Posts about newsroom

Driving readers online

The Guardian just announced that it will publish stories online before it publishes them in print. Now on the one hand, that may not seem like a big deal. Quality papers like The New York Times and the Washington Post have long had good continuous news desks that feed the online maw with the latest (and too many other papers do not bother). And some papers, like The Times and the Wall Street Journal, put up their complete papers soon after they close late at night. [See my full disclosures here.]

But I think the Guardian’s move of releasing newspaper stories before they release the newspaper is a very big deal that it will end up transforming the business. A few reasons:

First, this aggressively drives readers from print to online. It is one matter to put content online after it is in print, to allow people to find it there eventually, or to give them the bulletins everyone else has so you can remain competitive. It is quite another matter to give advantage to online, to let the public know that stories will appear there first. I believe this is a crucial strategic change for the news business. It says that we know the future is online and so we will serve readers there at least as well — and when possible better — than we serve them in print, no matter that the current margins and revenue of print still beat the hell out of those online. The future is online, and so it is vital that we get ahead of the audience and draw them there, to our own places and brands, before they decide to go elsewhere. Rusbridger has talked about the green blob newspapers are stuck in, between the old, declining, but still rich medium of print and the new, more popular, but still less profitable medium of online. This, I believe, is an aggressive effort to jump over the blob.

Second, I think this will radically change the culture and operation of newsrooms — and even the very essence of the news story. I asked Rusbridger via email what the reaction of the newsroom was to his decision. He replied right after the big news of the killing of Zarkawi:

It’s a recognition of reality. As we talked about it in the morning conference today: I asked the doubters “does anyone believe we shouldn’t publish anything about Zarkawi until tomorrow morning (the news had just broken) in order to suit the newspaper publishing schedule or for fear of cannabalising our own readers”. No one said yes. Of course, it’s also about competition — if we denied readers information on the grounds we were still fixated on newspaper deadlines they would turn elsewhere.

Reaction in the newsroom is largely very positive. Ninety-five per cent of foreign correspondents are fully enthusiastic. Some staff worried by logistics and how you keep quality control. A few are asking (not unreasonably) about cannabilisation and revenue. In the end you have to ask: what’s the bigger risk: doing it, or not doing it.? Lots of reassurance a) we’re not going to get into the running news game and b) all copy will go through same editing process as before.

On the Guardian’s media podcast this week, one of the paper’s journalists worried that this might turn them into broadcast (read: cable news) reporters. It’s a legitimate concern. But I think the Guardian, in particular, can avoid that because it has largely ceded the business of breaking news — that is, the commodified news anyone can give you — to others by concentrating on perspective, writing, and original reporting.

Still, I think this can change what a news story is. Imagine a reporter putting an edited story online in the afternoon and then hearing more questions and facts from online readers. So the reporter updates for print; putting it online improves the story. And after it is in print, more information comes from readers, so the online version is improved again, perhaps even by trusted readers. This needn’t be the never-ending story, the bottomless edition. But neither does it need to be news on a stone tablet.

Yet it changes more than just the story. Another smart editor I know said recently that newspapers have to involve readers in the news but not necessarily the news process. At an Aspen Institute thing a year ago, a former network news executive said that readers should judge us by our product, not our process. No, for many reasons, the process becomes the product. The public can now question our work and contribute to it and by opening that process, we improve the news. So throwing out the newsroom clock with one time on it — deadline time — is a very big change, indeed.

And so this potentially changes the role of the reporter and editor as orchestrators of that process. See, once again, Gruner + Jahr chief Bernd Kundrun on the role of the journalist as moderator.

Warning: Metaphoric madness ensues:

Newspapers have long thought of themselves as bakeries: They gather the raw materials, measure them carefully, mix them up, let them rise, cut and shape them, bake them to a golden crisp, slather some cherry goo on top, and then put them on the shelf, waiting for someone to buy them. News was a product. No more.

So what’s the better metaphor? Try a garden: Anyone can plant seeds in it (reporters’ ideas, editors’ curiosities, the public’s questions) and many can tend to them (insert fertilizer gag here). When the fruit is ripe, it’s plucked and published; the farmers live by the garden’s schedule. And if you keep tending the garden, it continues to bloom. News is a process.

Metaphoric madness ends.

The Guardian’s change is also a tactical business move. I asked Rusbridger what the commercial side thought of the change, since they’re the ones selling the more expensive ads in print. He replied, “So far commercial side utterly on board. They see this as next logical step and appreciate the balance of risks (see above).” Having spoken with many folks on both the editorial and commercial sides of The Guardian, I see that willingness to make the next step and take the risk; it’s in their culture.

I also asked what impact their American expansion plans had ton this decision. He replied: “Certainly in our minds as we made this switch. Can you imagine east coast Americans logging onto Guardian Unlimited this morning and finding nothing on Zarkawi? Why would we want to drive them elsewhere?”

That, after all, is the key to online. It lets you serve a much larger but still focused public (once newspapers themselves focus). Guardian Newspapers Limited chief Carolyn McCall recently said that the company’s ambition is global and its focus clear:

“Our ambition is to be the leading global liberal voice…. There’s a real market for liberal journalism in America, given that there seems to be a large group of people that are very attracted by our coverage on the web, and part of that is because they cannot really get that kind of voice from their own media for a variety of reasons.

The opportunity is for the Guardian to reflect what the world is saying about America but also to bring [blogging website] Comment is Free into America so that you can get an engaged discussion on things that interest America in an intellectual and intelligent way.”

The UK’s quality national papers are approaching their strategies in very different ways. The Times of London is now publishing a print edition in New York (complete with ads for refrigerators in pounds; more on that later). The Telegraph, antimatter to the Guardian’s matter, announced that it will delay putting stories online to try to drive readers back to the dinosaur editions. [[UPDATE: See correction to this above.]]

Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee writes about the Times’ and Guardian’s American ambitions, making vague reference to plans to publish new Guardian editions in the U.S. as well:

But newsstand sales aren’t really the point here. The Times has three million or so American unique visitors (out of a global total of 8.8 million) to its website each month. Waving around a physical copy makes that presence more tangible – and arguably ad-friendly. It is a reinforcement of presence and intent.

The Guardian, meanwhile, has 13 million unique visitors on tap, some 6.4 million of them American. That’s as solid a haul as most big city US papers, such as the Los Angeles Times, can claim. It puts the British Guardian (and Observer) Unlimited well up among the top 50 most-visited American news sites, with an advertising revenue stream already showing concomitant signs of surge. There’s commercial ambition in this mix, too.

See, too, Peter Cole in The Independent on British colonial ambition stirred up in the media world. The British national papers, with their unique voices and perspectives, stand a strong chance at gathering audience and influence around the world.

It all comes back to that apparently simple decision to put newspaper stories online before the paper is printed. It is a brave move and a big deal.

: LATER: Here‘s the Guardian’s “readers’ editor” on the shift.

Break my heart

David Carr’s column in today’s Times carries a conversation that does, indeed, occur often in the dusty halls of old journalism and this is precisely why they stay dusty and old:

A year ago, I was talking on the phone to the editor of a major newspaper for a column I was working on. With business concluded, we had The Conversation, the one about the large boulder that seems to be tumbling through the newspaper business. “How old are you?” he asked. Forty-nine, I told him. “Me too. Do you think we outrun this thing?”

If you have to say that, then you’ve already been overrun. How sad it is that people younger than me in this business act like such old fogeys, resistant not only to change but to opportunites. It’s as if they’re afraid of a ittle excitement in their careers; might be too much for the ol’ tickers.

I also chuckled at this line, also indicative of the kinds of things you’ll hear in newsrooms still:

Over time, the leadership at The Inquirer was pushed hard for cuts and greater profits by Anthony Ridder, chief executive of the papers — even though the paper had earned hundreds of millions of dollars after being purchased from Walter H. Annenberg in 1969.

Even though they’d earned lots of profits. Arent’ those enough profits, boss? Can’t we quit with the profits already?

It’s about growth, folks: growth in profits … and also growth in the news and what we can do with it … and even about growth in careers, which should be energized by all these dazzling new possibilities.

And they say we snark

Great reading in The Guardian as the former head of the BBC’s Today show (the one that led to a huge crisis in the network), who is now heading the corporation’s internal journalism school (which I visited last week), lashes out against the hosts of Today… and they lash back. What’s even more fun is that it played out in the BBC’s own house organ.

The transparent meeting

I went to the only regularly blogged editorial meeting at a news organization that I know of: the morning confab at The Guardian.

It’s not quite like the newspaper editorial meetings I attended for too many years. They all want to be like The New York Times. And here‘s how Guardian Editor Alan Rusbridger describes Times meetings:

It is a paper of great authority and if you ever go to the New York Times editorial meeting, it’s a bit like a religious ceremony. They meet for 45 minutes in the evening and great thought goes into what’s the lead story; what’s the second story; what’s the third story; what’s the relative typography of these. It is very serious men and women saying, This is our expert opinion and that of the hundreds of journalists that we employ who have thought about this deeply, they know what they’re talking about. ‘Believe us’ is the message. If it’s on the front page of the New York Times, it’s there because it’s important. It may be about things that you don’t think you’re interested in, you may not want to read it but this is our opinion and this is the model that’s existed again for hundreds of years.

And so now I crashed Rusbridger’s meeting. As it begins, a wall between his office and the newsroom is moved and the table is extended into a small area next door. The meeting is thus open to the newsroom and people crowd around; I’ve not seen even that level of openness in U.S. newsrooms.

It begins with Rusbridger taking a quick lap around that morning’s paper: a casual overview of what works (and, I’m sure, some days, what doesn’t). Then it turns to the essential business of the day: each editor reciting what his or her department is planning for the next day’s paper.

Then Rusbridger turned to the chief editorial writer, an impressive (and impressively young) man, to ask about the state of Blair’s tenure with local elections this week that are not boding well for Labour and with fresh political and sexual scandals whirring around them. There ensues a fascinating discussion about the current regime’s efforts to portray itself as a government of competence over ideology in the face of incompetence (over the release of foreign prisoners who should have been deported but instead stayed in the country and committed crimes). If the elections turn disastrous for Labour, they ask the now-perennial question: Will this be the last of Tony? They wonder what it would take to oust him from his own party and they say the precedent for this is Thatcher’s cabinet telling her it was time to go.

But I don’t need to summarize the meeting because Ed Pilkington, a veteran Guardian, editor, blogged it. Apart from not writing about unverified stories or scoops, I see no reason why news meetings everywhere cannot be opened up and blogged.

Can’t see the forest for the dead trees

David Carr has a funny yet tragic column today summing up the penny-pinching can’t-see-past-their-noses problem with newspapers today.

About a month ago, The Star Tribune in Minneapolis let it be known that, as a cost-cutting effort, free copies of the newspaper would no longer be broadly available around the newsroom.

Instead, the staff was offered an electronic edition of the paper — “an exact digital reproduction of the printed version,” no less — that they could access online. Those who insisted on seeing the fruits of the their labors in its physical form were told that they could purchase copies for 25 cents, half the retail cost, from boxes around the office….

Last Monday, the going got weirder. Star Tribune reporters who came to work and booted up were greeted by the following message from Steve Alexander, senior vice president for circulation, who had been spending time researching the program’s introduction:

“During the first week that the additional on-site racks were in service, 43 percent of the Star Tribunes removed from those racks were not paid for. For the second week the rate was 41 percent. This is called ‘pilferage’ in our business; but put more plainly, it is theft, pure and simple.”

These are the folks who bought Knight Ridder. Good luck.