News Leadership 3.0

July 15, 2008

Editors: Determination, not desperation

Knight Leadership Conference:
Top editors chart a path
to journalism’s digital future

With all the grim news from the news industry—staff reductions, top editor resignations—it’s easy to fall into a state of hopelessness. Certainly journalism’s most widely read news aggregator—Romenesko—often feels like a relentless chronicle of malaise and decline.

So it has been very encouraging—and enlightening—for me to speak with and exchange e-mails with the two dozen editors who are participating this week in Knight Digital Media Center‘s annual Leadership Conference, “Transforming News Organizations for the Digital Now.” Like their peers across the industry, they face struggles and challenges both within their organizations and without. They are far from naive. But they are very determined to take their organizations across the digital divide. We’re hoping that determination—and the advice of a couple of dozen experts who are joining the conference—will help them draft bold plans for reorganizing and re-energizing their organizations.

A team of two people - the top editor and the top online editor—from 12 traditionally print organizations will participate in the conference, which starts today and runs through Friday. Participating organizations: The Commercial Appeal, the Dayton Daily News, the (Rochester) Democrat and Chronicle, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, The Journal-Gazette (Fort Wayne), the Ledger-Enquirer (Columbus, Ga.), the Lexington Herald-Leader, the Orange County Register, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, The Seattle Times, The Spokesman-Review (Spokane),  and The Wichita Eagle.

I’ll make a brief introductory presentation identifying some of the patterns and issues that cropped up in my pre-conference interviews. (Later in the evening, we’ll hear about the digital audience from Amy Mitchell of the Project for Excellence in Journalism and then we’ll explore “Seven Deadly Myths of Innovation” with Krisztina “Z” Holly, Vice Provost for Innovation at the University of Southern California, where the Knight Center is based.

For now, here are a few trends from participating news organizations:

- They’ve reorganized in the past year, mostly to do a better job of getting breaking news online by dedicating reporters and editors to the Web. Those moves are showing results in increased Web traffic.Some of the newsrooms have undergone more radical changes—Rochester adopted Gannett’s Information Center model; at the Orange County Register, two-thirds of the newsroom reports to the online desk.
One editor: “Our priority is to create a fast and flexible culture in which we think online first, then print. Ultimately, it is to transform our newsroom into a 24-7 news organization. We must deliver news and information to readers and viewers when they want it and how they want. We integrate our approach. Our editors plan online coverage AND print coverage. We want to be first and we want to be best. We must continually be changing jobs and approaches. We did this a lot last year; we must do more this year. We do not believe in a big “ta da” approach. It should be organic but should also be urgent. Our survival is at stake in this competitive world we live in.”

- The culture in their newsrooms is improving, with more journalists adopting a Web-first mantra.Still, few believe they have achieved critical mass for a more nimble, online-adept culture. There are fewer pockets of resistance. But traditionally print-centric groups—in some cases copy desks or assignment editors—lack online reflexes.
Here’s one editor: “It’s like most places. There are 30 percent who get it, 30 percent who aren’t sure and 30 percent who are resistant. It’s a mixed bag. Some people are unhappy because they feel like it’s more work. Some people are really enthusiastic about it.”

- Culture aside, newsroom production systems and processes remain still highly print focused.  As their staffs contract, newsroom leaders are pressed to re-evaluate the print-online balance. How will they support both a robust print product - since it still pays most of the bills - with more aggressive moves online. Dayton, Rochester and Orange County have begun systematically repurposing (yes, I hate that word too. Alternative?) online content for the next day’s newspaper.
Here’s one editor: “Print is going to be around for a long time. It delivers 90 percent of our revenue. That’s the difficulty, trying to start this new business and keep the old one going. It’s going to be a struggle. We could do one or the other very well but to do both is a real challenge—especially with considerably fewer resources.”

- Newsroom staff cuts in these organizations range from about 10 to 40 percent from peak. Twenty-five percent is the norm.
One editor: “My goal is to continue to leverage my news staff across as many platforms as we can manage ... The only way we can sustain a newsroom of this size is to master all of these platforms.”

- Newsroom leaders also are frustrated by problems with technology and a general lack of technological resources. Competition for programmers is fierce—within news organizations and in the larger marketplace, which pays better than newspapers. One oneline editor: “It is difficult to attract Web developers because of the perception that the print industry is in decline. Web developers would bring the expertise that is currently lacking as we rely on converting print journalists into online specialists.”

- These problems notwithstanding, these editor report a dizzying array of accomplishments on the Web. From photo galleries, to databases, to videos, to interactive graphics, to broadcast programming, to affinity sites, the migration to online in these newsrooms is going full force. But few think they are ahead of the curve. Social networks, search and mobile delivery loom large on many horizons.

From an online editor: “I try to help quickly move our operation toward a better understanding of audience needs, and a workflow that is multimedia centric. I do this with the realization that we’re asking a shrinking staff to do more every day. The key is in identifying those areas where we can pull back and relax standards or output, and those areas where we must press harder to gain traction.”

Do these newsrooms, taken collectively, sound fairly typical? Please reflect on your challenges, experiments and solutions in the comments.

(Note: I will not be quoting specific conference participants by name or by the name of their news organization without their permission. It’s a tradeoff. We want to make as much information from the conference available as possible. At the same time, we do not want participants to feel inhibited in the discussions. All expert presentations and comments will be attributed.)

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ABOUT THIS BLOG

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

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