Last week I was sitting at the elbow of a paper’s Web news editor, watching what she did and trying not to drive her crazy with too many questions, when the conversation came around to coordinating with the print editors. The Web editor pointed out her print counterpart, who was standing across a fairly big room, and said it was good that now she could hear when something big was happening. I must have looked surprised, because she noted that things were a lot better now that the print and Web folks were on the same floor.
I’ve been there. When I was an editor with the Wall Street Journal Online, we were variously in a corner of the newsroom, off on another floor, a subway ride away or even in a different state. (Granted, the period during which we were in different buildings began in the wake of 9/11, which left our building uninhabitable.) And for a while that separation wasn’t a bad thing — it forced the Online Journal to live up to print Journal standards without much handholding or interference, made it easier to experiment with online-only columns, features and voice, and bred a sense of camaraderie among the online staff.
But that was quite a while ago. Separation is no longer helpful for newspapers — in fact, it’s counterproductive.
The print model is taking a frightful battering from corporate owners’ troubles, cratering ad revenue and an actuarial decline in readership. If there’s a silver lining to this awfully dark cloud, it’s that more and more papers are realizing they can’t wait for a satisfactory Web business model to emerge — they have to go out into the unknown, where the readers increasingly are, and help find one. No one knows what exactly that model will be, but it’s obvious that it involves being Web-first, with print just one distribution channel for reaching as many readers as possible how and when they want to be reached. That cries out for integrating print and Web newsrooms. (And makes it all the more baffling that so many papers are pink-slipping the Web-savvy veterans they should be rebuilding around, but that’s another post.)
Save the Media’s Gina Chen has a very nice two-part look at the principles of an online-first newsroom; what strikes me is that in many papers, these principles have sprung up in isolation from the print newsroom, growing in the hothouse environment of a Web operation that began as an off-to-the-side experiment.
By now that Web operation likely has its own culture: After all, its day is ruled by different rhythms, ones shaped by rolling deadlines, stories updated in frequent bursts, a constant eye on competition, feedback and discussion, repeated collaborations with artists and Web producers, and little technological brushfires to be put out.
Put two different rhythms together and you might get beautiful music, but you’re more likely to get a mess. So it is in newsrooms. Print folks may have to learn the iterative, rapid-fire nature of Web updates, the more-personal writing style of blogs and the need to step into the fray with readers. Web folks may need to learn print styles and standards, writing shorter or longer, and how to boil down slideshows or interactive graphics into effective snapshots. The two sides of the house may be on entirely different editing-and-publishing systems and stuck “repurposing content,” a dreadful phrase that perfectly reflects the drudgery of such work.
Every newsroom is different: There’s no single recipe for how to tear down walls and rebuild things. Working on a single system is an immense step forward — technological barriers create and reinforce cultural ones, and the sooner they’re gone the better. Orders must come down from on high to get people truly collaborating, instead of paying lip service to the other side while pursuing their own missions. The newsroom’s innovators and mentors must teach, coax and encourage.
But the answer isn’t wholly technological or hierarchical or evangelical. Ultimately, the way to find it is through steady, day-by-day progress. Every newsroom project I’ve ever been involved in has eventually discovered a certain workflow terra incognita, where the choice is to either painstakingly map out some answer that may only work in theory, or to leave things unsettled and have faith an answer will be found in practice. I’ve always put my bets on the latter: Get the answer 80% right and put the right people together to work day-to-day, and they’ll do a better job filling in the remaining 20% than guys at whiteboards ever will.
But those people have to work together. And the key word there is together. And that means sitting together. It doesn’t mean being able to walk down the hallway for a conversation. It doesn’t mean being invited to the same meetings. It doesn’t mean exchanging emails or even IMs. Busy, dedicated people can’t always do that. It means sitting in such proximity that you can talk by leaning one way or another to peek around the limb of a monitor. It means learning about each other through the natural workplace osmosis of colleagues.
Expecting Web and print editors to perform each other’s tasks interchangeably won’t work quickly and may never work — jacks-of-all-trades are by definition masters of none, and most papers will always want a certain degree of channel specialization. But to come together, to learn from each other and teach each other on an integrated desk, editors need to sit together — sports editors with sports editors and news folks with news folks. Yes, the right technology is essential. So’s leadership by memo and by example. But the killer app for newsroom cultural change? It’s the seating chart.
You’re a journalist, but are you a micro-brand? If not, it’s time to become one.
A core problem for publishers is that the basic building block of the online newspaper isn’t the page or the edition — as it is in print — but the article. The Web has extended newspapers’ reach, but it’s also fragmented their audience – too many readers arrive via a link to a single article and don’t go anywhere else. What papers need are new contexts that will tempt readers into looking at more things and coming back for another visit — and the traditional print contexts aren’t the best fit for the job.
There are lots of examples of potential new contexts – topic pages, curating information from other sources, journalistic gateways to interesting data, and reader communities, to name just a few. All are efforts to push back against fragmentation, and will likely become standard offerings for digital newspapers. But there’s another way for newspapers to build context: It’s to realize that some of their reporters/writers are among their very best brands, and to build up those journalists as “micro-brands” within the paper.
I know it sounds coldly corporate and vaguely icky, but it’s a good deal for journalists, too. Unlike some digital initiatives, they can do a lot of the work to make it happen. And they’ll have a direct stake in the outcome.
Journalists know they have to change with the times. They are learning that they have to go beyond the business of reporting and writing stories – which is challenging enough — and become bloggers, chatters, podcast narrators, video subjects and Twitterers.
Lots of reporters find this an adjustment. Some may find it annoying or even frightening. But it can be a terrific opportunity.
Instead of dismissing blogging, chatting, recording audio and video and sending tweets as new techie demands, see them as new platforms that showcase the writer. In print, such opportunities are normally reserved for elite columnists — but online, they may be available for the taking.
Why do these platforms work online? In part it’s because they’re new methods of reaching readers who want something more than print. But only in part — they also work because they lend themselves to reflecting a writer’s personality and creating a personal bond with readers — and in my view, the need to do that is one of the ways writing for an online audience really is different than writing for a print one. Great writing will be avidly read online just as it is in print, a writerly truth too often disregarded when the new-media zeal gets hot and heavy. But personality is a welcome signal amid the information noise, and online readers gravitate to it, just as they respond to opportunities to form personal connections with writers who offer them personality alongside information they want.
This isn’t new to the print world, of course: Sports columnists and political commenters have known this for years, with many parlaying their print personalities into radio and TV gigs. (Though sometimes the results make you wish they hadn’t.) More journalists should use online tools to follow their lead. And their newspapers should be eager to support them, because it’s a good deal for both.
Newspapers get new context and a way to counteract fragmentation. Complementing beat reporting with blogging brings more eyeballs to articles – and provides readers with a new, logical place to go besides tired old linkhorses such as “People Who Read This Article Also Read….” So do chats, podcasts and Twitter feeds crafted by actual writers, as opposed to repackaged headline dumps. Done right, this helps create a virtuous circle in which readers are less likely to be one-and-done “fly-bys” — engaging them increases time spent on-site, ad impressions and lifts a paper’s brand equity. And with a motivated writer as part of the equation, this kind of context-building is cheap to do – blog tools and chat software are increasingly either built into Web-publishing software or available for free, and production costs are minimal.
That’s the newspaper side of the equation. If you’re a busy journalist, why should you do these things for free? Because it’s in your interest to be a micro-brand, too. In an age of gnawing uncertainty, marked by a daily drumbeat of cutbacks and layoffs, micro-branding gives you not only some new multimedia skills but also a higher public profile – and brand equity of your own that’s portable. That strikes me as a fair bargain in an era of diminished job security.
Moreover, the idea of a personal brand isn’t just for journalists – more and more, it’s something that anybody who engages with the online world needs to think about. I explored this in one of my final columns in my old WSJ.com gig: There’s more and more information about us out in the world, but by its nature the Internet returns at best piecemeal glimpses of us. Whether our goal is to be found by people in an era of vanishing landline phones and white pages, to avoid confusion with other people with the same name, to provide context for our various hobbies, or to set the record straight on something, more and more of us are awakening to the need to have a Web presence of our own – whether it’s an outpost on Facebook or LinkedIn, a personal blog, or a page we built ourselves. These Web outposts are where we can take control of our stories. As the software analyst Curt Monash has put it, “the Internet WILL tell stories about you, true or otherwise. Make sure your own version is out there too.” (Here’s the story of how my former colleague Julia Angwin sought to do just that.)
I never made myself into a micro-brand at WSJ.com — I started thinking about the idea fairly late in my career there, and at first focused on the idea in my personal life without seeing the benefits to my professional life. That’s a mistake I won’t make again — I’ve worked hard to build up my own site and my baseball blog and my Facebook identity and Twitter and make sure they all talk to each other. (If you’re interested, you can see details about them under About Me up there on the right.) If you’re a writer at a paper looking to build traffic, don’t wait as long as I did. Put your hand up to turn your beat into a blog. Get comments on your articles turned on, and engage your readers. Suggest a weekly chat. Offer to shoot video as part of your next story. Explain how you’re going to Tweet your coverage. Do these things vigorously and responsibly, and both you and your paper will benefit.