Why today’s newsrooms need ‘digital people,’ and how to identify them

News room of the New York Times newspaper Right foreground, city editor. Two assistants, left foreground. City copy desk in middle ground, with foreign desk, to right; telegraph desk to left. Make-up desk in center back with spiral staircase leading to composing room. Copy readers go up there to check proofs. (Photo by Marjory Collins) http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2012647143/

News room of the New York Times newspaper Right foreground, city editor. Two assistants, left foreground. City copy desk in middle ground, with foreign desk, to right; telegraph desk to left. Make-up desk in center back with spiral staircase leading to composing room. Copy readers go up there to check proofs. (Photo by Marjory Collins) http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2012647143/

Steve Buttry, digital transformation editor for Digital First Media, challenged journalists recently to tell him why they should be hired as newsroom leaders. Been there, done that, ready for a different set of frustrations. But some of the questions he raised are worth answering, anyway.

Our CEO, John Paton, says we need to “put the digital people in charge.” Tell me why you’re a digital person. If you started out a print person (as I did), tell me about your journey to becoming a digital person: how far you’ve come, how far you still need to go and where you’re headed next.

A few years ago, I put it a slightly different way to the bosses at my paper: They needed some “digital natives” in top positions. Same idea, I think. Being digitally native, I said then, didn’t mean someone who had only worked online, or someone who had grown up using social media. Rather, I meant people who not only could use digital tools but did; and people who were ready to break out of old print-newsroom concepts of what being a leader meant.

At The Plain Dealer, like all the other Advance Digital cities, we by then used the blogging platform Movable Type for all our online content. Yet most of the senior editors had spent very little time, if any, using that software. Editors don’t need to be experts in their CMSes, but they should be familiar with them. If you’re not using the tools your reporters are, you can’t understand their complaints about inadequacies. You can’t fully appreciate their accomplishments.

More important than mere technical familiarity, the editors weren’t operating in ways that online journalism demands.

For one thing, online journalism should include engagement. This has to go beyond writing an editor’s column (and we didn’t even have that). Digitally native editors will respond to readers in the comments. They will take part in Q&As of whatever format, online or in person. They will find ways to reach out to the community beyond the bigwigs they meet at charity galas or in corporate boardrooms.

For another, in online journalism, there should be no such thing as a purely executive job. One of the keys to the success of a website is content. Everyone in the newsroom should be providing it. Writing regularly for online, even if it’s a blog about a personal hobby, is also a good way to keep abreast of how the site works and what’s possible. And it goes beyond writing. I visited AnnArbor.com in its early days. It was a transformative experience to hear that all the editors took turns moderating the site’s comments. What better way to understand that job? And what better way to demonstrate that everyone would share the load? I have little respect for those who figure that one of the advantages of moving up the ladder of leadership is no longer having to do the small, often onerous tasks that have to be done.

Digitally native editors would also need to recognize how being online disrupts the notion that things aren’t news unless and until we decide they are. We need to respond to what other media are reporting, even if that’s to say it isn’t true. We need to respond — with caution — to online rumors. Yes, we should only post what we know to be true. But if users are to realize the full value of that, we have to be out there when they’re reading the rumors. Otherwise, we’re like those people who devote time these days to figuring out whether James Garfield was killed by the bullet or by the poking and prodding of his doctors. Either way, they’re not going to help him now, are they?

Along the same lines, digitally native editors will monitor what people are saying about their newsrooms online. True, online comments, tweets and such aren’t necessarily representative of the true range of opinion. But those remarks, however nasty, are part of the public environment now, and part of the newsroom’s Permanent Record on Google. If editors aren’t defending their newsrooms, who will?

Like Buttry, I started out as a print guy. True, I always had a digital side — a computer science minor in college, some website design on the side before my paper’s content was even online, and so on. But I became a digital native by going native — at first, providing headlines from our print stories for an evening post on the website. Then creating podcasts. Posting stories myself. Eventually, deciding which of our stories would be featured on the homepage of the site, then training the whole newsroom to use Movable Type.

And that sums up how anyone becomes a digital native: You have to do it. It’s not enough to deal with strategy. You have to have practiced what you preach. Remember, for most of the current generation of leaders, at least at larger papers, they went to J school when online either didn’t exist or was a sideshow. All of their experience is probably inside print-oriented newsrooms. Even in modern newsrooms, their CMSes may isolate the newsroom from the site. As a result, they think that everything they learned about print journalism — what’s right, what’s wrong, what editors should do — that all of that is about journalism itself. They can’t figure out how to separate the real journalism values from the ones tied only to print (let alone, those “values” that are just the accretion of tradition).

You want to know what makes me a digital person? I’ve argued with editors who wanted to pull a post off the site and pretend it never existed, instead of replacing it with an explanation. I’ve banged my head against my desk because in 2013 I was still having to tell people “yes, really, we are fine with posting links to outside sites.” I’ve stayed up until 2 a.m. battling commenters who have figured out that if they use obscene phrases for their display names, they can “like” other people’s comments and get their filth on the site despite our filters. Also, I’ve sat in my PJs swiftly pulling and posting stories from our digital archive and writing an on-the-fly account of 10 years of captivity. I’ve indulged myself with a post suggesting a sartorial makeover for some sports celebs and politicians. I’ve tried to provide evidence that our newsroom was not wholly in the hands of undigital people.

Read the second part of this series: The evanescence of digital tools.

Part three: The exact moment I became a leader.

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