News Leadership 3.0

January 05, 2009

A new print team: Smaller in size, tighter in focus

Ideas for ‘09: Newsrooms must “wind down” on print while still publishing a newspaper

Happy New Year! I want to start this year with a few ideas for change in traditional print newsrooms that are moving online.
Idea #1: Create a very small print team that is entirely focused on print production and is charged with taking most of the print content from what the newsroom (and users) have produced for the Web.
In planning this team, push as hard as possible downward on the size of the team and upward on expectations from how much of the newspaper it can fill with Web-first content.
Let’s start with the size. A typical newsroom process might define what the product will look like and then determine how many people it will take to produce it. Instead, I suggest newsroom leaders set a tight limit on the number of people who will produce the print product and explore what that number of people might produce.
Perhaps you could start the discussion by exploring what a newspaper would like like if only 10 percent of the newsroom staff was on the print production team.  You likely will end up with a higher number, but you can use the process to learn what is doable with less and to identify what you can give up in print and what you must have.
Of course, the initial newsroom response to this idea will be, “That’s impossible.” Turn that around with “Let’s just see what is possible and move on from there.” You can always raise the number.
Perhaps more important than the exact number, is the role of the new team. The team must understand what loyal newspaper readers are looking for in print and it must learn how to assess published Web content, decide what’s most appropriate for newspaper readers and repackage it for print. To a great extent, the team also must learn to produce a good newspaper without the ability to ask the news gatherers for a lot of print-specific content.
Again, “Impossible,” you say.  Probably not entirely possible. But ask an open-minded staff member or a small group of them to review online offerings for a couple of weeks and give you a report on what would most readily translate into print, what it would take to repackage it and what might end up missing from the print product that only news gathering staff could provide.
It’s important as this exercise unfolds to be as specific as possible about what you are willing to give up and what you are not. It also is crucial that whatever system you create protects the news gathering staff from the potentially endless demands of print. (See “Beware the sucking sound of the print newspaper.”)
A couple of newsrooms have reorganized along these lines with some success (albeit with a larger number of people than my hypothetical 10 percent).
The Orange County Register initially devoted about a third of its staff to print production while the news gathering operation reported to online. That print desk put out the daily newspaper in addition to about two dozen community news weeklies.
Separating print production from news gathering has helped the Register become an online first newsroom, says Editor Ken Brusic. The idea was to “take all the content producers—reporters, photographers, graphic artists—and have them at least be thinking about producing information for a Web-first environment.”
At the same time, Brusic says the print and online teams are encouraged to collaborate, and better planning (The Register uses a tool called NewsGate) enables the print team to see what is being produced online and to request print-specific material early in the process.
Brusic said the size of the Register’s print team has been reduced with recent layoffs. But he said 10 percent seemed too low, especially at the outset. “I’d suggest 20 or 25 percent to start, with the goal of reducing that number over time,’’ Brusic said in an e-mail.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, with a 300-person newsroom, also moved to separate production from newsgathering although news gatherers do produce a lot of content specifically for print. Atlanta now has three teams - News & Information (the news gatherers), Online, and Print.  The print team numbers just under 25 percent of the total staff. Online is 20 percent. The largest team is News & Information, with 55 percent.
Two other teams—online and print—are responsible for deciding what content will work in their specific medium and for getting that content to their specific audiences in forms that best suit the audience. It’s not an assembly line process like many newsrooms where the presentation and production folks come in at the end and often can barely put a stamp on finished packages. Instead, the News and Information team pitches story ideas and each production team can decide whether to ask that the idea be developed (or take a pass on the story) and what elements may best suit its platform.
Robin Henry, Managing Editor/Online at the AJC, says the system requires give and take. “If we say no (to a story), we have to have a conversation about why aren’t we interested. We’re all supposed to be on the same page on the reader so we start there. That’s our common ground. Why are we doing this story and how does this benefit the reader? If they can convince us, maybe we’re wrong.”

Print newspapers will publish for some time in many U.S. communities. Mark Hamilton describes this aptly in “Winding down the print edition.”

“What’s happening now is essentially the winding-down of the print edition. No one known how long this phase is going to last—whether it’s two years, five, 10 or more (unlikely)—either on an individual title or industry-wide basis.

“During the end game, surviving newspapers are going to continue to shrink as they play in a much larger pool of competitors for advertising and attention. Bottom-line pressure, whether from shareholders, independent owners or basis economics, will not go away. Some of that will be gained back (or held) with a vibrant web presence.

“The goal during the end game will be to continually tweak the print product to milk as much revenue/attention from it as possible (note: the attention part of that is as least as important as the revenue), while moving aggressively onto the web.”

One future scenario for news separates key functions of news organizations into distinct businesses—some gather content while others package it for specific audiences on different distribution platforms. Everyone shares in the revenue, but each organization has a specialty and a focus and, as a result, is more able to keep pace with rapid and continuous changes in the information marketplace.

This division of expertise relies on a different cultural model as well: Experts on the consumers of news make key decisions about how and where users are most likely to engage with the content. That represents a significant shift from traditional practice, in which the content creators (journalists) have called the shots.

Newsrooms can make that organizational shift regardless of the state of their business. And as 2009 opens, it is high time for newsrooms to move deliberately along that road. They may not be shutting down their print operations, but reorganizing the staff to de-emphasize print in newsroom culture and in staff resources will ease the transition to success online.

Would a model like one of these work for your newsroom? What techniques are you using to “wind down” on print? Please add your ideas to the comments.

Related posts:
What does ‘online first’ mean in your newsroom?
“The newspaper is a means to transition. But it’s no longer an end unto itself”

Comments

Michele:

I like your idea about a new thought process needed now to get more resources devoted to “online first” publishing (or digital publishing to online or mobile devices).

But I’m curious if you considered the possibility of actually reinventing the print product to be something different—rather than essentially being a compilation of yesterday’s online news? I’d like to see more energy go toward having a “newspaper” that is different, that takes advantage of the unique properties of print to present news, information, commentary, photos, etc.


David: Thanks for the comment. In some markets, what you suggest may make sense and thinking about the print staff’s size and role would have to be adjusted to reflect that. But I’m not sure the calculus of resource use vs. gain will bear that out in all markets.
Either way, I think the process I’ve described will help newsroom leaders think more clearly about how to best use their staffs—not only the staff they have now but the smaller ones they likely will have in the near future. As much as anything, I think a zero-based planning process for print production will give newsroom leaders a better handle on what they really need to keep or develop in print and what they can give up.


Michele—

Great stuff. I agree that this would be a great way to force the paper from its central role in the journalistic process. I don’t believe there’s a winning web strategy based on repurposing print content to web.

But frankly, I think an even faster way to transform the great newspapers of America could come from the Pulitzer committee. If the Pulitzer folks refused to accept any print-native entries, I think we’d find the editors and reporters stuck in a print-first world would “get the web” immediately.


I agree that the Pulitzers would do well to become less print-focused. At the same time, I think the traditional print culture of newsrooms is a more powerful element that is holding newsrooms back. Changing structures and processes in the newsroom underscores changing goals and drives change with force day in and day out.


i think by separating key news components into different businesses, you potentially have less chance of systemic bias in the reporting.


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