SPECIAL REPORT: When Will a Web Editor Lead a Major Newsroom?

By: Joe Strupp

Since mid-August, The Washington Post’s fifth-floor newsroom has been essentially empty, except for work crews renovating the place. The newspaper’s center of newsgathering is being transformed from a traditional newsroom to a converged news center, complete with a “Universal News Desk.” Staffers are working at other locations around the 15th Street building, but will return before the end of the year to complete the paper’s long-planned Web/print convergence.

While the online operation has slowly been melded with the newsroom during the past year under Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli, who took over in September 2008, the physical relocation of the online staff from suburban Virginia to downtown D.C. will complete the move. When the dust settles, sometime in December, the paper will boast its first completely integrated news operation.

“It dramatically broadens what we can do,” says Managing Editor Liz Spayd, who spent two years on the online side but is now one of Brauchli’s two seconds-in-command with oversight of print and online. “We don’t have any choice. We have to move with our audience.”

But with that convergence, the Post has lost some of its top Web talent, among them former washingtonpost.com Executive Editor Jim Brady. After four years running the Web site and garnering national attention for its innovations, Brady left last January. Six months later, his managing editor, Ju-Don Roberts, also jumped ship. Both said they left on good terms, but with a feeling that the combined operation would limit the online side’s ability to grow.

“You needed the separate Web operation, people who are focused on it distinctly,” says Brady, who was hired in October to create a local D.C. news site for Politico. “I did not leave because of the merger, the issue was how [it was done]. A combined newsroom makes sense, but if the Web staff does not have the authority or power to try some new things, you have problems.”

The converged Post will boast a top editing team that is predominantly from the print side. Although Spayd spent two years as editor of the Web site, her vast experience ? as with her counterpart, Raju Narisetti ? is in print. Brauchli, meanwhile, had extensive experience at The Wall Street Journal prior to joining the Post, but almost entirely on the print side as well.

Spayd claims that isn’t a hindrance. “People in the newsroom recognize that the Web is a different beast than the printed paper, and that there are things that work in one and not the other,” she says. “More people who have spent their life on the print side who [then] spend time on the Web appreciate it.”

Roberts, who now serves as executive editor of multi-faith e-community BeliefNet.com, says the Post’s Web site has lost some of its innovation: “There were concerns that so many people with Web expertise were leaving the Post. You can’t flip a switch and see everyone converged.”

So who has authority?
Yet the convergence is happening. And as newsrooms combine online and print operations into single entities, power struggles are brewing among many in charge. More and more as these unifications occur, it’s the online side that’s losing authority. Like Brady in Washington, online supervisors nationwide are seeing their resources ? and influence ? shrink as the staffs unite. Many say the Web site must be able to offer a different approach, more new ideas and risks, and options that the print edition can’t even consider.

Key to that, they contend, is giving Web-side editors power to run their sites out from under the print editor’s control ? a situation that is far less likely in a converged newsroom. Some say it is even time for the top editor of a newspaper to be an online-trained person.

“In every newsroom there’s a power center, and the reporters know where the power center is and they will follow it,” says Ken Sands, former online publisher at The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash. “I can’t think of one regional paper that is run by a Web person. You have [print] people running them who have been in the same kind of jobs for 25 years. At the regional level, that is jeopardizing the need to make substantial changes.”

Kinsey Wilson, former executive editor of USA Today and editor of its Web site from 2000-2005, agrees. “You need somebody at the top of the news organization who has deep experience on the Web,” says Wilson. “If digital is deemed secondary, it will not get the consideration it deserves.”

USA Today drew positive feedback in 2005 when it promoted Wilson to executive editor, with oversight of the online side, following its own newsroom convergence. “I think it was an essential condition of bringing the two staffs together,” says Wilson, who left in 2008 and is now senior vice president and general manager of digital media for National Public Radio. But he says the converged approach almost has to limit the efforts of the online side: “Regardless of anyone’s interest or background, the logic and mechanics of putting out a newspaper every day means that it very quickly overwhelms efforts to innovate on the digital side.”

Wilson says during his final years at USA Today, he was able to implement some Web innovations due to his prominent position, noting it was among the first papers to create a real online social media setting in 2006 ? but “as it has played out across the industry, it has been something of a mixed bag.”

He cites The New York Times, which converged its newsrooms at about the same time USA Today did. “We both had a period of a year or two when our capacity to innovate on the Web stopped, or was even set back a bit,” he says. “The economic crisis only exacerbated that.”

Most online proponents point to the culture of the Web, which leans more toward free expression, innovation and ideas that have to differ from the print edition. They say expanding the online outlet’s influence allows that to happen in an era when print is decidedly less innovative. “So much of what is going to be crucial to the success of newspapers going forward is dependent on what their digital strategy will be,” says Jonathan Dube, president of the Online News Association and vice president of ABCNEWS.com. “Newspapers are expanding online and shrinking in print.”

Because of that, he adds, “There is no question that whoever is in charge of a newspaper needs to have a very, very solid understanding of the Internet. It would be valuable for that person to have significant experience in the online world.”

Dube admits that more Web-side editors are having influence at newspapers, with many reaching managing editor or deputy managing editor status. But the day when a top editor is an online specialist still seems far away. “It has been very sporadic,” he adds.

Stumbling toward evolution
And news staffers, apparently, know it. A recent Northwestern University survey of some 3,800 journalists at 79 newspapers found that most are “eager to compete” in a digital world, but nearly half believe their newsroom’s transition to digital is moving too slowly. One in three said their job was evolving too slowly from print to digital, while 43% claimed the entire newsroom was moving too slowly. Fifty percent would like to see more of an online shift in their own jobs.

The response from editors reveals why: 53% said they spend just one quarter of their time on digital, although they believe it should be more. At least 70% of top editors believe the newsroom is on the right track, while only 45% of digital editors do.

“I have had a seat at the table and [this newspaper] has a good history of integration, but it is always ‘who drives the bus?'” says Cory Tolbert Haik, assistant managing editor at SeattleTimes.com. “There is a pro-print view. The news meeting is all about the print product and we go over stories that are in print the next day. The Web site is secondary, possibly tertiary. There is no separate-but-equal.”

Haik, who praises Editor David Boardman for giving the Web as much attention as any top editor, says she can innovate more than some online editors. “I can be a virtuoso of my Web site,” she explains, but being in a combined operation limits the influence of her job: “I need to be able to be at the same level. They have put me in these senior groups, but I am just the one Web person.”

Other Web editors who remain at daily papers admit that convergence can limit their innovation, but many point to being in the main news operation as an advantage, too. Being closer to top editors, more in touch with staff and able to jump on news quickly is an asset, even if they aren’t at the executive editor level. “We work very closely with everyone from the paper,” says Denise Polverine, editor-in-chief of Cleveland.com, the online outlet of The Plain Dealer. “There is a shift ? most people at the paper are engaging with the Web site.”

Like other Advance Publications dailies, the Plain Dealer has separate operations for print and online, with all Advance newspaper Web sites directed out of its New Jersey headquarters. Polverine says that helps her to innovate and not be sucked into a converged world: “It allows us to stay separate and have the newspaper focus on content.”

Anthony Moor, just-departed deputy managing editor at The Dallas Morning News, recalls that when he first joined the paper in 2007 after four years at the Orlando Sentinel, he had less staff and overall influence: “It made it more difficult to take an initiative and make it work. We have seen a dramatic increase in what newsroom people do for the Web. It took a while, but they understood that.”

Still, it’s Morning News Editor Bob Mong who runs the entire operation. Moor says his newspaper does not have to have a Web person at the top, but he believes other papers eventually will. “It is inevitable that they will have to,” he says. “For a long time, Web editors have been buried in their news organizations. As digital news grows, you have to have people who are steeped in everything be the leadership of the newsroom.”

Moor announced in mid-November plans to leave the Morning News for Yahoo, telling E&P that part of the reason was: “Newspapers have limited resources, they are saddled with legitimate legacy businesses. … The digital world is evolving rapidly. I don’t want to have to wait for the traditional news industry to catch up.”

The view from the print side
But does that require the top editor to come from the online side? Jonathan Landman, a longtime editor at The New York Times and currently its culture editor, spent the past four years as a deputy managing editor charged with leading the paper through its convergence. He says there’s a careful tightrope to walk between the online side, in which speed can prevail, and the print side, where caution is more the watchword.

“It doesn’t matter so much [which side] they come from, it matters what they do,” says Landman. “Because the Web is still such a young medium, it would be hard to find someone who came from the Web to run the New York Times.” Executive Editor Bill Keller, he adds, allows the online side its rightful place. “To go further, the top people [like Keller] have to do it and they are,” adds Landman. “You absolutely have to think of Web equally and before print.”

Other editors who remain in the top ranks at newspapers say they are able to oversee Web coverage despite having little or no online background. Many also point to their journalism and managerial backgrounds as being even more important to the overall newspaper than a Web editor’s online experience. “I see myself as a newsman, not a newspaperman,” says David Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “There are some moments in the day when the Web site is the priority and some moments when print is the priority. I spend much more time on the Web than on the newspaper.”

The Post-Gazette has been credited with launching new Web pages when needed ? most recently, a site devoted to the G20 Conference held in Pittsburgh in late September. It also recently created a new paid site, PG+, which is more of an interactive community with exclusive content, discussion areas, and Facebook-like options. Shribman says he didn’t need to be a Web editor to oversee those, or others: “A top editor who doesn’t focus on the Web is like a baseball manager who doesn’t focus on pitching.”

Detroit Free Press Editor Paul Anger agrees. He says the paper’s online focus is well-defined. “We start with a meeting that is Web-oriented early in the day and end with a meeting that is Web-oriented at the end of the day,” he says. “And we have a print meeting in between. Digital is another edition, in a way, of what we do.”

At the Kansas City Star, Editor Mike Fannin stresses that the experience and managerial skills, as well as news judgment, of most print-side editors is still important in the digital age, perhaps more so when so many avenues of content distribution are in use. “More cooks can sometimes create a lot of clatter,” he says of the idea that online editors might need to be at the top. “We have gotten smarter in print and grown online.”

Veteran editors also contend that their jobs are more than just news judgement ? they are managerial, and often involve handling fragile egos, something not easily taught. “It is more efficient and easy to train the print guy to understand what the [online] skill sets are than bringing in a Web person who does not understand newsroom culture,” argues Chris Peck, editor of The Commercial Appeal in Memphis and former editor of the Spokesman-Review.

Peck, whose newsroom became a converged operation in January, says he has already made online the priority avenue for most news, but knows to keep the print product strong as well. “You have to reallocate shrinking resources and put all hands on the wheel of digital delivery,” he explains. “If you do that, you’re good to go.”

The Miami Herald fully converged about six years ago, according to Aminda Marquez Gonzalez, senior editor/news. Although Editor Anders Gyllenhaal remains at the top, she says, “The culture is drilled into you that you file for the Web first and you take a larger view for print the next day. When you have someone in charge who had made it a priority to be first on the Web, it is immaterial if that person’s title is attached to the Web.”

For anyone who still doubts the Herald’s online efforts, Gonzalez cites its coverage of a September stabbing at a local high school. “We had a reporter at the scene early, who was tweeting, who did audio for the Web, and took photographs and a video report,” she recalls. “That was a textbook example of how you cover a breaking news story in this world. We updated the story 20 times that day.”

One way to avoid possible Web/print power struggles may be to create a single newsgathering unit that provides content to multiple platforms.

That’s what they’ve been doing at Gazette Communications in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, since February (see E&P, November 2009). The company, which owns The Gazette newspaper, Gazette Online, and local TV station KCRG, relocated all of its reporters, editors and other journalists to a “content room” that churns out reports that can appear in print, on TV, or online.

Mostly digital daze ahead?
In the most likely future scenario, a newspaper’s top editor will be some mix of the traditional print and newer online supervisor, with broad experience in both methods of delivery. But when does that transformation occur?

With newsrooms converging now, the editors’ skill sets need to evolve, too. “I don’t know if you can define someone by their roots,” says Jill Geisler, leadership and management group leader at The Poynter Institute. “We believe many print journalists have discovered the Web is the future.” However, she adds, “print editors have not necessarily been as attentive to the feedback of the audience on the Web.”

The other factor is, of course, financial. While the digital side represents a chance for growth, in most cases it’s the print edition that still bags the most revenue. The print side has to remain solid, so the prevailing mindset is to have the print-side editor in charge. “People are realizing they are not getting the revenue from the Web they need,” says Geisler. “No one has found the way for the Web to deliver the return quickly enough.”

Editor Nancy Conway of The Salt Lake Tribune in Salt Lake City echoes that view, adding, “I think you need a good Web site, but the production of the news still needs to be integrated with the print product, where the revenue is.” Conway’s newsroom has been converged since before she arrived in 2003. She stresses a need for “the best journalist you can find” for the top spot.

Editor Greg Moore of The Denver Post also says his experience, and that of other print veterans like him, is often needed to rein in some of the staffers on the online side, providing a clear managerial authority. “Things have gotten out of hand. Speed is what is king on the Web,” he says. “We’ve had things thrown up there and have had to be removed. The enterprise is at risk if we put the wrong thing up. We save ourselves some headaches if we watch it.”

Moore declares that his Web site has been able to be as innovative and expansive as any with him in charge. He cites the rich online component to a three-day series in September on U.S. soldier Ian Fisher that followed the youngster from basic training to service in Iraq and home again. It included a Web package of video, audio and photos and graphics, and earned top prize last month in E&P’s annual Photos of the Year contest. “We had the skills to broadcast across several channels,” Moore adds. “We treated it as you would treat a documentary.”

Having a print-side editor in charge has also resulted in at least some protection for the print edition. Conway says she’s working more toward keeping some content just for the ink-and-paper delivery, while Bob Gabordi of the Tallahassee (Fla.) Democrat made a point of telling readers online that a Sunday story on Sept. 27 about a local sheriff would run primarily in print. “We want to keep Sundays special for our print-edition readers, who pay extra for the newspaper and deserve more,” he wrote on his blog.

Gabordi, who serves as executive editor of the newspaper and its Web site, says having an experienced print person in charge of both sides allows that balanced view of the news operation. “I reject the characterization that I am a print editor,” he says. “I am a journalist. In the course of what I do every day, it crosses any of those sorts of old definitions.” He adds that “my digital people sit at the same table as print people as we decide how we are going to go about telling stories.”

Some on the online side maintain that newspapers may never reach their potential on the Web if they keep tying print and online operations, even if that’s a must in some cases due to financial constraints. “If the focus is to save print, it won’t work,” says Christine Montgomery, managing editor at PBS.org and former managing editor/online for the St. Petersburg Times until this past July. “I need to keep developing and keep moving forward. It got harder and harder to do that at the newspaper. Some of us who have been doing this for a long time are a little weary of the fight.”

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