Fending off attackers

By Doug Fisher

You may be a reporter, editor or publisher reading this, but for a moment, let’s pretend you’re a secret agent cornered by the bad guys, an electric fence three feet from your back. Coming at you is an attacker with a chain saw. Another has a flaming torch and another a deadly viper. The fourth has a bucket of liquid, and the last has a knife.

Whom do you shoot first?

Sounds a lot like being a journalist these days, doesn’t it? Your back’s against a wall – make the wrong moves and your job or your profits could vaporize. If you are a copy editor, with smaller – often consolidated – desks, it might seem like you’re under attack hourly. So which threat do you kill first?

If you said the chain saw attacker, or even the one with the torch, you’re like many journalists I talk to – the loud, shiny threat gets their attention (just as it often does when we decide what to cover each day). But it’s what cuts down your options that can really kill you.

Shoot the attacker with the liquid. If it’s flammable and he douses you, the guy with the torch can more easily set you ablaze. If it’s water and he soaks you, one brush against that electric fence could kill you. As long as you stay dry, you have more maneuvering room. It’s time to stop thinking conventionally in a world that’s been turned upside down. You can’t be transfixed by the loud, shiny threats, even if they seem nearby. Whether it’s trying to juggle more things on a desk shift or figuring out your future, you have to figure out what can actually do you real, long-term damage.

Copy editors, for instance, are learning they have to concentrate on the big threats, things like libel, fact and whether a story truly makes sense, and give up some of the language and style niggles they’ve attended to. Journalists in general need to look more at the big picture, but it’s still too often a “that’s always the way we’ve done it” world out there. Only it isn’t. Even the “Web” is so 2005.

Mobile, location-aware (Facebook now allows users to “check-in” at locations – you don’t think with more than 150 million users that’s going to take off , do you?), augmented reality services are the world you’re selling into. Social networking is not just another distribution channel, though that’s how many newsrooms still treat it. Instead of just pushing it out, how many have thought of actually trying to create social networks (in other words communities of interest) centered on various aspects of what they do?

Your business is now retail, and that’s a different way of thinking. It’s the red dress-green dress problem. What, I ask journalists, would you do if red dresses were selling like hotcakes? The usual answer – order more red dresses.

That’s what we’ve always done as a wholesale business, pump out more. But the retailer doesn’t reflexively do that. Maybe the red-dress market is getting saturated.

Maybe it’s time to move the green dresses up front and the red dresses back. The retailer pays attention to her customers, trying to understand what they want and how it fits with what she can provide so that her business is the most efficient. She also understands impulse buying (how many of you still don’t have a “buy this photo” button under each caption online?).

It’s not pandering. It’s survival. So, back to our attackers. Whom do you shoot second? The one with the snake. If he throws it at you and you’re bitten, you’re dead within minutes. You’ll never get to the anti-venom, even if one exists. Eliminate him and you still have a better chance to dodge the others.

After that? Well, you’re on your own.

© Doug Fisher

Doug Fisher, a former AP news editor, teaches journalism at the University of South Carolina and can be reached at (803) 777-3315 or fisherdj@mailbox.sc.edu.

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