Reinventing the Newsroom

Rethinking Newsroom Roles, Pt. 5: The Chef

Posted in Cultural Change, Digital Experiments by reinventingthenewsroom on March 31, 2009

Quick Review: Part 1 of this series explained why not all Web journalists are cut from the same cloth, and offered my list of must-have skills for Web-first journalists. Part 2 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 incubator.

The final role is also the most difficult to fill and fit into the newsroom effectively: the chef.

What do chefs do? They take their colleagues’ great stories and build on them, adding audio/video and creating hooks for a community to get involved with the story. I think finding people for this role and making the role work is a challenge for a lot of newspapers still working through the print-to-Web transition, one that has pushed them too far out of their cultural comfort zones.

There are two ways to create chefs, but generally speaking newspapers haven’t been very good at either one.

One potential chef is the all-in-one multimedia storyteller. When budgets were healthier, this chef tended to arrive with a blast of hullabaloo, reveal a lack of grounding in basic reporting and writing and spend the rest of an unhappy tenure doing brights. Yes, there are exceptions — I’ve been lucky enough to work with some of them — and there will be more as digital journalism matures. But I don’t think we’re there yet.

It’s great if you can find an all-in-one chef who truly has the chops for reporting, writing and storytelling. If you can’t, there’s another potential chef: a pure multimedia person who doesn’t have ambitions to be the primary storyteller.

In the multimedia boom of the early 2000s these chefs would arrive in print-first newsrooms with less fanfare, but that made them easier to ignore, and led to them generally being brought into the writing and editing process as an afterthought. The results are predictable, and I still see them in too many papers: slideshows with captions cut-and-pasted from the story, videos of nervous reporters discovering firsthand that you can’t just read your own story on camera, and interactive graphics that capture little of the depth of the stories they accompany. These stories can drive traffic, but I don’t think they drive reader engagement — they can be the equivalent of tacking on four extra rights to directions to see if your buddy will notice and go around the block an extra time.

The way to escape this and make chefs effective is to treat multimedia and community as a team effort that begins when the reporting begins to gel. (I wouldn’t start it earlier because then I think you get a reporter with anger-management issues. He or she needs a little peace to find the thread of the story.) Packagers have a role in the process too — I think of chefs as super-packagers who are given more time to dive more deeply into a story and whose focus is more on creating new material than on assembling existing stuff.

Too often, today’s would-be chefs are treated like photographers used to be — they’re being asked to do the multimedia equivalent of getting a shot of a house or a person hours after the reporter has driven back to the newsroom. In that situation, multimedia ambitions wither and it’s hard not to produce a mere add-on to a story. Even when these deliver great photos, I find myself wondering how much more they could have been.

There are young multimedia and community specialists who could be great chefs. But to jump-start the process of finding them, I suspect newsrooms may have to look beyond journalism to bright, creative marketers and business-side folks who are used to bigger projects and longer lead times. I know that sounds like heresy — these folks aren’t journalists! But I think they’re more than capable of learning journalism’s rhythms and rules well enough to be valuable complements to journalists. I’d love to see what would happen if newsrooms offered apprenticeships to teach them the basics of journalism.  And then, of course, newsrooms should put them — and their colleagues who are packagers and specialists and leapfroggers and incubators — to work.


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