January 18, 2005

Explode the Newsroom: Six Ways to Rebuild the System

After meeting last week in Atlanta with a group of smart, committed journalists who gathered to brainstorm about ways to rescue what Carol Nunnelly of NewsTrain calls the "prisoners of the newsroom" - assignment editors and other mid-level managers - I've come to believe the traditional newsroom structure is obsolete and cannot respond to the challenges of changing readership, new journalistic forms and professional stagnation that threaten the relevancy of newspapers.

Most newspaper journalists labor inside a collection of defensively non-collaborative content silos that are overseen by a rigid, top-down hierarchy of managers who may profess desire for change but - because they are products of the very system they hope to change - never learned the leadership, communication or strategic thinking skills necessary to move their newsrooms from Point A to Point B in any substantive or permanent way.

The result is that newsroom leaders are frustrated, working journalists are skeptical of new initiatives and middle managers, those tasked with the day-to-day implementation of change, are caught in a withering crossfire between their bosses, who expect them to be supervisors, coaches, budgeters, evaluators, punishers and editors, and their reporters, who want direction, empathy and protection from the higher-ups so they can go out and commit some journalism.

It's an impossible job. It is also one reflective of the messy clutter of contradictory thinking that is now accepted as management wisdom by most newsroom leaders. Each annual editorial initiative is piled atop the previous year's, resulting in a towering list of unrealized goals and accretive demands on middle managers to do everything right all the time - a classic recipe for risk adverse behavior.

Top editors bemoan incessantly the lackings of their mid-level managers, yet few acknowledge their own guilt in the creation and perpetuation of a system that puts the greatest stress on those who are least prepared, not to mention greatly under-compensated, to handle it.

The strain on the middle is increasing. As newspapers struggle to regain lost relevancy through new content initiatives, new forms of story-telling or new connections with their communities, much of the responsibility for converting these goals into realities falls on the shoulders of mid-level managers.

Change comes from the edges, but if the middle cannot hold - and it is breaking in America's newsrooms under the weight of misdirection and isolation - then stagnation is guaranteed.

It is time to explode the newsroom and remake it in ways that bring flexibility, creativity, awareness of audience and collaboration to the forefront. Philip Meyer takes a swing at this idea in his Columbia Journalism Review essay, "Saving Journalism." Meyer writes:

"If we are to preserve journalism and its social-service functions, maybe we would be wise not to focus too much on traditional media. The death spiral might be irreversible. We should look for ways to keep the spirit and tradition of socially responsible journalism alive until it finds a home in some new media form whose nature we can only guess at today." (Emphasis added.)

How then can we enable our reporters and photographers to, in the words of the irrepressible Jacqui Banaszynski, "commit one true act of journalism a day" and still move our newspapers toward a future in which they remain necessary and relevant to their communities.

Here are six ways to start:

1. Write Fewer Stories, Not More. As I wrote here, "more stories are usually seen as better than fewer, even if most of the stories are mediocre reports on institutional events." My local newspaper, the S.F. Chronicle, publishes 20-plus local news stories a day, the bulk of them about meetings, reports or criminal activity of some sort. Why not take the 20 reporters who produced those 20 stories and concentrate them on the five top stories of the day? Five stories, each deeply reported, well-photographed, layered in forms and platforms, that represent the best of that day's journalism. Quality journalism, not quantity stenography.

2. Go Weekly - Every Day. A critical problem with the daily newspaper is its department store approach to the news -- a little something for everyone, a mass medium. Mass is gone. The future is niche, and newspapers have an opportunity - because of their editorial and distribution capacities - to be a mass of niches (thanks to Jeff Jarvis for the phrase.) Convert the daily paper into a collection of weeklies or semi-weeklies. Keep some space for news, but turn the rest of Monday into a sports day, for example; Thursday is entertainment; Tuesday is local government; Wednesday is food and home; Friday is younger readers. Name your own. Sunday pulls it all together.

3. Structure by Audience, Not Topic. Unbundle the Sports, News, Features and Business departments and reconstitute the newsroom around target audiences. Want younger readers? Don't try to squeeze an iPod story out of a 45-year-old business reporter or a snowboarding story out of desk-bound sportswriter. Instead, devote a department's worth of editors, reporters, photographers, designers and online producers to creating content intended to entice and engage younger readers. Internally, designating one or two staffers in a newsroom of 100 or 300 - where the median age is 41 - to report on youth does not shout priority; devoting a quarter of the staff to such a goal does.

4. Be the Tip of the Iceberg. Reverse the print-online priority equation. Newspapers should be publishing more online than they do in print. Newspapers should be printing content that flows from the web to print, not just the reverse. The virtual newshole, the endless conversation, the involvement of readers, the power of relational advertising - all are advantages of online that print can never match.

5. Lead from the Middle, Not the Top. In every newsroom I've been in for training projects, I hear a clamor from all levels for more interaction with the top editors. Reporters and line editors want direction, want to learn, want leadership from the top. Too often, they don't get it. Why not? The editors spend their days in meetings with other editors, making decisions whose underlying message - which may fit with some strategic goal of the newspaper - is lost on the editorial masses by the time it is translated through multiple layers of sub-editors. This is not communication or leadership. This is a pernicious game of telephone. Solution? Edit more, manage less. Get the editors out of the office and onto the newsroom floor. Sit on the desk. Take the helm and steer the boat from a visible position. Budget meetings, evaluations, circulation reports? Delegate those to an AME. You cannot lead from behind the desk.

6. Be Intentional, Not Accidental. A while ago, I asked these questions: "If you were fortunate enough to be given 300 journalists and $20 million a year to pay them and run a newsroom (a ballpark editorial operating budget for a 300,000-circulation paper), what kind of newspaper would you make? Would you create the same beats, the same departments, the same production and decision-making processes? Would you fill the newsroom seats with the same people who are there now? Would you design the paper and its web site in the same formats?" And I answered with this: "I think not. Instead, you might, as most start-up enterprises do, attempt to define a niche and create a product - in this case a journalistic product - to serve it."

There are principles of journalism that should remain inviolate, but there are no permanent rules about how to put those principles into practice. Nowhere is it written that the current structure of newspapers is the only way to do journalism. In fact, we've arrived where we are more by happenstance than by purpose, often by mimicking a singular innovation that moved the industry in a new direction. The introduction into newspapers of comics, of photography, of color, of editorial pages, even of the notion of objectivity, each broke a rule of its day and eventually enticed others to follow.

The future of newspapers belongs to those bold enough, and skilled enough, to invent their own rules. Who among the traditional newsrooms is going to lead us into tomorrow by being the rule-breaker of today?

(Cross-posted on morph.)

Posted by Tim Porter at January 18, 2005 12:36 PM