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: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.
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.
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)
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.