News Leadership 3.0

December 18, 2008

What does ‘online first’ mean in your newsroom?

Chris O’Brien: Jobs and practices that reflect a truly online newsroom

Chris O’Brien is business columnist for the San Jose Mercury-News and is wrapping up The Next Newsroom Project. While working on that project, Chris frequently offered insightful comments about news organizations and how their practices and attitudes must change if they want to thrive online. So I’ve asked Chris to write an occasional guest post for this blog and I’m please to offer the first one today. Here’s Chris:

Thanks to Michele for inviting me to join the discussion here. I hope some of the lessons I’ve learned, and continue to learn, at The Next Newsroom Project will be valuable to this community.
In getting started here, I wanted to pick up on a thread that Michele has been talking about lately involving the relationship between print and online in the newsrooms. I couldn’t agree more with her sentiment that it’s time to “shove the print newspaper off center stage.” While I think print will have a long future, it needs to be one of many platforms, rather than the primary one. Digital is the future, and it’s well past time for newsrooms to be thinking online first.
But here’s the next question: What does being an online first newsroom actually mean? It seems that everyone now claims their newsroom is online first. In reality, for most newsrooms that means they post their content online first. Otherwise, it’s business as usual. The newsroom, the conversations, the planning, the jobs, and the culture are all still organized around a legacy designed to create the print edition of the paper.
Being online first requires far more change. If you’re wondering whether your newsroom is online first, ask yourself how you measure up against the following criteria:
Planning and Workflow: Are the morning budget meetings and planning decisions still being driven by the need to create centerpieces and fill this section or that section? Are your critiques still driven by hanging the morning paper on the wall and discussing story placement? If these are the central conversations that are driving newsroom planning, then you’re not online first.
Instead, the discussions about content creation should start with the subject and then explore whether to tell that with text, audio, video, or some data product. The critiques should be a continual process throughout the day of evaluating traffic, comments, and updates. There should be a team dedicated to taking all this content and turning it into a print version, but they shouldn’t be driving the process.

If someone asks when deadlines are, do you still say 5 p.m.? Time to turn that on its head. For most folks, their Web traffic peaks around 9 a.m. or so, when their community wanders into work, powers on their computers, and browse the news before getting on with their day. What they find on your Web site has to be more than the articles your staff filed the previous afternoon. To change that, there needs to be a big push early in the morning to get more folks in creating fresh stuff and then updating throughout the day. According this post from Shannon Bowen, an online journalist at the Wilmington Star in North Carolina, the newsroom there has adopted the mentality of an afternoon paper, requiring the bulk of the staff to be in early and file in the morning by 11 a.m. It’s a good start. But it needs to be even earlier to hit that traffic peak, which means getting more folks in even earlier.
Jobs: Are the type of jobs in the newsroom much different than they were 10 years ago? If you’re an online first newsroom, they should be. To optimize the online experience, it takes a whole different set of jobs. Get a community manager to moderate comments, solicit the best contributions from community members, and generate a lot of conversation. Get a multimedia editor who can really build the audio and video contributions from the whole staff. Get a couple of programmer journalists in the newsroom to build everything from news widgets to Flash presentations to data-rich products like this Campaign Tracker that The Washington Post created for the recent election season. These types of information products are great journalism and they fit the way people like to consume information online by allowing them to click around and discover things.
And remember that it’s not about getting folks to come to your Web site. You have to get your content out into other people’s networks. Get a network manager whose role is to promote content using social media tools like Twitter and Facebook, building relationships with bloggers, and in general thinking past the Web site and finding ways to get content into streams where the potential audience resides.
Linking: Are journalists able to create links in the stories they file? Does your content management system even allow reporters to create links? If not, it’s time to get a new content management system. And looking at this from the other end, can the audience link to your content? Are your archives free? This seems to be a harder change for many newsrooms, which in some cases have contracts with third parties to operate paid archives. Even worse, many news sites intentionally break their links every few days in order to drive folks to these paid archives. Which means that essentially they’re not letting other people link to their content. 
I’ll end with this thought: In truth, we all should be thinking about moving toward multiplatform newsrooms: print, radio, online, mobile. Wherever your community is, you need to be there. And be prepared to embrace new platforms that are bound to emerge over time.
But first things first. Let’s get the transition to online right, and then go from there. These are my criteria. What are your criteria for an online newsroom? And are there any newsrooms out there that folks believe have really, truly become online first?


You’ve inspired me to expand on this question with a blog post, here:

Thanks Michele.  I believe that is exactly what Steve Buttry is trying to do here, as we attempt to create the Complete Community Connection, along the lines of the Local Information Utility outlined by the American Press Institute.

We cannot create the comprehensive network of local information if we don’t start with comprehensive local blogs and wikis.  Sometimes a newspaper product manager will pull a particular item from that network to place in that particular packaged product for that slice of the audience that prefers newspapers.

You can track our progress at and

Welcome back!

At the Star-News in Wilmington, N.C., we’ve made many of the changes you are talking about because we agree that being online first does require a significant culture shift.

In January 2008, our newsroom shifted to an online-first process. But we did exactly what you said. Most schedules stayed the same, and the focus remained on the daily print edition. We just happened to be posting all of those stories on the Web site the night before ... so they were technically online first.

Just two weeks ago, though, the Star-News took a giant leap forward. The deadline for stories and photos to be turned into editors is 11 a.m. Then editors have until noon to submit the stories and photos to our universal desk, which posts the content on our Web site.

As part of this major shift, we’ve changed our planning meetings. We meet at 9 a.m. and shore up what’s coming for the Web site that day and when. There’s still some focus on the print edition, but the morning meeting is becoming more and more about planning our Web site. We’ve also created templates for 1A and 1B, and those pages are laid out essentially 24 hours earlier than before. For example, at the 4 p.m. planning meeting on Tuesday afternoons, we discuss what’s running in Thursday’s paper and choose a template. The pages get laid out Tuesday night. Of course, some changes have been required each day. But for the most part, it’s working. The 4 p.m. meeting also is a time where we plan our Web site content for early the next morning.

You reference a post by one of our reporters, Shannan Bowen. You say that 11 a.m. isn’t early enough. I agree. But we had to start somewhere. And what we’re finding already is that as a result of this new workflow, many stories are ready earlier than 11 a.m. One of our Web managers has a shift from 7 to 10 a.m. and her morning is now filled with posting local copy on our site. Before two weeks ago, her shift focused on “cleaning up” the leftovers from the day before and finding wire copy to freshen the site.

I also know that this process change has resulted in fresher news throughout the day. Before the change, most stories were posted between 6 and 8 p.m. Now, there’s a steady flow of new content throughout the day.

About the question of jobs: We have made some major changes in jobs in our newsroom. We have a reporter who begins her day at 7 a.m. And our Web site is staffed from 7 a.m. to 1 a.m. We’ve also created a video editing position and a newsroom database manager/systems analyst who’s main job is creating databases for our Web site.

Finally, as I said in the beginning of my post, we are just two weeks into this culture shift. If anyone’s doing something different or has any suggestions for us, please let me know. Also, if other newsrooms are thinking about this kind of change, feel free to contact us. We’d be happy to share more of the technical details about how we’re doing it and making it work.

Sherry Jones
Day Universal Desk Editor
Wilmington Star-News

Thanks all for your great comments. I hope you will keep us posted on the progress your organizations are making. Congrats on the changes you have made so far.

Insightful analysis. It’s a terrific articulation of the difficulty of changing newsroom culture.

The School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Kent State University has been working with its student media for two years trying to develop a converged newsroom and the multiplatform culture that goes with it. Here’s a wrap up of what we’ve done, why we did it, and how it’s been working:

why we did it, and how itís been working
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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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