Friday, November 03, 2006

Gannett blows up the newsroom

While lots of people have been talking about convergence, Gannett slowly, inexorably, quietly has been imposing it on its newsrooms. Occasional indicators have popped up, such as the Fort Myers mojos.

Now, the big one has hit -- a memo from Gannett chairman and CEO Craig Dubow (posted on Romenesko, of course) that announces the transformation of Gannett newsrooms to the Information Center concept. In Dubnow's words:

The Information Center, frankly, is the newsroom of the future. It will fulfill today's needs for a more flexible, broader-based approach to the information gathering process. And it will be platform agnostic: News and information will be delivered to the right media - be it newspapers, online, mobile, video or ones not yet invented - at the right time. Our customers will decide which they prefer.

The core idea is reshuffling the deck chairs in hopes this isn't the Titanic. No longer will it be called the newsroom, but the Information Center, and it will be built around seven areas: digital; public service; community conversation; local; custom content; data; and multimedia.

This isn't exactly how Tim Porter envisioned exploding up the newsroom (more here), but it's along the same idea. I suspect we'll see a lot of other media organizations paying very close attention -- people like Media General, which already is combining broadcast and print writers. (Gil Thelen, now retired publisher of the Tampa Tribune, was here last week and related how in Tampa the sports reporters for both print and broadcast are now working together in the same department under consolidated managers. While the rest of the much-vaunted and somewhat overhyped "News Center" remains largely separated, watch for more of this on the news side, he said.)

There will be a lot of braying, I'm sure, about how doing away with the "newsroom" and all this emphasis on closer connection with readers is pandering. Get used to it, folks. The palpable arrogance in too many modern newsrooms -- that somehow we are above it all and are indispensible to our readers/viewers/users/customers -- has got to go. We aren't, and they couldn't care less. We squandered much of that public support long ago. We continue to do so. (I am reminded of a recent Wall Street Journal story (sub. req.) about how radio station operators blithely leased time to scam artists fleecing immigrants. The station owners' excuse: They don't speak the language and had no idea. Look, to much of our public it's "the media," and those programs were just as much "information" as are our newspapers and news broadcasts. It's just another black eye all around that causes the public to think "there's no honor among thieves.")

Some other key points from Dubow's memo (the emphases are all mine):
Q. Why is it called the Information Center and not the newsroom?
A. Increasingly, we are realizing that our customers are interested in much more than news from our products. While news remains our preeminent mission, other information – especially local information – is increasingly in demand. Calendars, recommendations, lifestyle topics as well as neighborhood level stories are all new elements that will have ongoing coverage across platforms. We are also embracing community interactivity in our sites with increased involvement. Changing the name acknowledges this additional responsibility and emphasizes that we are gathering news and information for websites, mobile devices and other products as well as for our daily newspapers. ...

Q. Will the Information Center replace newsrooms at all of our properties?
A. The goal is for all Gannett properties to adopt the concept of the Information Center. Every newspaper in the Newspaper Division will be expected to fulfill the seven primary jobs outlined in the Information Center. Larger newspapers in the Division will create actual desks to accomplish these tasks while smaller papers will combine multiple jobs into various areas. For USA TODAY and our TV stations, the concept of the Information Center currently is being studied.

Q. Does that mean jobs will be changing?
A. Many jobs are transforming to allow for immediacy, multi-platform coverage and greater interaction with the community. People will be asked to perform many new and different functions than they are used to. Schedules are changing as the Information Center becomes a 24-hour operation. Some types of jobs, such as reporter and editor, will continue but the way they are done may change to focus on more local news. The role of the copy desk is shifting to reflect the audience expectation of continuous news coverage and strong headline writing needed on mobile devices, for example. Photographers are becoming videographers, reporting stories and creating new storytelling techniques through multimedia projects. Many of the changes will occur as needs arise during the rollout phase of the Information Center. ...

Q. Will there be additional hiring done to fill the Information Center jobs?
A. The Information Center transforms, repurposes and refocuses the resources that exist now. Newspapers are training for new skills in multimedia, assessing needs for library science and archiving expertise and updating job descriptions. Many sites are assessing, updating and training to ensure everyone has the right tools and expertise to transform into Information Center employees.
That last one, of course, is the kicker. Don't expect any more jobs from this. Adapt -- or die. (And for copy editors, please pay special attention to that next-to-last answer. As noted on this blog earlier, copy editors need to come to peace with the reality that their jobs are likely to radically change in the upcoming decade, and they need to get the skills needed to deal with that. Hopefully, ACES will take the lead in this. See Rich Gordon's thoughts on a study of job skills needed in online newsrooms. At South Carolina, for instance, my editing students already must learn how to find relevant links and to create 133-character SMS messages from the stories they edit.)

Sure, the New York Times, to much fanfare, announced it was combining its online and print newsrooms. The Miami Herald did, too, awhile back. Others have, too. But Gannett is the 6,000-pound gorilla. The future has arrived. Welcome to the future.
Amy Gahran posts on Poynter's E-media Tidbits:
At the SEJ conference last weekend, I heard rumblings of this from some reporters who work for papers where Gannett has been piloting this strategy. Word is from the front lines is that the idea is to convert newspapers into "local information centers." It's not a completely comfortable fit, said these journalists, and they expressed concerns about how this might affect the quality of Gannett's in-depth reporting efforts.

Wired news has an interesting take on the Gannett changes, specifically looking at "Crowdsourcing," which reporter Jeff Howe helpfully defines as taking functions traditionally performed by employees and using the internet to outsource them to an undefined, generally large group of people. The compensation is usually far less than what an employee might make for performing the same service. Well-known examples include Wikipedia and iStockphoto.
Howe details how the Fort Myers News-Press used the concept earlier this year to enlist engineers, accountants and a whistle-blower to uncover possible bid-rigging in connection fees charged to hook new homes to sewer and water lines. Howe's piece has some helpful links to what he's written before on crowdsourcing, including "5 rules of the new labor pool."

His blog,, should probably a must-read for most newroom types, and he's going to be running a series of documents and insights he has from Gannett staffers, so it should definitely be an interesting read for the next few days.

Dennis Ryerson, editor of the Indianapolis Star, let a little of the cat out of the bag in an Oct. 1 column.

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At 11/5/06, 10:59 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Under pressure, newspapers have always gone after what they think the public wants -- not a bad idea, necessarily, as long as it's not the only idea. Consider USA Today and its emphasis on color and that huge weather map. Consider screaming headlines and the emphasis on scandal that sell pretty well in supermarkets.

I think that Gannett's latest lurch is something the readers won't give a sh** about, and that eventually tradition in terminology will prevail, though no doubt the papers will change somewhat. Especially in the area of low-cost content.

But the radicalness of the change and the announcement that everyone will be trained and have their butts kicked to join the 21st century is also a newspaper tradition, one that Gannett has followed for decades: Gross disrespect for its newsroom staffs.

At 11/10/06, 11:13 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

All very well said, Doug. Traditional newspapers are just going to have to deal with these pressures, and quickly. If the sudden implosion of Knight-Ridder wasn't a wake-up call about how quickly things are changing, and how papers really don't have as much time to change as they once thought, I don't know what could possibly get their attention.

Sadly, they mostly seem stuck in a defensive crouch, which I suppose is understandable. But they really do have a lot of advantages (in resources, credibility, knowledge and the key intangible of community goodwill earned over many generations) they could leverage in moving to a digital future, if only they can summon the will. And the courage.


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