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 Advance.net. 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….