The Killer App for Newsroom Cultural Change
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.