The new news(room)

The debate about how to organize newsrooms continues throughout the industry. The Telegraph is bringing together the digital and print staffs (see my post and video above). The Washington Post has them apart. The New York Times and the Guardian are both getting ready to move into new newsrooms and we’ll see how they operate. I know other editors who are debating now how to rebuild their newsrooms — organizationally, operationally, and physically — to bridge the future. And a smart editor I know said all this doesn’t matter so much because the demands of the news and its products will drive the rest.

I’m not sure what the answer is. But I do think that the challenge is primarily cultural: How do you stop journalists from being limited by their medium, from that getting in the way of serving, interacting with, and enabling the public to find out and share what it needs to know. How do you empower the journalists to get and tell and improve stories using any and all appropriate media, tools, and connections, anytime? That’s why I think the Telegraph’s training is more important than its room (again, see the post below).

As I plan the continuing education program at CUNY, I have been questioning lots of editors and trying to figure out myself how to help break down those barriers of medium, skills, and culture. I think this comes in two phases. The first, as the Telegraph did, is to open up the staff to new possibilities, to show them that they can now chose any medium and make new kinds of news immediately; it’s a new kind of news judgment. The second phase is to improve specific skills (better audio, better video, sharper slideshows).

At the Guardian, I spoke with Dan Chung, a brilliant photographer who is now making video. We talked about how good — how slick, how professional, how orthodox — a newspaper’s video should be. The way he posed the question was: better or more? I say more. Indeed, in some ways, rougher is better: more authentic, closer to the source, more inventive. Online video should not ape broadcast TV, nor podcasts radio, anymore than the text web should have aped print (though, of course, it did).

But, of course, this is about more than just tools. It’s about new connections. Two-way news. Possibilities. Experimentation. Culture. How do you organize a new newsroom around that?

I say if you want to be really radical, the walls to break down are not between digital and print but between the newsroom and the world. Is it more important for journalists to be talking with each other or with the public who knows and wants to know?

I know that sounds like just a cheap, gimmicky line, hardly practical (because it is). But there’s still something there. I have heard a few people say that reporters’ desks should be their cars. I wouldn’t take that literally, either. But I would make it a cultural quest: the more you are out there, physically or virtually, the better you will do your job.

When I was a columnist on the San Francisco Examiner — writing six days a week, 1,500 words a day, forever in search of the few item-crumbs legendary Chronicle columnist Herb Caen dropped between dots — I remember the managing editor giving me the evil eye one day because, from my perch at the head of the newsroom, I was able to see everything that happened and gossip about it. “Damn it, Jarvis,” he scolded, “I pay you to be the town crier, not the office crier.” He was right.

So what does this mean for newsroom design? I’m not sure. An ad agency got lots of press for giving people no desk but only a locker; they were to spend time out of the office with clients or grouped together in teams inside and so they never put out roots at desks. That’s another cheap, gimmicky idea. Again, I don’t think it’s about where the desks are.

Maybe the thing to do is to add lots of empty desks and make those the places where people from the community can come in and work, share, learn and teach. Yes, but who?

Maybe it’s about buying every journalist at T-Mobile account (with a bonus coffee card) and sending them out to work in Starbucks, where they can talk with people they don’t know, most days of the week. And put a little sign on the table: ‘Starbucks Bureau. Please come in.’

You could hold those all-important meetings online and live (some are experimenting with that).

Here’s an idea I tried to push when I was advising Advance on the start of a local all-news network (that got stymied and drastically dulled down by Cablevision): How about setting up the newsroom in a mall, our new town square, and mingling with the people formerly known as the masses?

Gimmicks, all. But the point is that when you’re redesigning newsrooms, you need to redesign habits and brains and job descriptions and skills while moving the furniture — or else you’ll be moving the furniture on the Titanic.

I’ll be talking with another editor at the Telegraph soon about their training program because I think that’s the change that’s going to make the real difference. We’ll see.

: LATER: Thanks to Mark Potts, and relevant to the two posts above and countless below, I just caught up with the full http://“>announcement of impressive updates at the LA Times. Note the trends above and below: web first and training. This is the kind of talk I hope to hear from American papers:

Los Angeles Times Editor James E. O’Shea unveiled a major initiative Wednesday to combine operations of the newspaper and its Internet site — a change he said was crucial to ensuring that The Times remains a premier news outlet.

O’Shea employed dire statistics on declining print advertising revenue to urge The Times’ 940 journalists to throw off a “bunker mentality” and view latimes.com as the paper’s primary vehicle for delivering news.

In his first significant action since becoming editor in mid-November, O’Shea said he would create the position of editor for innovation and launch a crash course for journalists to push ahead the melding of the newspaper and its website.

O’Shea named Business Editor Russ Stanton to the innovation post and said the “Internet 101″ course would teach reporters, editors and photographers to become “savvy multimedia journalists,” able to enhance their writing with audio and video reports. He emphasized the need for speed in reforming an operation that he called “woefully behind” the competition. . . .

The Spring Street committee, named for The Times’ downtown address, produced a scathing report that has been seen by only a few of the newspaper’s top editors and executives.

“As a news organization, we are not Web-savvy,” the seven-page report says. “If anything, we are Web-stupid.” . . .

“We are rarely first” to post news on the Internet, the Spring Street committee found. The committee cited an instance recently when a truck carrying hay caught fire on the Hollywood Freeway, sending up a plume of smoke that alarmed commuters. “We told readers nothing of the incident until the following morning,” the committee said.

A philosophical clash between the website’s top two employees — General Manager Rob Barrett and Joel Sappell, an assistant managing editor at the paper and executive editor of the website — also “hampered the site’s ability to grow,” the report says. Barrett wanted the site to focus on “hyper-local” reports, to deliver Southern California readers information about their communities. Sappell argued for building “communities of affinity” rather than geography. . . .

Barrett said that about 77% of latimes.com viewers came from outside Southern California — an audience that is not attractive to advertisers who want to reach local customers. The site intends to expand local coverage substantially to grab a bigger local audience, Barrett said.

Previous editorial regimes emphasized international coverage and ego over local service. It took the company guy from Chicago to set a better path.