My own profession has been tormented by change.

You may recall my blogs about the once-smug, now-agonized newspaper industry, whose readers and advertisers have fled to newer, more portable media in such numbers that a lot of trusted old papers have simply given up, stopped the presses, and shut their doors.

Traditional broadcasters have fared only slightly better. There are so many options available on cable, over the airways, even out of the sky via satellite that broadcasting stations and networks are struggling for audience share and revenues. They’re not goners yet, but they’re looking awfully gaunt.

As Jill K. Willis wrote two years ago in South Carolina Business magazine, the old idea of “appointment journalism” — in which you could count on your audience to pick up your newspaper and read it each morning, turn on your radio station on the way to and from work each rush hour, and catch your TV newscast each evening — is not just dying. Willis says it’s dead.

“People are receiving news all day via the Internet, radio, i-Pods, cell phones, and other mobile devices,” Willis wrote. “So now, seasoned journalists in newsrooms all over the world are scrambling to adapt to high-tech information dissemination.”

For this old paperboy, newspaperman and radio news manager, this is painful. I’m the king of appointment journalism, beginning with that stoop to pick up the newspaper on the lawn each morning.

But unlike the dread of today’s newspapermen and women, my own comfort level, and that of most of my Voice of America colleagues, hadn’t been dangerously rattled. After all, VOA funding — and our jobs — don’t directly depend on snaring high audience ratings or scooping up advertiser dollars. While many of us have stuck our toes into the Web world because it’s fun — witness this blog (are you having fun yet?) — we remain snugly rooted in traditional newsgathering, writing and rewriting, and broadcast programming.

We were, that is, until 15 of us were whisked off to Jill Willis’s stomping grounds in South Carolina’s capital, Columbia — and not just for the mustard-based barbecue.

We already knew that change is in the wind. Rumored for three years, a “re-org” — a reorganization of our central news and information division — is finally at hand, perhaps while you’re reading this blog.

In South Carolina, we learned that this will require “convergence,” an updated way of thinking and plying our craft that, at first, sounded kind of ominous.

For sure, it will mean change — in thinking, newsgathering, job descriptions, perhaps even the seating chart. And change brings angst as well as opportunity.

You may wonder what our “re-org” has to do with you. How will our nips and tucks and flourishes better serve your needs?

That’s just it. We’re not entirely sure that we have been serving them as fully as possible while you change your information habits with breakneck speed.

You are reading and writing blogs, browsing for information on all sorts of devices, and sticking around only briefly once you find it. Forget about “brand loyalty.” If we can’t give you what you want when you want it, and tell you really interesting stories when you’re there, you’re history.

Enter “convergence.”

As I began to explain, 15 of us managers and working stiffs — hard-news and feature types, young and (shall I say) “seasoned” — spent a week at Newsplex at the University of South Carolina.

Newsplex was founded eight years ago by two international news organizations whose owners realized, even then, that you were deserting traditional media for new “delivery platforms” such as the Web and mobile phones that better met your needs.

To reach you, they needed to bring together — converge — all sorts of human and technical resources and “skill sets.”

For our part in the here and now, this suggests something that that our executive editor calls “story-based” journalism.

That doesn’t sound so radical. Journalists have covered stories since Daniel Defoe tramped all over England in the 17th Century, gathering material for his pamphlets. (The author of Robinson Crusoe, about a shipwrecked sailor, he was a pretty good fiction writer, too.)

But focusing on stories across several media that click with you, pique your interest, leave you wanting more — not just in our accounts of breaking news but also in VOA analyses, blogs, videos, slide shows, and audio essays — is rather revolutionary in a newsroom that reveres tradition and has a long one.

The VOA News “re-org” is almost certain to include a whole new kind of editing position. Randy Covington, our Newsplex training impresario, calls it “story conductor.”

I can picture the baton flashing and long hair flying.

As things stand, an array of editors weighs in on the newsgathering and storytelling processes. We have, as my mother might have put it, more editors than we can shake a stick at: assignment editors, duty editors, copy editors, managing editors, Web editors. Once stories are planned, they figuratively bounce along conveyor belts, where their assembly is directed, words burnished and paragraphs tightened, defective parts pulled out and replaced, ribbons such as headlines and lovely images put on them, and the final product inspected and sent off on a journey around the world.

In the convergence model, the “conductor” and the reporter (I’ve got dibs on one of the bassoonists’ chairs) will carry the story from concept to coverage to creation. Together, we will — to use another of our executive editor’s terms — own the story. Devise it. Care about it. Give it life and special meaning. Prepare and deliver it using several of the “orchestra’s” written, visual and audio instruments.

The product will be, we hope, full and robust and memorable.

You’ll still see VOA reporters, microphones, and cameras at big, breaking news events, world hot spots, and places where U.S. policy is determined and debated. And people like me will still be poking about in interesting places across America.

But our story conductors (I still see the swirling hair) will also be guiding unique VOA stories that you can access in many places. I can’t get used to calling them “platforms.”

VOA’s reporters, videographers, producers, bloggers (ahem!), Web writers, graphic designers, and other journalists will all be challenged to deliver stories so compelling that you’ll want to check in with us again and again and again.

It rattles me a bit to say this, but the truth is that while our “conductors” and we make beautiful stories together, we’ll have a younger audience in mind.

Don’t fret if a gray hair or two has popped into your head; we won’t suddenly turn cool and cryptic and frivilous. But we want your kids and even your grandchildren as young as teenagers to check us out, and to participate in our information products through comments, social media, polls and the like.

It’s a cliché but true: younger information consumers are our future. To be relevant, we need to get with it, and with you.

Even before the 15 of us who “converged” in Columbia fiddled with newsroom diagrams and flow charts, we identified likely obstacles to change. It wasn’t hard. You’d hear the same grumbling in the face of change everywhere:

“What if my position is threatened or, gulp, eliminated?”

“It took me years to get comfortable. I don’t want to work much harder. And I certainly don’t want to fool with all that fancy technology.”

“This re-org will never work. Prima donnas won’t stand for it, and deadbeats will drag it down.”

“New media? Story conductors? That’s not journalism. What about our reputation?”

I should point out that at least half of the “Columbia 15” — many more than 7½ people, actually, especially the youngest among us — immediately and eagerly embraced the concept of a story-based, audience-friendly news operation.

They’re already working across many media, seizing every bit of training, and bringing technology to bear at every turn.

And not a one of us thought VOA’s standards, stellar reputation, or commitment to fairness and accuracy would suffer from a tune-up. As Aristotle once said, “Change is in all things sweet.”

I’m no pioneer in these matters. I’m settled, happy. I avoid most change when I can.

Aristotle doesn’t resonate with me as much as Benjamin Franklin does. The great diplomat, scientist, printer, and satirist nailed it, I think, in the nascent days of our republic.

“When you’re finished changing,” he wrote, “you’re finished.”

(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word in today's blog that you'd like me to explain, just ask!)

Deadbeat. Technically the term refers to those who don’t pay their debts. But more broadly, it refers to lazy sorts — loafers and slackers who have an aversion to hard work.

Gaunt. Emaciated, bony-looking, often with sunken eyes.

Nascent. Beginning or emerging, as in the “nascent days of the empire.”

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