News Leadership 3.0

September 11, 2008

A marriage of old and new

Tennessee editor drives culture change
with clear roles for print and Web


This is the second of two posts from e-mail interviews with small newspaper editors I conducted in preparation for a presentation next week on culture change for the Southern Newspaper Publishers Association. (See previous Q & A here.)
J. Todd Foster is managing editor of the Bristol Herald Courier in Tennessee. (Foster and I were colleagues years ago at The Oregonian.)

Q. Describe the culture change that has taken place in your newsroom in the past few years?
A.
Our company, Media General, adopted a Web-first mentality about two years ago. I have spent the past 21 months implementing that philosophy. I first had to overcome my own prejudices and competitive intensity to realize that we still owned the story whether we broke it first on the Web or in the newspaper. For more than a year now, all breaking news here goes to the Web first and immediately with a down-and-dirty version of the story, usually about four paragraphs.
MG’s Publishing Division mandated in 2008 that every newspaper train 80 percent of its journalists to post stories and photos to the Web by the end of the year. We trained 100 percent of our newsroom by the end of January 2008. Reporters are trained to post their own stories if they are in the office, but only after at least one editor does a quick read. That ensures quality. If reporters are out in the field, they are to call in via cell phones; an editor crafts a Web version and slaps it on the Web.

At the same time that we have embraced the Web, sometimes kicking and screaming, I immediately adopted a print focus on investigative and enterprise reporting. We do more of it than any paper our size (just under 40K circulation) that I know of; for example, two of my seven news reporters are dedicated to investigative reporting and long-term projects. They will turn quick daily hits when needed, but their focus is on hard-hitting investigations. So while we have gone Web first, we’ve also sacrificed a little quantity in the daily paper for quality.

Q. Please list two or three factors that helped you change the culture of your newsroom?
A.
I made it clear to my newsroom that no one loves newspapers more than I do but that we had to change the way we operated to survive. I also reminded them, gently at times and not so gently on other occasions, of how many quality journalists are out of work. I set clear-cut goals whereby the Web-first mission was non-negotiable, but I backed it up with plenty of staff training and reinforcement. Some of the old-timers were resistant to change, as they always are. But I constantly hammered home, on a daily basis at first, the need to write a quick Web story version and to ensure it reached the Web. But I made sure the bulk of reporting time was for the print edition, which still pays the bills around here and will for a long time, if not forever.

Q. What results have come from culture change in your organization?
A.
Rather than just focus on quick hits and breaking news, I integrated multimedia investigative reporting into the mix. For example, when I first arrived in October 2006 I personally began gathering salary data from 65 local governmental entities in our two-state, 5,000-square-mile coverage area. It took hundreds of FOIAs, constant threats to sue, cajoling, persuading and just sheer persistence to get all 65 agencies to adhere to the open records laws in Virginia and Tennessee. After 13 months of gathering this data, I sent it to some of our technical folks in Richmond to compile a searchable online database. In December 2007, our readers were able to access the names, salaries and titles of every local public employee in the area. Our Web site, which is operated by a third entity apart from the newspaper and our sister TV station (the newspaper and TV station provide 95 percent of the content for TriCities.com), then added the same data from several Northeast Tennessee towns and counties not served by our newspaper. In all, we’ve had more than 600,000 page views, a quarter million in just a few days right after we launched. The online database includes about 24,000 public officials. We also used the project as a way to test compliance with open records laws in both states. Those agencies that dragged their feet paid for it in the stories that accompanied the database launch.

Our focus on investigative/enterprise reporting has carried over even to breaking-news events. For example, in February 2008, a jilted lover killed four people at a Bristol, Tenn., apartment complex before taking his own life hours later and several miles away. Our breaking news coverage attracted the attention of CNN, which linked to our site and drove more than 250,000 page views to TriCitties.com in about two hours. Our exhaustive enterprise reporting, which delved into why the tragedy happened, continued drawing Web readers to the story, which we sectioned out into its own build out, with all the stories in one place, along with photographs, 911 tapes, etc.

Q. What advice would you give to editors who find their staffs are reluctant to try new practices and adapt to digital journalism?
A.
I would advise against turning talented print reporters and writers into Web brief writers. Emphasize the speed of the Web but give the staff time to turn out resourceful print versions. In other words, embrace the new technology but go old school by throwing more resources into deep-dive journalism. That’s a tall order in this day of dwindling staffs; my advice is to give up some quantity and government process stories and focus on the kind of investigative/enterprise journalism that drives readership and ultimately, in my opinion, will be the newspaper industry’s salvation.

—-

Like Ken Tuck at The Dothan Eage, Foster has relied on proven tools for culture change: Strong communication, training and leading by example. A significant part of that communication is clear differentiation between what goes online and what goes into the print newspaper, allowing the newsroom to honor investigative traditions while embracing the speed and reach of the Web.

Have these and other strategies worked in your newsroom? Please share your experiences 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.

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