By: Gretchen A. Peck
It used to be that one could look at an organizational chart for a newspaper and find roles and responsibilities neatly divided into categories that made perfect sense: Editorial, Advertising, Production, Business. And the people who made the newspaper miraculously appear every day on the newsstand, in the mailbox, or the front porch? They had easy-to-understand titles, too, like reporter, editor, circulation manager, publisher, and ad sales.
A lot of those titles still exist and remain vital to producing a newspaper. But the organizational chart is beginning to morph, pulled and stretched in new directions by economics, consumer preferences, technology, and a timely collision of new media and old media.
Then and now
Though sensational at times, looking at mere statistics about jobs being shed doesn’t provide a complete picture about how the industry and its news organizations are evolving.
Certainly market and economic pressures have been to blame for a fair share of those layoffs. But there’s also a concerted effort to reinvent traditional roles and responsibilities.
For example, a producer is not a title that one would have heard in the newsroom 10 to 15 years ago, but today, that’s someone who essentially creates a package, a story, whatever the media, said Caroline Little, president and CEO of the Newsapper Association of America in Arlington, Va. “I think there’s a lot more of those kinds of positions than there were in the past,” she said.
A decade ago, there were no infographics journalists, data analytics managers, or audience development directors to be found at a paper. There were people with other titles who had some overlapping oversight, but these new-age distinctions are more reflective of how the organizations themselves are evolving, and how publishers are prioritizing.
Little predicts that roles within the news agency that leverage skills in visual graphics will be of much greater importance in years to come: “Your space isn’t limited online, so you have the ability to be more visual, and the tools to make even a flat map come alive, so to speak,” she said.
Melissa Nelson, director of collective bargaining at The Newspaper Guild-Communications Workers of America (TNG-CWA), concurred that aesthetics will play a key role for newspapers moving forward: “You have to have an eye for editing—not just with words but with design, because newspapers are visual and so are websites, … and you’ve got one shot to draw someone in.”
Not all the news about changing job descriptions has been optimistic. Often, the staff members that remain behind post-layoffs are tasked with the work of more than one person, even in some cases taking on responsibilities outside their discipline. The newspaper industry may learn some lessons from its magazine colleagues that are taking some media flack for muddying job-description waters.
The New Republic was cited in Forbes by author Jeff Bercovici for turning its reporters into “Swiss Army knife journalists,” even expecting them to actively push subscriptions. Bercovici noted that a magazine spokesperson cited a “team-building exercise” and a “contest” as the impetus.
After shaking up its senior leadership and bringing back a familiar face, Norman Pearlstine of Time Inc. left a lot of publishing folks bewildered by dismantling the “Church-and-State” delineation between Editorial and Business, citing the need for greater cooperation between the two camps.
Nelson used the term “backpack journalism” to describe a jack-of-all-trades phenomenon that’s been gaining momentum for more than a decade.
“Reporters, photographers, copyeditors are all sort of rolled into one, under the heading of journalist,” she explained. “But they do it all.”
In November, Kristen Hare of the Poynter Institute reported that The Atlanta Journal Constitution (AJC) was going to rebrand its photographers as “multimedia visual journalists,” following some layoffs. At first glance, that may have appeared to be code for “we’re laying off staff, and then asking the ones still here to do a lot more,” but that may be a visceral reaction to the news. Rather, it could be that not only do publishers expect creative personnel like photographers to adapt in this way, but newspaper people are anxious to take a bite of something new.
“This transition allows us to focus our staff [and] visual resources on the things that matter most to all of the print and digital platforms of the AJC, and to engage our audience through social media, apps and other products that may come along,” clarified AJC Managing Editor Monica Richardson. “We remain committed to offering our readers and users deep, compelling content in the formats they choose.” The strategy jibes with what Richardson’s industry colleagues predicted—images, graphics, and video are more important than ever.
“At The Atlanta Journal Constitution, we expect our multimedia visual journalists to be leaders in breaking news coverage and visual engagement,” Richardson added.
“They are the AJC’s first responders to breaking news, and are able to skillfully use multimedia tools—still and video cameras, computer software, audio recorders … and mobile devices—to create compelling, holistic stories with visual impact that reaches new and existing audiences.”
Reporters and robots
There may be roles that have changed and expanded, but none have been rendered extinct.
“There seems like there are much fewer copyeditors than there used to be,” noted Little. “And that may be as a result of the computer, as opposed to the Internet.” It’s true that software has made the process of crafting good copy a lot easier than it used to be—with misspellings and grammatical conflicts highlighted right at conception. There’s growing speculation that software will continue to change the way in which copy is not just delivered but created and edited.
Behind the scenes at the Los Angeles Times, database gurus have been working with editors to develop algorithms to automate the reporting of just-the-facts-‘mam types of stories—such as crime and earthquake news, reported Seth Fiegerman in an October 2013 mashable.com article, “Man vs. Algorithm: When Media Companies Need a Human Touch.” Automating not just the delivery but the actual creation of this news will allow newspapers to cover more stories with fewer resources and boots on the ground.
Reporters and editors probably need not fear a Terminator-esque scenario. There will be no en masse “rise of the machines” to take what’s left of their jobs.
“Reporting still needs to be done. Editing still needs to be done. Pictures still need to be taken,” CWA’s Melissa Nelson assured.
No amount of crafty coding will replace good judgment and ingenuity; it still takes human beings to make news and report on it. Little noted that the NAA is keenly aware that publishers and their employees need serious and fast help with professional development.
“That’s one of our missions, to provide best practices and training,” Little asserted. That very day, the NAA was hosting a webinar on native advertising. And Little confided that the NAA’s recent educational partnership with the American Press Institute to host the Transformation Tour was well received by its attendees. “People really want to network and compare notes and talk about who’s doing what. That’s necessary more now than ever as these newsrooms are evolving,” Little said.
The CWA is also committed to professional development for its members, and hopes that publishers see the value of it, too.
“If [publishers] have an expectation that our members are going to broaden their skill set, then they need to give them the training to do so, because it only makes for a better product and a better work force. … It’s an opportunity,” Nelson said.
Social media is also influencing the way newspapers are staffed and modeled.
In his October 2013 digiday.com article, “Old Meets New: Newspapers Take to Instagram,” author Josh Sternberg observed that while newspapers “haven’t flocked” to the photo phenom site Instagram (perhaps because it doesn’t allow for any redirection back to the publisher’s site or the monetization of content, he ponders) a select group of papers “that do real journalism” are developing a presence there.
Community manager was one of seven hot media jobs cited by Jasper Jackson in a June column on themediabriefing.com. “This isn’t just the person who moderates comments or manages a Facebook page–although that is important activity given the minefield they represent,” Jackson said. “It’s about shaping the way people interact with your content, and encouraging your audience to keep coming back, stay longer, and do more.”
Product managers, digital strategy leaders, digital ad and e-commerce experts, partnership negotiators, and so-called chief listening officers—charged with creating two-way dialogs with the audience—will also be in demand, Jackson predicts.
Newspaper folks would be wise to keep close tabs on what’s happening in those other factions of publishing and marketing, where the word “data” is coming up a lot—in conversations, in strategy meetings, in new hires like chief data officers (CDOs). In August, Advertising Age magazine reported that Ogilvy & Mather had just hired Todd Cull for that role within its organization, and that huge marketers like Citi, Bank of America, and even “innovative municipalities like Philadelphia” have CDOs, too.
Truth be told, news organizations have always had personnel responsible for gathering and analyzing statistical information—people in marketing, public relations, circulation, and advertising, CWA’s Melissa Nelson pointed out.
“They went looking for the impact that the news organization was having on the community, so this is an extension of that,” she surmised.
These days, the news business isn’t for the faint-of-heart or those who may be averse-to-change. There are great expectations on individuals to learn new things and be instantly great at them—and for richer collaboration among cross-functioning teams.
“If I were to start a newsroom today, what are the skill sets that I would want,” Little pondered. “I think you’d want somebody to be able to utilize whatever is available, whether it’s photos or illustrations, or video and audio, or print, the written word, and be able to [work with] stories using all of that.”