Thursday, December 18, 2008

Nuts and Bolts: What an "online first newsroom" means

Chris O'Brien of the Next Newsroom Project has a good post at the Knight Digital Media Center entitled "What does 'online-first' mean in your newsroom?". His suggestions revolve around planning and workflow, deadlines, jobs and linking. Instead of starting the cycle by critiquing today's front page and planning the featured content of tomorrow's section fronts, he says, "the discussions about content creation should start with the subject and then explore whether to tell that with text, audio, video, or some data product. The critiques should be a continual process throughout the day of evaluating traffic, comments, and updates. There should be a team dedicated to taking all this content and turning it into a print version, but they shouldn’t be driving the process."

Further, Chris writes that deadlines should be tailored to the 9 a.m. daily web traffic peak (I'm guessing that's Pacific Time—on the East Coast I think it's closer to noon); job descriptions should change and include things like a "community manager" to moderate comments and blogs; and reporters should embed outbound links in stories.

Chris also asks for further suggestions. As it happens, I posted yesterday (as part of a new rubric here at News After Newspapers called "Nuts and Bolts") on what newspapers should do to maximize online ad sales. There are clear parallels between what newsrooms should be doing and what sales departments should be doing. So here are my thoughts for online-first newsrooms. (As it turns out, the first six of these are identical, or parallel, to my seven mandates for the sales department.)

1. Lead with the DotCom brand. If the ad department puts the DotCom name on their business cards, so should the newsroom. Moreover, both departments should answer the phone with the DotCom brand. At Chris's paper, the Mercury News, that's easy, since the URL is; they can just keep saying "MercuryNews." But at the Boston Globe, they should be saying "Boston dot com." (They don't, by the way.) Be sure also that the URL is in the folio on every page, on the masthead, on every special section, on every piece of internal and external communication. Everywhere: the front of the building. And if newsrooms don't like the idea of "branding" ("It's a newspaper, not a product."), get over it.

2. Don't separate online and print editorial staffs. Same as in advertising, with the exception of a few specialists, everybody should be a universal content producer. Tear down any remaining walls. As Chris wrote: "We all should be thinking about moving toward multiplatform newsrooms: print, radio, online, mobile."

3. Do web research for every story. On the ad side, the equivalent is: figure out what your advertising customer's web strategy is—chances are it's more sophisticated than you think. In the newsroom, always dig deeper online; it will usually open up new information or avenues of inquiry. I've been amazed at what newsrooms large and small miss by failing to do this. (By the same token, and proving the point, clearly some fantastic stories have been done by reporters who know how to mine online information.) Editors should get in the habit of demanding to know what the reporter did in the way of online research.

4. Train reporters, editors, designers and customers alike. New tools are coming along all the time; whatever they learned in J-school is obsolete. Use an internal blog to share new tools, new techniques, new features of your site, and hold training workshops often. "Train customers?" Sure—if you're doing what you should be doing, constantly tweaking and improving your site with new features, you need to keep telling customers (that's "readers" for newsroom diehards) about it, in print and online.

5. Invest in the technology. Chris alluded to content management systems that may not even allow reporters to embed hyperlinks. (I've been there, done that.) Publishers: it's almost 2009; get with the program. Editors: a story without hyperlinks is not a story. Elsewhere on the tech front, there are still plenty of good reasons to use notepads and pencils, but if the budget will stretch, equip reporters with laptops, iPhones, voice recorders, video cameras and other goodies. The cost will come back to you in productivity and great content.

Make it easy for news sources and readers to reach you, online or otherwise. Why is "Contact Us" so often a miniscule link way down in the footer of the web site, and why do I need to click through about seven layers to find out where to send a press release? Why, sometimes, is every reporter and editor's phone and e-mail address listed, but there's no general phone number for the newsroom? Why not add everybody's Twitter handle?

7. Think social media in everything you do. I'm still finding major newspaper web sites without blogs, without commenting, without social bookmarking links. Many are not experimenting with Twitter and don't have a Facebook page. And virtually none have anybody specifically in charge of social media maximization. Again, 2009 is nearly here. What social media should mean for newspapers, and where it may be heading, is an entire topic in itself, one I'm planning to tackle with another "Nuts and Bolts." Pretty soon.

Related post: Nuts and bolts: maximizing online ad sales on newspaper sites


Coordinator of the Printernet Project said...

Nice post. Just wondering.. you said " whatever they learned in J-school is obsolete." Given my experience in professional training in other fields, this is a general problem. Nobodies fault, just knowledge is growing too fast and integrating into standard "school" is too slow.

So, has anyone considered hiring some Journalist teachers and setting up an educational division at a newspaper? Lots of money flowing in. And lots of that money wasted on buildings and stuff that doesn't directly add to the learning experience.

Consider Pheonix University, Gibbs and other "educational" organizations that are supported by government loans. Thge price for a n undergraduate education caan easily approach $100,000.

So why couldn't a newspaper go into competition and charge $25K, plus have a source of great adventuresome, highly motivated students under the mentorship of some really great experienced baby boomer professionals?

Once Google Generation gets entangled in a newsroom, even as apprentices, many of the culture change and training problems go away.

Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree with you more! Just with more newsrooms would listen.

I find there's a real culture battles in newsrooms (at least mine) of the pro-new media and the anti-pro media types. We whisper that we have a blog, so no one can really find it, and we think we're promoting it.

Very frustrating.