Multi-Platform ‘Content Room’ Puts Journos in New Roles

By: Joe Strupp

How do you run a newspaper without any reporters? Ask Editor Lyle Muller of The Gazette in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He’s been doing it since February.

OK, technically, the reporters are still writing for the paper, still covering stories, and still giving his readers news. But they are not under his control, they do not report to him, and he can’t even assign them stories.

Gazette Communications, which owns the Gazette; its Web site, Gazette Online; and local TV station KCRG, relocated all of its reporters, photographers, and other journalists from those three outlets to a new “content room” at the newspaper, where they dig up news and dish it out to each of the three outlets. No one entity has oversight of the journalists, and each unit must compete for their work.

“There is a pull and push, and I think that is probably healthy,” says Becky Lutgen Gardner, senior director of information content, who oversees the content room and its 70-person news staff. “When it comes to breaking news, spot news, it’s easy to translate across all of the mediums.”

The content room is located on one side of the second-floor Gazette newsroom, and also boasts several bureaus and a television studio location. But it is as independent as any outside unit. Neither the newspaper, Web site nor television station has oversight of the content room, according to Muller, a 22-year veteran of the newspaper. “Each product acts as a client of the content room,” he says. “The content room has a lot of latitude because we try to set them up to have the expertise to know what is out there to pursue.” The approach is so balanced that Muller says he cannot direct coverage, just recommend it: “It is still an experiment.”

Online Editor Jason Kristufek says each outlet has to know its audience and make worthwhile “pitches” for content beyond breaking news: “It is a highly competitive issue, we have to strategize how best to get information out. There is a lot of tendency to have a loyalty to print and broadcast.” Asked if it is working, he says: “Long-term, I think it will.”

But Muller says it has equalized the playing field: “The Web editor has full authority to make sure he has a robust editorial product on the Web, and I have full authority to make sure the Gazette has a robust editorial product in print. No one is the lead dog.”

Of course, that strategy has led to clashes, Muller admits. He cites an August story on cold and wet weather in the farmland that was posted on the Web site a day before the newspaper was set to run it. But another example in September, involving a story on local food prices dropping, worked better with the arrangement, he recalls, because the Web site put out a request for online input from readers that was used in the print version.

“I believe the Web has benefitted from this,” says Lutgen Gardner. “The attention to online is greater. When news breaks, there is an understanding that we are there, covering it live, and blogging it. And then the in-depth article is in the paper.”

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