Category Archives: Real Live Changing Newsrooms

Newsroom Innovation Leaders: The Sports Department

 

Groves presenting research at AEJMC in Denver

 

 

This post is co-authored with Dr. Jonathan Groves, an assistant professor of journalism at Drury University. Both of us have spent several months in newspaper newsrooms, interviewing journalists and observing changes in processes and routines.

Nothing threatens innovation like tradition.

And no one bucks tradition like the sports department.

In the newspapers we’ve studied, the sports department is typically the home of the Web innovators, the place where the podcasts are being created and the Tweets are flowing furiously.

This pocket of innovation makes sense. Business researchers have regularly found that innovation and risk-taking occurs in the separate, autonomous divisions — think GM’s Saturn division in its early years — and at most news organizations, the sports departments are separate beasts, often working different schedules and feeling relatively less shackled by tradition.

A sports staffer at the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel told Brown: “Sports is in the lead in terms of online…Every night in sports is election night. We are used to that kind of workload. We are used to doing it late and doing it quick,” he said, noting that the immediacy and increased metabolism required to file not only stories but also blog posts, live game updates and Tweets comes a little more naturally to his department than the rest of the newsroom.

At the Journal Sentinel, Packer Insider, which charges avid fans a subscription fee for access to additional in-depth content not available on the main site, is one of the few examples around of a successful paid-content site, and according to the staffer, its successful launch in 2001 really helped “plant the bug” that sports could lead the way online.

At one newspaper Groves studied, the sports department had been more innovative than the rest of the newsroom about reaching out to the Web audience in providing “good enough” content. Inspired by a writing seminar, reporters soon began producing podcasts using a $40 digital recorder purchased by the sports editor. Despite the low fidelity, the first episode had about 1,000 listens, and it soon became one of the most popular items on the website.

It’s the type of “good enough” content desired by the audience. Instead of obsessing about the fidelity of the audio, the reporters focused on the content and delivered their expertise in the format desired by the audience.

A glance at the prolific comments on any sports story or the response beat reporters like the Journal Sentinel’s Greg Bedard get on Twitter shows that the sports department has also taken a strong lead in developing the vaunted community engagement news organizations desire online to increase credibility and keep readers coming back. Certainly sports staffers also have an advantage: By definition, their readers are committed fans. But their willingness to, in many cases, engage those fans in ways other beat reporters have not has really helped develop these online communities.

The challenge is spreading that learning to other parts of the organization. The sports departments developed new routines and figured out how to develop Web content in addition to stories for the print edition. But the separation that made the innovation possible also prevented that learning from spreading to the rest of the organization.

This post naturally only represents a small slice of our research, but we’d be happy to discuss further in the comments.

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Unharnessed from daily print routine, can you build a more relevant site?

Christian Science Monitor Editor John Yemma speaks to AEJMC attendees

Christian Science Monitor Editor John Yemma speaks to AEJMC attendees

Christian Science Monitor editor John Yemma said that’s been the case at his paper since its print publication cycle was reduced from daily to weekly in March of this year. (Apologies for crappy iPhone photo.)

Speaking to journalism professors at the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication conference in Boston two weeks ago, Yemma said that the paper’s Web site was seeing 25 percent more traffic than a year ago.

Academic research on journalism has long shown that routines – the processes surrounding the production of the proverbial daily miracle on your doorstep each morning – have a profound impact on the kind of news produced.

The need to get a predictable flow of news on deadline helps explain, for example, the preponderance of official or institutional sources in the news despite most journalist’s espoused commitment to stay connected with “regular folks.” These sources are often easily accessible via consistent means (e.g. police reports) on deadline.

My own research has found that even in newsrooms committed to change, print routines get in the way of innovation and give people a sense they are struggling to serve two masters — but are largely necessary to maintain as long as the paper comes out each morning.

Yemma said that instead of spending each day focused primarily on moving along what the editors believe are the best stories to completion, the Monitor can now be more nimble and flexible, breaking short items of news and being attentive to the kinds of topics that are currently getting a lot of buzz on the Web.

Often, these tend to be stories more focused on conflict or controversy, he added, and sometimes some of the editing process occurs post-publication.

In the meantime, the weekly print edition gives staff more time to develop on weighty, in-depth stories.

Bill Mitchell of Poynter also wrote about Yemma’s talk. Read it here.

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The Future, it’s in the Data.

Here’s a post I meant to publish earlier this summer before life got crazy…I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – even a simple, non-traditional wedding takes more time than you’d think to pull off!

Earlier this summer, I read one of the more provocative and unique posts I’ve seen in awhile about the future of journalism in the blog Xark.  It sets out a vision for for how reporters could begin, through their normal day-to-day work, to build detailed databases full of information from their stories – a rich trove that could be mined for future stories to add context and depth, to discover new connections and relationships that lead to great enterprise, and for myriad other to-be-imagined uses.

Instead of simply producing an important but highly perishable commodity, the news story, the reporter is also producing an easily searchable, analyzable, and lasting resource full of information about the community and its institutions and leaders.

In one of our many conversations about journalism that used to be over beer and now, sadly, is more often over email, my friend and fellow journalism professor/Mizzou PhD (almost) Jonathan Groves made an interesting point   – if the future of journalism is about data, then why are so many news organizations laying off their skilled librarians?

He directed me to the manager of the Christian Science Monitor’s library and information center’s Leigh Montgomery, who makes the following point:

Librarians are precisely who have been leading in managing information and knowledge in the organization, providing technology training and collaborative tools ­ and adding value and context to information to make it accurate, distinctive and unique. Librarians are already doing what the new, leaner, next workforce will have to do more of:  inherently sharing their vast knowledge to help their colleagues, improve the product and grow the business.”

“We know this.  And we know it is like shouting into a hurricane.”

What astounds me is that many news organizations, beyond the publication date, are not as attentive as they could be to the most valuable thing they have:  their content.  There has been such a fixation on a pay wall or the traditional models of subscribers & advertising or getting as much Google juice as possible that no one seems to be thinking about the many ways this content will live on in other markets.”

“In all the ink and pixels spilled over the future of journalism I have not heard one mention of this.  And whether you have been in business for a century or part of a new startup, that information is valuable, and it needs structure ­ keywording & taxonomy added to it so it can be accessed, and repurposed. All this is then repackaged and sold and accessed by students, researchers, professionals, in databases or on other platforms where the user depends on relevant, fact-checked, objective content.”

Brilliantly said, Leigh, and I think this is something news organizations need to start thinking a lot harder about.

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Serious, Long-Form Multimedia Journalism that WORKS

Since it’s so rare to find good journalism-related news these days, I thought I would report one of the positive  things I learned from the College Media Advisers conference last week in New York City.

One of the keynote addresses at this conference, attended by journalism students and their professors/adivsors, was by Brian Storm of MediaStorm, who was also incidentally the speaker at my recent Mizzou PhD graduation. Storm is a funny, irreverent, and new media savvy guy, and his small multimedia production studio produces freelance work for the likes of The Washington Post and National Geographic.

If you’ve never checked out the MediaStorm Web site, I would strongly urge you to do so.  Breathtaking photography and exquisite multimedia storytelling on the extremely important issues, such as the legacy of  Rwandan genocide, that mainstream news orgs are increasingly short on budget to produce:


Their storytelling philosophy, Storm said, is to let the subjects speak in their own words. They use on-screen text to connect the dots and drive the narrative, but the audio is in their sources’ own words.  They combine stills and video to great effect and always incorporate some kind of surprise for the audience.

Great and all, right? But there’s two exciting take home messages for other news organizations that had me frantically taking notes on my iPhone during the speech.

PEOPLE CARE. THEY WATCH. Get this. I’m not making this up: They have a 65 PERCENT completion rate for one of their 21 minute videos. Meaning that 65 percent of those that start watching stick with it to the end. Unbelievable.

I’m one of several folks who have wondered of late how much proverbial bang for the buck news organizations are getting when they produce beautiful, slick multimedia packages. I love those pieces, in theory, but in reality, I often see them and feel overwhelmed by the time commitment. I confess that I want to be able to skim text, not sit down and actually watch something or play around with various options and links. I feel guilty about this because I deeply appreciate good journalism in all its forms, but it’s true, and I wonder how many others have a similar issue.

Does Storm have an answer for this? How does MediaStorm succeed in getting and keeping those eyeballs?

1. Quality, quality, quality.  They are selective about the work they do, and they invest time and money in doing it RIGHT. No denying that’s a part of their success. But it’s not hard to convince journalists of THAT. Most I know are dreaming of being told that is true. Check out number two.

2. AUDIENCE EXPECTATIONS. If you plunk a big time-consuming multimedia project on a Web site where people have come to expect relatively short news and feature stories they can skim over fast on their coffee break at work, or where they come to find local breaking news in bite-size chunks, they will feel just as I do – appreciative of your effort but too overwhelmed to take the time to really explore what you have to offer.  Instead, think about creating a separate site for your very best work, where you can cultivate a different set of expections.

3. Put your content in front of people in as many ways and on as many platforms as possible. Make it easy for them to share it – via email, Facebook, Twitter, etc.  Get your techie folks to work hard on making sure the user experience is as seamless and non-frustrating as possible. For example, they include the code that allowed me to add that photo you see above in this post to this blog in a matter of seconds: Cut and paste.  Once you’ve created that separate home for your high-quality stuff, push it out to the online world in as many ways as possible.

Yes, MediaStorm is a small organization, so I’m not arguing that what works for them would necessarily work to sustain a large newsroom. But the fact that they are doing well financially while doing serious, long form journalism is a reason for hope.

In Storm’s view, if you stick to your values,  you’d be surprised by what just might happen. I  couldn’t agree more. Embrace the future and all new media forms, but stick to your guns when it comes to the enduring journalism values of accuracy, quality, good reporting, and engaging storytelling — and I predict a positive long-term future.

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Journalists and Social Media

Mary-Louise Schumacher, art and architecture critic at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and one of the smartest reporters using social media around, is conducting training sessions for leaders and staffers at the paper and has started a broader conversation among journalists on how to use social media intelligently to report, build community, and promote our work. Check out this post and link to the Seesmic conversation here.

My contribution to the discussion, for what it is worth, is above. You can easily see why my background is in print!!

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Newspaper Leaders: Stick It Out Or Step Down?

I’m in the final throes of wrestling my dissertation out of my head and onto the page, not to mention teaching, serving on various committees and all the other frantic doings of a new professor, but I couldn’t resist commenting on the question posed by David Westphal on who should lead the digital transformation in a piece he wrote in the resurrected Online Journalism Review.

Westphal is a senior fellow at USC Annenberg Journalism School’s Center on Communication Leadership and until recently the Washington bureau chief of McClatchy.  His piece came on the heels of the departure of Steven Smith as editor of the Spokane Spokesman-Review, a paper I admired for its robust and creative embrace of transparency.

Westphal wonders if editors deeply invested in print-centered culture and routines are the best people to lead their changing newsrooms, or if this task would be best given to younger folks who have less to lose.

My own research and the literature developed among scholars of organizational change doesn’t answer this question directly, but it offers some insight.

First and foremost, I should say that this literature warns against saying that any particular leader or staff member is “the problem.” All too often, systemic factors are at work and it may turn out that the sense that “if only we could get rid of THAT guy (or woman)” proves to be a red herring.  Individual personalities and leadership style of top editors are indeed important factors in organizational effectiveness, but this is something that has to be carefully evaluated on a case-by-case basis and can often be improved through executive coaching and the like.

Although editors have clearly read the writing on the wall and have the best of intentions in moving their newsrooms into the future, it is true that unconsciously they may resist the kinds of changes that undermine their authority and the skill set that took them to the top of their profession.  The Web’s need for immediacy tends to push decision-making authority down, and figuring out what goes on 1A – the most powerful job in the newsroom – is no longer as relevant as it once was.  This strikes at the very core of top editors’ professional competence. Not to mention that for better or worse, it is so easy to measure the response of readers to individual stories online that these metrics are increasingly driving the prominence of stories on newspaper Web sites.  There is still clearly a place for seasoned journalistic judgment in any media, but the hierarchical structure of the newsroom is no longer as effective as it once was.

For example, here’s a question – how many newsrooms that talk about being “Web first” really do put the Web first at the traditional morning and afternoon news meetings?  I think that many do – but what was the time gap between the time when top newsroom leaders started encouraging their staff to embrace the Web site and the time when they changed this most fundamental of newspaper rituals, which arguably is the one thing they have the most control over?  (Staff members can “work-around” other directives, but that news meeting is often still run by the editor or managing editor.) This is a big opportunity to set the tone for the entire staff, telegraphing what is important and what will be rewarded, and in many cases, I suspect it was missed for quite some time.  What else is being missed?

It may sound a little wishy-washy to talk about editors’ “unconscious” resistance to change, but the research shows that this can be a powerful thing because it does have such a profound effect on what they reward and what they pay attention to in the thousands of small interactions an editor has over the course of a day – much more impactful in the long run than sweeping pronoucements made at staff gatherings.

In my view, I’d prefer frankly to see most editors stick it out.  I think that those journalism values that Westphal references via a quote from former Plain Dealer editor Doug Clifton – “powerful, meaningful reporting, urgency, passion” are as important now as ever – we just have to figure out how to deliver them in a way that works better for new media.  However, I’d also like to see more senior leaders – obviously this is somewhat self-serving – bring in more researchers with knowledge of leadership and its impact on organizational change, as well as those studying audiences’ news needs online.  It’s time to learn a lesson from other businesses around the globe – we don’t have to figure this thing out all alone.  Sometimes research really IS practical.

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Ad Departments Can Help Us Save Journalism

When Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel wrote the first edition of Elements of Journalism in 2001, the Staples Center controversy at the Los Angeles Times was still quite fresh, and journalists around the country were perhaps feeling even more protective of the proverbial wall between the editorial and business sides of news organizations.

However, Kovach and Rosenstiel (my former bosses at the Committee of Concerned Journalists) argued that this controversy actually revealed the poverty of the wall metaphor in actual practice. Instead, they argued powerfully that isolation served nobody very well because we are all on the same side.

Great journalism from a credible source sells ads.  Ads make great journalism possible. Anything that might undermine the trust of readers and viewers hurts us both. So it goes.

My observations at metropolitan daily newspapers lead me to believe that we are poised right at the cusp of developing a more productive relationship between business and editorial departments, but workplace routines and traditions – especially those that are well-intentioned and rooted in core values, even if  they don’t ultimately serve those core values very well — are hard to break down.

Reporters and editors want to know – heck, are desperate to know — more about their online readers’ habits and desires.  Not so that they can pander to them or sell them widgets, but so they can create multimedia journalism that will prove relevant and serve their needs as democratic citizens.  In many cases, a wealth of information about readers just sits on another floor of the building where it is never shared.  This serves nobody very well.

I’m behind on my blogging, but I wanted to be sure to highlight what I thought was a particularly important recent post relevant to this subject on Online Journalism Blog, “10 ways that ad sales people can save journalism” (thanks to Amy Gahran and E-Media Tidbits for the link.) It’s a British blog, but the lessons certainly seem relevant to U.S. papers.

I’d also like to point out that I’m not sure how many people realize how much organizational change has been forced upon advertising departments — often when we think about media change we think about news folks now coping with 24-7 deadlines and the need to produce multimedia. But the changes faced by ad folks are possibly just as disruptive. Newspapers were so fabulously successful for so long that many ad sales people simply had to answer the phone and take orders, top advertising executives at a metro daily told me.

Small advertisers who are now a vital source of revenue on the Web used to have no chance at affording print ad space and therefore aren’t even thinking about advertising with the local daily. This requires business managers to completely retrain staffers to aggressively sell their porfolio and go out into the business community to develop new relationships, an entirely different skill set and perhaps more importantly, mindset than they’ve ever had before. Sweeping organizational change is difficult and most of all, often time-consuming — but certainly never more vital.

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It’s About the Conversation, Not the Technology

Ug…The blog hasn’t been as active this summer because as I previously noted, I’ve been busy with just a few things! Hope to gear it up again soon.

Newspapers are finally beginning to truly embrace change. They are creating structures and processes that allow them to break news online all day (here is one example of this at my hometown newspaper, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel; many other papers have taken a similar approach) and encouraging more staffers to develop multimedia skills.

Interestingly, however, I think that newspapers are still caught up in seeing the Web more as a technological innovation rather than a community innovation. In newsrooms, the Internet is seen primarily as a tool that can do neat/pretty things or can provide the news to readers instantly and on demand. Seeing it as a truly social medium that involves building a new relationship with readers is something that seems to be coming along more slowly, and more in lip service than in practice. Comments go unresponded to, if they are allowed at all. Special communities of expertise or interest are untapped. Email databases of possible sources for future stories are unmade.

I can understand why. Our culture is full of metaphors that equate computers with geeks and gadgets, it’s easy to get carried away with the whiz bang coolness of new technology. Heck, even I, a relative Luddite, have an iPhone.

But, as some of my smartest friends who study media audiences are learning through research, it’s the community part that may matter more to a viable future. The technology will keep changing, but fundamental human needs change much less quickly. The most fundamental innovation the Internet has driven is making news more of a conversation.

Obviously, I’m far from the first to say this, and indeed the journalism blogosphere is full of what I might call smug exhortations to newspapers to get with the program on this one. But I think it’s worth emphasizing this point anyway. Newspapers in particular are really missing an opportunity to make the Web work more to their strengths, which at some fundamental level have always been knowing the community and cultivating strong relationships with sources. And research shows that organizations that develop upon existing strengths when trying to adapt to environmental change do better than those that try to build whole new capacities.

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Things that make you go “hmm”: Raising prices and declines at small papers

Thought I would share a couple of things I’ve read out there on those darn Internets that have puzzled me lately.

First is Poynter’s Rick Edmonds calling for newspapers to substantially raise their prices, noting that US newspapers are much more of a bargain in the United States than in most places abroad, especially in an era in which we all plunk down a substantial chunk of change for gussied-up caffeination at the ‘Buck or similar. Apparently he found an international analyst that agreed with him. This runs counter to what almost everybody I talk to lately is saying, which is that the exact opposite is a much better idea — going free and therefore increasing your penetration and thus, of course, your value to advertisers.

If you ask a room full of college students if they would be more likely to read a paper if it is given to them in a convenient manner for free, the vast majority will raise their hands (although these are, of course, journalism students and obviously there is a response bias, e.g. wanting to look good in front of the teacher.) A fellow doc student, Karen Boyajy, is studying the impact of going free on the business model for her dissertation, and I can’t wait to read the results. Several papers including the Columbia Missourian and the Examiner in DC and other cities are experimenting with a free weekly edition delivered to everyone in town.

I’m no media economist, but I have to say that I’m not sure Edmond’s idea makes a whole lot of sense to me — it just seems like you’d have to raise prices pretty high to make up for your losses in classifieds and elsewhere — and there isn’t much value-added in the print edition of most papers that you can’t get online for free, at least not yet. Not to mention that some of your best customers are people like me who read newspapers avidly, are willing to pay for them — but would actually just PREFER to read them online because it’s easier.

Second, I’m trying to figure out what’s up with the bad news at small newspapers, which many of us were holding out hope would be keepers of the flame if all the metro dailies crashed and burned. After all, with everybody all abuzz about hyperlocal news, it seems obvious that small papers, which are somewhat hyperlocal by definition, would have a leg up. But Jennifer Saba of E&P did a story awhile back on how, surprisingly, small papers declined more than big ones in circulation recently. My friend and fellow doc student Jeremy Littau points out that the numbers don’t distinguish between small dailies and weeklies — many of us have heard that weeklies are thriving, at least relatively speaking. But none of us could quite figure out the explanation for this, unless it’s the bad economy or an erosion of quality at these papers, many of which have probably also undergone some cuts to staff or other resources.

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How Gung-ho Should Newspapers Be About Video?

This is a question that I have heard debated fiercely in newsrooms. On the one hand, as the largest news engines in any given metropolitan area, newspapers want to start giving people their news in any medium they want it — and given the success of YouTube, many people feel that involves video. Now that newspapers can post breaking news as it happens, suddenly they can compete with TV in ways once unimaginable, and given the state of local TV news in many areas, one might gather there is some opportunity there. Columnists and features departments could perhaps produce some entertaining, lighter content via video as well, it is sometimes suggested. Having missed the boat on many other online trends, from social media to classifieds, newspapers understandably don’t want to get left behind on this one.

On the other hand, many newspaper staffers resist video as something that shouldn’t be done “just because we can” and there is real concern about quality, given that print journalists aren’t exactly trained in this form of storytelling. One photographer told me that contrary to what many reporters and editors think, photographers can’t make the transition to moving pictures very easily. Yes, they may understand how to get a clear shot and how to use light, but most photographers think in still images, and actually aren’t as comfortable as many reporters are with the conventions of narrative that characterize video storytelling. Procuding video takes time, even as most newspapers are slashing staff, and folks say there is a steep learning curve.

I don’t have any answers to this dilemma. The Newspaper Association of America came out with a whole slew of resources today for newspapers interested in trying more video; I haven’t waded through all of it but it seems potentially useful to me. I think it makes perfect sense for reporters to carry (cheap, light) video cameras around for breaking news or capturing a serendipitous moment, and in these cases, quality is not a major issue. If I was an editor, I would encourage all of those interested to experiment with video because I think that newsrooms right now need to be fostering an atmosphere of risk-taking and trying new things. This doesn’t mean that quality doesn’t matter, but people have to crawl before they run.

I’m deeply sympathetic of those who argue that not everybody can or should do everything, but I think that at least for now, the Internet is pushing strongly for everyone being able to at least dabble in everything. That may settle out over time and we may see some greater re-specialization, but for now it might be best to embrace it.

For me personally, I’m much more verbal than visual and only rarely watch any online video of any kind; but my students and friends certainly watch a fair amount of it — although it tends to be more of the Pinky the Cat variety than hard news.

What do you think?

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