How to get past the print-first mindset

(Original diagram from Alan Hoofring for National Cancer Institute.)

(Original diagram from Alan Hoofring for National Cancer Institute.)

Well, there goes one “grass is always greener” belief.

Newsrooms that want to adapt to digital ways can find that it’s hard to get their journalists to think about online until it’s almost too late — the stories are almost done, the photos have been taken, and then — oh, I guess we should talk about what we’ll do with this online. I had consoled myself with the thought that this was mostly due to the fairly lopsided bell curve of ages in the newsrooms I’m familiar with. The kids today, they’ll all think digital first, right?

Maybe not. After my recent series about newsroom leadership, I heard from Marie Villa, media advisor for the student newspaper at St. John Fisher College in New York:

I just want some advice on how I can get the students to think digital first. You’d think with as much technology as they use, it would come easy for them. But it doesn’t.

I came up with three key approaches, based on what seemed to work with my newsroom.

1. Make it unavoidable. As much as possible, avoid separating the staff into those with online jobs and everyone else. Where you have a social media editor or a videographer, don’t let them turn into a servant class, sheltering the “real” journalists from having to think about online.

Instead, they should devote a lot of their time to coaching the rest of the staff. Give a reporter a promo from your social media editor and she tweets for a day; teach her to use Hootsuite effectively and she tweets for life.

And anyone with an online job title should be originating content, not just reacting to what others do. (The good news is that Marie reports she’s already working along these lines.)

2. Keep it simple. There’s nothing that will discourage people more than having them spend hours and hours learning some tool, going through the agony of mistakes and inefficiencies, and then see their final product and realize it still isn’t as good as the best. The goal for digital-first journalists should be competency at many skills, with excellence in the ones they’re best at.

For example, you may have a videographer who’s great, who can whip up a three-minute video in Final Cut Pro with a hundred different clips. But that’s not what you need or want with most stories. Reporters don’t need video cameras; smartphones will suffice. They don’t need editing software if you teach them to edit with the record button. Cover the basics, like holding the phone in the correct orientation and getting close to the subject to fill the frame and improve the video. Meanwhile, that videographer doesn’t have to be able to write a profile like Lane DeGregory, just to tell a story with the words spelled correctly and the facts straight.

In a similar vein, don’t keep chasing after new digital tools. Find a few that play nice with your site and build proficiency with them.

3. Focus on the story, not the tools. If your staff is thinking print first, that probably means they think of “the story” and “their article” as synonymous; everything else — photos, videos, graphics, whatever — as bling. That encourages them to only think of the extras at the end. It encourages them to consider the people who provide those extras as their valets. And it often ends up with the “digital stuff” duplicating parts of the article.

Instead, steer discussions toward what the elements of the story are, and then consider which tools would be best to tell each element. This not only helps push your print-first people out of their ruts, it can also keep the online staff from seeing things just through their own lenses as well.

I found a video on the Fisher paper’s site about a professor who was going to Hawaii to take part in a Mars simulation. The video consisted of the prof essentially talking the story — the five W’s. Video of her talking in the paper’s office were spliced between uncaptioned still photos, apparently handouts, of people working on the project. Here’s how the discussion about this could have gone:

  • What’s she doing? When’s she going? How was she selected? These are basic questions. I just want those facts as efficiently as possible.
  • Why does she want to do this? What does she think she, in particular, can contribute? Did she/does she want to be an astronaut? Has she tried? Those are questions that can generate responses with some emotion in them. I’d like to hear and see her answers.
  • Where is she going? How is the simulator laid out? I’d like to locate this. Can you see the facility in a Google satellite view? Are there schematics of the facility?
  • Overall, what does the simulation hope to accomplish? Are there specific mission concerns they’re trying to find answers to? Can you give me the highlights — the top 5 problems in planning a mission to Mars, and how the simulation will help?
  • Oh, there are handout photos of the project? Which ones tell the most about what it will look like?

You can probably see where this is heading. We’ll have a short story, or just an FAQ, with the basics. A video focused on one or two solid answers from the prof about her motives. A map. Mayble a grid of problems, experiments and potential solutions. And a short slideshow with rich captions.

There’s no duplication between elements; all of them work together to build the story. I’d guess that the total time to produce this would be about the same as it took to research, shoot and edit the one video. And it would be a much richer experience.

The key is to get away from “we’re writing an article” or “we’re shooting a video” and move toward “we have a story to tell. How do we do that?” If you can get the conversation headed in that direction, online naturally becomes an early part of the conversation, because there are so many more ways to tell a story online.

Advice like this comes on the backs of a lot of mistakes. At one point, I drew up a lovely checklist of potential online tools, along with very brief explanations of how each might be used and what kind of stories it would work with best:

Yeah, that didn’t work, nor did variations on it or simply just adding a few items like “video” to the list underneath each entry in our story budgets (photo, map, sidebar, etc.)  that was supposed to help designers know what was coming. Among other things, this reinforced the idea that such elements were things to be tacked on to real deal, the article.

What’s worked, or failed, in your newsroom? How have you gotten reporters and editors out of the print-first mindset?

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