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.