The Plain Dealer’s big changes, explained

johnkrolldigital-ccom-cover-07Today, Cleveland becomes the latest city to see the result of Advance Digital’s strategy. Many of the headlines about that will, I expect, focus on the number of people who are no longer working for The Plain Dealer. I’m one of them. But this is a man bites dog story: I’m leaving, but I like Advance Digital’s plans. Indeed, I spent the last several years doing everything I could to persuade my colleagues that this change was necessary and inevitable, and to prepare them for it.

I chose to leave because the paper’s decision to cut jobs gave me a chance to try to reinvent myself and start a new career. As Online Editor until last week, though, I kept working at explaining to the staff what was happening and why.

What follows is adapted from a newsroom newsletter I sent out in mid-July. I’ve been told by someone who should know that it’s an accurate summing-up of what’s happening, why, and what it means to Advance’s journalists.

What doesn’t change?

We are still journalists. We will retain the core of what it has meant to be Cleveland’s main news source: We value accuracy over speed. We have a largely local focus.

We are not machines. The specifics of how things will work depend on the people implementing them, from top to bottom.

What does change?

Just about everything else. Here’s an example:

Up to now, you have been print journalists, gradually adding online elements. Our news meeting times, our deadlines (indeed, the very existence of deadlines), our decisions about how stories are structured, all of those and more have been based on what works for print. We write “Sunday stories,” because Sunday is the biggest circulation day. Those stories are finished most often on Fridays, because that gets them done in time to be placed in the Sunday paper. We select one photo for a story because that’s all we’ll have room for in print.

Rather abruptly, you’ll all become digital journalists. You and your supervisors will focus on the online readers.

Online, the deadline is always “now.” In general, stories post when they are finished, not on an arbitrary schedule.

Online, you don’t have to always wrap up your reporting in a box labeled “18-inch story with nut graf.” Sometimes, that’s the best way to deliver your message, or a necessary part of a package of posts. But not always. (What if they want that neatly labeled box for the print edition? Repeat after me: That’s not your concern.)

Online, Sunday is slow for most kinds of stories. Our highest readership is Monday through Friday, roughly 8 to 4.

Online, multiple photos in a gallery draw more reader interest than a single photo.

Online, time on the home page = big type and lots of column inches in print. By putting up several posts rather than just one long one, and by spreading those posts out over time, you get the most exposure to the most readers.

Online, being a journalist includes having a conversation. A big change to swallow in a newsroom that had conniptions when we first put reporter emails and phone numbers at the bottom of stories. But it is part of a necessary model for our kind of site, for the way online readers react today.

How long will it take before all this settles down?

Never. Does never work for you?

We have to get used to working in an environment where things keep changing. And that means everything:

• Advance has steadily rolled out improvements to its site and the software that underlies it. This will continue. It won’t be like the system we used to produce the print newspapers, which had remained mostly unchanged since young Tom Edison installed it lo those many years ago.

• Tips about search engine optimization and social media that we taught six months ago have already begun to change, and they’ll keep changing. Whenever Google redoes the way it ranks stories, we’ll need to revisit things we do specifically to target searches. With the numbers from Parse.ly, we’ll be able to really tell what works and doesn’t in grabbing reader interest. As each Advance city experiments with new approaches, we’ll learn more — from the successes and the failures.

• A year ago, our “mobile” audience was minimal. Before long, it will account for the majority of page views. As quickly as we try to update the site and our mobile apps, we can’t keep up, so we’re jerry-rigging solutions that will stay in place only until a real fix arrives. So far, these are all based on leading the readers from whatever platform to the same content. That may not always be true.

• The changes aren’t just about technology. Until now, designing a beat structure was a matter of old habit and individual whim. Readership surveys were, at best, a groping at broad answers. Now, we can see very specifically what online readers actually read. One would expect that to lead to a rethinking. But we are new at using real data to inform such decisions. We’ll make mistakes, and fix them. We’ll find out that the audience is changing, and adapt.

Are we ready for this?

The change will be jarring. And since even things as simple as where you sit won’t be settled immediately, it’s likely many of you will feel unsettled for some time to come. You will be asked to do things differently, often very differently, than you have up to now. You will find it hard to separate the things you did just because you happened to be working for a daily newspaper from the things you did because you are a journalist. And some things will go wrong.

What I know some of you took away from the classes we offered recently, though, is that this change of focus from print to online also offers reasons for hope. If you want to tell stories, you are now free to tell them in whatever format works best. If you want to write important stories, you now have a way to figure out whether they’re reaching readers. If you have ever felt that you could do a better job of covering your beat — or some other beat, even one that doesn’t now exist — you have a window of opportunity to try out your ideas.

I have seen what other Advance cities have been doing. More than that, I’ve been examining what many other news organizations are doing online. I know you can do this.

I won’t defend every particular of the way Advance’s strategy has been implemented. And out of respect for my many talented colleagues still working in Cleveland, I won’t critique the specifics of what’s happening here. (I’m sure they won’t lack for people eager to till that gap.) But the decision to leave was not an easy one. There are a lot of exciting possibilities in what Advance is trying.

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