Rethinking Newsroom Roles, Pt. 4: Incubators
In Part 1 of this series I offered a reminder that not all Web journalists are cut from the same cloth, and my list of skills and attitudes all journalists working for Web-first newspapers need to have. In Part 2, I discussed the first two specialized roles for such newsrooms: the packager and the specialist. Part 3 considered the leapfrogger, a good role for reporters who like breaking new ground but prefer not to gather moss.
The next role is the incubator, and it’s one that every Web-first newspaper needs.
In any medium, new things take time. A new print column doesn’t arrive fully formed, but takes weeks or even months to find a voice and connect with an audience. A new print page or section takes a while to hit its stride, with editors road-testing features and approaches and winnowing out the ones that don’t work. This is even more true on the Web, which has many more dimensions than can be considered in print. Writers trained in print need time to internalize the rhythms and styles of the Web and sometimes have to work at responding to and engaging with readers. Without the time-tested structure of a print newspaper, it’s harder to make an online column or blog a destination, and harder still to turn that blog or column into the seed of a community of readers. Multimedia endeavors need time for efforts in multiple channels and different disciplines to flow together smoothly and add up to more than the sum of their parts. And along the way, any new online feature will be shaped not just by writerly trial and error and editorial guidance, but by the community talking back and pushing the discussion where it wants it to go.
Often the results aren’t what you originally planned. I was the original editor (and eventual co-writer) of the Daily Fix, WSJ.com’s daily roundup of the best sportswriting online. The initial idea for the Fix was for a showcase of great writing, with the Fixer serving as a “guide on the side” whose principal job was enticing readers to click links and read other sportswriters’ columns. But what WSJ.com readers really wanted was a watercooler primer for yesterday’s sports, with links to great writing appreciated but not of paramount importance. So the Fix found its most-successful niche as “a daily roundup of the best sportswriting online about the most important sporting events,” a subtle but important difference. Similarly, my Real Time column began as a co-written, weekly analysis of multiple business stories in the tech world, capped by a humorous Spam of the Week. By the end of its six-year run my co-writer had moved on, Spam of the Week was no more, and the column had become a look at how technology was shaping our work and social lives. And so it was with every feature I wrote, edited or helped plan: You’d look back a year after a project began and smile in bemusement at how thoroughly the original plan had been overhauled.
An incubator oversees these Web endeavors, and needs a lot of different skills. He or she has to have solid Web chops, storytelling ability and the easy bedside manner of every good editor. But the incubator also has to be entrepreneurial, poring over traffic reports and trying and retrying different ways to promote and spotlight a new feature. And he or she must be technologically curious, looking for new ways to make a feature work and incorporating them in the newsroom’s arsenal of technological solutions.
The incubator has to have a lot of patience, accepting that a new feature will need weeks or even months to evolve, yet flexible enough to see how a few tweaks might make all the difference and ruthless when something just isn’t working. Rigorous organization and coordination is a must, but so’s the ability to fly by the seat of one’s pants.
Reporters and editors who thrive on deadlines and value scoops and the authority they bring won’t make good incubators — incubators tend to work behind the scenes and often go largely uncredited. But it’s a perfect role for journalists who love starting new things and figuring out how they work (or don’t work), but get bored with routines. Incubators are the venture capitalists of the Web-first newsroom, nurturing successes and weeding out failures, then starting again with brand-new experiments. And more than anything else, that’s what today’s newsrooms need.