5 tips for print newsrooms shifting to online focus

The road to the digital future may have backups, but it's a trip you need to make.

The road to the digital future may have backups, but it’s a trip you need to make.

If the announcements from Digital First Media and the San Francisco Chronicle are any indication, the rest of America’s newspapers are waking up to the reality that Advance Digital figured out a few years ago: Future success in news depends on adapting to online, and that means cutting loose from the print mindset.

Steve Buttry, the Digital Transformation Editor for DFM, is blogging about his company’s transition. His latest post detailing how a digital newsroom works jibes with what Advance is doing in its newsrooms, so I won’t explain all that again. But having been at the center of The Plain Dealer’s transformation over the last several years, I do have some advice about what to watch out for. Let’s start with these five tips:

1. You must have buy-in from the top down.

Any training you do can be sabotaged by an obstructive layer of management. From assigning editors all the way up to the publisher, everyone in management must be on board. That’s everyone. Just one or two assistant city editors who refuse to adapt can derail efforts. Managers can be a problem even if they don’t actively block their staff from putting training into practice. Simply talking smack about the changes will hurt. It gives a backbone to those reporters who don’t want to change anyway, and it saps the confidence of those who are trying to.

2. You must have participation from the top down.

Prioritizing digital over print requires changes for everyone in the newsroom. If your top editor is still paying more attention to what’s on the front page than what’s on the homepage, that will filter down. If your top editors avoid learning how to use your online tools, they won’t understand what the staff’s dealing with. If your top editors don’t use those tools to add content to the site, they’re clinging to outmoded roles.

3. Build communication into your model.

Working with wire copy always came with certain disadvantages: Being unable to get editing questions answered in time; not being able to get stories on the topics your readers needed; scrambling for copy when the wires were slow but the pages still needed to be filled. The digital-first model can be like converting your local coverage into a wire service: Print curators (the Advance Digital title for those who pick the stories) are at the mercy of what shows up on the website. In order for this to work, you need a lot of coordination.

Reporters, cut loose from print deadlines, may get even sloppier about letting everyone know what they’re working on. Stories written piecemeal on the site may turn out, when assembled by the curator, to have gaping holes. Decisions made about adding or dropping regular features may not be passed on to the curators.

The more communication, the better. Don’t erect walls so high between print and online that the two staffs can’t talk to each other. Emphasize the need to provide plenty of notice about what’s coming and what’s been updated.

4. Tackle the editing question early.

It may surprise editors who are used to nothing but complaints from reporters about editing changes, but those same reporters will be most freaked out by changes that mean their work shows up online with less oversight or none at all. With good reason; the disintermediation of journalism exposes their every flaw, from frequent typos to difficulty organizing their thoughts.

Yet maintaining the print system of multiple layers of editing can’t be done, either. (Not that cost-cutting newsroom managers need much convincing of that.) Part of being focused online is getting news out as quickly as possible.

You’ll want to consider establishing different procedures for different types of stories — giving long features a thorough vetting before they go up, while rushing short breaking news online immediately. Talk about how to insure that managers are aware of what’s going onto the site and some editor is looking over each post, at least after the fact, to ensure that reporters aren’t going crazy. Establish a procedure to identify the weaknesses of each reporter and deal with them through individual or group training. Create guidelines for correcting errors and remind the staff of them regularly.

5. Don’t exclude photographers and artists.

If your newsroom is like many others, photographers and artists are mostly treated as support staff — they illustrate the stories that the “real” journalists conceive. In the fast pace of online journalism, that often means they get left behind. If a story posts at 10 a.m., the photo assignment is made after that, and the photos don’t show up online attached to the original post until 3 p.m., those pictures disappear. The readers have moved on to fresher news.

One solution is to use photos and graphics to extend the life of stories, posting them as fresh items. But that’s not enough. Part of moving to a digital-first model should be giving more responsibility to the journalists on the street to direct themselves. When the emphasis is on speed, the delay involved in waiting for an editor to get an idea and then assign it is too long. What’s true for reporters should be true for photographers and artists. Give them some freedom to assign themselves to stories. Push them to look for gaps in your coverage. At the same time, get them and your reporters to think of themselves more as partners. The stories that beat reporters produce shouldn’t be surprises to the photo and art staff; the same is true in reverse.

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  1. By JB Kroll

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