Dropping bombs in the newsroom

Janet Coats, editor of the Tampa Tribune, sat down in her newsroom to tell the staff about layoffs, reorganizations, new ways of doing business, and harsh realities and an intern named Jessica DaSilva recorded the event with appropriate admiration.

My favorite bomb: “People need to stop looking at TBO.com [the newspaper’s affiliated web site] as an add on to The Tampa Tribune. The truth is that The Tampa Tribune is an add on to TBO.”

Another: “She stressed more than several times that if newspaers don’t change then NEWSPAPERS WILL DIE.” (DaSilva’s emphasis) She said that without change newspapers would continue their “death spiral – because that’s what it is.”

More: They laid off a sports reporter in the Tallahassee bureau because it makes more sense to have a reporter working in Tampa than one working in a city four hours away. Local is what she’s emphasizing. DaSilva said: “If they want national news, they have several national news sources to get it. Instead, the Trib should be used to give the community something they can’t get from the NY Times or WaPo. Give them their news.” Amen.

Isn’t the paper profitable, someone asked. “The Tribune hasn’t been bringing in profits for a long time… This isn’t about profit margins anymore…. We weren’t even in the black this year.” This is a reality check not just for the staff but for media-haters who think that papers are still money machines. They are becoming money-losing machines.

Competition? She told the staff to get over the idea that they should operate and judge themselves by doing the same stories as The St. Petersburg Times. Can’t afford that anymore.

I have no idea what went through the minds of the veteran staff. But I’m delighted with what went through the mind of this intern: “Through most of this meeting, I just wanted to shout, ‘Amen!’ and ‘You go girl!’ because Janet understands what’s up…. Janet, you’re my hero, and I think this is worth fighting for too.”

Whether Coats’ formula for reorganization is the right one or not I have no idea and only trying it will tell. But at least she’s trying. Mindy McAdams has the details from an email someone at the paper sent her.

It’s going to be like this:
* Managing editors
* 5-6 audience editors — keep in touch with what the print, TV, online audiences want/need
* 5 sections of reporting (all the reporters for print, TV and Web are mashed up together in these groups):
1. Deadline — for breaking/daily news
2. Data — specifically for database stuff
3. Watchdog — for investigative reporting
4. Personal journalism — stuff for people’s every day lives like weather, health, entertainment
5. Grassroots — citizen journalism….

Outside of these groups are three “finishing” groups for print, TV and online to determine what stories should be covered and with what medium.

All the reporters will be trained in gathering news for online in case there’s a need for it. They’ll be training them on the go. The focus will now be on immediacy and using mediums appropriately. The print product is going to be more enterprise and in-depth, the Web is for breaking news, etc.

They’re also straying from the beats system. They want reporting to be more fluid. Like, if the reporter who usually covers city hall has to work on an investigative piece, someone else (like an education or religion reporter or anyone) could step up to cover daily stories.

This staffer, too, recognizes the necessity, telling Mindy: “Everyone here is kind of freaking out about the change, but what else is the Trib to do? Sit back and let profits continue to drop and keep laying off employees? At least they’re doing something and trying to figure it out. That’s more than what a lot of news organizations can say.”

Here’s Eric Deggens report on the changes.

  • Gail S

    The press has been telling us for years that we want sensationalized murder, scandal and mayhem or we won’t buy the papers. Now that we have an alternative, we are saying, “No, we want the truth, honest objective reporting. Furthermore, we want priorities in the right place, not Brittany’s underwear…we don’t care about that and we won’t pay for it.”

    It’s as simple as that. When they start listening to their public instead of dictating to us what we should think, what we should like and who we should vote for, they will be back in business.

    Best regards,

  • How unfortunate newspapers didn’t wake up and see the future while they were still largely profitable. Even minor changes in print products often lead to significant circulation adjustments. If the new product works, over time, then the audience comes back. There is no time now, nor margin for error. Newspapers are showing up late to their own wake and asking some to change the suit on the corpse.

    I applaud what they are trying to do at the Tampa Trib. Their coverage concept looks pretty good. I guess we will all be watching to see if it works out. But the hard choices and the radical changes should have been happening 5 years ago. Guys like Tim Porter were talking about blowing up the newsroom an internet age ago.

    Where were the balls in newsrooms when they were needed? Why weren’t newspapers making these tough decisions when they had the ability to choose? So now you got out of that ratty, old three-piecer and into a Hawaiian shirt and Dockers. You’re still dead.

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  • Warren Harrison

    So we don’t want a starlet’s underwear? The UK’s best selling daily ‘The Sun’ specialises in this – quite a few million people do want it – if the pants (underwear in UK) are caught on video then there’s your advertising business model sorted for the web. The Tampa story is great to hear in terms of direction, very similar in the UK, but lots of groups are cutting training budgets due to poor adverstising revenue- the video camera sits gathering dust. Be intersting to see the Tampa project develop.

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  • sam

    I’m with Gail. The amount of attention and ink that newspapers give to trivial nonsense (like the latest twists in the Brittany saga) are criminal. I see in my own town stories big and small that go uncovered, both by the local weekly rag and the big Tribune-owned daily, that I wonder what they’re thinking on the city desk. Furthermore, the paper’s website is largely a waste of time…the same stories (often trivial) remain up and posted for days at a time. Furthermore the editorials and most columnists in my hometown daily are preachy and condescending. It IS possible to take strong positions that people will agree with. or not, and present them in a straight-forward way. The Wall St Journal editorials are generally written this way and I certainly don’t go along with everything they espouse. Gail is right…give us the news straight forward, as accurate as possible, keep the opinions, innuendo, and weasel words out and maybe newspapers will get their credibility back. But by now, it might be too late.

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  • Stephanie G

    There’s a problem with making reporting more fluid by breaking down the beat system. With no one working a beat like courts, cops, or community beats, you lose the important sources and relationships and expertise needed to sniff out a breaking story ahead of your competition. Or sniffing them out at all. When you have most of your staff reporting on a story at a surface level they’re going to miss important nuances and they’re going to be reacting to the news, rather than getting ahead of it. I’m not talking about specialized beats. I’m talking very basic beats, like schools or cops. Better idea is to continue have staff with beats, but assign them fluidly to off-beat stories as needed. It not only broadens their GA experience, but allows the paper to continue to have someone “inside” a beat, where the real stories are.

  • I agree. I think beats are the heart of especially local but also investigative journalism. Still, we have to try lots of things and so I applaud the experimentation and willingness to do so.

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