Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Convo with former journalist Steve Woodward

There’s that moment of hesitation before you hit the send key. It flashes so fast as if to be lightning, or it tugs and pulls you back. Your arrow-pointer hovers over the submit button. You consider. You choose.

I felt that tug. I paused. Then I said, “What the hay,” and fired off the blog post Change May Require Listening.

Thus, the newly born 360 Convos leapt into the hailstorm of the We Make the Media event aftermath.

Tweets, DM’s, blog posts, comments and snark pinged rapid fire as the attendees roared opinions about an event that stumbled and tripped between the old world and the new, an experience that brought a hodge-podge of journalists together to discover a 21st Century truth. When something discomforting happens, distressed people blast it via social media.

I almost didn’t attend, but random encouragement from a colleague as our paths crossed in the lunch trailer prodded my curiosity, and on that fateful Saturday I flopped into the fray. During a break I made a mad dash to make connections and introduced myself to a tall guy. He asked where I worked, I answered. He reached into his pocket and handed me his card. I tucked it away. He had that recycled newspaper man aura. It was later, when another friend explained what he was actually doing that I pulled his card back out and decided we should talk, preferably over coffee.

He had launched something interesting. Something that could affect my newspaper future.

Yes, Steve Woodward had been a newspaper man. He'd covered business and technology for The Oregonian, but he had escaped—layoff papers in hand and a generous severance package headed for automatic deposit. He’d be comfortable, he could relax for the short term, but that wasn’t exactly what he had in mind. The ‘what next’ part would be a brainteaser he looked forward to untangling.

“Y2K was one of my favorite things ever.” Woodward said, as we settled in with lattes and croissants. “In order to figure out how everything might fail, you had to figure out how everything worked.” He ticked off the potential points of failure including the electric grid system, how chemicals were stored, everything around the city of Portland, Oregon that computers ‘touched.’ It was an incredible amount of work to plot but it garnered him a good following.

He moved from business to features but kept covering technology, this time from a social point of view: technology in society, web stuff, art. “For me it really took off with that Twitter article I wrote for the Oregonian. I hung out with Rick Turoczy for a day at Back Space. I started getting into social media. My job was to try everything new that came up, make my readers aware of it.” He wrote about technology from inside technology. He embedded a live Twitter feed on OregonLive where people could tweet about the story. “We were using the technology to record the story about the technology. ” Some of what he covered was, “Kind of weird.” Doing all the freaky, edgy technology stories, but it made him aware of how much was going on in Portland, and “How totally unaware the newspaper was about it.”

Woodward noted that everyday the paper pumped out the same diet of state politics, crime, and standard news. He became convinced the newspaper product needed to evolve. “You can’t afford to be cautious, that’s the riskiest thing you can do these days, it’s a sure path to failure.” He sensed that his paper knew it needed to do something, but they didn’t quite know how.

The Oregonian launched a newsroom wide set of committees to brainstorm ideas, and even though each committee was given the charge to start with a blank slate, no rules, few took it at face value. But Steve Woodward did. “No rules? Okay! I started throwing out ideas.” His neuron zapping concepts met with immediate resistance. Editors responded, You can’t do that. You can’t have reporters choose who their editors are. “Why not?” Woodward asked. Reporters are lazy and want to slide by. “No,” Woodward said, “Reporters want to be better. They really want the best story possible and will choose the editor based on who will help them the most.”

The newsroom committees skipped down the path of least resistance. “You don’t innovate by committee,” Woodward commented, and shifted his energy into an offline group. They gathered around pizza and beer on their own time and brainstormed what they would do if charged with trying to save the paper. “I was convinced it was really almost too late, that advertising was going too drop off.” Woodward also projected the paper would experience staff reductions. “We wanted to have some alternative to take back to management.”

They played by the rules and told their respective bosses they were meeting and kept them informed. “It wasn’t intended to behind their backs.” The only restriction they worked with was that there had to be print product. They did research, interviews. “What started to emerge was perhaps a tabloid, once a week, younger readers, maybe we would do top stories you should know about today. We were in the brainstorming stages of it, far from done, still testing ideas, when the editor approached me. ‘I understand that you have this little group, I’m interested in hearing what you’ve come up with.’ At the same time the Newhouse family wanted to hear about new ideas for The Oregonian and all their papers. We made a presentation of our still unfinished ideas to the editor, Sandy Rowe.

“She was intrigued by some of the ideas. I wish we’d been allowed to go forward, but she asked us to stop and said, ‘We’ll take it from here.’ She and the department heads took our ideas and implemented one or two.”

The pizza and beer group disbanded, watched from the sidelines and sighed as their concepts were hashed through but not necessarily as the original group intended. “Readers don’t want more info they want less info, but they want that info to be more relevant.”

Woodward was frustrated. He needed to do something meaningful in journalism. Early retirements were offered. A year later a series of buyouts beckoned. “A lot of people passed it up because they didn’t know what they’d do. I’d had an impact on business and technology journalism when those departments were a dumping grounds for disgruntled reporters. Now, I had an opportunity to have another impact on journalism. I didn’t know what that would be, but the buyout gave me time to figure it out.”

Where did Steve Woodward focus his efforts to impact journalism next?

Stay tuned ...
Read Part II, Recycled journalist reinvents news.