By: Nu Yang
From typewriters to computers, reporters to data journalists, today’s newsrooms are undergoing a transformation. According to the annual newsroom employment census conducted by the American Society of News Editors, total newsroom employment declined 6.4 percent in 2012. Despite that trend, newsrooms have found innovative ways to help them evolve from places where only print publications are produced to versatile media companies encompassing both print and digital platforms.
Whether it’s moving into a new office space, hiring multimedia journalists or positioning themselves in front of readers online, newspapers around the country are prepared to become the newsrooms of tomorrow.
Developing a Multimedia Newsroom
In January, Digital First Media announced Project Unbolt, designed to “unbolt” newsrooms from the print culture and move them toward a digital workflow and structure. Pilot programs were started at the New Haven (Conn.) Register, The News-Herald in Willoughby, Ohio, The El Paso (Texas) Times and The Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, Mass. Each paper focused on six components: coverage and storytelling, processes, engagement, planning and management, mobile, and standards.
“At the Berkshire Eagle, we’re really good at print, but we wanted to work on our digital game plan,” said Kevin Moran, regional vice president of news for New England Newspapers Inc.
In February, the Eagle newsroom of 31 full-time employees broke into six committees to address each module. Their Unbolt Master Plan ended up being 18 pages with each committee returning with three pages of notes, something Moran said they didn’t intend.
“We took a practical but critical approach on our performance in the digital sphere,” he said. “It opened my eyes as a newsroom leader. We made readjustments to our workflow like making sure our reporter, editor and videographer were on the same page when tracking stories.”
One of their most successful Unbolt projects was their live blog coverage of a triple-murder trial in January. The Eagle’s courts reporter Andrew Amelinckx was new to live blogging and used an iPad to cover the trial. With no television stations in the courtroom, the Eagle was the only news outlet providing readers with live news coverage. As a result, Moran calculated that readers spent nearly 26,000 hours following the trial on their computer screens over the course of 18 days.
“It wasn’t until the trial we saw the power of the live blog,” Moran said. “Now we’ve acquainted our readers to come to the Eagle for live coverage. We’re changing readers’ habits and a lot of people have responded to it.”
At the Eagle, editor and reporters gather at 10 a.m. for their editorial meeting. “We used to do this big meeting at 4 p.m.,” Moran said. “We still have a 4 p.m. meeting, but it’s much briefer.” He said the reason for the earlier time was to plan better, not just for gathering news, but for delivering stories online.
“Our morning meeting actually needs to be earlier,” he said. “I feel 10 a.m. is too late. The day starts rolling at 8 a.m. and our biggest website traffic is from 6 a.m. to 11 a.m. It’s a lot of morning readers, then we see a slow decline during the day. We want to take that decline and lift it up for the rest of the day.”
At the Des Moines Register in Iowa, publisher Rick Green said it’s not about being digital first, it’s about having quality content first. With a newsroom of 100 employees, the Register moved last summer three blocks east from its location since 1918—a 13-story building—into an office building where it now occupies a floor-and-a-half.
The newsroom, dubbed “Mission Control,” was inspired by the movie “Apollo 13,” said Green. In the 1995 movie starring Tom Hanks, characters are seen interacting on an open floor with screens and communicating with data. The Register reporters may not be astronauts, but they are operating with real-time analytics at every editor’s desk, which Green described as having the “pulse of their readers at their fingertips.”
“If papers aren’t thinking about their readership’s habits, they’re crazy,” he said. “They should be obsessing over data.”
Green, who was named publisher in August 2013 after serving as the paper’s editor for two years, credits former publisher Laura Hollingsworth for the newsroom’s forward thinking strategy. “(Laura) said don’t think about the newsroom of 2014 or 2015. Think about 2020 and beyond.”
This kind of initiative led the Register to open a full-service video studio last year. Using this platform has allowed reporters to tell stories in new ways, whether it’s for an investigative piece or coverage on the latest college football game. Recently, the paper produced a 22-minute video documentary on Iowa’s most famous movie, “Field of Dreams,” on its 25th anniversary.
At the Eagle, Moran said as a small newspaper without a broadcast studio, it has “forced (them) to think creatively” when it comes to video.
“We create short form news videos using Tout,” he said. “We take video outside to our community and go out to a location to do interviews. It’s similar to broadcast TV, but there’s no main desk on the other end.”
The Denver Post is another paper that has embraced video in its newsroom of 150. Its full-service studio was built last year, although it won its first regional Emmy in 2009. Director of newsroom operations Linda Shapley credited Tim Rasmussen, assistant managing editor of photography and multimedia, for building the desk and thinking “ahead of the curve.”
In addition to the video studio, the Post also operates a sports talk show called “The PressBox.” The talk show is broadcast Monday through Friday from 9 to 11 a.m.
Shapley said the Post’s workflow has been digital first for the past five years. “If a reporter is covering an event at 10 a.m. and it ends at 11 a.m., we expect something up on the website by noon,” she said. “We’ll put the initial report out on the website first, and then flesh it out on paper. We want to keep the website fresh.”
Thanks to analytics, Shapley said data has helped in terms of finding out what’s grabbing readers’ attention and to adjust accordingly. “We can work with the photo department and put up photo galleries or see what links we can share,” she said. “Things that will keep readers on our site longer.”
The Post’s newsroom layout is built around communication. “Proximity is important. Workspace is important,” Shapley said. “Certain jobs require a constant flow of communication.”
Shapley explained that three or four years ago, editors were grouped with their beat reporters. “Now the politics editor sits with the group of editors, not with the politics reporters, and that editor can help edit other stories,” she said. “Our editing ranks have shrunk more than our reporters.” In 2012, the Denver Post eliminated its copy desk, reassigning those duties to reporters and editors.
The San Francisco Chronicle launched an off-site incubator earlier this year designed to train the paper’s newsroom “to think of new digital approaches to storytelling and content dissemination,” according to managing editor Audrey Cooper.
“There are two main goals: Give journalists the digital skills to be successful and change workflows to be digitally focused,” she said.
Changes in workflow include starting news meetings talking about the digital products first, and discussing big stories and when they will go online. “All that happens before discussing what to put on the front page,” Cooper said.
Cooper believes layout is important to a successful newsroom. The incubator’s new space has an open floor plan with two conference rooms, a communal living room and white boards.
“It’s all important for brainstorming and developing a collaborative digital team. It also puts design, coders and a multimedia editor in tight quarters, which helps everyone think about the best digital ways to tell stories,” Cooper said. “The incubator has even given us ideas on how to change—and not change—the main newsroom.”
In addition, the paper has put a greater emphasis on producing video. “Everyone in the newsroom—from the editorial assistants to me—has been trained on shooting and editing quick iPhone videos,” Cooper said.
To encourage her journalists to post more videos, Cooper said the paper started a friendly competition, where every newsroom employee had to submit a video. Then, a group of reporters and editors chose their favorites and played them at the newsroom’s “film festival.” Cooper hopes to make it an annual event.
“Our journalists also have individual social media metrics and goals,” she said. “We’re increasingly putting a lot of training efforts behind nuanced use of social media as a way to engage readers, distribute content and find news.”
As the newsroom evolves, so has the relationship between editorial and advertising.
“There’s no longer that wall between us and the advertising and sales departments,” Shapley said. “There’s different content out there now, but we still want to maintain the proper relationships between editorial and advertising. We recognize the issues with native advertising and we want to be a part of that conversation. We know our readers and how they will respond to that.”
Moran said with Project Unbolt, the Eagle’s advertising focus has shifted to digital revenue. “With Unbolt, we can now provide good platforms that will benefit readers and advertisers.”
It’s a “simple formula” at the Register, said Green. His plan is to create “great content with an integrated marketing approach.” The company held an open house for advertisers in December to show them, according to Green, that the Register was not only “a traditional paper, but also a digital powerhouse.”
“Our work can be innovative,” he said. “This space says those words and it shows it as well.”
As papers report layoffs and buyouts, how are they adjusting with smaller newsrooms? How do they keep current staff happy while at the same time attracting young journalists to come work with them?
Shapley, who has been at the Post for 17 years, said focusing on layoffs can be “a hurdle and distracting,” but if the paper is “honest and forthright with everyone on staff, (they) can continue to do great work as one newsroom.”
Cooper said she looks for journalists who “believe in the future of daily journalism and (their) ability to get there as a team.”
“Even with all the changes in media, the most important skill is still to identify the core of a story,” she said. “That said, we are always looking for people with complex database reporting skills, deep knowledge of coding languages and experience in data analytics.”
As publisher, Green said he doesn’t operate with a rearview mirror; he wants to look forward. With the new workspace, Green said it’s the paper’s “quest for improvement.”
“We’re different from a year ago and we want to be different one year from now,” he said.
Green said his newsroom understands that as readers change, they also have to adapt. So much more is expected in a newsroom now. Reporters need to mine and find stories and be an expert in social media, video and interpretive storytelling.
“We hire the best journalists who have the best skills for an individual job,” he said. “Maybe someone doesn’t know a thing about city hall, but that person can push out the news about city hall effectively on social media.”
Moran said to keep the morale up at the Eagle, he keeps employees involved. Part of the reason he asked them to participate in the Project Unbolt Master Plan was to give them some “ownership” with the process.
As part of Project Unbolt, the newsroom gathers together every Tuesday at 2 p.m. for a training session. Past topics have focused on how to use Hootsuite and CMS.
“One issue with many newsrooms is not having any time to train,” Moran said. “But if we have a dedicated time, even if it’s just a little time once a week, it pays off.”
Moran said in his experience, it doesn’t matter if it’s a long-time journalist or someone fresh out of journalism school; a lot of training is still required. While Moran said he worried that journalism schools were still “stuck with the old mentality,” Green shared that he found his social media manager while recruiting at Iowa State University.
Like their professional counterparts, college newsrooms have also evolved in order to prepare their students. At Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Texas, students work out of one newsroom lab named TCU 360, which was created after the paper’s newspaper, magazine and television station merged into a single operation in 2011. Every semester, there are about 90 students involved.
According to professor and adviser Aaron Chimbel, a digital-first approach was adopted in 2012 when TCU 360—not the school’s paper, Skiff—became the primary news organization. Last year, the paper also moved away from a publication that was printed four times a week to one that was published once a week, on Thursday.
“There were revenue aspects behind that decision,” Chimbel said. “But since it became a weekly, revenue has actually gone up because advertisers realize there’s a longer shelf life.”
Now with just one website funneling all the news and more focus on digital rather than the production process, Chimbel said students can work more on their storytelling.
“The students understand the flow of producing their work this way,” he said. “It can help train their mindsets as they transition into a professional newsroom.”
But Chimbel is aware that TCU 360 may be more progressive than professional newsrooms, which still see the majority of their revenue come from print.
“We have the flexibility to change and experiment. If it doesn’t work out, that’s okay,” he said. “If it doesn’t work out in a professional newsroom, then there are layoffs or the paper might close…if we cut ads, we can probably still operate. The same can’t be said about a professional newsroom.”
The Newsroom in 10 Years
There’s no argument that every newsroom is only as good as the staff that occupies it.
“Every good newsroom should have journalists who are able to work on every platform and leadership who recognize the worth of the various platforms,” Shapley said. “Hire experts who can help in and out of the newsroom, experts who can say, ‘I see new ways of reporting.’”
Chimbel said although it’s impossible to find the perfect journalist, newsrooms should understand the value of differences and diversity in their staff. “You need a good mix of people who are good as storytellers or as investigative reporters or as visual journalists.”
And what will the newsroom look like in 10 years?
“In 10 years, well, that will depend. Will print be around in 10 years?” Moran said. “And where will our readers be in 10 years? The newsroom will always be here, but we will have to adapt to where our readers and advertisers are, on what device and platform.”
Both Shapley and Green agreed in the future, newsrooms would be smaller.
Green added, “Print in Iowa will still exist, but I’m not sure if it will be as prominent or as accessible… (Newsrooms) will be more selective with stories and where they want to devote their energy.”
Cooper said she wasn’t sure if anyone could be certain what the newsroom would look like in a decade, but “I hope we create it first.”
“I personally believe that how we push out stories—text, e-mail and ways yet-to-be-discovered—will be critical,” she said. “And that distribution will bring a host of implications, such as how you continually optimize content for mobile platforms.”