One newsroom, two newsrooms, or none?

There is a debate in the land of newspapering: Should print and online operate separately or together? Jay Rosen argues today that in the recent kerfuffle at The Washington Post, he sees benefit in separation. And you’d think I’d agree, since I set up separate operations when I was at But I don’t think I do, not anymore.

The commonly held wisdom — or rationalization — among those of us who took separate routes is that we needed to create autonomous operations so that the online staff could do what was appropriate for this new medium (like enabling interactivity) and so that the online brand and bottom line would not be shortchanged in ad deals as merely value added. And I think that was true.

But it is also true today that if newspapers themselves do not change radically to embrace the future, they will become things of the past. So I have argued that newspapers have a choice: Either totally upend newsroom culture and get people to face the strategic imperative of gathering and sharing news in new ways across all platforms … or move most of the staff to online — where the audience is now and revenue growth, if not equivalent revenue, will be — and leave the dinosaurs behind. But if you take the former course, if you take the challenge of exploding the newsroom, then you probably have to give those people control for all the products and hold them accountable for audience growth and satisfaction and for keeping up with all their new competitors, small and smaller. And if they can’t do it, then you get new people who can. Quoth Yelvington once more: “It’s time to change your people, or change your people.”

Jay argues persuasively that in l’affaire Froomkin, the ability of online monarch Jim Brady to make appropriate decisions for the dot-com apart from newsroom king Len Downie is productive:

They’re not equals (780 in one newsroom vs. 65 in the other; fewer than one million subscribers vs. eight million users), but Washington and Arlington have their own spheres. Over the newspaper and reporting beats Len Downie is king. Over the website Jim Brady is sovereign. Over the user’s experience no one has total control. There’s tension because there’s supposed to be tension. It makes for a more dynamic site.

Well, but it also makes for blinders aside the eyes of the newsroom princes. That is why Post political editor John Harris thought he could be so haughty as to publicly scold his online colleagues for not following his rules and for embarrassing him with his White House, even snaring the — what shall I say, unsuspecting? — ombudsman in his crusade.

No, Harris and company do not need to confront the online people. They need to confront the future. They need to confront the fact that more readers read the online product. They need to confront the fact that the economics of news are changing, whether they approve or not.

I once had an argument with an editor of People who wanted a redesign to do what technology at the time — and logic — could not do. He kept stomping his foot: If I want it, it must be so. Make it so! I kept explaining why it could not happen. Round and round it went until finally I snapped, “Jim, damnit, I’m not your enemy, reality is.”

The people in the Post print newsroom acted as if the online newsroom were their enemy. No. Reality is.

: So are The New York Times and USA Today right to combine newsrooms? Only if they blow up the newsrooms in the process and force every journalist at every desk to reinvent not only the product but also the process of news — and reinvent themselves as they do it. An organization chart is not the answer. An attitudectomy is.

When I visited with The Guardian’s management, I found an impressive cultural change already underway: The print folks and online folks together worried that they were behind,that the digital age was well underway and they were still trying to hop on. They didn’t try to alter reality. They wanted to get ahead of it.

That cultural change is what matters, not whether there are one or two newsrooms.

In fact, I’ll argue that there should be no newsroom. Now you may have thought that the reference to no newsrooms in the headline above was another smart-assed prediction of the fall of papers. Not at all. Instead, it’s a suggestion: Just as you should stop thinking of your product as paper, as a thing, so should you stop thinking of your operation as a room.

The old saw in designing space for a business is that you should give the sales department as little space as possible — or no space at all — because, after all, aren’t the sales people supposed to be out there, selling?

So shouldn’t the same be true for newsrooms: Give the reporters no space, have them live out of their laptops, so they are out there reporting? Now go the next step: What if some and soon much of the news doesn’t come from reporters — allowing the reporters to concentrate on what they do best, on their real value, reporting — but from the people we used to call readers? And what if the people help edit too (see: Digg)? What if there is no newsroom? Or rather, what if the newsroom is the community and the community is the newsroom.

OK, I just went to far. It’s what I do now: I push the point to make a point. At a recent breakfast with pr execs, a sage news exec — guess who — defended me at such a moment, saying it’s now my role to push the imperative and it’s still their job to get their jobs done. I was grateful for the defense, particularly from him.

But I also went to lunch last week with a print editor/friend I now like to call Fred Flintstone who challenged me back and said, ok, after resisting the Gospel according to Jetson, he was now ready to sign up and build a new future. But how? How, exactly? It’s fine to talk theory but what’s the reality?

He was right to push back and since I now spend so much time in this space with abstractions that will make fine book chapter titles but not blueprints — but since I also have faced the specific practical challenges of merging newsroom views if not newsrooms — then I need to get more practical: Mouth, meet money.

So I hope to start writing a series of posts with explicit suggestions for news organizations. Take them for what they’re worth. Oh, I’ll argue that there are actually lots of practical suggestions amidst the 9,009 posts that precede this one (yow, that guy can blather!). But I can see how the forest can get lost for the kudzu. So I’ll write some posts that are at least more direct. Starting shortly with suggestions about how to merge those newsrooms… but first, how to scare them….

  • chuckR

    How does the Wall Street Journal handle it? I subscribed from the get go and have never regretted not having to dispose of 1/3 cubic yard (guesstimate) of dead trees per year. Its my preception that its pretty much the same online and in hand, except it was Best of the Web Today that got me hooked on perusing blogs. And BTW, I never had a problem paying the $60 per year to get the WSJ electronically.


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  • Mark

    While I believe the WSJ runs separate newsrooms for print and the Web, there appears to be a much smoother coordination between them than among most other print/online news operations. I’d argue that this stems from a quirk in the WSJ’s history that’s quite instructive.

    Long before there was a Web, reporters at the print WSJ had to file immediate stories for the Dow Jones news service wire throughout the day, as soon as the news occurred. So the paper’s internal culture was oriented toward immediate news before the Web site even came along. That greatly smoothed the Journal’s transition to the Web–while other newsrooms (including the WashPost’s, I know from firsthand experience) grumbled that there was some sort of magic in waiting until 6 pm, to let stories marinate and age before filing them, the Journal reporters already were conditioned to filing news in real time. That made a superb news-breaking online product right out of the box when it launched in 1995. So regardless of how the Journal’s newsrooms are set up, its culture historically has been based on immediate, 24/7 story production. That makes a big difference.

    Incidentally, at least one top WSJ editor wisely suggested years ago that the Web site should essentially be the primary product; the newspaper, ideally, would be just a snapshot of what was on the Web site at 11 pm. That’s not quite true in reality, but philosophically, it’s absolutely spot on. All newspapers should think that way: the Web site is the dog and the newspaper is the tail, when it comes to wagging–not the other way around.

    For all these reasons and many more, the online WSJ is an outstanding product. I use it multiple times a day and have zero problem paying for the privilege. Like many people I talk to, I actually think it’s underpriced. Take that, anti-Web-subscription zealots!

  • It’s not just the medium of information that print media has to adjust to, it is the style of delivery.

    Nowadays people are less tolerant of “word of God” monologues – the modus operandi of 90% of print writers. I am unconvinced that many of them can make the transition to the sourced open-dialogue architecture of the internet.

    Furthermore, these print writers are not the best writers in the country. They have been sheltered from any real competition for decades. Watching Big Media founder is not schadenfreude but rather a celebration of progress.

  • Oy vey. News is news. Audience is audience. Writers are writers.

    I sit here in Oregon in a town that only gets the Times in print only on Sundays. I do not make a distinction between print and online. It is all the same. The Times IS the Times. Why WOULD, if one could start from scratch, make these worlds separate?

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  • Yeah, upend the newsroom. You assume that every reporter and editor in the newsroom is like a powder keg of skill and desire, ready to transform from a caterpillar into a butterfly without the cocoon stage. Wave a wand and poof! they’ll reinvent themselves and their work. Hardly.

    Doing this requires a lot of learning on the part of current staff. How will you teach them, partly to offer new skills and attitudes, and partly to gain trust.

    I recently told a print editot that he should evaluate his newspaper personnel this way: what could I cut tomorrow that READERS wouldn’t care about.

    The first things to go would be the local columnists. They;re boring, old, predictable, and not interesting. No one cares, Move them only the web only, and make the blog everyday, and answer comments. But that runs into the heart of the newspaper’s reputation and honor. Bad columnists are a sign of strength.

    As someone who studies the transition from idea to enactment, I know you’ve got your work cut out for you. I said more over at Jay’s. Good luck.

  • Well said, JD. Yes, those are both on my list: Who’s trainable and who’s really needed.

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  • Jeff although you’re writing about newsrooms, a similar problems exists on the business side. I can’t tell you how many organizations struggle with online advertising sales. I’ve talked to a number of Advertising Managers who have tried to encourage their existing reps to sell online advertising and more often than not they’ve opted for a separate advertising staff dedicated to online advertising sales.

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  • Who’s trainable and who’s really needed.


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