In the Telegraph newsroom

One morning last week, I went to the Telegraph‘s offices hard by Victoria station to see the brand new newsroom they love to brag about. More than a year ago, as they were planning the move and the future of the paper in the digital age, Edward Roussel, who was about to join the paper to edit, and a colleague visited me in New York. Now I got to visit him and see the end result.

It’s a beautiful facility, still shiny, neat, and clean. It won’t stay like that. Newsrooms never do.

They set the conference table — every newsroom has a big one for its big meetings — in the middle of the room. So now the news meetings are open and anyone can come and hover and listen. The same is true at the Guardian; I sat in on one of their meetings last year as people came by to talk about the news and the paper. This is not something I’ve ever experienced in the papers I’ve worked at in America; openness there was defined as enclosing that big conference table in soundproof glass.

Radiating out from the table are rows of desks: editors of various stripes in the first circle, reporters in the next. And the desks stretch out far in either direction. They were rearranging some desks already. Roussel said the Sunday paper was moving closer to the center and the action. In the UK, Sunday papers are more separate operations. At the Guardian, the Sunday paper, the Observer, has its own staff in its own offices across the street. When I became Sunday editor of the New York Daily News, the last pretense of having a separate staff disappeared. Peter Wilby in the British Journalism Review speculates that the fate of the Telegraph’s Sunday paper may be similar:

The future direction of the paper is unclear and, if daily journalists are to work round the clock in the Telegraph’s digital universe, without distinction between print, podcast or pdf, it is hard to see why Sunday print should be deemed a separate category.

With the Guardian also moving to a web-first, web-preeminent, 7/24, omnimedia world, one has to wonder about the fate of all Britain’s Sunday papers. I’m especially struck by the double-whammy of thick and juicy Saturday papers (ours in the US are so thin and dry) followed by separate but equally ripe Sunday papers. As long as the ad revenue and circulation are there, they’ll continue to be plump and published. But one has to wonder whether the best way to produce them is with separate staffs. I’m a foreigner, though, and don’t understand the subtleties of this newspaper biorhythm in the UK.

Back to the newsroom: On a wall overseeing the action, they project their web site, other web sites and shows, and a round-robin of statistics like those they put in the paper: most-emailed, most-read, their stats versus those of competitors…. They are very stats conscious at the Telegraph, also handing out lists of these lists before meetings. They will insist that they don’t edit the paper this way; no journalist in an organization is quite ready to hand over the pencil to the Digg mob. But they clearly are very conscious of what is clicking and they do adjust accordingly. It is one way they listen.

Upstairs, on the opposite wall, the CEO looks down on his domain. The sales staff also looks down on the cost center. And it’s up there that they hide the conference rooms to try to make them inconvenient, to discourage too many meetings (the curse of any paper).

As they prepared to operate in new space in new ways, the Telegraph ran 14 weeks of training for staff, a week at a time, getting them to make new media but, more importantly, getting them to think about the different ways stories could be presented. The staffers were given stories and had to work out how they’d cover them across any and all media, then they went out to make the stories. It sounds as if the goal was less to teach the tools and more to open up judgment over news and presentation. I’ll be talking with the editor who ran the training to hear more soon.

After breakfast, I sat with Shane Richmond, the paper’s premier blogger (at least in our world) and communities editor. He has been with the paper for some years, always on the digital side. I asked him how much of a difference the new newsroom is making in the culture of the place. Digital, he explained, started early at the Telegraph but was initially a marketing product. It became editorial but was still on separate floors, different classes. Now they are together and he sees a big difference in how the staff is working together across media.

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Of course, there have been bigger changes organizationally than architecturally at the Telegraph. This is about people and how they work more than where they work, I’ll argue; it’s about the product more than the property. And Peter Wilby in the British Journalism Review tells the story of the organizational upheaval at the paper. I have talked often about the need to explode newsrooms. Well, in more than one sense of the word, the Telegraph has dynamited its own. One can see this as turmoil; that is the way it has been painted in the media press (including the Guardian where, remember, I write and consult). But one could also see this as the master plan, the fuse that leads to that dynamite. Wilby writes:

The incumbent editors of the Daily and Sunday Telegraph have gone. So have their successors (one of them never more than a mere “acting editor”). Every senior management figure has been replaced. The entire marketing department left, along with the top 16 people in advertising. On the daily, the deputy editor, an assistant editor, the comment editor, the foreign editor, the managing editor, the City editor (and his deputy), the picture editor, the features editor and even the editor’s long-serving secretary have all departed, after resignations or sackings. The staff leader-writing team has been disbanded. The Washington bureau chief, the Washington correspondent, the New York correspondent and the Paris correspondent have been axed. . . .

Almost nobody who works or has worked for the company would deny the need for change. The Telegraph group, after all, is famed not just for the Conservatism of its politics, but for the conservatism of its working habits. When Max Hastings took over as editor of The Daily Telegraph in 1986, he found the average age of the arts critics was 72. Book-keeping was still done on paper, in longhand. . . .

The effect, extraordinary as it may seem, is perhaps intended. Erratic and capricious management can work if each apparently whimsical decision is announced with complete confidence, with no apology for or even acknowledgement of any previous decision. It is important, in particular, to put nothing on paper, to ignore requests for information or elucidation, and to ensure that no individual manager admits personal responsibility for any particular course of action. Opponents are left in confusion, their morale undermined. If MacLennan and his cohorts are trying to organise a revolution, their tactics, including provoking a journalists’ strike over the complete lack of negotiation or consultation, begin to make sense. There was, moreover, a distinct whiff of a Kulturkampf. The old oak tables and panels were removed from the boardroom in favour of glass and chrome, and the wine stocks sold. Plans to celebrate The Daily Telegraph’s 150th anniversary were cancelled. Journalists began to hear talk, wafting down from management floors, of how they were like a “country club” – effete, over-privileged, backward-looking. Does one detect here a hint of class war, as the suburban, lower middle-class Mail types took on the country house toffs of the Telegraph? . . .

With the cuts safely completed, and the papers ready for the move to Victoria, the management finally showed its hand. The new editor of The Daily Telegraph would be Will Lewis, aged 37. . . .

So is Lewis, in effect, just another management man? Will he even edit the Telegraph in the normal sense of the term, given that an able and powerful deputy, Ian MacGregor (also from the Associated stable), has just joined? Management would probably reply (I have to speculate, because repeated requests for an interview with MacLennan were ignored) that, in the multimedia world, an editor in the traditional sense has no meaning.

Yes, it’s about more than desks. See also my next post about other newsrooms, below.