News Leadership 3.0

November 24, 2009

Online first? Four ways to show you mean it

Recent flare ups over the merger of The Washington Post’s print and online newsrooms leave out critical requirements for newsroom leaders who want their staffs to innovate online

I’ve been following a fascinating discussion about The Washington Post’s move to bring its well-regarded online news operation into the fold of the print newsroom. Since the announcement of the merger, talented top online managers have left the Post and this week came reports that a couple of award-winning multimedia journalists would be let go.

Mathew Ingram has a good roundup of the debate. He notes: “The recent cuts at the Washington Post (WPO)—as reported by Politico and Washington’s City Paper—have once again brought to the surface a culture clash that has been going on in mainstream newsrooms for most of the last decade, and one that shows no sign of ending any time soon.”

The online discussion tends to play out as a saga of good (new, online) vs. old (bad, print). The online folks, with some justification, usually say it’s better that online be separate lest it be co-opted by conservative print culture.

I’m not sure the structure of the newsroom(s) is as important as the leadership and how it demonstrates what it values. When I lead a newsroom training and change initiative sponsored by the Knight Foundation, we found that leadership communication was the most important factor in creating capacity for change. If top news executives really value online, they can do more to show it by:

1. Assigning all of the news gathering staff to report to an online editor with clout. The news gatherers might also fulfill assignments for the print newspaper, but their organizational allegiance would be to Web first.

2. Assuring that one of the top two newsroom executives comes out of online. The number 2 person, if not the top editor, would be an online expert and evangelist.  Sorry to have to say this, but most newsrooms are held back because their leaders - not matter how pro Web - come out of decades of print journalism. That’s the default.

3. Openly reward the online staff and print staff who make significant strides online. Even if pay raises aren’t possible, consistent praise and shows of approval will help.

4. Restructure the print production desk. Push down the number of people you need to produce the print newspaper until it hurts. More on that idea here.

How have you changed your newsroom or your attitude to promote online first? Please post tips and 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.

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