Friday, February 16, 2007

Shaking up the AJC ...

And the dominoes continue to fall ...

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution becomes the latest to reinvent its newsroom for the digital age. It's not totally a surprise. The paper's online editors have co-led the daily news meetings for several months. One of our ACES colleagues, Lynn Orr, has been "manager of print/digital integration," and I've enjoyed hearing some of the details of the struggles to bring things together.

But I think it has tremendous significance for where it puts us on the convergence continuum (PDF version).

The nut grafsfrom the memo that came from AJC editor Julia Wallace:

We must make these changes to respond to our readers. They now have more sources than ever for news and information, and we must fundamentally alter the way we operate. Online, we will show that we know Atlanta best, providing superlative news and information and becoming the preferred medium for connecting local communities. In print, we will really listen to our core readers and create a newspaper that offers distinct and valuable content. As we think about this future, we have four clear jobs:

Grow digital
Reinvent print
Create more regular local enterprise (distinctive content) that readers cannot get elsewhere
Improve our news and information gathering

We must organize ourselves to meet these goals. That means a major shift in the way we work. Our current structure is fine for the pace and demands of a printed newspaper, but isn't structured for online's immediacy and evolving needs. Additionally, as we have evolved over time, we have added layers and bureaucracy and have become less nimble. Rather than tinkering with the old newsroom, we need to start over.
The emphasis is mine ... and in general form follows the same path Gannett said it was taking -- the time for tinkering is over. Totally new structures are needed.

In addition, the AJC is"extending a voluntary separation program offer to about 80 employees who are 55 years of age or older and have 10 years of Cox pension vesting service. (Out of a newsroom of 475.) " The company also plans to pull back to 73 counties around metro Atlanta. That may still sound like a lot compared with some of the pullbacks we've seen. But it means you no longer will be able to get a print edition in South Carolina, Alabama, Florida and parts of Georgia. It also means additional job losses in circulation and similar areas. The paper also will close its downtown printing plant in two years and just use its one in Gwinnett County. It will spend $3o million on printing upgrades and $12 million on a classified ad system (likely, I think, to have wide capabilities for people to create and post their own ads).

Why do I think this is so significant? Because, like the earlier announcement from Gannett, it marks some radical restructuring of the news operation. It comes closer to what we have been exploring at Newsplex for several years -- the "unhooking" of the content creation from the publishing platform.

Specifically, here's what Wallace has to say about the revamped newsroom:

  • News and Information: Focus, digital. Get it, get it fast. "This department will think online first but will also provide print with a heavy dose of news. Beat reporters, general assignment reporters, full-time columnists and go teams will work in this department. The goal is a fast-paced, fun department, learning and growing digital knowledge, while still serving print in smart ways."
  • Enterprise: Focus, print. This is smart because it looks at telling the story the best way in the best medium. In this case, print still remains better for long-form storytelling. "Print will be its focus, but it also will take full advantage of the online platform. Success means stories that offer something truly distinctive for the newspaper, create emotional connections, make us think, teach us something and change our world. The hallmarks of this department’s work will include unrelenting watchdog coverage, deep reporting, great storytelling, interesting profiles and trend stories. The primary goal of the enterprise department is to build more loyalty among regular print readers by providing them a menu of first-rate enterprise every day."
  • Digital: Similar to Gannett's digital desk. Think calendars, chats, blogs, interactivity -- especially interactive databases. "Responsible for growing online audience by offering local news and information; providing a platform for interactivity and social networking; and extending our selection beyond news to attract new audiences."
  • Print: This is the real kicker for me -- it focuses on print production, pulling as needed from all the other areas. This is the nexus, the separation of content from production. "[W]ill produce the best newspaper possible. Much like the digital department, it will pull from news, enterprise and other sources, including Cox's Washington bureau. This department will focus on issues such as balance, story play, headlines, cutlines, photos and design -- the many factors that determine a reader's experience with the paper. This structure places print and digital on equal footing, each taking what they need to satisfy their specific audiences." (emphasis mine)
I've been thrashing about in my head for several months a piece tentatively titled "Why would I ever want to work for a newsroom that owns printing presses?" The AJC, to my mind, has finished the thought.

Wallace wants it all done by the end of June. To help it along, Shawn McIntosh has been made "director of culture and change." Wallace also says the paper will boost its training, already good through Coxnet and other internal training initiatives, with a focus on "understanding our audiences and how to serve them."

I am a little bothered by the paper's feeling that a bunch of people 55 and older are surplus. I think that's the same kind of compartmentalized thinking papers have been guilty of for years. In fact, some of those folks -- who go back to the era of multiple editions and PM papers, probably could file faster and cleaner for the news desk than some of the newbies. And from what I've heard from online managers, it's the 30- and 40-year-old "print" folks who can be most resistant to change.

Expect to see more of this from more major newspapers. We are entering the fourth phase.
  • Phase one was just the realization that you had to have an online presence and it had to have some real content.
  • Phase two was the acknowledgment that online was more than a repository for shovelware and the establishment of online departments to not only repurpose but also to create content.
  • Phase three was the integration of online back into the newsroom and, in some cases, establishment of 24-hour news desks. The emphasis was on flashy projects and breaking some news online
  • Phase four is the gradual nebulizing of the newsroom that integrates online into all planning and that recognizes there is no one-size-fits-all medium, that every story is better told and every user better reached through a particular medium and style.
  • Phase five is the complete uncoupling of print, broadcast, online and whatever production from the news gathering -- the transformation of the idea of story from a siloed chunk of medium to something like the time slice envisioned by Gelernter and where editors and "publications" truly become, as Newhagen and Levy suggested, "guides," not gatekeepers.
I'd love to hear your reactions.

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8 Comments:

At 2/16/07, 6:25 PM, Blogger Murley said...

I am glad to see the AJC try something new. Also worried about the signal sent by the layoffs - it *looks* an awful lot like ageism. Truth be told, there are probably a lot of 20-year-old j-school students who probably fit the "resistant to change" mold well too.

 
At 2/17/07, 4:32 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Having been in through two newsroom downsizings when employees over 55 were offered buyouts, I just want to warn you that there is so much collective knowledge lost at one time. Everyone suffers. Readers suffer because the news organization loses depth of knowledge. Copy desk loses accuracy. Newbies lose mentors, guides and stories. Everyone loses. And the older employees type faster,(they didn't grow up relying on spell check) multi-task better ("Remember when we used to have to put out six editions before dinner break while keeping baseball scores off the radio, Ralph?") and write more and more accurately than four 20-year-olds strung together. News gathering isn't about age. It's about ethics, wisdom, knowledge, speed, integrity, sharpness, resourcefulness, identity, committment and honor. I'm in my 30s. Teaching college part-time and in the newsroom now part-time. I say train the 55-year-olds(+) because they are the most valuable resource you've got.

 
At 2/18/07, 10:03 AM, Anonymous Lex Alexander said...

Not everybody gets this stuff intuitively, particularly on the first try.

Having done this stuff a while, I think you can divide newsroom employees into three general groups:

-- Group A: Those who get it, intuitively, right away. ("It" being a high enough level of literacy in a variety of media to be able to look at a story and know which medium or media will tell it best AND to be able to look at a medium and know which types of stories it will best be able to convey.)

-- Group C: Those who don't get it, don't want to and never will.

-- Group B: Those who don't get it, and will never get it as quickly and intuitively as the first group, but who want to get it and can be educated and trained to make solid, substantial contributions once the tools are on everyone's desktop and the gap from idea to execution, now pretty broad in most newsrooms, is closed.

The industry can't afford to keep Group C around, nor should it. But given all the buyouts lately, I worry that it is well on the way to tossing out Group B as well (and, with it, a lot of knowledge that could be brought to bear both in its own right and in support of Group A while Group B gets trained and educated).

 
At 2/18/07, 4:54 PM, Blogger Doug Fisher said...

Lex:

I agree. I'm concerned, though, that age is being used as the criterion for "don't get it," and my experience is that a lot more of the folks in that bracket not only get it but want to get it. Listening to people in the field, the higher percentage of don't want to get its come from the 30-40 "I trained for print, dammit" brigade. Of course salaries, etc., also figure in with the older crowd.

And something I didn't mention in the post, but probably should have: The AJC is going to have at least some people reapply for their jobs.

 
At 2/20/07, 6:44 AM, Blogger Grayson said...

My 2-cents, for the Georgia Politica Digest, here:

http://www.georgiapoliticaldigest.com/article_6783.shtml

 
At 2/26/07, 11:01 PM, Anonymous Lex said...

Oh, one other thing to think about for the companies that think they can just get by with Group A (not only because of their mad coding skillz but also because they're young and cheap): Group A, as a general rule, is not going to be especially loyal to an employer. It will never be able to receive market value from most news organizations, and it knows that. So it will leave.

And then where will you be?

 
At 2/12/08, 10:57 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

However, in terms of looking at the innovators of new media content, the generation with the most tools to innovate is clearly the younger crowd. I'm not talking just j-school students, either. Overwhelmingly, the innovations are coming from younger people with a grasp of the "platform agnostic" concept. Not to say that ageism is a correct policy; but by the numbers it would at least do the most to make certain that no innovators are being cut out of the newsroom.

 
At 2/12/08, 12:11 PM, Blogger Doug Fisher said...

Yes, I think the "platform agnostic" is a tough nut for people to get -- but not just the older crowd. We still see it among j-school students, and I've wondered whether it is a product of the type of person who comes into j-school.

It's also tough to teach, in a way, because the industry is still not there, and so if you are seeking to get students those first jobs ...

In other words, we haven't reached the tipping point yet where the people who are hiring are willing to generally hire "agnostic."

 

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