News Leadership 3.0

July 10, 2008

From Tampa, “audience editors”

A new, newsroom role puts
audience and agility first
What’s your model for change?

Following a new round of layoffs and reorganization at The Tampa Tribune, much discussion has focused on a blog post in which Tribune intern Jessica DaSilva described the layoff announcement and drew harsh criticism from other journalists (see comments in the same post) for a) admiring the way Tampa Executive Editor Janet Coats handled the layoffs and 2) being too young to have a valid opinion.

This response struck me as symptomatic of old newsroom culture: First, shoot the messenger, then deny there’s a problem or find someone (Coats and other newsroom executives) to blame for it. Happily, journalists also stepped forward to support DeSilva for caring and to support Coats for having a plan.

Indeed, Coats has a bold plan, and it just might work. The reorganization she and her staff are developing should get a serious look from any newspaper editor who is trying to cross the burning bridge to more stable times. You can read a long describing the changes here on Romenesko.

I want to focus on one aspect of the plan, the new job of “audience editors.” There apparently will be 5-6 of them in Tampa and they will operate just below the rank of managing editor in a newsroom that will produce print, online and broadcast reports. Here is how the memo describes the role:

“The Audience Editors are the advocates for the audience in daily and longer-term story choices and story development. Their charge is to make sure we are working on the right things to serve audience needs and wants. They also are responsible for ensuring that we are working on enough of the right things to create relevant, robust newspapers, newscasts and online content.
“ Audience advocacy. The AEs lead the newsroom in thinking about how best to serve the audience. The AEs have a deep knowledge of our audience research across all platforms, and they use that knowledge to guide them in setting priorities for story coverage. They educate and inform the rest of the newsroom about what works for the audience, and they track which stories are moving audience within the news cycle.
“ Quantity control. The AEs are responsible for ensuring that we have enough of the right kinds of stories in production to serve each platform during the news cycle. They can shift resources to focus on different stories, depending on news priorities. They can advance production on particular stories, or stockpile content if we are over-producing for a certain news cycle. They’ll work with the finishing groups to ensure there is a range of stories to be considered for each product.
“ Quality control. The AEs have the responsibility for identifying stories with high audience potential, reallocating resources around the newsroom to reflect those priorities and ensuring coordination among the work groups. If the AEs determine that resources are being devoted to stories with low impact, they can redirect work onto other topics with more potential. They can kill a story or elevate it.
“ Promoting interactivity. The AEs understand that the core of the news mission is to create stories readers can interact with. The AEs identify stories with high potential for interaction, be it through user comments, databases, the potential for user-generated content or by appealing to highly motivated niche audiences. The AEs work with the news circles and the finishing group to apply the best interactive strategies to the stories they have identified as having high audience interest.
“ Communication. The AEs will develop the best method of communicating the daily news priorities to the overall newsroom. They will build a communication system that is real time, focused not on meetings but on the evolution of the news priorities throughout the day.
“ Coordination. The AEs will look for gaps and overlaps among the content circles (reporting teams). They will work with the circle editors to set priorities, mediate coverage disputes and shift reporting resources appropriately. The AEs will communicate daily with the finishing group leaders to track development of each product for that news cycle and to reset coverage priorities accordingly.
“ In summary: The AEs enforce the need for production. They are empowered to shift resources among the work groups to make sure we have enough content for all three platforms. The AEs enforce quality. The AEs are the nerve center of the operation, setting daily goals, looking out for more long-term story possibilities and constantly shifting resources to match priorities.”

Two aspects of this plan hold particular promise for improving content and, perhaps, creating a more saavy, adaptive newsroom culture:
1. Audience focus: “The Audience Editors are the advocates for the audience in daily and longer-term story choices and story development.” Traditionally, the audience is not at the table when editors decide what to cover and who to cover it for different platforms. “What readers want” often is a proxy for what editors want. If these editors can effectively bring audience expertise to the discussion, maintain an independent perspective, and communicate in ways that build staff expertise—without being afraid to use their veto power —Tampa may significantly better its content across platforms.
2. Power to shift resources: The AEs are ...  constantly shifting resources to match priorities. In the traditional newsroom, shifting resources can take weeks, even months, and smart moves often die on the vine of turf politics. Tampa’s plan is likely to see many fits and starts as both Audience Editors and the newsroom as a whole learn what works. But this could be a formula for creating a more nimble newsroom.
How has your newsroom used structural changes to create better content and a more adaptive newsroom culture? 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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