Tuesday, 30 November 2010

The modern newsroom

Apologies if this is a little disjointed, I'm writing the majority of this on a coach with very sporadic internet connection:

Hat tip to Mountainrunner for this fascinating post at the Knight Digital Media Centre entitled Three signs your newsroom is not ready to cross the digital divide. Here are the three signs, along with their respective fixes:
1. The staff still reports to an assignment desk that is focused on print and/or is organized in departments that correspond to the sections of a newspaper. This inevitably means that newsgathering for print gets more time than the news organization can afford and print production demands drive the daily reporting and editing assembly line. The fix: Newsgathering staff reports to the online assignment desk. Print becomes a production team that draws heavily on the online report for content at the end of the day.

2. News meetings focus on top news for the next day’s paper and meeting times reflect print. If your frontline editors are focused on daily meetings that happen in the middle of the morning and late afternoon, you’ve got a big problem. If you’re spending more than one-fifth of the meeting time talking about the next day’s newspaper, you’ve got an even bigger problem. The fix: Meetings run by online editors at times that reflect digital publication timetables (like when to serve peak traffic) and focus primarily on online content, traffic and engagement metrics.

3. The top newsroom executives - say the Editor and Managing Editor(s) - are all print veterans who look at online from the outside. The fix: Either the top newsroom executive or the Number 2 has been steeped heavily in online - both the practical and the strategic - for at least five years, if not 10. That’s a tall order. But if you think an editor or managing editor has time for much of a learning curve about digital, that time is gone.
I always like it when a piece I read summarises a set of points that have been on my mind better than I've been able to personally. I've got to the strange point in my life where people occasionally ask me for career advice and one of the careers I've taken pains to discourage them from is journalism, not because I think journalism is a bad thing, but because I think anyone going into the field is going to spend the next decade waiting for the industry to figure out what the heck it is doing.

Here is, in my opinion, the most important line of the piece:
If you think an editor or managing editor has time for much of a learning curve about digital, that time is gone.
Therein lies the key problem for newspapers in particular. The key people live and breathe print. Even the Guardian, which has done very well at addressing the new technology and incorporating it into their brand, has not gone as far as purely online organisations like The Huffington Post, in creating a sense of community around their reporting.

The economics of paywalls are still in the air, although it seems pretty clear that the Murdoch empire is really struggling to put a brave face on their attempts to create exclusivity. Fundamentally it seems unlikely that The Times experiment has been a success, which is to the benefit of pretty much every other paper, since it saves them trying it out themselves.

There is a great internet meme which fits the mindset which seems to have pervaded most old media, derived from a South Park episode parodying capitalism. In this episode gnomes steal underpants and devise a foolproof plan to turn the stolen garments into profit. They summarise it on this slide:

Some news outlets seem to have adopted a similar strategy summed up thusly:

1) Produce interesting content
2) Charge more than competitors for a product which isnt qualitatively better
3) ????

Right now the leading amalgamation of new and old media, The Huffington Post, is doing its level best to translate its 20+ million monthly visitors (of which I've very much one) into profit and even they can't yet say if its worked.

We're in an interesting position where bloggers are the ones generating massive audiences, but journalists are the ones with the credibility, where Guido Fawkes breaks stories that the main papers can't get ahold of, and where Wikileaks gets to decide what some of the world's biggest papers are going to talk about.

Its a funny old world.


  1. To be fair to the newsrooms, newspapers ARE still printed on paper so the staff will always have to work around these deadlines to some extent.

    I think in that vein the concept of a News Corp digital daily newspaper is an interesting one. With the barriers to publication so low for digital content, a 'digital' newspaper being published on a fixed, regular basis rather than constantly updated like a news website seems bizarre.

    In this case I imagine it's an interesting mix of fixed-mindedness and a result of News Corp not wanting their latest venture to scoop their other papers. If someone does get around to launching a truly digital-native paper it will be interesting to see its impact on the market, but then why would you when news websites already exist?

  2. An entirely fair point, but the trend is towards more digital environment and I think most of the sensible papers have realised that dead tree press is not going to be the future.

    The idea of a daily digital should be interesting, but it seems like a regressive move, its essentially saying that "We've always done it this way, but everyone wants digital distribution, whats the absolute bare minimum we can change?"

    Ultimately, if I want news, I've got 50 blogs on my current list, 5 of the 6 main papers websites are free, if something is more inconvenient than breathing, I'm not going to do it. I want it convenient, free, and now.