News Leadership 3.0

November 24, 2008

A future for news

Jeff Jarvis highlights key ideas about the emerging shape of news and community, and suggests roles news organizations may play

Jeff Jarvis has come up with a thoughtful and comprehensive summary of the emerging news landscape. Read the entire post. Then reread and discuss it with your newsroom. Link to it from your web site and invite comments about what your users think is important for your Web site.

I’m going to start today with Jarvis’ first bullet point, because I think all flows from here:

“The next generation of local (news) won’t be about news organizations but about their communities. News is just one of the community’s needs. It also needs elegant organization. News companies and networks can help provide that. The bigger goal is to provide platforms that enable communities to do what they want to do, share what they want to share, know what they need to know together. News will become a product of the community as much as it is a service to it.”

As more people discover their ability to create community online, it follows that they will identify and prioritize common problems (the way news editors and editorial pages have done), explore solutions (the way news organizations were supposed to) and join together to push for change (editorial page, again). Does online community, then, replace traditional news organizations? It’s not an either-or equation. Instead, the successful news organization must reinvent its relationship with its community. Among other things, Jarvis says, communities will still need dogged beat work and investigative reporting. As the new system for news emerges, traditional news organizations can lend structure and coherence to the network.

Jarvis rightly points out that the power of the news organization of the future may lie more in its unique contribution to the community network rather than on the scope of its original news report. Speaking specifically about investigative reporting, Jarvis says: “In a link-and-search economy, you must create unique content with strong value to get attention and audience.”

This is a call for news organizations to focus on the emerging landscape, identify their critical roles and go for it. I have described a key obstacle to significant change in newspaper culture: the reluctance, even inability, to identify and let go of outdated practices. With many organizations now consumed day in and day out with the business of multiplatform production amidst downsizing, it gets harder to see how the typical newsroom can plot the survival it needs today and the future it needs yesterday.

At best, Jarvis summary offers your organization ideas for plotting a future beyond the next layoff. At least, it offers a template for plotting your own ideas about the future role of your organization in a community that is still being defined.

Your thoughts about the role of your news organization in emerging online communities? Please share them in the comments.

November 11, 2008

Getting past “mixed messages” in the newsroom

Traditional newsrooms aren’t built for collaboration, but they can achieve it. Jill Geisler identifies four barriers to collaboration.

Newsrooms need collaboration more than ever. The assembly line model of print production must give way to a more dynamic, multitasking organization. Increasingly, too, cutbacks dictate efficiencies.

Jill Geisler has a terrific post at Poynter Online about four obstacles to collaboration she has observed in newsrooms (and many other organizations). Her list: Distance, Dominance, Dissonance and Discomfort.

Each plays strongly in organizational resistance to more collaboration. Geisler concludes:

“Distance, dominance, dissonance and discomfort translate into: I don’t see or hear you, I’m on a different level than you, I have different marching orders and I don’t really know you or understand what you do.

“All this can kill collaboration.”

For leaders who seek more collaboration in their newsrooms, I would focus in particular on Geisler’s third obstacle: Dissonance: “I have different marching orders than you.”

In my experience, dissonance in the message or “mixed messages” from leaders holds organizations back—and adoption of clearer, more consistent message is one of the ways leaders can unleash tremendous potential that’s just waiting for clear direction.

Mixed messages occur when:
—Staff members hear different priorities from a top editor. Who hasn’t met the editor or managing editor who jumps from problem to fresh idea and back to another problem, leaving staff members scratching their heads about their direction.
—Staff members hear different priorities from different editors in the leadership group. Or the leaders recite the same priorities but reward only their favorite ones. Of course each editor has her area of focus, but it’s important for each leader to embrace and foster the big picture for the staff. So breaking news on the Web may be job one for the ME/online. But it mustn’t diminish her respect for print enterprise—and the time it takes to produce it.
—Mid-level editors do not fully understand the priorities of the leadership group. In the world of the frontline editor, urgency and importance tend to blend. Without clear direction from the top, important priorities—acting on them and communicating them to the staff—will give way

What’s the solution? There’s no quick fix. But more attention to communication is a challenging and effective way to improve collaboration in your organization.

First, talk with the senior leadership group in the newsroom. Come to a consensus about three or four top goals for the newsroom—Call it “What we’re all working on together right now.” It may be more breaking news for the Web, more local focus in print and online, tighter storytelling for time-challenged users. Work together to figure out how each senior editor will emphasize these priorities and keep them fresh in her areas of responsibility.

Second, discuss the priorities with frontline editors. That’s different from telling them a set of rules. Get their views: What do these editors think about the priorities (and let them process any resistance)? How will they play out in their daily work? How to best communicate them? What does the staff need from the leadership to reach the goals?

Third, put together multidisciplinary groups of staff members to discuss the priorities and get to know how they affect the work of colleagues. Encourage them to brainstorm together and learn from each other what practices may accomplish the goals. Breaking down newsroom silos is a route to collaboration—especially if the leadership is clear about what the collaboration is supposed to produce.

What are your tips for fostering collaboration? Please share your ideas in the comments.



October 23, 2008

Whither the copy desk?

The debate over “outsourcing” vs. “quality” needs a reality check

Dean Singleton says MediaNews Group might consolidate copy editing functions across its more than four dozen newspapers, perhaps even moving a general copy desk offshore. “In today’s world, whether your desk is down the hall or around the world, from a computer standpoint, it doesn’t matter,” Singleton says.

In response, the American Copy Editors Society (ACES) says such a move is guaranteed to kill credibility. ACES put up on its Web site a photo of Singleton with the blaring headline: “Will this idea never die? It’s time to look out for readers and credibility, not save a buck.”

I’m not fan of Dean Singleton. MediaNews debt alone suggests the CEO is a poor business steward whose cost-cutting moves are reacting to payment deadlines rather than building a long term future. His comments about copy desks reflect as much nuance as a buzz saw.

Still, I’ve got to challenge ACES and others who rest on the credibility/quality argument. You’re right, folks. But you’ve got to do better. That argument won’t take you where you need to go, which is to update your role and re-invent your value (like virtually every other journalist in the room).


1. In newsrooms in transition, the copy desk often look like the last bastion of print culture, and that’s a traditionally change-averse culture the bosses have decided must change. I have talked to editors who have put their newsrooms on promising tracks to create more online content. They invariably scratch their heads about a “print-centric” copy desk that plays little or no role on the Web. The value of copy editing is clear, but the role and shape and culture of the copy desk may have to change.

2. Some functions of the copy desk might be contracted out (domestically, one hopes) without damage to the quality of the product. Copy editors have been complaining for years about coding and other production chores that came their way with pagination and more labor-intensive page design. Some editors went as far as to say they’d largely been stripped of meaningful editing time. As newsroom staff size falls to a level that the market will support, shedding incidentals in order to focus on the core (quality editing) is a must.

3. Good copy editors have long helped news organizations maintain their authority in their communities, as ACES notes. But the role and definition of authority in news is changing, and more and more of it is shifting to readers and users who can decide what news they want to see, when they want to see it and can easily check other sources. The vetting role of the copy editors will be critical, but it may not be applied to all content and more and more print content may well be vetted by users on the Web.

4. Newsroom jobs will continue to disappear. Just about every journalist in a newsroom contributes to quality. The new question is: What else have you done for me lately? Smaller, more nimble organizations tend to value priorities over absolutes. For example: Absolutely perfect style is a wonderful goal. Increasing interactivity may trump 100 percent adherence style on the priority list.

I worked in newsrooms for nearly 30 years (including on the copy desk).  I cannot count the times a smart copy editor improved on my work or made a good save in a story I wrote or edited. (And I’m scared of making a mistake every time I post directly to this blog.) I wish I could offer some solace to beleaguered copy desks.

I do have this advice for copy editors: Learn some new skills. Learn some new online skills—Search engine optimization in headlines, tagging, a little html, shoot and upload audio or video, create a photo gallery with captions, read comments on news stories and respond to them, figure out Web analytics. Learn. Grow. That’s what your newsroom needs to do. It’ll get there faster with you on board.

Has the role of the copy editor changed in your newsroom? What skills should your copy editors learn? Have you reorganized your copy desk? Please share your experiences and ideas in the comments.

October 21, 2008

Dance of change

Online journalists offer ideas to fuel
culture change in the newsroom
What are your steps to transformation?

The Carnival of Journalism—a loose consortium of online journalists who blog about a common topic each month—is taking up this important question:
“What are small, incremental steps one can make to fuel change in their media organization?”

Change, like innovation, often is imagined as a big, sweeping wave that washes over the room and carries everyone along. Far from it. Change is mostly made up of small steps by individuals. The small steps create critical mass within the organization and tip it towards a different future.

I offer three small ideas that could lead to something big:

1. Move some furniture.
You may not be able to remodel your newsroom right now, and that’s fine. But consider moving a few curmudgeons closer to the cutting edge. In the name of efficiency, you may be tempted to put your most Web receptive reporters within shouting distance of the 24/7 news desk. Why not move a few of the least-receptive closer as well? They either will either catch on  and post more often—maybe even multmedia—or they’ll feel uncomfortable, which is a step in the right direction. That’s just one example. Look for ways to put unlike folks together and then encourage conversation. If you’re ready for a bigger move, put your online desk in the middle of the newsroom, as the Miami Herald and St. Louis Post-Dispatch have done.

2. Cancel a few meetings. The meeting schedule in many newsrooms still reflects the print newspaper—and the all-important daily news meetings may well be sending the wrong message to a newsroom that needs to move online. When senior editors convene the desks and spend much of their time talking about Page One and print section covers, it’s time to re-invent the schedule. Imagine the meetings your newsroom needs—and doesn’t—to be an online news provider. Implement that schedule and add short, light attendance print-focused sessions around it. While you’re at it, gather any online news meetings in front of a big monitor on the newsroom wall and leave off posting print tear sheets for a while. (Adding the monitor prompted big changes in the news meeting conversation at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution a couple of years ago.) You don’t want to abandon print. But the best way to let the online discussion flourish is to minimize the print conversation until new priorities take hold.

3. Reward people who try something new. Stop noticing mistakes for while and focus your newsroom on fresh approaches. Talk about them this way: “Let’s pretend we love this story and talk about why we love it.” (Inexact quote from Roy Peter Clark, who was talking about storytelling.) Lead your newsroom in thinking about why something new is good and build from there. Make it a weekly contest: The person who comes up with the best new practice and the person who makes the best suggestion for improving it wins the editor’s parking space for a day.

Will Sullivan at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch launched the change question this month with his own list of 10 steps. He’s also rounded up ideas from others here. Their practicality and simplicity resonate with me. I think they are particularly instructive for newsroom leaders because they come mostly from folks in the digital trenches inside and outside newsrooms.

What steps has your newsroom taken toward change?
Please share ideas in the comments.


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Exploring innovation, transformation and leadership in a new ecosystem of news, by journalist and change advocate Michele McLellan.

Get in touch with Michele at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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