Gentry Steers LAT to Online-Print Cooperation Course

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By: Steve Outing

The Los Angeles Times is a large newspaper, in terms of staff as well as physical product. (Bringing in a Sunday edition from your driveway can require two hands.) Running this behemoth of journalism requires a substantial internal bureaucracy. In the wet and wild world of cyberspace, then, an organization like the Times has a difficult task: steering a very large and cumbersome ship in the same waters as speedboats captained by quick-acting entrepreneurs.

To its credit, the Times has produced an excellent Web site that reflects the breadth and depth of the newspaper -- accomplished with a relatively modest number of online staffers. It was an early entrant into the online world, launching an area on the Prodigy proprietary network called TimesLink in late 1994, later switching over to the World Wide Web. The paper's online efforts have been run primarily by Terry Schwadron, a deputy managing editor who has kept one oar in the online operation and the other in the print side.

With the addition in June of Leah Gentry as editorial director of new media, the Times online operation enters a new era. Gentry is now the person in charge of guiding the Times' cyberspace strategy, and integrating the online and print sides of the newspaper company. She reports to Schwadron, who now will spend a little more of his time in the print world while Gentry runs the online show.

Gentry is a familiar name to many in the newspaper new media business. She has served as the Internet editor at the Chicago Tribune and the Orange County Register in California. (Prior to the Times appointment, she spent a brief stint as managing editor at Excite, but the fledgling news division of that company was shut down earlier this summer.) At the Register, Gentry was part of the team that produced the online component of the newspaper's Pulitzer Prize-winning series about fertility doctors who allegedly implanted women's eggs in other women.

Pay as you go

While the papers are similar in size, the Times has invested less in new media than has the Chicago Tribune, which has one of the largest online staffs in the newspaper industry. Gentry oversees 6 editors, 3 artists, a photo editor, and the advertising, marketing and technology teams. She's currently gearing up to staff an online vertical entertainment site (using CitySearch technology), and expects to add 5-6 employees "in the short term."

"Times-Mirror (the Times' parent company) is approaching this in a more straight business model, pay as you go fashion," she says.

One of Gentry's top priorities -- and a principal reason she was hired -- is to facilitate more cooperation and teamwork between the print newsroom and online staff. Over time, the Web site will be updated with breaking news more often, "but at the same time giving a better sense that the LA Times is our core product," she says. Currently, the site "does a good job" of updating news 5 days a week; that is about to go to 7 days. Ultimately, the site will be a 7-day/24-hour operation -- but that won't happen in the short term.

For local breaking news, the Times site is not staffing with its own reporters, but rather hopes to work better with the newsroom. Most major U.S. papers are working with their newsrooms today, she says. "One year ago, that wasn't the case." And why not. "Who better to be producing local news than the Times reporters who cover it day in and day out?" she says.

Gentry admits that the Web site has a task ahead of it in being prepared to cover the next major local story. When the next catastrophic earthquake hits Southern California -- and Internet users look to LATimes.com for immediate, definitive coverage -- Gentry and crew may not be able to get everything from the newsroom that they need. "But we're taking steps toward making that happen," she says.

Online editors and producers have at their disposal relationships with outside sources, such as wire services, freelancers and stringers. Gentry also is working on developing additional relationships with LA television and radio stations. (Should another O.J. Simpson Bronco freeway chase occur, Gentry says she'd probably get footage from a TV station to post on the Web, rather than try to film it with her own staff.)

But more important is fostering relationships with the newsroom that will allow comprehensive online coverage of a major local headline story well before print deadlines. "With a small (online) staff, you have to manage your time wisely," she says. Sending an online reporter to cover the same story as a print reporter is a waste of resources. In an earthquake story, for instance, Times online staffers might spend more time creating an interactive map detailing damage. Some of the information will come from online producers "shoulder sitting" with print journalists covering the story, Gentry says.

The most satisfying part of her job, she says, is seeing the excitement that is being generated for joint online-print projects. For an upcoming special section on small business, the writers and editors approached the Web staff with ideas for online components, and met for a joint brainstorming session. Says Gentry, "That's the way it should work."

"We make the print side look better," by providing additional journalistic resources online, "and they make us look better, too," she says. "We can benefit so much from that brain trust."

Gentry senses a change in attitude among the rank and file print journalists of the Times. "I think there's the realization now that we're not just whistling in the dark. There's actually journalism happening here (in the online division)," she says.

But of course, there are holdouts. "There are still people (at the Times) who for a variety of reasons feel that references to online media detract from the print product," Gentry says. She counters their arguments by pointing out internal research statistics that show that the Web site is viewed by most users as a supplement to the newspaper, and that a high percentage of traffic comes from non-subscribers to the print product. "We're not cannibalizing our (print) subscriber base."

Changes ahead

Gentry's immediate goals for the LA Times Web site include working more with the technology staff to automate more of what Web staffers currently do, in order to focus staff resources on building greater depth of content. She hints at a greater Southern California focus, and constructing new sites covering targeted subject areas -- but won't say more. (As mentioned earlier, the Times is building a local entertainment guide Web site in conjunction with CitySearch, of which Times-Mirror is an investor. Gentry describes this as "our way of trying to protect our turf against that group of competitors" including Microsoft and its Sidewalk local online entertainment guides.)

The Times site also is huge -- with content as broad and deep as the newspaper itself -- and thus it can be daunting to Web visitors. She wants to tweak the design of the site (which underwent a significant redesign just prior to her arrival), to better show readers what's there. For a site with reams of content, it's a difficult task to show in one screen or two what a reader should know about.

Asked if her appointment to head the Times Web site portends "radical changes," Gentry says only that in six months the site will "seem different," with a sharper sense of personality and a more clearly defined focus. And while evolving toward more frequent news updating, the site also will strengthen its sense of "Times-ness" -- defined as providing the depth and thoughtful analysis of events that are a hallmark of this newspaper.

Contact: Leah Gentry, leah.gentry@latimes.com

Steve

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This column is written by Steve Outing exclusively for Editor & Publisher Interactive three days a week. News, tips, and other communications may be sent to Mr. Outing at steve@planetarynews.com

The views expressed in the above column do not necessarily represent the views of the Editor & Publisher company































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