Reinventing the Newsroom

The Killer App for Newsroom Cultural Change

Posted in Cultural Change by reinventingthenewsroom on February 27, 2009

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.

A WSJ.com Vet’s Take on Paying for News

Posted in Creating Context, Paid Content by reinventingthenewsroom on February 26, 2009

Update: Newsday says it will charge for online news. I’ll be very interested to hear the particulars.

When I started at The Wall Street Journal Online, it was a single, free section known as the Money and Investing Update. (As this was 1995, it was also battleship gray.) In April of the next year, after a lot of long nights, our staff rolled out a full WSJ.com, complete with subscription fees. Our traffic immediately went pretty much to zero, and we had to wait and see if it would rebound. It was exhilarating. It was also terrifying. Because nobody knew if it would work.

It did, and I learned that defending subscriptions was an unwelcome but obligatory part of working at WSJ.com. (You want a business model? I wish I could have had a nickel for every time some Web entrepreneur approached me at a New York City mixer in the late 1990s and accused me of being part of a plot to ruin the Internet.)

Sure, I boned up on the boilerplate for why WSJ.com was different — “we offer time-sensitive financial news that’s critical for decision-makers, and people will pay for that.” And I understood that for a lot of people a WSJ.com subscription was either a job perk or could be expensed, unlike a subscription to a mainstream paper. But over the years, I came to wonder if something a lot simpler wasn’t at work, too: Why do we charge a subscription fee? Because our content has value. Why does our content have value? Because we charge a subscription fee.

I know it’s not that simple. But I think it is a factor — a simple feedback loop in subscribers’ minds. Paying for content not only reinforced the idea that content was valuable, but also made subscribers self-identify more strongly as Journal readers, strengthening the community we were trying to build.

During my WSJ.com career, I came to reluctantly accept that we seemed destined to stand alone, particularly after the New York Times shuttered its Times Select experiment. If only, I’d think. If only the Times and the Washington Post and some of our other leading papers had charged subscription fees back in the late 1990s. If they had done that, I’d think to myself, the landscape for online newspapers might be very different, because we wouldn’t have taught readers that news should be free, or reinforced the idea that our stories were commodities whose origin was of no particular importance. You can disagree with Alan Mutter’s ideas about how to charge for content, as many have in recent weeks, but I find it hard to argue with the idea that giving away our valuable content is our industry’s original sin.

None of this is the same as deciding what’s to be done about it now, of course. Micropayments strike me as a non-starter, largely because I can’t think of a micropayments system that wouldn’t be a royal pain for me as a user. (This is a perspective we in the news industry have a bad habit of ignoring.) Yet — and maybe it’s just that those WSJ years have altered my DNA — I’m not sure WSJ.com’s model should be so quickly dismissed as an apple among oranges.

For one thing, descriptions of that model don’t always completely capture it. For years, it’s true, the Journal was a garden surrounded by very steep walls. This gave us a certain measure of security during online advertising’s periodic troughs, but it was frustrating that our stories tended not to become part of the larger conversation online. But the Journal hasn’t been like that for quite a while. It’s actually pretty open now — a reader can get quite a lot of stuff without ever hitting a subscription wall. And this is particularly true of stories reached through Google News, which is the essence of being part of that larger conversation. (Here’s my old colleague Gordon Crovitz’s take, referencing  Walter Isaacson’s cri de coeur.)

When I first heard we were opening up for Google, I was skeptical — I’d become an ardent defender of the subscription model, and saw that as an attempt to erode it. (As always, when you’re a hammer everything looks like a nail.) When I objected, someone on the business side explained that “we want to have our cake and eat it too.”

I thought that awfully breezy at the time, but I became a convert. Opening up the Journal partway — by sharing stories with bloggers (an initiative that built on an experiment during the 2004 election season), allowing articles to be passed around by subscribers, and offering full articles through Google News — let the Journal be part of the conversation, and ensured a steady stream of potential subscribers would be exposed to our articles, even if most of those readers turned out to be fly-bys.

Sure, that was enough for some folks. But not for everybody: The free articles were fragmentary views of the Journal. By paying, you got those stories in their natural context, and you didn’t worry that you’d wind up jiggling the knob of one of the locked doors that remained. Sure, you could assemble a free Journal link by link. But goodness what a lot of bother. Once you came to value Journal content, 40 cents a business day didn’t seem like so much. (I no longer work at Dow Jones and so am not privy to the numbers, but when I was there I never saw any indication that opening up the Journal partway had made much of a dent in subscriptions.)

I wonder if a variant of that path is worth exploring: Get the parts for free, pay for the whole.

At WSJ.com I had some frustrating conversations with developers who struggled with the idea that a story’s importance couldn’t always be measured absolutely, because it often depended greatly on its context — whether that context was how old the story was or what page of the site we were discussing. That context was and is extremely valuable, and perhaps it could be monetized in a way individual stories can’t be — and maybe even shouldn’t be, given the importance of being part of the Web’s larger link culture. Such an arrangement would preserve the value of links, while communicating that a news organization’s overall judgment and view of the world also has value.

The Journalist as Micro-Brand

Posted in Branding, Creating Context by reinventingthenewsroom on February 24, 2009

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.

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