Rethinking Newsroom Roles, Pt. 3: Leapfroggers
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.