July 21, 2008

The Changing Newsroom

The Influence of the Web

Together with the impact of steadily increasing financial pressures, the growing influence of the web is the second major factor driving the change of newsroom culture. News people are stretched to the limit trying to feed the seemingly insatiable appetite of the web for content—immediately. The enormity of its impact on the industry—both real and potential—is hard to overestimate.

The web has opened new vistas for daily newspapers, enabling them to offer video content that competes directly with television. It provides newsrooms the ability to establish a genuine two-way conversation with readers in a newspaper’s own community while at the same time extend the reach of the paper’s circulation to anyone with an Internet connection, whether they are in Hong Kong, Helsinki or Hoboken. Today’s savvy news junkies know that if a big news story breaks, it’s a good bet the website of the nearest newspaper will have timely, exclusive content. The Internet has also helped facilitate collaborative efforts such as that between the St. Petersburg Times and the Congressional Quarterly’s CQ Weekly to produce the “PolitiFact” feature.

Although several editors voiced concerns about the web as a distraction that deflects resources from the print edition, overall, the view of the web appears to be increasingly positive.

Editor’s responses indicated, often with a sense of surprise, that the growth of newspaper websites has also had a positive impact on the content of the newspaper itself. Interviews and survey results strongly indicated that—contrary to early conventional wisdom—the print and website versions of today’s daily newspapers can be complementary and mutually strengthening.

In interviews, for example, newsroom executives said their website readers want strong visuals, concisely-packaged information and easy navigation—all preferences that have begun to influence the presentation of print newspapers as they work to lure an Internet-savvy generation of potential readers to a more user-friendly experience. As a result, many newspapers today emphasize visuals, including improved graphics, more white space and better sign-posting.

Increasingly, the web today is seen as a newspaper’s ally, not an adversary. Because of this, it is helping counter sagging morale as newsrooms shrink. At larger papers, where staff cuts have been deepest and the newsroom moods darkest, fully 57% of those surveyed say “web technology offers the potential for greater-than-ever journalism and will be the savior of what we once thought of as newspaper newsrooms.” By contrast, just 4% expressed worry that the web’s pressure on immediacy might undermine the accuracy and values of journalism.

The optimism also exists at smaller papers, but not as strongly. Only 40% agree with the “savior” description. Industry-wide, nearly half of all editors responding (48%) admitted they were conflicted about the web’s impact.

Whatever their feelings, there is no doubt that the web has been accepted as a fact of newsroom life. Today, editors said they no longer ask reporters if they have time to file for the web before embarking on their story for the print edition. Filing first for the web is a given. Editors also noted that exclusive material is no longer kept off the web as it was just a few years ago to protect the print edition impact. Today, it is posted immediately.

To meet new challenges, some newsrooms have completely reorganized to provide a variety of written and visual content more efficiently to both the website and the paper.

“Newsrooms have traditionally been built around sections of the paper (and this) led to newspaper-centric thinking, production-oriented thinking,” said Charlotte Hall, editor of the Orlando Sentinel and 2008-2009 president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors. As part of the revamp, the Sentinel (circulation: 228,000) eliminated traditional newsroom departments, scrapped the Metro and Features desks, and “flattened” the newsroom accountability structure by eliminating editing layers. The reorganization also cut more editing than reporting positions and reformed journalists into flexible teams of “news gatherers,” equally responsible for providing content to the web and the print editions of the paper. All were encouraged to be “web-first” thinkers on breaking news and visuals.

“We were very newspaper-production driven and I wanted to see ourselves in the new world as driven by news gathering across platforms,” she explained. “We needed to be a much more multi-media newsroom.”


The Data Challenge

Learning to use new technological tools to capture and present newsworthy data to readers in interesting, relevant ways is viewed by editors as a major challenge for American newspaper newsrooms over the coming decade. Some viewed data presentation as the next great frontier of the information age, one newsrooms needed to dominate to retain their role as the premier sources of news and information in the years ahead.

“We must have this franchise because so many others are after it,” said Janet Coats, Executive Editor of the Tampa Tribune (circulation: 221,000). “If we lose this, I really worry about our relevance.”

Some newsrooms have specifically targeted this area for development.

Orlando Sentinel editor Charlotte Hall called the creation of a data team the “single most significant innovation” to come out of the paper’s 2007 reorganization in terms of generating new reporting skills for both the web and print versions of the paper. The team brought together everyone at the paper responsible for gathering data for listings, then melded them with library researchers and archivists, a reporter trained in computer-assisted reporting (CAR) plus an editor who had been a high-level database researcher. Their job, she said, is to mine data, then work with other teams across the paper to develop stories based on that data. Initial results have included front page enterprise stories on local restaurants and housing foreclosures.

For the restaurant project, which brought a business reporter and the restaurant critic into the team, the paper put together a database of local restaurant health inspections, then produced a Sunday front page story under the headline, “How Safe Is Your Restaurant?” It told readers that 30-40% of Orlando’s licensed eating establishments had been cited for serious health violations, including some of the area’s most exclusive dining locations. Findings, broken down by neighborhood, were posted on paper’s website, as was the entire database from which the story was written. Driven largely by the Sunday front page treatment in the newspaper, the on-line database drew over a quarter of a million page views during the first few days, Hall said.

Working with data on housing foreclosures, the team produced a two-day front page package that mapped foreclosures in the Orlando region. The on-line version of the story allowed readers to zoom in by zip code or street name using an interactive map.

Other databases produce lighter fare but still draw large reader interest. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (circulation: 217,000) created a database of all 442 touchdown passes thrown by Green Bay Packer quarterback Brett Favre, enabling readers to determine, for example, how many of them came at home and how many away, how many were over 20 yards in length or came in the 3rd quarter when the temperature was below freezing.

Early Teams and the Return of Newspapers to the Field of Breaking News

Among its many achievements, the web has restored the time competitiveness of daily newspaper newsrooms, an edge eroded first with the advent of radio nearly a century ago, then effectively erased in the 1960s as network television news became a major force.

One sign of this new competitiveness is the advent of newspaper “early teams”, groups of journalists usually comprised of an editor and a few reporters, who begin anytime around dawn or before and work through the early afternoon, reporting and writing content exclusively for the website. In many respects, these early teams represent a kind of resurrection of the old afternoon newspaper: starting early to package today’s news today—or, more precisely, packaging this morning’s news this morning.

Early teams are part of a broader repositioning of newsrooms for a 24-hour news cycle capable of feeding the web constantly. More than four of every ten (42%) papers surveyed have already added early teams and another 17% are planning to add them. Among larger papers, a remarkable 80% already employ such teams. Although not measured specifically in the survey, anecdotal evidence and interview comments suggest that staffing of these early teams is an important component for those who say their newsroom staff has increased.

Much of the material produced by these early teams is routine—traffic tie-ups or pile-ups, police matters, late night local government meetings or sports results, fires and court appearances. Because of this, early team stories tend to have a short shelf life and are often overtaken by other, more significant news during the day. Occasionally however, they are strong enough to update and rewrite for the following morning’s newspaper.

Working from website traffic data, more newsrooms now target de facto deadlines to make sure fresh content is up for periods when traffic spikes, including 6-7am (as people wake up), 8:30-9am (as they get to work), around 11:30am (before they go to lunch) and around 2pm (when they return from lunch). The editor of one large metropolitan daily spoke of “website edition times.”

The creation of early teams has changed the role newspapers now play in covering and providing news to their community. Miami Herald newsroom executives say local television news teams frequently find themselves sourcing the Herald’s website, MiamiHerald.com, when reporting new developments on a breaking story. The reason: the paper can deploy more reporters onto the story than the smaller TV newsrooms competing for the same story. And as a new generation of newspaper reporters is trained and equipped to shoot and post video when deployed onto a breaking story, newspapers suddenly have the capability to post dramatic footage online immediately. Even if television newsrooms can match the newspaper staff’s footage, TV news directors are often left with just two choices. They either wait for their own regularly scheduled newscasts, a decision that means allowing themselves be scooped by the newspaper’s website site, or they post the footage immediately on their own site, a move that means scooping their own next scheduled newscast. Occasionally, there is no choice. When a Kansas City Star staffer captured a brawl on video that broke out during a late evening meeting of county legislators, local television stations—which rarely staff such events—turned to the Star for their footage.

The web’s arrival as a major force also has effectively redefined the universe within which daily newspapers operate. When asked about competitors, Washington Post editor Downie answered, “Any news organization with a website.” One example: in the early hours following the November, 2007, slaying of professional football star Sean Taylor, the Miami Herald broke developments on the case because the shooting occurred in Miami where the paper was well-sourced with the police and emergency response teams. However, once the focus of the story shifted to the question of Taylor’s survival, the Washington Post, one thousand miles north, took the lead because new information was coming from the family via executives of Taylor’s team, the Washington Redskins.


The Advent of the “Mo Jo”

Demands for content and quick website postings have also given birth at many newspapers to the mobile journalist—dubbed “Mo Jo’s.” More than three-quarters (78%) of those editors in newsrooms where reporters had been trained to shoot and file video footage from a remote location said they found “Mo Jo’s” contributed either “some” or “a great deal” of value to the news product. Among editors of larger newspapers, the positive response was even higher at 90%. This figure is possibly linked to the disproportionate investment by larger papers in “early teams,” whose members often work in a similar manner.

Anecdotal evidence suggests “Mo Jo’s” are usually deployed to cover geographical rather than themed beats and tend to act as carpet sweepers, reporting and filing a stream of short, quick stories for the paper’s website on minor or routine developments during the course of the day. The true “Mo Jo” rarely appears in the newsroom, is equipped with a cell phone, laptop, digital and video cameras along with the means to file content directly to the website. When a larger story breaks, the “Mo Jo” files repeated updates for the website, and may then be asked to write a longer story for the following day’s print edition. Interviews and survey results indicated a division of opinion on the value of such reporters. The News-Press in Fort Myers, Florida, judged an initial experiment was so productive that all the paper’s reporters have since been converted into “Mo Jo’s” with considerable success, according to editors there. At the other extreme, the editor of a large circulation paper dismissed the entire concept as “some kind of cartoon character.” Some newsroom managers said they wanted to deploy more “Mo Jo’s” but had failed to get management approval to finance the necessary training and equipment.


Micro-Sites

Another change afforded by technology is the ability to target specific audiences with specific content. Much effort is aimed at shaping content for a range of very narrow, specifically tailored interests—giving readers news of their community, their favorite sport or their preferred leisure time activity. It provides the ability to create what one executive called “The Daily Me.” Often this is reflected in so-called mini or micro sites built as distinct pages within a paper’s main online website. They can be tailored to events in specific communities or neighborhoods or to other narrowly focused interests.

One in three papers surveyed report they already have micro-sites and say they are planning to add more, while another 21% say they are developing them. As in other areas of web development, data suggest larger papers have moved more quickly to develop micro-sites than their smaller counterparts.


Arrival of the Staff-written Blog

Newspapers have also used the web to assimilate ideas from new media that a few years ago might have been considered heretical. Probably the most common of these is the rise of the staff-written blog—a space on the paper’s website where a member of the newspaper’s staff posts comments and other information usually related to his or her beat and engages readers in a free-wheeling electronic conversation. After beginning as a feature of citizen journalism, the blog—the word is short for Web Log—has quickly become a highly successful feature of mainstream institutional journalism. The blog’s more relaxed, informal format, coupled with the ability of readers to respond quickly to a staffer’s blog entries, have accelerated and broadened the flow of information and reduced the distance between the newspaper and its readers.

Fully 70% of the newspapers participating in the survey run staff-written blogs on their websites, with nearly one-third of those papers now publishing 10 or more. And, interviews with senior newsroom managers suggest the genre is likely to grow further in the future. More than a quarter of those from newspapers with 100,000-plus circulations said they hosted 30 or more staff blogs.

Despite—or perhaps because of—their proliferation, these blogs are not getting nearly the kind of supervision or editing of the rest of the newspaper. Over half of all editors and two-thirds of those editing larger papers, said that these blogs were only edited after publication, if at all.

Many of these blogs focus on sports or specialty beats such as crime or education. Although primarily written for the web, several editors said blog content is now frequently republished into print editions. In an example of the complementary relationship of daily newspaper web and print content, Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel managing editor Rosenhause said that web traffic on one blog jumped dramatically after it was promoted in the print edition.

Blogs have also extended a paper’s reach, creating global communities of conversation.

After a web producer at the Orlando Sentinel began writing a blog for the paper’s website about his free time passion of soccer, newsroom managers were curious to see spikes in traffic to the blog at unusual times, including the pre-dawn hours. It became apparent the blog was being read worldwide, with the pre-dawn jump in traffic most likely driven by Europeans curious about new developments in the soccer world as they got started during their morning. The newspaper, which has not covered soccer as a beat, now republishes portions of the blog in its Sunday print editions.

In another example, when a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel sports section blogger threw out a question asking readers how they became Green Bay Packer fans, the result was an avalanche of responses from just about every corner of the globe, according to Online Editor Michael Davis.


How Merged Is the New Merged Newsroom?

Blogs, Mo Jos, Micro-Sites, Early Teams, and more, are evidence of an important change underway in newsrooms across the country, one in which a growing number of publishers and editors, having concluded the era of print newspaper domination has ended, now believe the future of their newsroom depends on how well they can do two things:

(1) Establish themselves as strong, relevant web content providers for a generation of online news consumers; and

(2) Maintain relevant, compelling content for the newspaper’s print edition that remains the industry’s primary, albeit diminished, cash cow.

This shift of focus towards the web is accelerating at an enormous pace, driven by an alarming plunge of print edition advertising revenues, sagging stock prices and rising web traffic statistics.

Orlando Sentinel editor and ASNE president Hall talks of “huge strides” in digital journalism made during the second half of 2007 and the first half of 2008, both in her own newsroom and at many others.

“In the last year, we have made a great leap forward in Web journalism—in our fluency, the integration of our workflow and our newsroom culture,” she said. As evidence she pointed to a 57% jump in page views at OrlandoSentinel.com in June, 2008, compared to the same month last year.

This new focus is predicated on an act of faith—that somewhere, a key exists that can unlock the secret to monetizing web content. At most larger papers, the repositioning is already well under way. Interviews and survey responses indicated that, in a growing number of newsrooms, the website editor now has the role of a deputy managing editor—a kind of super department head, who often reports directly to the editor.

Four out of five editors (81%) today view their organization’s website and its newspaper as a single integrated product tailored to different formats, survey results showed. But accomplishing that may be easier said than done. Most editors (63%) say they still focus more of their time on the newspaper than the website. Just three in ten say the focus of senior newsroom executives was now equally divided between the two.

And most editors do not appear to be poring over traffic data from the web on a continual basis. A plurality, 42%, said they look at the data less than once a day. Just over a third (35%) look once a day. Only 22% look more often than once a day.

Although editors at times seemed wary of the web, they were simultaneously coming to realize the potential benefit, sometimes showing a sense of surprise at discovering that print and website can indeed reinforce each other.

In interviews, there were unmistakable signs that the growing demands of the web on newsrooms at times sapped attention and energy from the print edition and the conventional reporting and story telling that is focused there.

“The demands of producing more web content are diminishing the print product,” complained one editor. Still, there are strong indicators that editors are beginning to see the web’s advantages and warm to its potential.

Print editions can also take advantage of the web’s saturation coverage during the early hours of a major news development to move beyond the straight news leads even on their first cycle. In such instances, today’s print edition dailies fulfill a role similar to that of the afternoon paper in an early era when a news break occurred in time for the morning papers to catch the basic details but none of the color, context or analysis.

After an early morning gas explosion ripped through a factory in Milwaukee two years ago, newsroom staffers at the Journal Sentinel used the paper’s website to post eyewitness accounts and official statements, along with photos, video and audio content throughout the day. Meanwhile, editors assigned a reporter to focus solely on writing a narrative that would lead the next day’s paper. The result: the paper led its first print edition after the explosion with a compelling, anecdote-rich narrative, heavy with texture, mood, and the drama of the moment. The story was unencumbered by much of the factual detail available for many hours on the newspaper’s website and in other media. Street sales of the print edition the following morning were up strongly, said Journal Sentinel Editor and Senior Vice President Martin Kaiser.

The newsroom of the Arizona Republic (circulation: 413,000) deployed in a similar manner last August after two media traffic-watch helicopters collided in mid-air over Phoenix and crashed as they were tracking a lunchtime police car chase through the city. Instead of a standard wire-service lead the following morning, the Republic also led its print edition with a narrative drawn in part from the transcripts of transmissions between the two helicopter pilots. Editor and Vice-President/News Randy Lovely said what surprised him most about that day was that the early intense reporting and writing for the paper’s website had actually accelerated rather than slowed preparation for the print edition.

“We literally had our front page nailed down and were fine tuning two hours before deadline,” he said.

In a sharp departure from the traditional daily newspaper story placement, two days following the April, 2007, Virginia Tech campus shootings that claimed 32 lives, the Norfolk-based Virginian Pilot published a simple, stark front page, listing the names and ages of the victims in enlarged typeface along with references to individual profiles on inside pages, all under a commemorative looped ribbon in the school’s colors. The effort won applause from readers.