Posts about newsrooms

The new news mindset

It’s so great to see more and more news executives face the tough questions in the business and recognize the fundamental and urgent change upon them. Chuck Peters, CEO of a newspaper and TV company in Iowa (and the guy who created a blog bridge to the outside world from behind the closed doors of the recent API news CEO meeting) wrote a good post this weekend about the need for a new mindset in staff, a new understanding of the value of news organizations, new jobs and tasks for everyone, and a new and more open relationship with the community.

Peters summarizes the state of mind of news organizations:

As we work to develop this new game, or business model, within our own company, conflicts arise. Those who see the future, but can’t articulate it, are frustrated. Those who see the future and want to make it happen quickly are very frustrated by those who don’t even perceive the need for a new game. Those who don’t perceive the need for a new game are frustrated by all the commotion.

“We cannot continue to focus on products,” he says wisely. “Products are just nodes on the network, promotional flags to local intelligence, in context.” He also argues that they must change every job:

It is my strong belief that an organization such as ours, with over 500 employees, cannot expect that we can change all the mindsets and pursue a new game by simply repeating the forces and ideas driving the change in a series of seminars or links to interesting articles. We need to change the tasks, titles and organization so that we are doing new tasks, in new ways, and making the results of our efforts available immediately to our communities as we begin the larger task of organizing all this information elegantly.

‘We don’t hire editors anymore’

That’s the provocative headline I saw in Folio’s report from its conference and a speech by Meredith president Jack Griffin. The fuller context:

As a result, the company invested in its interactive and integrated marketing businesses–spending roughly $600 million since 2002 on launches, acquisitions and building out its existing Web sites, Griffin said, as well as redefining its editorial hiring approach. “We don’t hire editors anymore,” he said. “We hire content strategists.”

I’m not sure what that means. But it made for a good headline.

What would you kill? Jocks?

Michael Fioritto was nice enough — and skilled at Excel enough — to compile results from my little survey that asked you what you’d kill from a newspaper’s budget. Keep in mind that it’s unscientific as hell and that respondents could pick as many suggestions as they liked. I need to do a proper survey and probably will at my New Business Models for News conference (this one was just a demo of Google Forms). In any case, when Michael did the tabulation, 425 people had responded and here’s what they wanted to ax:

Financial tables 43.06%
Sports section 21.65%
Sports columnists 8.00%
Entertainment section 3.76%
Movie critic 3.76%
Business section 2.59%
Syndicated features 2.59%
TV critic 2.59%
Music critic 1.88%
Book critic 1.65%
Comics 1.65%
Foreign bureaus 1.65%
Lilfestyle section 1.41%
Washington bureau 1.18%
Editorial columnists 0.71%
Copy editors 0.47%
Online site 0.47%
Top editors 0.47%
Editorial page 0.24%
Photographers 0.24%

Financial tables are obvious (which is why it’s all the more appalling that all papers haven’t killed them).

What fascinates me most is the large number who want to kill sports. I’m one of those who doesn’t read the sports section (you always knew I was neither a real man nor a real American). So I just throw it in the back seat. But sports sections are also expensive to produce — lots of staff — and bring in few endemic advertisers. Granted, some people buy the paper to get the sports section alone. But this makes me wonder whether sports should be a separate product. If it’s a great one, perhaps you could charge even more for it than you charge for the paper. Could it work as a free paper? Well, the lack of related advertising could be a problem there. Should sports live only online with the opportunity to have more media and interactivity? Should newspapers go out of the sports business? Those seem to be the questions to ask.

Just do it

At the Guardian Media Group’s online offsite yesterday, I watched a live demonstration of the benefits of following Howard Owens’ dictum for nonwired journalists.

I keep nattering on about the need to retrain newsrooms. And I assume that this should entail at least all-day sessions with folks like me earning a few bucks for training the newsroom. That probably does still make sense (at least the part about paying me).

But GMG digital czar Simon Waldman accomplished the primary goal — demystifying all this web 2.0 stuff and making it obviously easy — in an hour-and-a-half exercise pitting teams of execs against each other with a short list of tasks:
* Take photos and upload them to Flickr.
* Make a video and upload it to YouTube.
* Start a wiki page and add links and a photo.
* Start a blog and embed the video and photos.
* Join Facebook and join a group there.
Granted, many of the people in the room were online folks and all of them cared about digital; that’s why they were there. So in any newsroom, I’d take a lesson from that and similarly stack the deck, sprinkling online veterans among the unwired folks to offer help. The sure sign of success is that these content folks got past the tools and did what content folks do, bringing editorial oomph — and a few ads — to geeky tasks. And so everyone learned they could do it. And they had fun.

Howard’s bigger assignment includes tasks related to RSS, SMS, Twitter, and Del.icio.us. So make that the graduate course. But there’s no reason that every news organization could not and should not do what GMG did yesterday.

(Disclosure: I write and consult for the Guardian.)

The fount of all news

Peter Horrocks, head of the BBC Newsroom, writes about the consolidation of its news operations across all media. Now one newsroom serves radio, TV, and online and he’s its boss.

Practically every news operation I know of is struggling with this now: to consolidate or not?

I was on the side of separation at the beginning of the web and for good reasons. At Advance, where I used to work, we set up separate online operations to make sure that what was made for the web was appropriate to the web (not just a PDF of a newspaper) and to assure that the web gained its own value (and wasn’t just given away to advertisers as value-added). That worked.

But I’ve come to think that consolidation is inevitable. Any news organization has to get to the point where there is no difference between old media people and new media people. That takes much training and more mixing of tribes than the end of a season on Survivor (but just as much loss and pain).

This is, of course, easier said than done. At the same time, more technical skills are needed; one could consolidate too much and, in the words of one of my students, turn every journalist into an eight-armed monster — and do a halfassed job in any medium. And revenues are going down. And managers try to wrangle two completely different business models for industries in completely different life cycles under the same roof with the same people.

But at the end of the day, whenever that will be, we know this: Every journalist needs every tool to gather and tell every story how best it should be told. Every reader/listener/viewer/user should be able to get the news however, whenever, and wherever he or she wants. News operations won’t be able to afford the inefficiency of separate staffs all putting out the same news. And that’s why I think consolidation is inevitable.

So that takes yet another new management skill: mixing two or more cultures and operations into one (and hiring the right kind of people to help and, yes, getting rid of those who can’t and won’t come along). I think that training needs to be aimed not only at eliminating the line between old and new skills, it also needs to show new ways to do journalism better, to give an understanding of the new ecosystem in which media live, and to instill a culture of innovation.

The new collective

Shane Richmond of the Telegraph tears apart the “report” from the National Union of Journalists — of which he is a slightly sheepish member — that attacks the means of new media in British news organizations. I mocked it yesterday as “whiny, territorial, ass-covering, protecting-the-priesthood, preservation-instead-of-innovation” and Jay Rosen is egging me on for more.

But I’ve decided that a different tack is in order. For it occurred to me that if you’re a union representing journalists today, you probably don’t know which way is up and who’s the enemy and what you’re fighting for. All the old reflexes and relationships are archaic. Unions are structured to fight The Man but now that Man is no longer all-powerful, requiring the joining together of its workers to balance his might. Now the Man is quivering in his loafers, less powerful, poorer, smaller, unsure where the world is headed. Battling The Man could weaken the only guy who is, if not on your side, at least in the same boat with you. Do you really want to go throwing the deckchairs overboard at a time like this?

The very notion of the collective — the essence of the union — is changed. No longer is it about employees gathering together inside an institution to battle for their share of that institution’s value. Now the collective is more likely to be a gathering of independent agents who may work collaboratively, with or without that institution.

Indeed, some of those independent workers used to be employees and union members, but then they got laid off and decided to try to make a go of it on their own. See the story of Rick Waghorn, made redundant from his newspaper and now covering football on his own. See the similar story of Debbie Galant, who left behind the platform of the New York Times and created hyperlocal pioneer Baristanet. See, also, plenty of people who are starting journalistic endeavors on their own without a history of working for newspapers under union protection: Brian Stelter moved from blog to newsroom. Josh Marshall has a media empire growing. Rafat Ali wanted to be a journalist and is now hiring them.

So what is their relationship with the old institutions, including the union? Through old lenses, you’d say their the competition, the enemy. The old union cant is that they are taking work and jobs away from the professionals. That has been the NUJ’s attitude toward citizen journalists. But what if those citizens are your former members? What then? And in the new economic ecosystem of journalism, the relationship should be collaborative. As Mark Potts said at the Networked Journalism Summit, if you’re going to succeed at being small, you probably need to be part of something big. And the Jarvis corollary: If you’re going to succeed at being big, you need help from many smalls.

So what is a union’s role in that universe? That’s a hard question. I’ll propose a few answers.

I’d say that a union has to make itself valuable by making its members more valuable. That won’t come from sitting back and making demands — for just as the institution no longer has a stranglehold on news and distribution, the staff no longer has a stranglehold on creation. So I’d suggest that the union should make sure its members are trained in every medium and means of newsgathering and storytelling — and don’t just demand that employers train, do the training yourself. Act like a collective, a generous community: Get members to train each other. In the comments under this post, Time Inc.’s guild says it’s pushing training. Well, good. Can’t have enough.

I’d rethink the idea of job descriptions. Unions were built to protect them. Look at that NUJ “report” — it gets pissy about nonphotographers making photographs. Get over it! Look at Flickr. We can all — reporters among us — take photographs. So help them take better photographs. Train them.

Rather than whining about doing new jobs, demand to do new jobs. I content that everyone — everyone — in a newsroom should be trained to make slideshows and videos and podcasts even if they never actually make them, for it opens up their thinking to new ways to tell stories and helps them understand why the world is doing this and perhaps helps them improve the products they’re working on. So train away!

Then I’d rethink what membership means. Is it just employees? Maybe it’s those dreaded independent folks you see as a threat. Why would they become members? Well, you’d better give them something: In the U.S., that would be health insurance. And training. And libel insurance. And networking to get work. You have to make your union valuable to them — by making them more valuable in the marketplace of news and content — and only if they do that, will they join. And once they have, it’s in your interest to improve their work and value. So no longer can you sniff about these damned amateurs trying to do what the professionals you protect now do. Now you’re in this together.

If you want to get really fancy, a guild could become an ad network to help support its members. But that gets mightily complicated, for that puts the union in competition with the institutions with whom it now negotiates. Messy world, this.

And you’d also try to become a catalyst for innovation and invention and the creation of new companies. And you’d try to help make them as successful as possible. You’d see yourself in partnership, not at wawr.

It’s hard to imagine a union thinking this way. But I’ll argue that if they don’t, they’re more quickly doomed that the news organizations they’re still trying to wrestle with.

The new journalist

You probably can’t see this unless you’re Ken Sand’s friend on Facebook, but he just posted a job opening at Congressional Quarterly for a “technical journalist.” Getting past the irresistible straight line — ‘well, technically, I’m a journalist’ — it’s telling that such a job description exists:

The technical journalist/Web developer will join a new editorial projects team that will be responsible for conceiving of and building dynamic Web applications, maps and mash-ups for CQPolitics, CQ’s free content site that is being expanded. The Web developer/technical journalist will be collaborating closely with two other team members, and will need to be able to communicate effectively with non-technical colleagues. The ideal candidate will have extensive experience building data-driven Web sites and tools using XHTML, JavaScript, CSS, XML, XSLT, Django or Ruby on Rails, Ajax, and Flash, and a demonstrated understanding of relational databases and experience with open-source databases like MySQL.

Oh, yes, and hooking paragraphs and taking rewrite.

New newsrooms

Having finished my spiel at the UT Symposium on Online Journalism about reasons to be optimistic about journalism and other cockeyed ideas — including blowing up newsrooms — I’ve been listening to four leading lights of online journalism talk about their newsrooms: Jim Brady of WashingtonPost.com, Neil Chase of NYTimes.com, Bill Grueskin of WSJ.com, and Kinsey Wilson of USAToday.com. Not live-blogging; summarizing. You can watch it all here (it requires a download but it’s pretty nifty).

Brady talks about their separate operations at the Post that are coming together more and more — online people involved in projects at the start, paper people thinking multimedia — but he also reviews the advantages of separation, of having people who think and work first and foremost online. Chase tells the story of the merger of the Times’ newsrooms and shows how the memo and announcement didn’t make this happen but individuals with ideas and enthusiasm are. Grueskin, like Brady, recounts the advantages of separation but then tells how online is now helping print (some of their blog content has been better than some print and so they now distill those blogs for print). Wilson reviews the business imperative of their print/online merger and says they asked themselves if they were creating the business from scratch today (and it wasn’t that long ago they did create it from scratch, after all), how would the do it. They set it up so that online is clearly involved in all decisions in the newsroom, including managing resources. He tells how they are now pairing a couple of editors with a blogger who keeps an eye on what’s happening in the world while the editors worry about longer-term assigning.

As one of them said, they aren’t as different as they appear. They are all trying to find new and better ways to use the power online provides to do more journalism.