Gannett explodes the newsroom

Well, good on Gannett. They’re exploding their newsrooms, changing how they are organized, how they operate, and tearing down the walls to the world formerly known as the outside. Jeff Howe at Wired tells the story and posts memos from Gannett on his Crowdsourcing blog.

Starting Friday, Gannett newsrooms were rechristened “information centers,” and instead of being organized into separate metro, state or sports departments, staff will now work within one of seven desks with names like “data,” “digital” and “community conversation.”

The initiative emphasizes four goals: Prioritize local news over national news; publish more user-generated content; become 24-7 news operations, in which the newspapers do less and the websites do much more; and finally, use crowdsourcing methods to put readers to work as watchdogs, whistle-blowers and researchers in large, investigative features.

Now I’ve seen plenty of newsroom reorganizations in my day and they haven’t changed the biorhythms of news yet. But at the Online News Association, I was impressed hearing an editor at a Gannett paper in Delaware tell how he had turned his newsroom into a 24-hour omnimedia operation. Add to that the inside-out use of crowdsourcing and you have the Gannett plan.

I fear that the culture of the newsroom will do everything it can to stop this. Here this foot-dragging in Howe’s story:

Naturally, the newsrooms are wary of the changes, despite the results achieved in Fort Myers. “We’ve broken into task forces to figure out how to implement this, but some of this stuff, I’ll be honest, gives us great pause,” said one midlevel editor at a Gannett newspaper, speaking on condition of anonymity.

This is precisely why I left my job. That is what stood in the way of change and, I argue, survival for newspapers.

Except Gannett could be different. Gannett newsrooms are smaller and younger (though don’t count on young staffers to be any more forward thinking and brave than their elders). And it’s hard for anyone in newsrooms today to deny that they’re in trouble (though many will try!). And top management is making a strong push for these changes. Said CEO Craig Dubow in his memo to the staff:

The changes impact all media, and the public has approved. Results include stronger newspapers, more popular Web sites and more opportunities to attract the customers advertisers want.

So perhaps this has a chance. I hope so.

It will work if success stories pile up. Journalists love to brag and if this structure gives them bragging rights, it will help. Howe reports on such a success story:

“We’ve already had some really amazing results with the crowdsourcing element of this,” said Jennifer Carroll, Gannett’s VP for new media content. “Most of us got into this business because we were passionate about watchdog journalism and public service, and we’ve just watched those erode. We’ve learned that no one wants to read a 400-column-inch investigative feature online. But when you make them a part of the process they get incredibly engaged.”

The most prominent example, Carroll said, occurred this summer with The News-Press in Fort Myers, Florida. In May, readers from the nearby community of Cape Coral began calling the paper, complaining about the high prices — as much as $28,000 in some cases — being charged to connect newly constructed homes to water and sewer lines. . . .

Readers spontaneously organized their own investigations: Retired engineers analyzed blueprints, accountants pored over balance sheets, and an inside whistle-blower leaked documents showing evidence of bid-rigging.

“We had people from all over the world helping us,” said Marymont. For six weeks the News-Press generated more traffic to its website than “ever before, excepting hurricanes.” In the end, the city cut the utility fees by more than 30 percent, one official resigned, and the fees have become the driving issue in an upcoming city council special election.

Now there is networked journalism in action.

I hope to hang out at a Gannett paper or two to see how it goes.

  • http://politicalcritic.com PoliticalCritic

    I think everyone should follow Gannett’s lead and blow it up. Many have become tabloid newsrooms.

  • Delia

    re: “and finally, use crowdsourcing methods to *put readers to work* [my emphasis] as watchdogs, whistle-blowers and researchers in large, investigative features”

    Jeff,

    That falls in the arrogant (and ignorant) category as far as I see it: you can certainly draw readers into particular projects (provided they have a special interest in them) but you CAN’T “put readers to work”… That’s the wrong conclusion on Gannett’s side (that because people didn’t mind helping when they had an immediate financial interest in the outcome they could just be handed work… and the dummies would just do it for free… (way to cut your operating costs)…

    And to restructure your WHOLE operation on that premise? Makes me wonder just how bad things *were* at Gannett…

    Delia

    P.S. Unless they want to be *completely* community driven (only do stories where enough people with a special interest also have the ability and the willingness to help). That *could* work… but it would take time and figuring-out…

    Bad idea to “explode” anything BEFORE you have it figured-out! — I think it would have been much smarter to just add an “experimental branch” and give it plenty of time to figure out what works and what doesn’t. D.

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  • JD

    If Gannett’s truly serious, they will sack some of their senior editors and put some visionary folks in their place who don’t have editorial experience but have a solid history of leadership and creating customer-centric products. Working your way up through the ranks and recruiting your leadership only from within the industry may nominally work for a police department or the military, but it’s a pretty 18th century way to run a newsroom, er, information center. The worst thing about newsroom are those holier-than-thou editorial types who think that their jobs can be done by similarly ink-stained wretches.

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  • http://www.phillyfuture.org Karl

    This sounds really, really exciting. I’m happy to see a news organization start to realize that it’s newsroom isn’t bounded by physical space and that the entire web is a potential source of coverage.

  • http://www.sweeble.com Newsghost

    I’m sure Gannett is serious about this at the top, and especially when it talks to its shareholders. And I think Dubow probably genuinely believes in his vision, as does Roger Ogden et al. But I think it stops there.
    The bread and butter operations – the local newspapers (and I only know about the UK ones here) are still cash cows being forced to run on shoestring budgets with editorial and print rooms seeing the biggest cutbacks in recent months. Of course the journos are suspicious – they see this rush to UGC as another way of getting news on the cheap.
    In the meantime, as Delia and JD suggest, you’ve got a whole tribe of ego-heavy newspaper editors who still they think should determine what is defined as ‘news’ in their city by setting the news agenda for their paper and controlling what stories are published, both in print and online. Gannett may be welcoming the “community” into the office, but it isn’t handing them any keys.
    I agree wholeheartedly with you Jeff about the importance of UGC (enough to have left Gannett and put my savngs where my mouth is) but I believe local newspapers can only play a part in building journalism’s new frontier if the culture change goes way beyond jumping on the citizen reporter bandwagon.

  • innovative, but

    While all of the changes Gannett promises are forward-thinking, grand and warranted in these dying days of print journalism, the way they are approaching it is less than realistic. As a Gannett employee at a mid-size daily, we are seeing these changes, and in the company’s memo that outlined the plan, they specifically said they will not hire new employees to produce any of this new content, which will add tremendously to the workload of everyone. What you’ll likely see are new types of media online, but you’ll see even lower quality to the products and just less reporting as we all strive to produce snappy videos and flashy new-media content, in addition to everything that was required of our jobs before this initiative. The ideas are great, but with no new bodies to produce it, don’t expect a high level of quality.

  • http://www.sweeble.com Newsghost

    Not surprised by the ‘no new staff’ committment from Gannett mentioned by innovative, but. I saw enough of that. Newspaper groups have to recognise that you can’t keep putting out the same daily product while just bolting on top future-proof innitiatives unless you put in the staff investment. Don’t forget Gannett made $1.2bn last year and Dubow himself picked up a $15m package on the back of his brave new world ideas (http://www.sweeble.com/story/view/1082).

  • http://www.better-water.info/ rdlobel

    Sounds like Gannett is trying to run a newspaper more like a blog. Well, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery!

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  • goodenuff

    As an employee of Gannett, I was shocked to hear an editor speak of corporate’s new mantra, “Good enough is good enough,” during a recent staff meeting regarding the coming shift in newsgathering.

  • gulfsprite

    As an ex-employee of Gannett (New Media Manager at Fort Myers) I’m laughing over my decision to get out. If you read the Washington post story, specifically the content the “mojo” was reporting… you will see a crappy story written in an irreverent and insulting tone and posted under the wrong community. That is not news, in fact, it’s gossip and it’s sloppy.