Another source of inspiration for journalism (Bas Timmers)
Guest Blogger Bas Timmers is Newsroom Editor at Dutch broadsheet de Volkskrant.
‘A newspaper is like an oil tanker,’ editors in chief call out in despair again and again. Changing the direction is often slow and difficult. But that of course just depends on whether you have the right rudder or not. Because the captain is still steering the ship. Yes, journalists can be quite nasty and stubborn, but mutiny is still a step too far for most of them.
Jeff Jarvis also used a metaphor from the shipping industry recently: “When you’re redesigning newsrooms, you need to redesign habits and brains and job descriptions and skills while moving the furniture — or else you’ll be moving the furniture on the Titanic.”
He touches a very sensitive spot with that. Of course it’s important and groundbreaking if you design a hypermodern newsroom. One that is physically in the heart of the newspaper, surrounded by the sports, economy, politics and other desks and completed by some nice videowalls. Like the Telegraph in London did, for instance. And much better by the way than the ‘zoo newsroom’ in the new office of the New York Times, which looks like a major step back in time. Transparency looks different, that’s for sure.
But ultimately of course it’s not about where the desks are. You have to change the work- and thinking-patterns of the editorial staff, and that’s much harder than moving furniture.
The entire concept behind an integrated newsroom is to start working as a multimedia company, to let the differences between print and online dissolve: convergence, as everyone now seems to call it. Which is quite necessary, because every editor in chief will see that the entire news process is still focused at the paper product. Editors write their article at the end of the day, hand it in to the subs and go home happily.
An integrated newsroom can’t change that all at once. Yes, very slowly there are editors emerging who are willing to produce several pieces for the web DURING the day. But the developments in the online news world are going so rapidly that publishers run the risk of changing too slow.
There are just too many things happening at the same time. A comparison between paper and online news content teaches us that the customer has so much choice nowadays that he really is the king of his own world. Because he has alternatives for every product he uses. The newspaper only has a dominant share in media consumption during the morning hours. Later this consumption shifts to internet, cell phones, television and radio. During that process, the customer makes personalised choices all of the time: through rss feeds, or by visiting sites that cover a certain field of interest. A page about cinema reviews for instance.
Nowadays the customer also wants to have his say about those movies himself, because the critics’ truth doesn’t necessarily have to be his truth. So he reacts to reviews through comments, or through his own weblog. The consumer becomes a producer and vice versa. And we’re not talking merely about the so-called early adopters, the relatively small group of geeks that just LOVES to use new technique. No, everyone born after 1985 is part of a new generation for which internet has always been there. Those consumers want to:
- get news for free, 24/7
- discuss and participate. Interactivity
- consume the news in many different ways: paper, pc, laptop, cell phone, iPod, tv, etc.
- be served tailor-made. Many many niche markets will be created
- be surprised. Read or watch something that is hard to get somewhere else
Such a concept is not tenable in the current time-frame with the current, very generic newspaper product. When news has to become more interactive, personal and 24/7, the focus should therefore be on online production. The newsPAPER is the logical continuation of that, a snapshot at 7AM of the best stories and photos of the preceding 24 hours, complemented with (background) material that has been produced specifically for paper.
Creating for online and paper means making videos, pictures, graphics and fully integrated in this process. But the biggest difference is that editors will start to produce much more and per field of interest, inspired by the blogosphere and readers. That will become the third source of inspiration, after the feeds by news agencies and ideas/research of the staff itself. Welcome to third stream country.
What this means in everyday practice
So blogs have to be taken seriously, finally. Until now they were often perceived as uninteresting, badly-written personal diaries that we don’t need. That was the general opinion, not least among journalists. And for 95 percent of blogs this assumption is true. But those last five percent still represent a massive amount of blogs, a massive amount of knowledge and a massive amount of power. Bloggers just use a different approach, a different stage and a different definition of news than journalists.
One of the differences is that they also write about less important news, that wouldn’t make it into the paper. Which is no problem, because a paper is a generic product, whereas a blog has a specific subject in which readers are interested above average. But the more important difference here of course is that bloggers open up to their audience. This can lead to a lot of cursing back-and-forth, yes, but also to great tips to explore a subject.
In the American election race for instance the blogosphere will have a major influence because of the authority of some commentators and because of the salient facts that will be discovered about candidates.
That’s why journalists should take blogs serious. They are important competitors, that threaten to undermine the role of newspapers as news- and opinion makers.
The news last week that Google is opening the attack on Facebook already leaked through to the blogosphere months before and was first officially confirmed by TechCrunch. That’s why reporters should find the bits, pieces and big chunks of news on the web and then publish them in a way that is attractive to the modern consumer of news: through blogs, indeed. That is the essence of the ‘three streams model’, where internet becomes the third source for stories (together with own research and the personal contacts of a reporter). But what does this model look like in the everyday newsroom?
Well, the days that the editorial floor fills up at around 10AM are over. The web staff starts at 7.00 sharp to put the most important news from the past night and the current paper online. The rest of the office will be organised in small clusters of, let’s say, five people that focus on subjects such as education, environmental issues, showbiz, movies, European Union, domestic news, football, internet, America, etc etc. Every cluster has at least one editor present at 7.45 to scan the latest news on their respective fields. Fifteen minutes later the online morning meeting starts. On which subjects do we focus? What are video and graphics going to do?
The coordinators of the clusters then start to produce items throughout the day, based on the news wires, blogs and their own research. Subjects that need more time and attention should be done by colleagues. They are also responsible for writing columns, editorial opinions, and so forth.
In the meantime the coordinator has a look at the feedback from readers and deals with it. When there is important news, he signals the head of the internet desk, who is functioning as a gatekeeper to the frontpage of the site. This gatekeeper is also responsible for determining whether breaking news should be published immediate through sms, e-mails and mobile platforms. Exactly as it was described by Paul Bradshaw in his Diamond Model Theory, which is really good for breaking news.
Only by starting at this early hour can the editorial room produce sufficient materials before 9.00 AM. At that time, the first big wave of visitors hits the sites to keep on rolling until 11PM. So the journalists keep on rolling until that time as well, in two shifts. During the day the reporters shift their focus from news to opinion, background and video: these need more time to produce. Besides, visitors have more time for this kind of material in the evening.
The rest of the cluster can start at the normal time. The paper product will be discussed briefly and by only a small group of people in the morning (to evaluate and to generate new ideas). Editors will blog about this meeting, just as The Guardian does, so readers know why the paper made some choices and to show the internal debate.
In the early evening there is another meeting where the outline of next day’s paper will be determined AND the online products of the current day are being evaluated. Indeed, another reason for a blog post.
And yes, editors will have to work much harder, sometimes well into the evening. But the work also becomes faster, more challenging and personal. Those who don’t fancy this development have no future any more in journalism.