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"? 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?")
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.
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.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.
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.
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.