The All-Digital Newsroom of the Not-So-Distant Future

Reply Thu 29 Jan, 2009 10:58 am
The All-Digital Newsroom of the Not-So-Distant Future
By Steve Outing - E & P
January 28, 2009

It now seems likely that some newspapers will abandon print, or be forced to. But what might a digital local news operation look like, and what tools and skills will be required?

It's safe to say that during 2009 and beyond, some communities will lose their newspapers. A particularly bad recession, on top of the secular change in media habits by consumers and buying behavior by advertisers away from print and toward online and mobile -- and some serious debt overload by newspaper companies that went on a buying spree a couple years ago when money was cheap and easy and now are at the edge of bankruptcy or liquidation (or already in it) -- makes losing more newspapers inevitable.

Some of those newspapers will live on purely in digital form, reinvented (and inevitably downsized significantly). Hearst Corp. executives, in a recent announcement that they would put the Seattle Post-Intelligencer up for sale, left open the possibility that if no buyer showed up, they might shut down the newspaper and Web site -- or they might turn the P-I into a scaled-back, purely digital local online news operation that would still compete with the surviving Seattle Times.

Newspapers up for sale in other two-paper cities include Denver's Rocky Mountain News (E.W. Scripps) and the Tucson Citizen (Gannett), though neither corporate owner has uttered anything publicly about either of those more than century-old news brands possibly shutting down the presses but continuing in scaled-down, digital-only form. Still, optimists suggest that digital-only survival of those brands is possible.

We will also likely see some single-publisher towns lose their newspapers. Some of those communities may go newsless, but in others we may see the print edition disappear but re-emerge as a digital news operation with the same brand name.

What will that look like?

It's worth imagining what a newspaper will look like after it's transformed into a digital-only news entity. Lots of smart folks in the news industry and academia are pondering such things. And I've been thinking about it a lot lately, too.

We'll see others' models soon enough -- including the Christian Science Monitor's Web site, which will change when the daily print edition of the Monitor disappears in April and its online home will be the dominant 24/7 news product every day except Sundays, when its sole print edition will be published.

But here are my ideas for transforming a newspaper into a digital-only substitute that can continue to serve its community after the presses have gone silent. (Plenty of media people are pondering small, entrepreneurial news entities started from scratch to replace a completely failed newspaper, but I'm going to focus on what a surviving but transformed "newspaper" might look like.)

Smaller staff ... duh!

Sadly, any newspaper that sheds its print edition will lay off a lot of people. Pressmen, drivers, everyone in the circulation department -- all gone. For a large newsroom, a lot of journalists will lose their jobs, perhaps one-half to two-thirds. (I hope I'm being pessimistic, but I doubt it.) A leaner news operation will probably mean a significant thinning of newsroom middle-management ranks. A smaller advertising department is likely.

Allow me to pause here to emphasize that in no way do I mean to trivialize the pain this will cause employees and their families. It's a sad reality of the media transition period we're experiencing that many people will suffer on the way to developing sustainable new business models to support local news coverage.

Surviving journalists who get the jobs in the reinvented news operation will likely include the most popular columnists and the "star" reporters (those who do the best and most watchdog and investigative journalism, since that will be a key strength of the new news product). Among reporters, it's likely that if more than one person is covering a beat (city hall, the local NFL team, etc.), someone will be cut.

What will it take to get one of the remaining jobs in the all-digital newsroom? Certainly an understanding of, and probably enthusiasm for, new forms of media and storytelling. The transformed newsroom will be filled with multi-functional journalists who are comfortable carrying around a digital camera and tiny video camera; who make it part of their routine to record audio for possible use in podcasts or multimedia project sound clips; who are regular users of social networks and understand how to leverage them to communicate with and attract new readers, and share some personal information about themselves as well as promote their work; and who are comfortable and willing to put in the time to engage and communicate with their readers or viewers, including participating in reader comment threads accompanying their stories.

While in this transformed news enterprise reporters will take some of their own photos and video, I think there will remain a place for photojournalists -- but they'll need to be adept at video and not just still news photography. They'll need to know how to do video editing and production, and produce multimedia content.

Journalists clinging to notions of narrow job descriptions and who still hold dear many of the old ways of doing things for print are unlikely to be among those offered jobs in the downsized digital newsroom. To win one of these jobs, extreme flexibility and the love of learning and a challenge will be qualities that hiring managers will seek. I suspect that may make this digital newsroom younger than today's print newsrooms, yet I know plenty of older journalists who revel in the media transformation and 24/7 nature of today's news, and young journalists just out of college who still think conservatively. So don't count out seeing some gray hair in the digital newsroom, though not as much.

With advertising and classifieds departments, you could see some new people with digital media sales experience brought in. Certainly, those existing sales people who operate on autopilot selling to a list of counted-on clients won't be invited in, unless they can convince managers that they are capable of converting those accounts into new online and mobile advertisers. Given the failure of many newspaper advertising managers to move aggressively in transforming their departments as print-edition revenues plummeted, I suspect that we'll see new hires at the top who are capable of inventing and selling new online and mobile ad campaigns -- and have good ideas about reinventing classifieds to resurrect that sector.

Some of the jobs that will be cut from the newsroom and ad division will make room for growing a technology team, since most newspapers today have online staffs too small to handle a full-on digital-only news operation, and some of those online staffers are doing online editorial production work that can be taken over by the reporters and editors in the room. More developers and managers to oversee them and interface with the newsroom will be necessary, as technology takes on a much higher profile.

For example, does your current newspaper have a mobile applications and content specialist? Most don't, but the post-paper news entity will need people focused on inventing and developing mobile news features and applications, and thinking about how to make money from mobile users. Smartphones (Apple's iPhone, Blackberry Storm, et al) are not ubiquitous yet, but just give it another year to reach mass market. Mobile could -- and should -- be a significant revenue source for the digital news service.

At the managerial level of the news entity formally known as the newspaper, we should see a chief technical officer (CTO) position, and a head of social media. Ideally, there will be a chief innovation officer, a la Lee Abrams’ position at Tribune Co.

Fewer journalists, more bloggers

What I've described shifts the department staff percentages around from the newspaper of old, as well as eliminates less-essential personnel. More technologists -- a necessity going forward -- means fewer slots for journalists. How's that going to work out?

Short answer: Every journalist is a blogger, and a beatblogger, and a social network junkie.

I don't mean to suggest that this post-paper news entity is just one giant blog. There's not room in this column to discuss Web site design, but there are lots of options. I hope the post-paper news site doesn't look too much like today's typical newspaper site, but it could.

What I do mean is that this transformed news organization will -- at least in its early digital-only years -- operate with less journalistic manpower than when it was a healthy newspaper. We may wish that not be so, but it's the likely reality until the new news organization's business model succeeds well enough to hire back more people. So we'll need to accomplish more with less. And yes, I think that can be done without burning out every staff member through overworking.

Most traditional newspaper reporters cover a beat, with some assigned as "general assignment" reporters. My plan makes every remaining reporter a blogger, who is producing several levels of coverage on his/her topic or beat, with no deadlines.

No deadlines, you say? Well, in this 24/7 digital news operation, when a reporter has confirmed information for a story or blog entry, or Twitter post, or mobile alert, or video clip, etc., it goes online and out to readers through mobile and other digital channels immediately after editing. Right now, increasingly blog entries and tweets get posted online unedited by trusted staff journalists.

So if every reporter is a blogger, each has his/her own blog on their beat or topic specialty -- and that is the core of the reporter's work life from which all else spins off. Their best stuff may show up on the homepage with a mixture of topics, but everything will be on their personal blog page. For the reader interested in health news, he'll follow the Medical News blog of health reporter Jane Smith, for example. Because the blog will be more interactive than traditional newspaper coverage, Smith's readers will leave comments on her stories, and Smith will be required to respond to comments and questions. She'll announce multiple ways for her digital readers to contact her, including e-mail address or a contact form, and addresses on various social networks (Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, Seesmic, etc.). Smith may even participate in outside healthcare/medical online communities, and will list her address there, too.

A key difference in our newly designed post-paper news experience is that the beat reporter puts herself out there as a personality -- a human being you can get to know by following her, and who is an expert on a topic you care about (like medical news, or crime, state government, and the like). She will communicate with her readers, answer their questions and accept tips about topics she should cover, and accept criticism when she makes mistakes. In my view of the newspaper sans paper, every journalist is a personality, not just an anonymous byline.

But she's still, at heart, a reporter.

Every journalist gets a community

To get back to that notion of having to "do more with less," our new digital news operation will offer each reporter/blogger the Web 2.0 tools to create a community of people who are interested in and passionate about the topic, or are experts on it. Just as on Facebook you can become a "fan" of celebrities, brands, products and so on, the reporter can collect fans on her blog. It's a way of collecting individuals to follow your work who are experts on the topic you cover, and you'll find that the niche community experience will turn up story ideas, sources, pointers to relevant external content, and even people willing to volunteer to help out.

If an environmental reporter succeeds in building a valuable community, for example, he may find within it individuals who work, say, in the Forest Service or who head up a trails advocacy group, who are talented writers or speakers and can be persuaded to write occasional columns, opinion pieces, or submit video shorts.

I'm pretty much describing "beatblogging," which is a reporting community technique being experimented with by a number of journalists today. If you'd like to learn more about the concept of beatblogging and read about real-world experiments, I suggest you spend some time on BeatBlogging.org.

The beatblogging concept is, yes, a way to do more and save money, so it fits well in the post-paper news scenario. With the help of an interested-expert community following and participating in a reporter's beat blog, that single paid reporter covering medicine and health can produce a health section and health conversation online of a breadth that a lone person could never accomplish. But beatblogging isn't just or really about saving money; it's about bringing niche-interest communities and journalists together and improving and expanding the overall news product.

So imagine a newsroom where each reporter has his or her own passionate community helping out and advising, and you can see how the smaller editorial budget of the digital news operation can still produce a quality product that's actually better than the old newspaper's -- because its reporters have completely cast off we-tell-you journalism in favor of the news-is-a-conversation model, where readers have relationships with their favorite journalists. The print-edition culture is no longer preventing journalists from activities that are mainstream in the pure-Internet media world.

And let me not skip over the revenue potential of a news Web site (and related mobile and other digital services) filled with all these online passionate niche news mini-sites and online communities led by a beat reporter specialist producing content for an appreciative and interested audience. Each represents a valuable niche-advertising venue. Contextual e-commerce product affiliate sales are a no-brainer revenue source. Best yet, each reporter's beat blog/community offers the possibility of selling premium content on the topic; some of it could come from staff journalists, some from (vetted) outside experts or freelancers who can use the new digital news operation as a marketing vehicle and split the sales fees.

The multitasking digital journalist

With blogs at the center of a reporter's work universe, there's still much to do in this new kind of news operation.

Here's what the reporter/blogger will routinely do:

1. Long-form stories and features. But in this new environment, a reporter may do fewer of these because of other duties. And they may be in a variety of formats, from simple text and video to multimedia presentations, audio or podcasts.

2. Regular blog entries (basically short articles) through the day. The reporter in this organization doesn't wait till all the facts are in when it's a big breaking story, but reports what's known quickly. Additional blog updates can be added as the news event progresses. (Again, don't take “blog entry” to mean “text.” A reporter might post video or audio to the blog, as well.)

3. Instant updates. When relevant, a reporter will put out short alerts to mobile phone news alert subscribers; to an e-mail list; as a "tweet" on Twitter or brief report on other social networks to update the reporter's "friends" and "followers," etc. This can take but a minute (with proper systems in place to streamline the process), and then it's on to the write-up for the blog.

I've emphasized that the reporter/bloggers in this reinvented digital news organization will interact with readers and participate in social networks where they spread word of their work and collect followers or fans. Obviously, that's a lot to do, even with less pressure to produce traditional lengthy newspaper stories and features.

Realistically, it will take time for most journalists to adapt to this new workflow. And some assistance from interns or editorial assistants may be required for the reporter/blogger to do everything in the ideal manner I've described.

Half full, or half empty?

The impending loss of some newspapers is certainly a sad development. I will mourn those that completely shutter their doors, but I hope that some of those losses won't be complete and a digital-only news entity will instead be the result of a newspaper's print-edition failure.

In those cases, once you process the pain of those many people laid off, you should view these paper-to-digital news transformations as a solid step forward toward the future of news media. They will serve as experiments and learning centers for newspaper publishers and editors who one day may face a similar fate: the end of their print-edition business.

The great hope will be that these digital-only newspaper descendents will learn and grow, and once again provide more jobs for journalists. At least while we wait for that, the communities they serve will continue to have a watchdog with a louder bark than community bloggers and local TV and radio news outlets. It's the cities and towns that completely lose their newspaper and Web site that I really worry about.
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