Reinventing the Newsroom

Rethinking Newsroom Roles, Pt. 3: Leapfroggers

Posted in Cultural Change, Digital Experiments by reinventingthenewsroom on March 26, 2009

In Part 1 of this series I offered a reminder that not all Web journalists are cut from the same cloth, and offered a list of skills and attitudes all journalists working for Web-first newspapers need to have. In Part 2, I noted that during my Wall Street Journal Online tenure I came to see Web roles as fitting into five categories, based on the rhythms of the work and the temperaments required. And I discussed the first two roles: packagers and specialists.

The next role is the leapfrogger — which might be the first of these roles to disappear.

In the early days of the consumer Internet, online readers were primarily early adopters of technology. This was the era in which Cool Site of the Day was king, and if it brought word that someone had created a Web site about, say, marmosets, a large chunk of people who went online would go visit the marmoset site just to see what it was. That’s gone the way of battleship-gray Web sites — today online readers are increasingly just readers, just as life online is increasingly just life.

But segments of the online audience are still ahead of the general-population curve in terms of time spent online, adoption of Web 2.0 habits and other metrics. And readers from those segments can be invaluable to a newspaper as sources of online credibility, seeds of online communities, and pointers to where the paper needs to go technologically. It’s worth looking at your beat coverage and identifying areas where committed online readers may want coverage that’s different, or that goes beyond what mainstream online and print-centric readers expect. That’s where leapfroggers come in.

I was WSJ.com’s first technology editor, which was a leapfrogger role in itself, and we made great use of this idea, hiring reporters to cover subject areas that the print paper didn’t yet see as full-fledged beats. (In the beginning, the entirety of the Internet was more or less such a beat.) As the paper caught up to things such as cellphones, e-commerce and digital music, we’d cede those beats to the print side and take another jump forward somewhere else.

This role’s usefulness is dwindling not only because readers are growing more tech-savvy, but also because print/online divides are finally being erased. But I think it’s still a useful one: If I were still in my old tech-editor gig, I’d try to get a leapfrogger or two to dive deeply into mash-ups, location-based services and identity across sites, confident that we could appeal to a very valuable portion of our audience and jump-start coverage as those areas matured.

Is there a place for leapfroggers in a local or regional paper? I think so. In fact, at some papers covering the online world’s local impact might make for a terrific leapfrogger beat. There are opportunities to report on what local businesses are doing online, “news you can use” locally based on information gathered online, and how social-networking outposts are converging with real-world communities. (The local bakery that’s been a civic treasure for generations started an online business six months ago — how’s it going? How are local businesses doing on review sites such as Yelp — and what are they doing in response? Is there a Facebook group for the area? Who’s a member?)

Leapfrogger beats are by their nature impermanent, so this isn’t a great role for a reporter who prides himself or herself on having the world’s greatest contacts list and knowing everybody in town concerned with a given subject. (Though of course those are great things for any reporter to take pride in.) A reporter who’s curious and enthusiastic but also somewhat restless, on the other hand, might be an ideal leapfrogger.

Next: Incubators.

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  1. […] Rethinking Newsroom Roles, Pt. 2: Packagers and Specialists Posted in Cultural Change, Digital Experiments by reinventingthenewsroom on March 25th, 2009 Second in a series: Here’s Part 1, and here’s Part 3. […]

  2. […] The Web Alone Is Not Enough: Rethinking Newsroom Roles Posted in Cultural Change, Digital Experiments by reinventingthenewsroom on March 24th, 2009 First in a series. Part 2 is here, and here’s Part 3. […]

  3. Michael said, on March 26, 2009 at 2:39 pm

    Interesting – I’m curious though, there’s an apparent contradiction in what you say, or perhaps just clarification required. You first say that “leapfrogger” may be the first of the five roles you’ve identified to go away, but then spend the rest of your post arguing that there are still many ways they could be made useful. My own view is that early adopters will always exist — but as you imply the speed of change is so great now that it isn’t like the early days of the Web when an early adopter might be ahead of something for years, rather than months or even weeks now.

    Certainly that makes the definition of “beats” as they’re thought of traditionally harder to do. And maybe that’s the biggest reinvention that the newsroom faces — what do beats look like in the new world? Can business papers, for instance, continue to have reporters dedicated to industries or even individual companies, or do they have to be looking at things in a far more cross-disciplinary way, covering topics such as Web innovation, etc.

  4. reinventingthenewsroom said, on March 26, 2009 at 3:13 pm

    Yep, bit of clarification needed there. As I see it, the interesting factor for leapfroggers is the Web increasingly becoming just another part of normal life, with text messaging, Facebook and online dating just three bits of evidence among many. For Web-first papers that aren’t business- or technology-focused, that makes the gap between “digital life” and “plain old life” increasingly small, and the need for a leapfrogger less apparent.

    Business- and tech-focused outfits may always have a use for a leapfrogger. Some local/regional papers today could carve an interesting leapfrogger beat out of the intersection of their communities and the online world, in ways I outlined above. (Or at least I think they could.) But within about five years, the cherished local bakery’s robust Web presence, local eateries dealing with review sites, and Facebook (or a replacement) groups becoming an important part of local life will all fall in the “yah duh” category. Online life will have become just life. And in that case maybe the role is no longer useful.

  5. Michael said, on March 26, 2009 at 4:44 pm

    I see your point – and don’t disagree with it. I guess what I was getting at (and apparently required my own clarification) was that the gap between “analog life” and “digital life” will narrow and probably disappear mostly, but there will always be new elements to “digital life” — things we haven’t even imagined will crop up, and that might be the playground for the leapfroggers.

    I think back to 1994 or so, when I spent the better part of a weekend trying to configure dip switches on a CD-Rom drive for my computer. If you had told me then about e-commerce, Facebook and that I would have met a large portion of my friends “virtually” I would have thought you completely insane. Yet barely two years later I was working at a Web site, ordering books from Amazon, and chatting online with music nerds everywhere.

  6. […] the series on Web-first newsroom roles next week. (In the meantime, you can read Parts One, Two and Three.) For now, some interesting recent […]

  7. […] discussed the first two specialized roles for Web-first newsrooms: the packager and the specialist. Part 3 considered the leapfrogger. And Part 4 examined the […]


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