Reinventing the Newsroom

The Web Alone Is Not Enough: Rethinking Newsroom Roles

Posted in Cultural Change, Digital Experiments by reinventingthenewsroom on March 24, 2009

First in a series. Part 2 is here, and here’s Part 3.

The recipe for change seems straightforward: Make your newsroom Web-first. Teach reporters that publication is the beginning of the process, not the end. Get them shooting photos. Teach them to do video. Tell them their jobs include engaging with readers in chats, comments and discussion forums. Get them blogging. Introduce them to Twitter.

And indeed, all of that stuff should happen every day in the reinvented newsroom. But there’s a danger of seeing the Web as a wholly new country, one in which every reporter and every editor becomes a multi-armed digital entity doing absolutely everything. It’s an alluring theory, and can be a necessity in newsrooms cut to the bone. But in practice, Web journalists aren’t cut from the same cloth any more than print journalists are. Take a  print paper with a hardcore investigative reporter, a feature writer with an eye for character, a movie critic, a City Council reporter and a parenting columnist. (Sadly, this example is increasingly hypothetical.) Ask those five to work and write like each other and you’ll get an ungodly mess.

The same is true online. Newsrooms’ printcentric folks sometimes lump Web staffers together, but they too have very different styles and ways of working. A reporter who bird-dogs breaking news and updates it throughout the day works and writes quite differently than a daddy blogger valuable for his engagement with a loyal community of readers. A curator who provides roundups of links may employ a very different voice and skills than a reporter who’s great at packages of text, photos and video. A producer of interactive graphics drawing on data sources has a very different job than a wrangler of reader discussions. The only link between these jobs is the Web.

In my decade-plus at the Wall Street Journal Online, I tried my hand at a few of those roles and helped our newsroom try out variants of them. Through trial and error, I found that Web-journalism jobs fit into five or so broad categories, based on the rhythms of the work and the temperaments they required. Understanding how those roles were different, and matching the right people to them, was an important part of making the newsroom work.

I’ll explore those roles in the next few posts — but first, some baseline assumptions.

I’d hope this would go without saying, but every reporter or editor hired today should be told the following:

1. Your job no longer ends with the production of material for the print paper. You’ll be expected to think of a story as it will be expressed across multiple media channels, and to supply whatever’s needed to tell that story effectively for each of those channels.

2. Your job begins with filing online first — and that first filing could be a tweet, SMS, email alert or Web headline. Expect all of the above.

3. We love great writing, but storytelling is no longer just that. The storytelling process includes shooting and/or selecting video and/or photos, preparing supplemental material (such as relevant primary documents) to post online and being involved with the creation of interactives or data sources for exploring a story.

4. Storytelling is now two-way — you’ll offer ideas for reader discussion and how to shape the conversation, and be a part of that conversation.

5. Stories morph and flow to follow and find readers. Part of the reporting/storytelling process is thinking of ways that other parts of the newsroom can leverage a story — whether it’s through a related blog item, an online chat with a source, or something else.

Not every new hire or existing staffer assuming a new role has to have all these skills immediately — we’re not there yet as an industry. Nor should we demand that everybody have the same level of ability at each skill. But what we absolutely should require is a willingness to spin up a story’s wheels in all channels, instead of expecting that work to be done by others.

Next: Packagers and specialists.

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  1. […] Posted in Cultural Change, Digital Experiments by reinventingthenewsroom on March 25th, 2009 In Part 1, I talked about the assumptions we should be able to make about journalists working in a Web-first […]

  2. […] Posted in Cultural Change, Digital Experiments by reinventingthenewsroom on March 26th, 2009 In Part 1 of this series I offered a reminder that not all Web journalists are cut from the same cloth, and […]


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