At the same time, the circulation declines and revenue problems eroding the industry’s fiscal health led to a self-interested decision on the part of many media outlets to engage the public much more actively. The chief tools for that are the newspapers’ online versions, where staffers frequently participate in reader chats and where reader input is solicited on everything from story ideas to poll questions. (The Wisconsin State Journal has even begun letting readers vote on which story they’d like to see on page one.) And reporters and editors now routinely publish their e-mail addresses to make themselves more accessible to readers.
So in many ways, Smith has been far ahead of the curve in his long-standing belief in the “open door” — and now the technology is catching up. He says he had been trying to implement his webcast idea off and on for a decade, but it has taken a “broadband” revolution to really make it possible.
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"I think everybody will soon stop playing to the camera" - Steve Smith on the newsroom webcast
Smith can be headstrong, stubborn, and in Rosen’s words “a tough man to work for.” But having spent two decades interviewing newspaper editors of all stripes, what really strikes me about him is a level of candor and introspection that is increasingly rare in a business where freewheeling and extroverted editors — such as the Globe’s Tom Winship and the Washington Post’s Ben Bradlee — have yielded to successors much more inclined to rely on safe, if opaque, corporate-speak.
Last year, in what provoked a serious debate in journalistic-ethics circles, Smith’s Spokesman-Review helped end the political career of Spokane mayor Jim West. After hiring an outside expert to pose online as a high-school student, which led to stories alleging that the mayor had used his office to “develop sexual relationships” with young men, West lost a recall election last December.
To his credit, Smith handled an online discussion with readers about the paper’s methods and motives regarding that story — taking such questions as “How have you been sleeping at night?” and “What good will come from airing all this dirty laundry?”. When one angry reader announced he would no longer buy the Spokesman-Review, Smith responded, “I appreciate your decision. No one should buy a newspaper out of any sense of obligation. If we don’t meet your needs or live up to your standards, you should take your business elsewhere.”
Even with his webcast brainchild, Smith is refreshingly honest about the newsroom’s decidedly mixed reaction to the idea.
“This webcasting step had definitely caused some tremors,” he observes, noting that some reporters have stopped showing up to the meetings. And he admits his senior editor for local news “just thinks this is crazy.”
“I emphasize this is an experiment,” he says. “I think everybody will soon stop playing to the camera.”
Smith is also honest enough to admit that some of the reform concepts he’s embraced over the years have failed to substantially transform an industry in which he says “the economic pressures, the staff cuts, the day-to-day struggle to get the damn paper out the door,” now consume everyone’s time and energy.