Thursday, July 10, 2008

AAghhhh, the 'circles' are back

The "circles" are dead. Long live the "circles."

We know about the "circles" here in Columbia. We went through them in the 1990s. At The State. With Gil Thelen.

It's not that we didn't like them. Something was needed to break the newsroom out of the old, hidebound model. But the circles with their beats divorced from bricks and mortar and concentrating on the "big picture look," connecting the dots, whatever, produced unintended side effects, like the newspaper's discovering major lawsuits days after they were filed but treating them as today's news, etc. (You could do that in the "good old days" before an army of bloggers could call you on it.)

(I was at AP at the time, so I had a dog in the hunt, being as this was the biggest paper in the state and it relied on us, "uncircled " as we were, to cover a lot of the daily beat stuff -- at least judging from the almost daily calls I got from the paper's "governing" desk.)

Thelen went to Tampa."Goodbye circles," we said as they headed for Media General's News Center, that crucible of "convergence." (Except things never really converged between the newspaper, TV station and online - I know this because I have contacts in that building. I have gotten the cook's tour. I have talked with the rank and file.)

So I'm reading the rather lengthy memo from Tampa Exec. Ed. Janet Coats (Thelen is now retired) about the upheaval there, and there they are again, the "circles."

News Circles – the units where news is produced. Each group is composed of reporters, editors, television and online producers and visual journalists who are working to create the stories we’ll use across all platforms. Reporters receive their story assignments from within these groups, and the front-line editing occurs here. Photographers work within these groups, and the first cut at photo and video selection occurs here. The managers in this unit get performance feedback from the audience editors and the news leadership, as well as their direct reports.

Finishing Circles – the units where content is made ready for publication, broadcast and posting. These groups are responsible for melding the knowledge of audience with an understanding of what the audience expects from print, television and the Website. The finishing circles act as advocates for the individual platforms. The managers in this group get performance feedback from the audience editors and the news leadership.
"Finishing circles"? What next, quilting bees? (Or as the mysterious and sexy woman I was with last night said over dinner when I mentioned this: "I'm thinking, what, are they Amish?")

AAaaaaaaggggggggghhhhhhhh. Run for your lives!

All right, enough funsies. No, I'm not going to knock Coats' plan into a cocked hat. Parts of her plan actually make some sense. When you finally get the circles image out of your brain and give it a hard look, it has a lot of the same aspects of the Atlanta Journal Constitution's reorganization plan of a little over a year ago.

(It's just that Coats, already with a rather checkered history for some of her moves in Wichita -- when she was Janet Weaver, in case you're keeping score -- had the unfortunate timing of making the announcement as she was laying off people. That included a sports writer who, at the paper's urging, had moved to Tallahassee to cover Florida State sports and then was told the paper was cutting that slot (see his story - scroll down).)

And it followed what had to be one of the worst two-week periods for employment in the newspaper industry. And then there was the perky intern who blogged about it somewhat intemperately before a holiday weekend, setting off three-day flame war among the traditionals and the digiterati* that perfectly encapsulates the mood afoot in many newsrooms these days. (Note to Janet: Check your horoscope next time. Timing, as they say, is everything.)

Coats, and Julia Wallace at the AJC earlier, are splitting off production of the paper (and in Tampa's case, the newscast) from the production of news. (Gannett's "information centers" don't seem to have done that quite so much, but someone fill us in in the comments section, if I'm wrong.) This is the model we've been promoting in one way or another for five years at Newsplex, the experimental news center at USC.

Newsgathering/journalism is a service business. Putting out a newspaper or a broadcast is an industrial undertaking. It was pretty much just an accident of oligopoly and an artifact of the Industrial Revolution that allowed them to be happily married for about 120 years. David Sullivan hit it perfectly on on his blog:
[N]ewspapers are essentially a logistics business that happens to employ journalists. ... That's why, in the end, you can lay off reporters easier than you can lay off truck drivers. You have less in the paper, but you get it to the dropoff site on time, because the core financial contract (for 80 percent of your money) was always -- we distribute the ads to the right place on time.

Now, this may not be the core competence of journalists -- who may be collecting, evaluating and presenting news and information to people in whatever form they wish and at whatever time they wish, doing it for themselves or in the pay of all types of companies. And in today's environment, perhaps journalists and their work would be better served by an employer who had different competencies. But of all their employers, the newspaper company also knows best how to run a factory, and the bigger ones know how to run a trucking company.

Sullivan argues, essentially, that newspapers and journalists remain joined at the hip for now (his argument could be extended to broadcasters and the traditional TV model too). But this just serves to shackle newsrooms' core competency of getting valuable and valued information in front of the consumer on time. Too many remain tied to "big iron," both physically and psychologically.

And that's where the Trib and AJC come in.

If Coats' plan, and the AJC's work out**, the production part of the operation -- the copy desks, designers, etc. -- go to their own pod, circle or whatever. Online should also be separate as a production unit. Tampa's case also gives us the first real look at how a broadcast unit also hooks into this mix. In the ideal model, the newsroom itself remains platform agnostic.

And before you get all lathered up, I am not proposing to move online back to the "digital ghetto" to which it was too long relegated. In fact, this gives it equal status, or should, with the two other production units (and any future ones we might dream up) as supplicants to the newsgathering part of the operation.

At least that's how it should be. The devil, of course, is in the details -- or in Tampa's case, the circles.

First, the very nature of a medium dictates that it will have some influence on newsgathering. It does no good to have the newsgathering apparatus separate if it cannot produce the assets needed by all production units, but all are not created equal. Depending on the story, one medium is more likely to dominate. And while it's neither likely nor efficient that every "circle" will produce all types of elements on every story, each circle will have to produce more than one type (otherwise, you're just back to the old division of labor model, or more as it is practiced today, division of labor and, oh, can you throw an Internet piece together on that for me, too, model).

Thus, it will take a Herculean effort to ensure a proper mix and balance, a job made doubly difficult by the documented difficulties of mixing sometimes antagonistic cultures. (Another summary here.) And between those circles are going to be some shark-infested waters as the news circles compete for resources (not to mention the tendency toward turf wars).

We're suddenly, finally supposed to become one big, happy family? Fat chance, wrote one of my contacts who has deep channels into the building.

And where the thing will go awry... they hate and do not trust each other. There is NO compromise in that crowd. When they sing a scale... none can get past the third note.... which invariably gets repeated like a stutter, wrote the other.

No exactly ringing endorsements from people who I will assure you do not belong to the curmudgeon class. Human nature can be that way, of course. And maybe they'll pull it off. I hope they do. But in any case, silly circles or not, worth watching closely because if they can pull it off, it should produce structures where the news gathering is not tied to the platform. That means more flexibility and, we'd hope, more ability to adapt with alacrity to new technologies not already seen.***

So far, short of blowing it up and starting over, these are the most hopeful models I've seen.

* Look, there are no terms out there that aren't going to p-o somebody, so get over it, OK?
** I'd love to have someone check in from the AJC and tell us how it's going.
*** It also, I would hope, sever the still-too-prevalent idea that online is an adjunct of the newspaper. For instance, how many newsrooms have a "social media expert" on their online staffs tasked with 1) thinking about existing and new social media apps and 2) figuring out how to use those to grow online audience? Doesn't have to be "an" expert -- anyone on the staff can pitch in with new ideas and try to implement them. If online is set up as its own area and charged to grow revenue and readership, good things might happen. Meanwhile, on the other side of the equation, the news gatherers, freed from having to be media specific, can be thinking about how to get ALL the relevant assets on a story or point people to those it can't get.

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At 7/10/08, 9:52 AM, Blogger Mike Plugh said...

Interesting take and extremely comprehensive. Thanks.

At 7/10/08, 11:33 AM, Anonymous DV said...

Don't know who your contact is "deep" in the building (see: We're suddenly, finally supposed to become one big, happy family?...)
but they neglect the fact that everyday a team of people from WFLA, The Tribune and TBO work together (and pretty well, actually) to post news to the site. In today's paper, the 1A CP photo was taken by a WFLA staffer. Some newspaper reporters, such as Michelle Bearden, regularly appear on News Channel 8.
The Continuous News Desk's work (which is seen on the homepage of is a thriving example of what convergence can be. The new circles will expand on what the CND is already doing and provide a variety of content to what's already being posted in a breaking-news style. And with or without the circles, it's the folks who can't deal with the cross-pollination of mediums that will be unhappy in the family.

At 7/10/08, 12:04 PM, Blogger Doug Fisher said...

The CND works -- sometimes. No one is disputing that. And it's been working more and more recently as segments of both newsrooms have been forced together even before the latest announcement.

But be honest -- it's not hardly gotten to where the original hoo-ha was supposed to have put it at this point (remember, I've been there and talked to the worker bees when the suits are not around, not just the honchos). There have been long lonely stretches where the "C" in CND was more mirage than reality.

No one is saying it won't work. But what I and others who have researched it up close (see Huang and Silcock/Keith, for instance) have noted is that it's going to be a lot harder culturally than it first looked.

That's actually not breaking news, since it's been known for several years now. I just thought it was worth pointing out that it still is the elephant behind the curtain.

But I do wish you all good luck with what you are trying. It's very important to see if you can pull it off.

At 7/10/08, 12:57 PM, Anonymous dv, a worker bee said...

Except for an occasional slow news day, in the year that I've been on the CND (since its inception), the "C" has been a reality and never a mirage.

And yes, culturally, it won't be a seamless transition, but you will find that in any newsroom where convergence is happening: When someone asks a print reporter to shoot video or a videographer to shoot stills, etc. That's the elephant roaring in the industry, not just behind the curtain at The News Center.

At 7/10/08, 1:18 PM, Blogger Doug Fisher said...

Good for y'all. Keep it up. We'll see how it works taking it to the next level or two. That's why I think Tampa is once again important.

At 7/10/08, 1:54 PM, Blogger Brian B said...

worker bee: A friend of mine whose wife was an award-winning photographer at a large Florida paper (not Tampa) said that her training in videography consisted, in effect, of being handed a video camera and told "Here, use this too." Not seamless, indeed. I hope that isn't the norm.

At 7/10/08, 4:17 PM, Blogger Doug Fisher said...

I should clarify that my comments include not only the recent CND but the earlier incarnation of the "super desk," which was lackluster at best.

At 7/12/08, 2:01 PM, Blogger Peter Fisk said...

Now just a minute! When I worked there (2002-2006), the "Super Desk" served a vital purpose: Since it was entirely uncluttered by journalism-related activity, it was exceedingly clean, and its central location provided an ideal spot to set up snack food for staffers to graze on as they passed by. Other than that, it was basically a huge service-style desk with four or five big comfy chairs on one side where one or two young clerks would do their homework and answer an occasional ringing telephone and serve as the lost-and-found department.

On a more serious note, during my tenure at the Trib, much to my disappointment, the original vision of "convergence" had largely yielded to a reality of "collision." It always seemed like some overpaid mucky-mucks in faraway Richmond had concluded that all you had to do was put a newspaper, TV station and Web site into one building and magical results would spontaneously generate. It was a visionary plan without the visionary follow-through leadership that it desperately needed. By all accounts, that leadership has still not arrived in Tampa. And that's a shame, because there are still many highly talented journalists there who really do have what it takes to be on the cutting edge of the next great news-media paradigm. Sadly, though, for the Trib, WFLA, TBO, and the Tampa Bay region, much of that talent has already moved on.

At 7/13/08, 1:11 PM, Blogger Doug Fisher said...


And I bet you all had hours of fun with a string and a hook leaning over that third-floor railing and trying to hook a bag of snacks below. Sort of like the carny game, only taken to a new, multimillion-dollar level.

I do think things have gotten a bit more serious, though, with the merging of the criminal justice staffs of TV and print, and the merging of sports. Those are the two areas, it seems to me, where there are natural synergies across news operations. (There might be others, too, on specialty beats such as consumer affairs, as has been shown down there.)

Visuals (video/photo) seems like a natural when you look at it from afar, but when you get to the gritty details, TV and online video are so different, not to mention popping stills on top of that. There's a reason many newspapers have home-grown their competence there. But few are co-located as Tampa is, so if it can be pulled off anywhere, it's there.

I just hope MG is as open about access to researchers as it was at the beginning. Coats is taking on an important experiment there.

At 7/15/08, 2:20 AM, Blogger Peter Fisk said...

Doug, regarding over-the-railing interactions between the Trib and Channel 8 during my tenure at the NewsCenter, the key thing we learned upstairs was that TV people move a lot faster once they've figured out what the word "gardyloo" means.

At 7/28/08, 3:30 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have a hard time focusing and i do circles most of the time without ... Aaghhhh..the 844 days. I really wish I could burn the video of those days forever.
Wide Circles


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