Leadership Report 2011- Best practice #1

1. Focus the mission

As late as 2007, many local newsrooms were just beginning to awaken to digital. The first wave typically focused on breaking news (enter the “continuous news desk”), multimedia (remember the “MoJo” - the mobile journalist who could do it all?) or niche sites (such as Gannett’s recently shuttered MomsLikeMe sites.)

The early waves of buyouts and layoffs brought an era of “Do more with less.” That faded quickly as newsrooms discovered that less really is less - and then even less as cutbacks mounted.

As local news organizations have shed a third to half of their newsroom staffs, a fundamental new reality has dawned: Local news organizations can no longer be general news sources in either print or online.

Instead they must reassess their place in the information ecology and hone their mission.

Carolyn Washburn

“We hit a place where the staff started to get smaller and we really started to think about what our role is and what we can let go,” said Carolyn Washburn, editor of The Cincinnati Enquirer, who participated in the inaugural 2007 leadership program as editor of The Des Moines Register.

“We think all the time about what our unique role is and what we can get from the community. This has raised the bar for our journalists, because they need to provide things that are more unique. Incredible storytelling. More investigative work. More data-driven journalism,” Washburn said. As traumatic as cutbacks are, “we can help people still do powerful work.”

Washburn drills down further with questions that help focus the journalism.

For example, Washburn quotes a question from a Gannett colleague about whether journalists are needed to add context to a piece of information: “Can we add intelligence to this information?” If not, why spend time to develop a full story?

Other questions: “Are we doing digest or depth?” And, “we have started an engagement initiative, for instance. We ask ourselves, ‘Now, what is the engagement value of this story? What do we hope people will do with this information?’ “

Washburn was a KDMC fellow in 2007, as Gannett was rolling out its Information Center model, which focused on multimedia and data. The KDMC program, she said, “exploded my thinking” at just the right time. “There were very specific ways the program changed my thinking and continues to have an impact on how I lead us to do journalism digitally,” she said.

As a result, Washburn said, her newsroom became more Web-first and audience-focused while developing blogs, databases, community partnerships and aggressive aggregation.

Washburn is not alone in saying preserving watchdog reporting is a top priority.

Karen Magnuson

“Watchdog will remain No. 1,” said Karen Magnuson, editor of the Democrat and Chronicle in Rochester, N.Y., and a 2008 fellow. “But it’s clear that even though we’ve made decisions in the past to stop covering some things, we still need to specialize in certain topics.

“One of the things we’re taking a closer look at through research and other things are what are the key topics we want to invest resources in.”

At The Wichita Eagle, editor Sherry Chisenhall also says watchdog reporting is a priority, along with business news.

Inability to attract advertising, meanwhile, led difficult decisions to scrap a popular features tab and to cut back on high school sports coverage.

“The toughest choices are about resources today, and you have to pick the things that go to your core mission,” Chisenhall said.  “Part of the answer is as much what you don’t do as what you do. For so long we kept saying you have to stop doing things. But we’re reluctant to do that in the newsroom because five readers call to complain and we think it’s an avalanche.’‘

“Five years ago, I would have said I wanted the staff to cover everything possible, every nook,” said Susan Catron, executive editor of the Savannah (Ga.) Morning News. “That was when I had a staff of 65 or 70 and I had no excuse for not being everywhere.

“Today I define success as being the best at a few topics, and let’s kick butt on those. Let’s find out what we’re good at and do that. ... Success is setting priorities that make sense.”

Arturo Duran, executive vice president digital for the Journal Register Company (and the new Digital First Media) argues that news organizations must increasingly look for partnerships. Duran takes Jeff Jarvis’ phrase “Do what you do best and link to the rest,” and turns it into “Do what you do best and partner with the rest.”

“News organizations can’t compete now with the resources they generate and the barriers to entry into their markets are now gone,’ Duran said. For example, “the only way to have the best ‘Hollywood content’  without having to deploy a team of ten people in LA is to partner with a vertical that does that better than you.”

Next >

Leadership Report 2011


Michele McLellan

This report was written by Michele McLellan, a journalist and consultant who works on projects that help foster a healthy local news ecosystem. As senior leadership consultant for [email protected], McLellan helped develop KDMC leadership programs in 2008-2011. She also blogs about key leadership best practices at Leadership 3.0.

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