Rethinking Newsroom Roles, Pt. 2: Packagers and Specialists
In Part 1, I talked about the assumptions we should be able to make about journalists working in a Web-first newsroom — the bedrock skills and attitudes we should expect new hires to have and existing staffers to develop. Before that, I offered a caveat that printcentric newsrooms making the transition to Web-first often assume that Web journalists — formerly thought of as the “Web guys” off in a corner of a newsroom, or on another floor or in another building — are cut from the same cloth. That’s no more true of Web journalists than it was of print journalists. In my time at the Wall Street Journal Online, I came to see Web roles as fitting into five categories, based on the rhythms of the work and the temperaments required.
The first two are packagers and specialists. These two are the workhorses of the Web-first newsroom, the folks whose job it is to make the hourly miracle happen.
The boundaries of a packager’s job depends on the size of your operation. A packager might work with reporters and editors or the news desk. The packager and the reporter/editor might be one and the same. The news desk might be an assemblage of packagers assigned to different beats.
Whatever the case, the packager’s job is to take related pieces of content and assemble them into a whole that tells a story how and when readers want it told. Packagers think about what media types will be effective for telling a story, what people could contribute to the story, how to make a story work effectively in a paper’s various delivery channels, what supporting documents can be made available, how the community (which includes both readers and newsroom folks) will want to interact with the story, and how long the story is likely to hold community interest.
There’s no one-size-fits-all model. A simple news story might not need context beyond references to standing resources maintained by the paper and the ability for readers to share a story and comment on it. A complex story might unfold for weeks or months; be told through stories, audio and video created by reporters and by readers; include interactive graphics, interview transcripts, primary documents and searchable databases for readers to interact with; and be told through a topic page enriched by backgrounders, photo galleries and ongoing discussions. A packager needs strong news judgment and a high metabolism, the ability to be the readers’ advocate, and a sense for how to drive greater reader engagement by creating new context for stories beyond a single URL found through Google News or a shared link.
Where packagers are generalists, specialists are … well, you get the idea. A specialist focuses on a given channel to a depth that doesn’t make sense for even Web-savvy generalists. The specialist might be a video artist, a podcast host, an expert at seeding and weeding communities, a whiz at interactive graphics, or have some other expertise for a deeper dive into something.
Newsrooms can tie themselves in knots figuring out where to draw the line between packagers and specialists. When I was part of the team tackling the integration and reorganization of the Wall Street Journal’s newsroom, this question was a source of particular agony (though we didn’t think of the categories the way I have here).
There isn’t a perfect answer to this question, but I do think there’s a common trap to be avoided. Newsrooms instinctively resist big changes to their workflows and culture, and so there’s a temptation for those charged with implementing change to err on the side of revolution, to erase the current structures and say that henceforth everybody will do everything. It’s useful rhetoric in the beginning, but not terribly practical in the end — the old saw about jack of all trades, master of none still most definitely applies. Packagers and specialists are separate roles, but they have to have a working knowledge of each other’s worlds and reinforce each other in the newsroom’s hourly and daily routine.
A final caveat for today: A newsroom that doesn’t have its technological house in order will always be fighting uphill. Editors who work in different channels that don’t talk to each other and spend their time transforming and repurposing content are human bridges across technological chasms. On the one hand this is admirable, and a testament to human ingenuity. But it also concentrates critical know-how in a few heads, and commits time and resources to simply maintaining things as they are rather than remaking them into what they could be. In a situation like that, you don’t really have packagers and specialists. You have survivors, and that’s not a good starting point for cultural change.