A Fresh Start

    by Chris O'Brien
    October 14, 2007

    I could begin by reciting in mind-numbing detail my experience running The Next Newsroom Project. There have frustrations (many); there have been moments of despair (a few); there has been progress (some); there have been unexpected discoveries (lots). But this blog is just getting started, and there will be plenty of time for those stories. For the moment, you can visit our project site for the skinny.

    Instead, I’d like my first post here to sound a note that’s far more hopeful, if not exactly profound: I feel optimistic about the future. And that, more than anything, is the most important part of my experience since I received a Knight News Challenge Grant in May. It’s sometimes easy for that notion to get lost in the daily routine. But it’s there.

    That outlook has not come easy. For the past eight years, I’ve been a daily business reporter at The San Jose Mercury News, and a professional journalist for 17 years. For awhile, I was the luckiest person in the world. Since I was five years old, I wanted to be a reporter. I use to get up at 6 a.m. just so I could race my dad to the driveway to get the paper first. I grew up to be what I always wanted to be. How many people can say that?


    The past five years, then, have been personally and professionally devastating. Our newsroom has been cut from 400 people to 200 (and shrinking). We’ve been sold twice. The newspaper is dying, and the community seems to have reacted with a collective shrug.

    Working on my Knight project has changed my perspective: It may be the worst time to work at a newspaper, but it also may be the most exciting moment in history to be a journalist.

    This thought struck me after spending several days in Miami last May getting to know this inaugural class of grantees. There was a tremendous enthusiasm for each other’s projects and plenty of stimulating discussions. I felt lifted up, but for reasons I couldn’t initially put my finger on. Then it hit me. I’m one of the few people here who works at a daily newspaper. There were bloggers, academics, activists, programmers, and folks who had once worked at newspapers before moving on.


    Rather than being weighed down by trying to keep something on life support, or perpetually mourning a lost age, this group was much freer to imagine the possibilities. And that was infectious. Because oh, what possibilities! There are more and better ways than ever to connect with readers, to gather information, and to communicate it. The whole game is being reinvented. New rules are being written, thrown out, and then re-written. And we get to be a part of it.

    I’ve been gratified by the response I get whenever I interview someone or recruit a volunteer to help us design the ideal newsroom of the future. I think what people appreciate more than anything is that it gives them, for a moment, a chance to let loose their imaginations. They can dream about what could be.

    It’s hard to see those possibilities, though, when you’re sitting in a newsroom, watching your friends get fired. Wondering how much longer you’ve got. And trying to simply protect what little turf you have left.

    I’ve been trying to pass along my optimism to my colleagues at the Mercury News. I’m on a committee at the Merc charged with reinventing the newspaper and I can feel that folks are eager to try new things. Still, it’s hard to cut through the gloom and the sense that we’re just running out the clock.

    But we’re not. I’m sure this is really just a beginning. There is more, much more, to come.

    Tagged: journalism newspapers newsrooms print media

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