News Leadership 3.0

December 16, 2008

Tampa’s audience editors

Teaching vs. telling: Tribune reorganization uses key questions to guide new jobs

When Janet Coats, the executive editor of The Tampa Tribune, announced plans to appoint “audience editors,” I was intrigued by the role as a potential way to put users and readers at the front end of the news process - where they belong. In essence, the audience editors are newsroom floor managers with a key improvement: They keep pace with platforms and how people use them, knowledge that informs communication with the staff and decisions about what the newsroom covers and how it covers it.

When Coats first described the audience editor plan last summer, I wrote that I especially liked the promising idea of formalizing an audience focus and the fact that the audience editors had authority to shift resources to back up that focus. (Note: While Tampa is aggressively merging separate print, broadcast and online newsrooms, Tribune officials have dismissed a recent rumor that the print newspaper was going to cease publication.)

As with all organizational departures, I wondered how Coats and other senior editors would determine how the jobs would work in a newsroom that produces content for broadcast, online and print and is working to join together separate newsrooms that used to produce for a single platform. As much as the jobs may hold interest for other newsrooms, I think the process of defining the jobs will be useful in thinking about how to implement newsroom change.

As the audience editors took up their jobs in November, Coats explained in an interview that the Tribune’s six editors—two from broadcast background, two from online, and two from print—had worked together to define the jobs. Instead of issuing detailed instructions, Coats handed the editors Tampa’s six goals for their new role, each with a series of questions to help them frame their discussions. Here is the full list of the audience editor goals and questions.

Examples of the goals and questions Tampa considered:

(GOAL:) Audience advocacy. The AEs (Audience Editors) lead the newsroom in thinking about how best to serve the audience. The AEs have a deep knowledge of our audience metrics and 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.

(QUESTIONS:) How will you educate yourselves about audience metrics? What tracking/reporting systems will you put in place to educate and guide the newsroom about audience on all platforms?


(GOAL:) Promoting interactivity. The AEs understand that the core of the news mission is to create content 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 content circles and the finishing group to apply the best interactive strategies to the stories they have identified as having high audience interest.

(QUESTIONS:) What systems will you use to identify stories with high potential for audience interaction? How will you recognize stories that are generating interaction and shift resources/focus? What methods will you use to build on successful instances of interaction, to create models that can be replicated?

Guided by questions like these, the new audience editors met over a period of a couple of weeks before settling into their jobs right after the November election.  Coats said changes already are apparent: “They’re teaching each other a lot. They’re incredible model for newsroom, for asking about what you don’t know and teaching your neighbor,” Coats said. “They’ve already done a lot to change sense of urgency. The room is more energized earlier in the day…. and we’re starting see a difference in the way reporters plan their work, a more deliberate, thoughtful approach because they know they’ve got to post first thing in the morning.”

This process illustrates the difference between teaching and telling. Most newsroom leaders are well schooled in the process of telling. Whether its directing troops on a breaking story or mediating newsroom turf wars, senior editors become well schooled in giving orders that quickly remove an obstacle. Sort of like snipping apart a tangle, rather than slowly teasing out the knots.

The lessons here are many for newsroom leaders who want to change newsroom culture and attitudes. Tampa offers a process that may work for other change intiatives in other newsrooms. The key is to build a mission and launch a process that allows key staff members—and eventually the rest of the newsroom—some space to learn and develop a game plan they own.

Has a question process worked for you in making newsroom change? Could it help you going foward? Please share your thoughts 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.

Get in touch with Michele at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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