Monday, June 23, 2014

The promise -- and peril -- in Atlanta editor's words

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's managing editor, Bert Roughton Jr., told Poynter last week: I can’t have people stuck on beats that may or may not have audiences all the time.

In that simple sentence lies the complicated tale of the current state of the news industry, at once fraught with promise and peril.

Roughton said those words in the context of trying to, as he put it, "smartly" manage what has been one of the more decimated staffs, having gone from about 500 people to about 180 in a bit more than a decade.

The AJC was one of the first to go "digital first," in 2007 moving its spot news online and creating a system designed to separate content creation from production.

Now, among other things, there will be 10 topic teams. There is a lot to like here:
  • Each team will include "audience specialists" that had been in a separate digital department.
  • Those specialists will help journalists still a bit tentative about this digital thing discover new tools and other ways to tell stories. That, in 2014, there still is nervousness in the newsroom about digital is worth taking a minute alone to ponder. (From Poynter: Roughton told me some traditional reporters are “still a little nervous about this whole Internet thing.” So having a digital specialist “in the family,” so to speak, gives reporters intimidated about digital a go-to person for help. “The truth is, I think most reporters are dying to be good at this,” Roughton said.)
  • There will be broader attention to audience research (trying to pay attention to your audience is always a good thing)
  • Based on that, and with echoes of Clayton Christensen's model that people don't buy products as such but hire "jobs to be done," Roughton promises a lot of deeper thinking about what to cover and how to do it. (From his memo as quoted by Poynter: Each topic team must develop a guiding statement of what they cover based on audience metrics, research and judgment. Instead of a collection of beats, each team will have a coherent theme against which to work. The topic statements should evolve as audience demands and circumstances change. For example; instead of covering a bunch of individual companies, the Economy team might focus around a topic such as “Metro Atlanta’s recovery from the Great Recession and how that is reshaping the economy for our audiences.”
But this highlights the stresses on the modern news organization because some of the truly important "beats" don't have audiences to start. In many cases, our job as journalists is to create those audiences for things that otherwise might go unnoticed but turn out to be hugely important.

The idea of  breaking away from the "beat" that produces isolated, incremental coverage is not new. Gil Thelen, as editor of The State in Columbia, S.C., for instance, was one of those pioneering coverage "circles" in the 1990s. There are several other examples, such as the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that was studied in depth (here's the PDF link if you can, through your library, get to the full study, which is paywalled) and Minneapolis (again, the full paywalled PDF).

But the stakes have been raised in the current digital age and business climate.

Some of those beats with low or no audience are critical to actually discovering those stories that have the elusive audience we seek. I already see around the country stories about significant lawsuits or court decisions days or weeks late on news organization sites. (As any "traditional" reporter will tell you, the reason you checked those filings regularly was because they were the quickest way to discover an area's underbelly, reveal its interlocking connections, and turn up some darn good stories.)

Yes, it's good to get out of the press release processing business when it comes to covering local companies, but the contacts made by a follow-up call and short story from one of those can often lead to sources for better stories and a much better understanding of the background needed to cover such organizations.

The turn-of-the-screw stories from City Hall definitely need to be a thing of the past, but if we are left to rely on agendas and other handouts, even if we deeply report "advancers" and the like, then what? I spent a fine summer trailing Andrea Mitchell around Philadelphia City Hall during the Rizzo administration as she ran the beat. There was a lot of incremental work there, but like a mosaic, when you stepped back it created a larger, more significant picture.

And we know how most State House bureaus have been gutted as more power is being shifted to the states and when people's lives arguably are more affected, on balance, by what happens at the State House than in Congress or City Hall. Covering state government effectively is a contact sport, bar none.

I wish I had the answer to a question that has gnawed at me for years, back to the "circles" days: How do we balance the journalism of relevance, for lack of a better term (we'd hope it's all relevant, right?), with the journalism needed to discover those sometimes disparate threads that require the kind of institutional knowledge and sometimes mind-numbing amassing of detail that allow you to realize the thread is there and not just fuzz?

No newsroom has ever been able to do it all, of course, and many stayed too long exclusively in the bricks-and-mortar beats mode. Digital tools can make some of this transformation a bit easier, but they can be gamed by those producing the info fed into them (yes, regular personal contacts can be gamed too, but it's harder when they have to look you in the eyes).

We are gaining, I think, some smarter journalism. But it will take journalists, especially newsroom leaders, of strong constitution and unusual enlightenment to try to keep things balanced. We also are losing something in this process.

Fifty years ago this month, three civil rights workers were killed. Less than a year earlier, four girls were killed in the Birmingham church bombing. In 1965, the world watched as civil rights marchers were beaten in Selma, Ala.

Thanks to Eugene Patterson, the AJC had one of the outstanding records among Southern papers of that time. But it was 15 years earlier when much of journalism really needed to be paying close attention.

If it were today, would the civil rights beat at that critical time -- before things exploded -- really have the "audience"?

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