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Table of Contents
How Digital First journalists work Comments Digital First journalists: What we value Comments 10 ways to think like a Digital First journalist Comments Leading a Digital First newsroom Comments How Digital First succeeds at making money Comments 2 6 13 18 19 19 22 28 30 31
These posts and comments originally appeared on my blog, The Buttry Diary.
How a Digital First approach guides a journalist’s work
Digital First means different priorities and processes for journalists. The name and approach of my company, Digital First Media, is getting a lot of attention in journalism, and other companies have declared they will follow a digital-first approach. But I don’t think the approach is yet widely or well understood. As I’ve visited our company’s newsrooms, I’ve heard again and again from editors that they are “all in” for our digital emphasis. But in the next breath, some editors ask questions about what Digital First means for them and their newsrooms. They believe but they don't fully understand. Digital First is way more than just publishing breaking news online and shooting video (though it involves both). Steve Yelvington explained: Digital First is about making the future your first priority, with everything that implies. It requires restructuring all your priorities. Not just when you do it, but what you do and how you do it. In a series of blog posts starting today, I will attempt to explain what those priorities mean. I will explain for my Digital First colleagues as well as for the curious and skeptical journalists who are closely watching our efforts to redirect and redefine journalism. My series is part of an extended conversation about Digital First journalism. The foundational documents being published by York Daily Record editors and Matt DeRienzo's Connecticut Newsroom blog have shared some important views and details. I'm sure that other Digital First journalists have blogged about some of the same matters or other aspects I will not address here. I invite those colleagues to add links to their related blog posts in the comments here. I’ll address the working, values and thinking of Digital First journalism. I'll share suggestions for leading a Digital First newsroom and discuss how Digital First succeeds as a business model. Today I'll start with the actual work.
How Digital First journalists work
Digital platforms are first in the processes and priorities of the Digital First journalist. We publish newspapers as well, but newspapers cannot drive our work. Newspapers are a shrinking audience and revenue stream and our digital community and revenue stream are growing. Our survival demands a digital focus. Digital journalists produce content initially for multiple digital platforms: our news websites, blogs, social media, text alerts, email alerts and newsletters (and whatever comes next or whatever I've overlooked). Editors responsible for print products will assemble them primarily from content produced originally for digital platforms. Whatever your job, you need to make high priorities to: • • • • • • Work and think first for digital platforms. Experiment and take risks. Try new tools & techniques. Cover news live. Join, stimulate, curate and lead the community conversation. Engage the community in your coverage.
Each journalist must work out his or her particular processes and priorities in consultation with editors and colleagues. Your details will vary from those I outline here and will vary day to day. Even if I outline exactly what your daily workflow should be, it may well change next month as a new tool becomes available or someone pioneers a new technique. So look at these examples as illustrations of how you might change your workflow, not as a specific, rigid or complete prescription. I'll sketch possible workflows for a few different reporters, a visual journalist and an editor, going into greater detail in the first illustration:
Court reporter's workflow
On a trial day, the reporter, for the most part, uses Twitter as her notebook. She sets up a trial liveblog using CoverItLive or ScribbleLive and liveblogs or live-tweets (feeding the tweets into the liveblog) the trial narrative through the day. She keeps an offline notebook or digital file handy for tips, story ideas and notes that need more inquiry before publication, but for the most part, Twitter and the liveblog become her trial notebook and she shares that notebook with the community. If any developments during the trial merit a news alert (key ruling, verdict, stunning testimony), the reporter sends a quick text to an editor who will send out a text or email alert, unless the reporter is authorized to publish alerts directly. (The editor should have given some guidance on whether to alert the editor first or tweet first, but both should be done swiftly.) For such a development, the reporter might write a few paragraphs to update the story that introduces the liveblog. The stream of tweets is not a transcript and does not have to be constant. As testimony raises questions the reporter wants to ask an attorney at a break, she might decide not to tweet something until she gains further understanding. She might take a quick break from trial during a procedural argument or testimony of a secondary witness to check in with sources or check for new filings in the clerk's office. After the day's testimony concludes, the reporter writes a summary story that will update the liveblog intro and run in the newspaper. Most of the time (the day of the verdict would be a likely exception), this story will be shorter than newspaper coverage of trials has traditionally been. A summary, noting that complete coverage is available online, will suffice most days. The reporter also posts a Facebook update about the trial and posts a brief item to Google+, linking to the story and liveblog. If social media discussion of the story is strong, the reporter might embed a few tweets in the web version of the game story or use Storify to curate the social media conversation for a sidebar. On days when the reporter isn't covering a trial, and during breaks in the trial, the reporter checks in with traditional courthouse sources: prosecutors, lawyers, judges, the clerk's office, victim advocates, families of defendants. These checks will be a combination of traditional chats on the phone and in people's offices and digital checks -- monitoring Twitter feeds and searches, checking a Facebook group supporting a defendant, digital filings at the clerk's office. When the reporter comes across significant news, such as a big lawsuit, charge or indictment, she will immediately tweet and email an alert to an editor. Then she will quickly write a few paragraphs summarizing the news and file an initial story, noting that she will be seeking reaction from key people. Then she does a quick Twitter search to see if any of the key figures has already reacted. If so, she adds their tweets to the story (presuming she has earlier validated the Twitter profiles as legitimate). If not, she starts calling on the phone, emailing and/or visiting offices, seeking reaction, explanation, etc. When interviewing sources, the reporter will take notes but also record a few minutes of video and shoot a still mug shot. She may audio-record the full interview, especially if it is a critical interview, for use of audio clips online. When online documents are not available for linking, the reporter will download or scan
digital copies of key documents relating to cases she is covering. In most cases, the reporter will write less than a traditional print reporter, allowing time to scan and embed documents and edit video and audio clips. Ron Sylvester of the Wichita Eagle has been live-tweeting trials for years. Patricia Doxsey of the Daily Freeman and Mike Cruz of the San Bernardino Sun are also live-tweeting trial coverage. The New Haven Register uses a branded NHR Live account for live-tweeting.
Visual journalist's workflow
At the scene of a breaking news story, the Digital First visual journalist shoots a range of visuals for use in a variety of formats and platforms. The work will vary by story, but could include any or all of these tasks: • • • • • • • With a smartphone, he takes a few quick photos and posts them immediately to the breaking news blog, then tweets links to them. He shoots video (might be with smartphone or with camera) at the scene. He shoots a variety of still photos to use in a slideshow later and to provide a selection for consideration for print. He records ambient sound and some interviews with an audio recorder for use in the soundtrack of the slideshow. He shoots mug shots of key players if he has the opportunity, for secondary art and to archive for possible later use when these people are in the news. In case of a disaster, he shoots some building/setting shots for possible later use with file photos in before/after presentations. He records accurately the spellings of names of people and places, where possible by shooting photos of name tags, credentials and other documentation.
Upon returning to the newsroom, the visual journalist confers with editors to decide which visuals to edit and post online first and which photo(s) might be best for print. If you're a visual journalist, you might be thinking, yeah, I'd do all that if I had the right equipment, but I don't have a smartphone (or whatever). Yes, absolutely, Digital First journalism requires providing journalists the tools they need to work effectively. Our company is working on that and other companies following a digital-first approach need to invest in digital tools, too.
Sports reporter's workflow
On game day, the Digital First sports reporter covers the events live, either using a tool such as CoverItLive or ScribbleLive directly or by live-tweeting and feeding the tweets into the liveblog or by frequently updating a news story or blog. The nature of the liveblog might vary, depending on television coverage. If the reporter is covering the local professional or big-time college team, and fans are likely to be watching in the stadium or on television, her role is more commentary and interaction with fans than play-by-play. If it's a road game that's not on television, the reporter needs to report more of the action. In either case, it's essential to report big plays and periodic scores (in a game with infrequent scoring, such as football, baseball or hockey, she probably reports every score; with volleyball or basketball, summarizing runs or noting lead changes should suffice). In the case of high school sports, the reporter needs to decide (and watch the interaction to judge) whether most of the people joining the liveblog are at the game or following it from afar, and blog accordingly. Fan reaction during the game helps guide the reporter's coverage: The fans can identify a huge issue that she has to address in her game coverage. Or the fan discussion can show the reporter which issues have been thoroughly discussed, helping her choose a fresh approach.
In regular beat coverage between games, the sports reporter must monitor athletes', coaches' and teams' social media accounts, where they might offend or apologize to fans, trash-talk upcoming opponents or disclose or discuss injuries. The reporter tweets and blogs about stories she is working on. The reporter shoots brief video clips during interviews to embed later in a story or blog post. When big news breaks, such as an injury, trade or coach's firing or hiring, the reporter hustles to be the first to break the story with a swift combination of tweet, news alert, Facebook update, website bulletin, blog post and full-blown story. (The order of these will vary according to the priorities set in your newsroom, but the reporter will understand the order and the importance of moving quickly through all of them.) The reporter will interact live with the community during the week in one or more of these ways: • • • Webcast, possibly with other sports writers, sports bloggers, coaches and/or athletes. Live chat with fans (again, possibly with guests, who don't need to be on-site, so you might bring in a coach or athlete from a team the local team will be opposing soon). Combination webcast and live chat with reporter(s) on the webcast and an editor fielding and asking questions from the live chat.
The rhythm of the sports beat is heavily dictated by game schedules (and off-season schedules such as recruiting, drafts, trades and free agents). But breaking news and investigative projects can disrupt that schedule or take over the off-season. The sports reporter adjusts or overhauls her workflow as demanded by hiring, firings, signings and scandals over sex, drugs, recruiting and violence.
Beat reporter's workflow
Of course, the beat reporter's workflow varies by beat and by day. Each reporter must shape his own Digital First routine. If you're a police reporter, Larry Altman's account of a recent breaking story will help you see how you need to use Twitter on a breaking story. If you have a government beat, you should consider livetweeting meetings and feeding the tweets into a liveblog. Even in feature beats, live coverage might be important: liveblogging or live-tweeting a festival or entertainment event. Whatever your beat, your regular rounds should be a mix of traditional checks such as phone calls and inperson visits and digital checks such as monitoring hashtags, official Twitter feeds and Facebook pages and doing Twitter and Google searches. You use a tool such as TweetDeck, HootSuite or Twitter lists to monitor key sources, searches and hashtags relating to your beat. When big stories break, you will tweet and send editors material for news alerts as quickly as you can verify facts. You crowdsource your stories (most of the time valuing community input more than you fear tipping competitors). On big stories, you might lead a live chat on your site (or on Twitter), or you could curate the community's social-media conversation on the issue. Beat reporters should be aggressive in seeking and using databases, either to present interactive answerbases to the community or to visualize data. Beat reporters need to be smart in using hashtags. If you can use a regular hashtag such as the name of the community you cover, or a combination of a community or state abbreviation and a word that signifies your beat. Or you can promote a particular hashtag for a particular type of story (NewsOK.com has had success promoting #okstorm for severe weather in Oklahoma). Stick with descriptive hashtags that the community might pick up and use rather than branded hashtags. For instance, the New Haven Register will have more success promoting hashtags beginning with "nh" for New Haven than with "nhr." When news breaks on your beat, note and use any hashtags the public is using to discuss the story.
The beat reporter always needs to think of multiple ways to tell stories: video, maps, source documents, links to your own archived content as well as to other related content in the community (even from competitors). You should maintain a beatblog where the community can turn for a lively and regular report from your beat. The blog will include links to all of your content, including stories and liveblogs featured elsewhere. It also should include tidbits that will interest only people following your beat topic or community closely, tidbits that often stayed in the notebooks of print reporters. Your work may be published without editing in a blog or liveblog and certainly on Twitter. Even full stories published online and in print may have minimal editing as your newsroom reworks editing processes and resources. You need to take responsibility for your own work and ensure that your copy is clear and accurate. In my News University course, Introduction to Reporting: Beat Basics and Beyond, I discuss beat by beat some ways to use digital tools in your reporting routines.
The work of mid-level editors is changing swiftly as newsrooms reorganize and rethink to face digital challenges. I suggest that editors take the lead in reworking your own workflow in consultation with top editors and the staffs you organize. Consider the following issues and questions and how they will shape your work: • • Just as editors in various positions have needed to monitor wires regularly in their work, what social media pages, sources, hashtags and searches do you need to monitor regularly? Your questions to staff members will guide their growth and execution of digital journalism: How are you going to crowdsource this story? What data can we gather to tell this story? Can you show that on a map? What are you searching for on Twitter? What hashtag are you using for this story? You coach staff members as they try new tools and techniques. If you aren't familiar with the tool yourself, you learn with them and ask good questions to guide their learning: Where does this fit in your workflow? How will you verify the information you find here? Can you embed this in your blog? You need to focus on live coverage of events and breaking news. Though the reporter may post that content live, you will need to edit behind the reporter, polishing and fixing errors. Ask the reporter questions to help fill holes and resolve inconsistencies. At the end of your workflow, you may edit content for print. You may edit a longer blog post or liveblog into a print story. You should run the lead and key parts of the story past the reporter for clarity and accuracy.
I have not covered all the positions in a newsroom. If you've blogged about your workflow (or would like to blog about it as a guest blogger here), please add a link in the comments here or email me at sbuttry (at) journalregister.com. If you think I've omitted key points in the Digital First workflow, ask questions or fill the holes in your comments.
Excellent post, Steve. Lots of great points. And I agree that you crowdsource without worrying about tipping competitors because there is more value in community input. My staff has had tons of success crowdsourcing on social networking sites, especially Facebook. When my religion reporter wanted to do a story about Tim Tebow, he posted this on FB. Got 20 responses pretty quickly. Fans say Tim Tebow gives their children a quality role model. But critics claim the Denver Broncos’ QB is too aggressive with his religious beliefs. The controversy has made Tebow a polarizing figure. Are you rooting for Tebow, or do you just wish he’d go away? Let me know at email@example.com or 771-2024. — John Neat thing about this reporter, John Hilton, is that he came from a paper that did not use social networking tools, where most reporters were not tweeting or posting or blogging. Within a few weeks, John was doing all of these things, plus shooting and editing video and a lot more. Proof that you can teach an “old dog” (he’s a veteran journalist) new tricks. He’s loving all of it, and it’s been an amazing ride to watch him grow and learn. Anyhow, thanks for sharing and I look forward to your next post. Take care, Buffy Michelle Rogers Great post, Steve, and I hope everyone in our company, as well as industry-wide, reads it — twice. There’s a lot of great information, tips and guidelines. Along those line, and in coordination with my ideaLab work with JRC, I’ve written posts about digital first and using technology in journalism. A Reporter with Today’s Tools Should Use Them The Digital Draw: Pick a Technology Tool, Any Tool Reporting Live from Sports Games In addition, members of my reporting staff have experimented with technology and created tutorials on applying such tools as Storify, Dipity, Umapper, Cover It Live, QR Codes, Google Voice and others: Jeremy Head Some great stuff here – very thought provoking. My one concern – the immediacy of it all without reflection. I get this vision of reporters tweeting, blogging, videoing – creating this non-stop stream of information. And consequently getting caught up in the moment and losing the ability to think about context and consider the story. Do readers want a torrent of semi-considered stuff rather than a considered blog post a few hours later when the dust has settled a bit? I know what I’d prefer. Just because you can tweet every half hour, doesn’t mean you have to.
Steve Buttry Thanks for your comment, Jeremy. I blogged about this question recently. I think the answer is not either/or. As I noted in the description of the workflow, the reporter sitting in the courtroom keeps a notebook handy for tips and story ideas that merit further work. I agree that a reporter’s work should be a mix of immediate reporting and enterprise or reflective writing that takes more time. But daily print reporting a few hours later that tells what happened yesterday hardly counts as reflective. Hal Davis
As someone who has worked at a wire service, a PM newspaper and a financial news service, as well as a traditional AM daily and now at the St. Paul Pioneer Press, I’m used to covering breaking news, as a reporter and editor. Steve writes, “daily print reporting a few hours later that tells what happened yesterday hardly counts as reflective.” If it’s done well, it does. UPI, where I spent 10 years, had three styles of daily reporting (more than three, actually, but this was the general rhythm): In the morning, breaking news — the most recent events — for dailies with afternoon editions. After about 1:30 p.m., lead with the most important information — not necessarily the latest — for AM dailies. A good reporter can be reflective on deadline. Then, for a PM dailies with an early first edition, an “oniter,” take a different, quirky or overlooked angle and develop it. I supervise court reporters. Like Jeremy, I’m concerned that, by focusing all day on the latest events, we may overlook the most important. Steve’s dictum for print — “A summary, noting that complete coverage is available online, will suffice most days” — as in, “We had a trial, details online” — may shortchange the reader and deprive the reporter of the time needed to report fully, and in perspective, on the day’s events. Steve Buttry I’m not going to pretend that some reporters and some news organizations won’t make some mistakes balancing immediacy and reflection as they start figuring out this workflow. But let’s be honest: Most non-live daily coverage tells us what happened yesterday, without adding much reflection or enterprise. Reporters described that as deadline work. I think an approach that provides the what-happened coverage live and selectively provides deeper and more reflective coverage will work when executed well. And I think good reporters and good editors will adjust to the challenges and the workflow. Hal Davis “Most non-live daily coverage tells us what happened yesterday, without adding much reflection or enterprise.” In our current mode, we post to the web as events develop on court stories. For the major ones, the reporters convert their Web posts to print, with additional perspective as needed. That version also gets posted before the copy desk gets it. If a reporter finds a court case that no one else has, and connects the dots for the reader, I consider that enterprise, on deadline. We have some problems with immediacy in Minnesota courts, which do not allow cameras in criminal trials, much less tweeting. But we have developed workarounds that allow for quick hits when warranted, as with verdicts and sentences.
And I agree: “an approach that provides the what-happened coverage live and selectively provides deeper and more reflective coverage will work when executed well.” Pedro Monteiro Great post! Thank you so much Steve. I’ve written two posts on my blog that focus on long formats (and not so much on breaking news or ‘live’ news) and why we must change the way we present our storytelling on digital devices. You can find both articles here. (Or here an edited version of the article on Nieman Storyboard). And here. Bill Norton Steve, how would you introduce these concepts to a beginning news writing class, where most of the students aren’t j majors? • Steve Buttry I think you still should cover the notion of writing for digital platforms first, because whatever these students to, digital will be the primary platforms. I’d have them do a blog for class and one assignment would be to liveblog or live-tweet an event (skills also helpful in PR and other nonjournalism writing pursuits). Chris Moran, content producer It seems to me that the biggest audience and advertising potential is in putting multiple video and live streaming to the homepages: local/hyper-local breaking news, previews of coming events, human interest briefs, new business openings, raw dramatic emergency and odd events, person-on-the-street spot videos by roaming reporters and videographers. If it moves, it leads. Fifteen seconds, thirty seconds, max one minute. Bang, bang, bang, bang, bang. Keep our audience hungry for more. Twitter could support that. Television journalism would be left gasping in the dust. Moving pictures are king. Reading, except for in-depth, is SO 20th century. BIG question: how do we get the resources to get half-way decent video equipment into the hands of every reporter? Do we have enough reporters to cover all the beats for this kind of total local immersion? Second BIG question: what one, reliable hosting platform can we use across every site to present this onslaught of movement, sound, and color? YouTube? Can we get the kind of metrics on that so we could sell advertising? Our own unique platform? (Be careful of using clumsy 3rd party providers! Like a bad nanny, they keep failing us over and over again.) Third question: how fast can we move on this and get vital resources working? If we don’t, someone else will and they’ll do it quickly. Are we willing to take those risks or will someone else not only eat our lunch, but our dinner and creme brulee as well. (Disclaimer: I am not a videographer, visual journalist or even an eager reporter. The last digital video editor I used was something like Premiere 2.0 back in the Bronze Age. I’m just a lowly, lowly web content producer, 40 miles east of the Los Angeles megalopolis — burning, boiling and broiling to see Digital First go beyond, beyond, beyond … )
Steve Buttry Thanks for your comment and for these good questions, Chris. I’ll address them but first: In a Digital First newsroom, a web content producer is not lowly. First question: At JRC, John Paton equipped all the reporters with Flip cameras and video training and video streams went from 100K a month to about 2 million. Obviously Flip cameras are no longer available and supplying video cameras to every reporter at MediaNews would be more expensive. But yes, clearly, providing good equipment is essential for a Digital First newsroom and will be a priority. Second half of first question: I don’t think we have enough reporters to cover all possible beats. I am confident that the Digital First approach will allow us to put more people on the streets in local communities. But I think success also lies in partnering with other media and with local bloggers. We don’t have to cover everything ourselves. Second question: I’m no expert in platforms. I trust that my colleagues who are will provide us with the best platforms to execute a strong Digital First strategy. Third question: I think you’ll see us moving pretty quickly. Chris Moran Steve, I couldn’t be happier than to hear our reporters will have access to video cams of any kind! I concede that “covering “all beats beats” is a bit ambitious, if not hyperbolic on my part. But the serious issues I see in the newsroom every day is that reporters are being pulled in too many directions and that makes hyper local reporting thin and spotty at best. At worst it makes coverage anemic and not worth the Tweet that quides us to it. I can’t wait to work with multiple video iclusions, the more the merrier, the happier the party! Scott Angus I get it Steve, and I see the value, but it all comes at a cost – whether it be the equipment, the time spent on digital that isn’t spent on print, the wear and tear on workers who must master more disciplines and juggle them all. Where is the payoff? Where is the revenue to justify all of the costs? Is it more advertising that is drawn to the sites and social media by the vibrant content? If so, is that happening now where news companies are producing like this? Or, to a degree, are we going on blind faith that it will materialize? Steve Buttry Here’s the payoff, Scott: In 2011, Journal Register Co. (one of two companies operated by Digital First Media) will have a greater increase in our digital revenue than the decrease in print revenue. Yes, this is a proven growth strategy. And we’re just getting started. bylaurenboyer
I’m a multi-platform business journalist, so the events, in terms of meetings, that are available for me to live-tweet are few and far between. When they exist, however, I feel like the tweets become my notepad. I hardly need to write anything down on paper. (example) To increase my digital and face time with the community, I’ve been trying to get out of the office every so often and use the whole coffee shop newsroom model to tweet things like this around the community. My editor recently brought up the possibility of doing live chats with people in the business world whose advice might draw folks to our site, like real estate professionals and stock brokers. Because my beat lacks realtime events, I feel like I need to take charge and create them myself. But it’s been an experiment trying to strike a balance between interacting outside the office while finishing stories for daily publication. Do you any suggestions for ways, as a business reporter, I can increase my digital presence? Steve Buttry Thanks for the links and the response, Lauren. Actually, I think a business beat includes some real-time events: annual meetings, product rollouts, press conferences, Black Friday shopping. Data analysis and visualization also is important for business reporting. I agree that live chats play a role. Curation of social media also should play a role in business reporting. A business reporter should have a beatblog. I cover this in more detail in the News U course I linked above. But I may blog about it someday as well. And I invite any business reporters who are working a Digital First approach to share links to their blogs here. Steve Outing (@steveouting) Steve: As much as anyone, I get that this is the required workflow for journalists in the digital-first age. I do worry, though, that by demanding this you’re courting quick burnout of reporters. Perhaps because I now work at a university, my thoughts on reading this turned to the need for every reporter to have an assistant to help them juggle and execute all these tasks. Journalism-program interns! (This actually could be a nice apprenticeship opportunity.) Steve Buttry Steve, thanks for your comment and for raising an important issue. But I have to say this: You could say the same thing for traditional reporting, and I saw a lot of reporters burn out during my career. It’s always been a demanding job, and I don’t think Digital First reporting is any less demanding. I think and hope that the new challenges will be more invigorating than exhausting in the short term. Over the long haul, reporters will need to multi-task effectively to stay efficient and fresh. If some of them burn out, that will be a familiar situation, not something new. Dave Coleman and in addition, by harnessing the power of your local community, you can actually gather more information with less boots on the ground Steve Buttry Or gather even more information with the same number of boots on the ground.
Deb Petersen Hi Steve I would love to see a post in which you get into more specifics about a beatblog. Who should have them? How would they start one? What are some good examples of beatblogs within Digital First? Thanks! Rick Sforz Steve, thanks for the post. It’s exciting in a way that we can embody a sort of “wild west” mentality here. And I say wild west because other than what you’ve outlined in your post…”there are no rules.” But, this is going to be a cultural change and with that we’ll need to see strong examples from the leaders in each of our newsrooms. I am happy that the change is from the top down. I am hoping it filters down effectively. Thanks again and see you on your next newsroom tour.
Digital First journalists: What we value
Journalism values are not timeless and etched in stone. Values have changed through the years and the Digital First journalist recognizes that they are changing today. In some ways, a Digital First journalist shares the values of traditional journalism but may pursue them in different ways. In other ways, we pursue values that we think are more appropriate for the networked world we work in today. We won't entirely agree on values. Where we share values, we may vary in priority and practice. Digital First leaders trust our journalists and the editors leading our newsrooms to make smart, ethical decisions. So don't view this as a narrow template into which we must squeeze our journalism or as unanimously held views. These are some thoughts on values that guide journalists -- how they are changing and how they endure. I share these views to stimulate discussion about Digital First values because I believe we value candid and vigorous discussion about journalism and journalism values. I am examining and explaining Digital First journalism in a series of blog posts this week. I started yesterday with a discussion of how Digital First journalists work. Today I address the values that guide Digital First journalists:
Digital First journalists value accuracy. Like traditional journalists, we strive to publish verified facts. With care, we can engage the community in helping us verify (or refute) some reports faster and more reliably than we can by controlling the process entirely ourselves. As Andy Carvin of NPR has demonstrated on many occasions this year, we can raise questions as we repeat unverified reports, enlisting the crowd in our quest to verify facts and report the truth.
Digital First journalists are committed to seeking and reporting the truth. We recognize that truthful reporting goes beyond getting our facts accurate; it requires providing context and meaning. It requires debunking lies. Digital First journalism does not settle for he-said-she-said standoffs, but seeks to go beyond what people said to learn and report the actual truth.
Digital First journalists acknowledge that much of our work builds on the work of others. We credit and link to those who contribute to our understanding and our search for the truth.
Independence and participation
Digital First journalists may hold different views about the traditional journalism value of independence. While we agree that we must maintain editorial independence from advertisers, some of us think journalism has swung too far in the direction of aloofness in other matters of independence. Some journalists insist that they can set aside the personal biases we all have, some of them even refusing to vote. This aloofness has cultivated a "view from nowhere" that is neither honest nor beneficial. Some of us see greater value in acknowledging our humanity and recognizing the value of participating in community life. Digital First journalists seek the right balance of independence and participation for our roles, conferring with our
editors, colleagues and community. Update: I rewrote part of this paragraph after Dave Orrick tweeted his disagreement with my use of the word "extremism" in referring to journalists who don't vote. On reflection, I agreed and rewrote.
Many traditional journalists disdain transparency, saying that discussions of what we do and why are "inside baseball" details that don't interest the public. This notion is contradicted every time we attend the holiday party of a non-journalist spouse's company or otherwise socialize with people outside the business. They are keenly interested in what we do and ask lots of questions. We should provide answers without waiting for questions. Digital First newsrooms invite the public into our newsrooms through such means as newsroom cafes, livestreamed daily news meetings and posting news budgets online. Digital First journalists share our processes with the community and disclose connections and potential conflicts. We blog about the processes and practices of journalism.
Our belief in transparency requires us to identify ourselves and our news organizations and honestly state our purposes. If a Digital First journalist feels that extreme circumstances justify working undercover in some situation, the journalist should discuss the reasons and alternatives extensively with editors and colleagues. The organization should seek to avoid deception and, upon publishing, should be transparent in explaining its actions and its decision to the community. In cases such as restaurant reviews or consumer reporting where identification would result in preferential treatment that would interfere with accurate reporting, a Digital First journalist may act as a routine customer and not take steps to identify as a journalist, but should not deceive if asked about his or her profession. Digital First journalists identify our sources of information except in extreme cases. If circumstances, such as whistleblowers revealing information of public interest, justify granting confidentiality, we must ask about motivation, seek to learn how the source learned the information and seek verification from other sources. We should report only information from such sources, and only if we can verify. We should not publish opinions or personal attacks from sources who are not willing to stand behind what they say. We should be willing to miss some stories from sources who refuse to be identified. Especially when powerful people who should speak publicly are seeking confidentiality, or in other cases where we can see we are being manipulated, we should insist on identification, walk away from the story or seek to get the story from other sources.
Our content should be fair. Digital First journalists believe in giving people who are criticized or accused of failures or wrongdoing a chance to respond. Given the unfolding nature of digital coverage, fairness is achieved over time and not always in initial reports. In cases where initial reports don't include such responses, we should invite them and report that we are seeking responses. Then we should play those responses as prominently as we played the initial reports. Fairness is not the same as balance. Digital First journalists are not satisfied with the faux "balance" of hesaid-she-said news coverage. We want to find and report the truth, which does not need balancing.
Digital First newsrooms invite the community to report errors in fact and to raise questions about our content. We correct our errors quickly and prominently, not just fixing the mistaken content but noting the error. We hold the powerful in our communities accountable and recognize that we must be accountable ourselves. When we make particularly egregious errors, we must examine our own processes, report what happened and report on steps we are taking to prevent similar errors in the future. Where we can track others who have passed along our errors through retweets and links to our content, we should call corrections to their attention, too.
Digital First journalists serve our communities. We inform our communities. We examine important community issues. We provide an outlet to community voices. We lead and stimulate the discussion of important community issues. We seek to improve our communities without being cheerleaders.
Digital First journalists embrace our role as watchdog of the government and powerful institutions in our communities. We need to commit time and other resources to beat reporting and investigative reporting that informs the community about the effectiveness, honesty and priorities of the government and institutions. As we explore the proper relationships and involvement in community life of the newsroom and individual journalists, we must avoid conflicts that could diminish our effectiveness in the watchdog role. As we seek ways to collaborate with bloggers and other media, enhancing our watchdog role and supporting other watchdogs will be a high priority. We especially should strive to highlight and support the work of bloggers responsibly pursuing the watchdog role.
Digital First journalists cherish and defend our First Amendment freedoms. We must advocate for the rights to gather and report the news. We must advocate for freedom of the press and freedom of speech to effectively cover all aspects of digital communication. We advocate for citizens, bloggers and independent journalists exercising these freedoms.
Digital First journalists advocate for openness of public meetings, public records and public data. We participate in freedom of information councils and activities such as Sunshine Week. We test governments in our communities and report how well they uphold sunshine laws. We support citizens and bloggers in their efforts to gain access to public meetings, records and data, recognizing that journalists' access in most cases is the access of the citizen.
Timeliness and reflection
The digital community expects swift and accurate reports of the news. Digital First journalists must report what we know -- and what we don't know -- quickly in breaking news stories. We must commit to experimenting and improving our tools and techniques for reporting unfolding stories.
We should recognize when the reporting of big stories will be well-served by a reflective overview report that is less hurried and fragmented than breaking reports have to be.
While we must react quickly to the news, we cannot just react. We need to undertake enterprise, examining community life and choosing topics that may not be big issues without our initiative and attention. We must look at potentially big issues for the community and examine them before the needs are urgent and obvious.
Digital First journalists cover issues and events thoroughly. We recognize, though, that the complete report comes in many parts and many updates. We need to follow up on incomplete reports. We need to provide helpful links to earlier coverage.
Digital First journalists recognize that the truths we report can hurt people. We need to avoid or be careful in crowdsourcing stories that involve allegations of criminal wrongdoing or appearances of impropriety, because our questions or answers from the community could harm innocent people or people about whom we have not verified damaging reports. We need to be sure to correct inaccurate reports, not just publish correct information in subsequent reports, because our content will show up in Internet searches about people. We should exercise care and compassion in publishing information about victims of crime, particularly sex crimes or crimes against juveniles. We should be alert for corrections in content we aggregate and link to, and be sure to link to the corrections and correct archive aggregated content. While we don't generally believe in "unpublishing" content, we would make exceptions for an inaccurate, damaging tweet because it cannot be corrected and can be read separately from a subsequent correcting tweet.
Civility and respect
Digital First journalists want to foster civil and respectful discussion. We will be civil and respectful in our interactions with the community, whether digital, in person or by other means. We will not tolerate abusive or disrespectful comments in discussions we host. We seek to find, develop and use tools that will foster civil and respectful conversation.
Our content should reflect the diversity of the community. Digital First journalists recognize that our coverage will reflect our communities better if our newsrooms reflect our communities better, so our newsrooms should seek diverse pools of candidates as we recruit and promote staff members. We recognize that diversity goes beyond the obvious demographic categories of race, ethnicity, gender and age. Our content also should reflect the diversity of our communities in such areas as religion, sexual orientation, disability, politics, education, interests and economic class. We should be aware of areas where we cannot achieve staff diversity, either through our own failures or because of the nature of our workforce (for instance, our staffs will have more college education than the
community and can reflect only the working-age population). In areas where we fall short in our diversity, we should take special effort to reflect the community’s diversity through our selection of story ideas, play of content, selection of sources and recruitment of bloggers for our networks.
Objectivity and bias
Digital First journalists understand that we are people, not objects. Decisions about which stories to pursue, which beats to cover, which stories go on our home pages and front pages are subjective decisions that reflect human judgment. We should be honest about our biases and opinions in newsroom discussions and should consider whether to be transparent with the community about those biases and opinions, and whether we should seek out different perspectives for our stories and our blog networks. We recognize that both traditional values of striving to be objective and new values of transparency can serve the community. We encourage hearty, respectful newsroom discussions about the best ways to address these conflicting values in our news coverage.
Digital First journalists should be skeptical as we gather information and curate content from the community. We should ask, “How do you know that?” and “How do they know that?” We should answer those questions for our communities about our content. We welcome the skepticism of traditional journalists as they watch Digital First journalists practice the profession we all love. Their questions will test us and help us improve and prove the value of our journalism. As we address their questions and win their support, they will provide important milestones in our progress.
Journalists are by nature curious people. Our work is guided by seeking the answers to questions: Who? What? When? Where? Why? How? Digital First journalists apply this curiosity to the new tools and techniques provided by digital technology. We wonder how we can use them to elevate our journalism and tell better stories. We experiment and learn how to use them and whether they merit a spot in our toolbox.
Collaboration and competition
Traditional journalists are a competitive lot. Digital First journalists are a collaborative lot. We seek to engage the community in conversation about events and issues. We network with community bloggers and curate the community conversation. We link to others who are discussing the same issues, even our competitors. We seek out new opportunities to collaborate. We are also a competitive lot, though. We want to be first with the news (as long as we've verified our facts). We want to produce the best content (but when we don't, we will link to it). Only on rare occasions will we override our transparency values for competitive reasons. We recognize that we can't scoop ourselves; when we have the story first, we scoop everyone. When a situation doesn't lend itself to collaboration, or when a competitor won't collaborate, we want to kick our competitors' asses.
Traditional journalists were largely uninvolved in how the business of journalism operated. Our paychecks appeared regularly as if by magic. Digital First journalists accept that we must be involved in the quest for successful business models. We can protect our integrity and still contribute to the discussion about business opportunities.
Learning and adapting
Digital First journalists need to be humble and curious, recognizing that new tools and techniques are always being developed. We must continually learn new tools and techniques and consider how to apply our values in these new situations, and whether new developments in journalism justify reconsideration of our values and priorities. As we make adjustments in our practices and values, we should discuss these changes within the profession and within the community.
What do you think?
Where I say "Digital First journalists," you could often change that to "Digital First newsrooms," because we exercise values individually and collectively. So we should discuss the values frequently. This blog post is not meant as a final statement about what those values are and must be, but a contribution to discussion of those values. Please join and continue the discussion in the comments here, on social media, on your blogs and in your newsrooms.
Brian Cubbison These posts are very comprehensive. Must-reads. I’m curious about the section on identification. It sets a much-needed standard on identifying sources that even the most respected traditional newsrooms often fudge. How does it relate to the specific nature of online identities, such as retweets of someone you’ve never met in person, but have followed long enough to know they’re legit? Can the principle of “tell people what you’re trying to confirm” apply here? Steve Buttry Thanks for the comment and questions, Brian. The importance of online identity depends on what they’re tweeting. An opinionated or humorous tweet about a public issue is just part of the public discussion and identity isn’t very important. If the tweet is represented as a public figure, you sure need to verify identity (too many fake accounts mocking public figures). If the tweet is reporting something factual, you need to seek some verification and identity is part of that.
10 ways to think like a Digital First journalist
Digital First journalists think creatively and individually, so this is a post that can't be completely true. To whatever extent my observations here are true, Digital First journalists will reflect wide variety in the degree and application of the ideas and views I describe here. But I think these are ways many Digital First journalists think that differ from traditional journalism thinking. 1. 2. A Digital First journalist views a story as a process, not a product. A Digital First journalist likes to be first with the story or the idea, but likes to link when she's not (as I linked above to a blog post where Jeff Jarvis discusses the view of the story as a process). 3. A Digital First journalist thinks of the community as collaborators who can provide crucial information if you ask them (and may already be providing that information in their blogs and tweets). 4. When a Digital First journalist hears a great quote or an interesting fact, he thinks, "I better tweet that." 5. A Digital First journalist gets more excited about a lot of retweets or a prominent link to a story than about play on the front page of a newspaper. 6. A Digital First journalist thinks of obstacles as the details in her next war story, not as an excuse not to get the job done. (That's a traditional way of thinking about news stories; the Digital First journalist applies that thinking also to technology obstacles and business-related obstacles.) 7. When a Digital First journalist learns of a new gadget or social tool, he starts trying to figure out how to use it to do better journalism. 8. When news breaks, the Digital First journalist thinks of good search terms to use in searching for tweets from people experiencing or witnessing the news. 9. A Digital First journalist thinks journalism has a bright and boundless future. 10. A Digital First journalist defies predictions and lists like this, thinking of issues, ideas and solutions no one has tried before and testing Digital First journalists are thoughtful and creative. Ten is not a magic number and this is not a complete list. What are some other ways of thinking that distinguish the Digital First journalist? This series and other aspects of Digital First journalism were discussed in today's #dfmchat, Storified by Ivan Lajara. Update: Kathy Vetter of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram has written a great response, elaborating on three of these points. Comments • Martin Langeveld Good work. Journalists everywhere need this, not just at DFM-MNG-JRC. They understand the philosophy, but they’re looking for the instruction manual. Here’s an ancient post of mine on the same topic: http://newsafternewspapers.blogspot.com/2008/12/nuts-and-bolts-what-online-first.html
Hey, Steve. We should get shirts made up with “Digital First Journalists Do It Right” and then have QR code with our info. Or, maybe we can hold a slogan contest and pick the best one. Crowdsource for ideas, vote on your blog, etc. Could be a fun way to unite team via digital means. We could also have fun with this…. You know you’re a Digital First Journalist when… you go to a funeral and automatically start tweeting. (could come up with 365 and make a calendar and sell it) Anyway…. just thinkin’ pal Steve Buttry Maybe “Digital First journalists do it with our thumbs”? I’d be more interested in t-shirts than calendars. Can’t remember the last time I used a hard-copy calendar.
Buffy Andrews (@Buffyandrews) Yeah, you’re probably right about the calendar. Mark Loundy (Portions taken from a column-in-progress) One of the misconceptions about the technological changes of the past couple of decades is that journalism has fundamentally changed. In fact, what we’re doing is re-ordering and re-priortizing the tools. During the past century, journalism has consisted of: – Gathering information – Organizing and interpreting information (infocrunching) – Presenting the crunched info using text, images and sound – Listening to reader (viewer/user) feedback Because of the immediacy of the new tools, journalists who have traditionally worked in print, now have to think more like broadcast journalists. Because of the revolution in ease of creating still images, reporters now have to think more as photographers. Because of the revolution in ease of creating video, photographers now have to think more as film makers. Because of the two-way nature of the Internet, both users and journalists are becoming accustomed to collaboration from the beginning of the process. The fundamental pieces of the craft have not changed, but the mindset of its practitioners must. Steve Buttry Well-said, Mark. I look forward to the column. I think you’re right that the tools are changing processes and priorities, while many fundamentals of journalism remain the same. However, I don’t think listening to feedback was always one of the fundamentals.
And I think that reassessment of values such as independence and objectivity, and the rise of transparency as a value, go beyond the changes forced by new tools. Pedro Monteiro Another great post. Really nice series about digital journalism. I would add these: A Digital First journalist, when thinking about her next story, plans what are the best multimedia assets she must use to tell it (mixing text with slideshows, videos, audio, etc.) A Digital First journalist knows about storytelling and the principles that make an amazing story and uses them according, to publish across different platforms Joan Concilio Otto I would add – as kind of a side point to Pedro’s great points above – that a Digital First journalist does not get caught up in his or her tools or technology to the detriment of the story. I can’t give a positive example of this nearly as easily as I can a negative – when someone says, “Oooh, look at this shiny new app/site/tool/widget/thingamajig – I’m going to use that for my next story!” It’s like buying a new pair of running shoes and wearing them to the royal wedding. Because, you know, it was the next day, and they were new, and of course that made it appropriate, right? Pedro Monteiro Hello Joan, Couldn’t agree more with you. That’s why I say a Digital First journalist must plan beforehand what is the best way to tell her story. As you say, without becoming caught up in the tools, a Digital First journalist must know what best suits her storytelling for digital distributed content. Look at this great story, by Cathy Horyn on the NYT, about the Milan Fashion Week (). You could have done this with text and a picture slide show, but I believe the solution Cathy found is very good and a great example of digital journalism. I’ve written about the need for interactive journalists (I know now I should call it Digital First journalists) on my blog, with some examples (like the two above) of what can be achieved by this practice. Would love to ear your thoughts on it. Steve Buttry Good point, Joan. Everyone should seek to use tools appropriately. But I’ll also add that we should be aggressive in learnign how to use new tools (or whether they are worth using). That means we need to be willing to experiment, and to risk using a new tool in a story that’s not a perfect fit.
Leading a Digital First Newsroom
Digital First editors are caught in transition. Many are longtime print editors. However much they have been embracing and resisting the digital transformation the past couple decades (and most of us have been doing some of both), they understand now that the future is digital and they want to help lead that newsroom of the future. Even the editors who are digital natives who've worked more online than in print are caught in this transition because they are leading staffs through the transition. Don't look at the suggestions here as an exact checklist for the Digital First editor. We want editors who don't need checklists, who find creative solutions for their newsrooms. The staff dynamic, size and abilities, the community's needs and the editor's own strengths, weaknesses and creativity will determine the right leadership approach for each newsroom. And the challenges and opportunities for each newsroom are unique, at least in their details, and leadership must respond to them with solutions that are unique, at least in their details. Don't look at this checklist as a yardstick by which to measure the success or failings of a particular editor. Perhaps some editor excels in all of these areas (I wouldn't, if I were still leading a newsroom), but that would be a rare editor. View these as my suggestions for Digital First editors trying to meet the challenges and opportunities this transition:
Meetings are boring but important. They take up too much newsroom time, but they set priorities and direction for the newsroom. Focus your meetings on digital platforms. Ask what you're covering live, who's shooting video, what the social chatter is, what stories are getting good traffic. I've sat in too many meetings the past year that focus on what's going to be in tomorrow's paper (sometimes starting with that very question). Put tomorrow's print Page One it its proper place: as an afterthought at the end of the meeting. If you spend time discussing a headline in a meeting, make it a discussion of a head that was a good or bad example of SEO, not a page-one print headline. The top editor or editors need to take the lead in changing the meetings yourself. I won't go into details, but I didn't take strong enough control of meetings when I was editor of the Cedar Rapids Gazette. I didn't run the meetings (or attend all of them), just urged a stronger digital focus in them and asked some digital questions myself. But the print default setting was too powerful. I should have taken over the meetings and made the digital focus unrelenting.
Digital First editors need to be learning and practicing digital tools and techniques along with the rest of the staff. We need to ask more experienced users of these tools for their help and be willing to appear like the rookies we are as we make mistakes and take our baby steps. The editor's actions speak louder than her words, so our actions must say that these tools and techniques are important and that we're willing to look vulnerable as we learn them. I was more successful here than I was with meetings in Cedar Rapids. I said Twitter was a priority, but I also showed that it was a priority by tweeting a lot about our work and about journalism in general and
about what was happening in the community. I showed how to take a conversational tone on Twitter. I showed that it was OK to be a person on Twitter, tweeting humor and sports loyalty and daily life, even bantering with my wife. I wasn't there long enough to win the whole newsroom over, but Twitter use increased heavily, and contributed to our journalism, because of my example. And I was fairly new to Twitter when I got to Cedar Rapids. I'm sure I made some mistakes that amused or bothered my staff. But they saw that it was valuable and important and that we had to learn.
Digital First newsrooms are constantly learning new tools and techniques. The Digital First editor must make training a part of the culture of the newsroom and a high priority. As staff members learn new skills, you ask them to teach colleagues through coaching, workshops, webinars and how-to blog posts. You designate someone to coordinate newsroom training (this won't be a full-time responsibility in most newsrooms, but should be designated to someone). As you can, you budget money for external seminars and conferences. You take advantage of free and low-cost training. Even more important, you budget time for training. When your company is providing online training, you make sure staff members have time to participate (and that they understand that they should). You lead some workshops as you learn new skills or blog about what you've learned or both. You ask your best staff members at various digital skills to train their colleagues. You want a culture of continuous learning in your newsroom.
The Digital First editor has to uphold standards for quality and ethical journalism, which is a demanding job in any time and doubly demanding in a time of such rapid and dramatic change. I like John Paton's employee rules for social media, which are no rules. Journalism is changing too swiftly to inhibit experimentation and creativity with rigid sets of thou-shalt-nots. Editors must guide their staffs in conversations, welcoming and considering all suggestions and accepting many that will make us feel uncomfortable. Seek wide input before making decisions and explain your decisions to your staff in conversations and staff meetings and messages to the full staff. But be careful of making statements that will be interpreted broadly. When you don't like how something worked out, discuss how you'd rather handle similar situations in the future, instead of pointing fingers or saying you never want to do something again. Be firm and emphatic about points that are important. You must stand for quality journalism and for ethical journalism. But understand that those definitions are changing, and lead your newsroom in thoughtful discussions that keep you ahead of the change, rather than always catching up.
Listening is one of a Digital First editor's most important jobs. You need to listen a lot, and not always to the same people. You need to talk, too, but in almost every case, you must listen first. Listen to the fears of journalists worried about their jobs and our profession. Listen to the aspirations of journalists who think your newsroom can lead our profession in change. Listen to diverse voices in the newsroom and in the community, seeking out voices from groups that are underrepresented in your staff or
in your newsroom leadership. Listen to ideas, even (and especially) those that sound outlandish. Listen to colleagues in other newsrooms who are trying new approaches. Listen to people in the community who want to collaborate. Listen to people in the community whose lives and concerns are not being reflected in your coverage. Listen to contrarians and skeptics, not to let them derail your progress, but to make sure your plans and ideas are fully tested. Listen with a wide range of tools: Skype and Google+ Hangout, Facebook groups, Google groups, email, gchat, text messages, phone calls, DMs. And as much as possible, listen face to face, making eye contact and not interrupting. If Friday rolls around and you haven't listened this week to someone you haven't heard from in a while, seek out a face in the newsroom that you haven't looked in the eye recently and spend some time. Or open Skype or Google+ Hangout and chat electronically with someone in a bureau. And sometimes make time to get out to the bureaus.
Praise is another critical job of the Digital First editor. I used to lead a workshop on leading a newsroom in difficult times (what we thought was difficult then is what we'd call easy today). Two thing stick out from that experience: 1. I used to ask a few survey questions of the editors and of their staffs in advance of the workshop. One of the questions was to rate, on a scale of 1 to 5, how often your editor gives you specific praise (or how often you praise staff members). Without fail, editors ranked themselves about a point higher than staff did. No one was lying; that's just the difference in how we perceive praise. So praise more than you are and more than you feel like praising. I remember hearing more than once from editors that they don't praise people for just doing their jobs. Bullshit. You praise people because you want them to keep doing a good job. Throughout newsrooms today, our jobs are changing and expectations are changing. Uncertainty is rampant in your staff. Praise is how you add some certainty: Today on this challenge, you certainly did well and I appreciated your performance. Praise is how you underscore your priorities. Praise in failure is how you tell your boldest staff members that experimentation is important and they must try again.
Make your praise specific. Make it sincere. Don't always praise the same people. Deliver your praise in a variety of ways: email, phone call, Facebook message, DM, text, 30-second face-to-face chat, over lunch, handwritten note (in this day of electronic communication, hard copy and penmanship -- keep it readable -have amazing power). Praise is free; you don't have to budget it. It takes just a few seconds; you can deliver it on your busiest day. But it's one of a Digital First editors most important jobs and you should do it every day. Stop reading this now and go praise someone who has served your newsroom or your community well today.
Not everyone on your staff deserves praise. Every newsroom has curmudgeons resisting change and making editors' lives more difficult. Digital First editors must deal creatively and firmly with curmudgeons. They require some assessment. If someone is simply refusing to accept change and is not contributing significantly, you may need to deliver an ultimatum and eventually may need to part ways. But few curmudgeons are that simple. If someone is just asking valid, skeptical questions, keep in mind that skepticism is in the journalist's nature. These questions will help you test and improve your digital journalism and your explanation of the change you are
leading. A good editor can lead these skeptical journalists to Digital First success, and their progress will provide key milestones in your newsroom transformation. Sometimes curmudgeons are acting out of fear or ignorance (usually both, because they are related). Teach, train and coach through the ignorance and the fear will ease. If the fears are not based on ignorance, understand and address them. Most journalists are courageous and can overcome their fears with patience, understanding and strong leadership. Perhaps the toughest decisions are about the curmudgeons who are refusing to change, despite your persuasion, training, etc. but who have extraordinary value that you need. This is not a one-size-fits-all situation. Some might be so valuable that you tolerate their resistance (no newsroom should be marching in lockstep). Some might be so disruptive that you cannot tolerate. I'm available to consult in individual cases, and won't suggest a single approach to use in these situations. But don't put off dealing with them.
Don't tell your staff they have to "do more with less" unless you are providing tools for them to work more efficiently (in my career, a few things that have actually helped us do more with less are portable computers, spreadsheets, databases, cellphones and pagination). Usually, "do more with less" is a management cliché that means we have failed to make tough decisions about priorities. As you focus more attention on digital platforms, you have to focus less on print. Consult with your staff and colleagues and make tough decisions about priorities. How are you going to change the newshole, design, editing process, content, staffing, etc. of the print product so you can focus more attention on digital. If you don't set priorities, you can't succeed as a Digital First editor. I received an email this week from a Digital First reporter who's covering four beats, any of which could be a full-time beat. I'm not saying we don't have to have some people cover four beats sometimes. Every editor wishes (and I do, too) that staffs were bigger. But staff members with multiple responsibilities like that need some guidance from the top editors about what is most important.
Of course, you just don't have full control of your budget, or newsrooms wouldn't have endured the staff cuts we have the past few years. You make your pitch and the company decides how much you have to spend. Make sure your budget reflects your Digital First priorities, asking for the training, equipment and staffing you need to pursue them. In the budget process, choose your fights well, reflecting those priorities. As the budget year unfolds and you have to make adjustments, make sure your priorities are guiding those adjustments. Where you don't get what you want (and who ever does?), consider whether you can find low-cost alternatives, partner with other media or community bloggers to achieve results at no or low cost or find solutions that will generate revenue, rather than costing money.
One of the ways a Digital First editor has the most impact is in the jobs you have your staff do and the people you choose for those jobs. Consider whether each job fits your current priorities and how it should change and whether you have the right person in that job. You may want to create an entirely new job, such as Chris March's new gig as assistant managing editor for disruption at the New Haven Register. Connecticut Group Editor Matt DeRienzo's job description for Chris (toned down a bit from the original draft I saw) includes the duty of "blowing stuff up." You might want to form new teams, as Matt did for
engagement and breaking news (I will be blogging soon about those teams) or new positions, as Matt did in focusing staff members on investigative reporting and fact-checking and explanatory stories. My first staff move in Cedar Rapids was to make the editor of a print section our social media guide. Whether hiring from outside or reassigning or promoting from within, evaluate people on their digital skills and their willingness and ability to learn new skills (though you need to be providing strong training, you want to hire and cultivate self-teachers). You don't hire based solely on digital skills. You're still interested in basic journalism skills, a diverse staff, work ethic and other important matters. But it's essential to upgrade your digital skills as much as possible with each staffing move. In shaping your organization, understand that what people do is way more important than your org chart. I have endured too many reorganizations that accomplished little. Focus on changing what people do and change the org chart to reflect that.
Failure and risk
I wish you amazing and frequent success. But the experimentation required for success in a Digital First newsroom requires that you risk and celebrate failure. I have a t-shirt from Cape Canaveral with the great line from Apollo 13: "Failure is not an option." Newsrooms are not often in the life-and-death situation that the Apollo 13 crew and mission control faced, so we usually need the opposite mission. You need to take bold enough risks that failure is usually a possibility, and not one your staff fears. As you undertake changes and as staff members approach you with suggestions, ask yourself about the risks. You want to take prudent steps to minimize the risk (perhaps run a low-cost test before investing heavily in a full-scale project) and you have to be willing to shut down a project that isn't working. But also ask yourself and your staff if you're being bold enough. Ask staff if they toned down a suggestion because they didn't think you would approve something bolder. You want a newsroom that embraces risk and celebrates failure. You don't celebrate the fact that you failed (success is always the goal). But you celebrate the risk and the lessons learned. And you ask what they will be trying next.
The Digital First editor needs to foster collaboration at multiple levels: • • You need a collaborative newsroom, where people with varying skills work to make stories and your content better stronger than they could working alone. Collaborate with your staff in making decisions for the newsroom. Of course, the top editor must make the final decisions, but make those decisions with input from people who live different lives and have different concerns, experiences and outlooks. Collaborate with other editors and newsrooms in Digital First Media (or whatever your company is). We all are facing similar challenges and opportunities, and we need to learn from the successes and failures of our colleagues. Through email, phone, conferences, social media, Facebook groups and Google groups, let's share our lessons, so we can spread the successes around and avoid repeating failures. (While we need to be willing to risk failure, we want our failures to be new ones, the result of taking new risks, not the result of failing to learn from previous failures.) Collaborate with your community. Network with bloggers in our Community Media Labs. Use social media, Google Voice, story comments and other tools to invite the community to add to our stories or to curate the stories they are telling themselves.
Collaborate with competitors. You can compete fiercely on most matters and still find opportunities for collaboration that help both organizations and your community.
Traditional journalism skills
Your Digital First newsroom needs many of the skills of traditional journalism -- good writing and editing, interviewing skills, cultivation of sources, investigative skills. Some skills transfer well to digital applications: Reporters who write good leads should be good at writing tweets; copy editors who write good print headlines should write good digital headlines after learning search-engine optimization. Do not let your emphasis on developing digital skills lead to undervaluing traditional skills. An outstanding traditional journalist who's developing digital skills has great value. And you may need to provide some training and coaching in traditional skills for some digital stars to help them maximize their contributions.
The Digital First editor should consider blogging to the community about what your newsroom is doing. You explain new processes and projects. You invite community engagement. You highlight your staff's good work. Some outstanding editors' blogs are Matt DeRienzo's Connecticut Newsroom blog and the YDR Insider blog by Jim McClure and other editors of the York Daily Record. Tom Skoch of the Morning Journal in Lorain, Ohio, has been explaining some tough editing calls and aggressive breaking news coverage recently in his blog. (What are some of your favorite blogs by editors?)
Digital First newsrooms should honor our print roots. But we cannot let nostalgia for print's heyday distract us from the important challenges and opportunities of today. When people say that most of a news company's profits comes from print, they are not referring to Digital First operations. Newspaper companies have seen their advertising revenues drop by 58 percent from the third quarter of 2005 to the third quarter of this year (64 percent after adjusting for inflation). Any profits are achieved only by severe cuts in staff and other costs. That path is simply unsustainable. The Digital First approach is growing digital revenues much faster than the industry average, in most cases this year offsetting the decline in print ad revenues and producing more revenue than the costs of our newsrooms. Whatever ups and downs this course has, and whatever adjustments we have to make along the way, this is the undeniable course of the future. A Digital First editor cannot let nostalgia for what is passing interfere with the digital focus that success demands. Enjoy your print-heyday stories over a beer. Sympathize with colleagues feeling print withdrawal. But your job is to build digital success worthy of nostalgia someday.
Your newsroom's transition is difficult for your staff. Experienced journalists who are used to being confident feel vulnerable as they learn new skills or lack the skills needed for excellence. You need to be firm and persistent in pushing staff to update their skills and change their workflows. But you also should understand how the transition disrupts the lives and emotions of your staff. Be
compassionate and appreciative with staff members making genuine effort to change, even if you wish they could change faster. Watch for signs of stress that you should address and look for opportunities to bring some fun into the newsroom.
Obstacles and excuses
The obstacles you face in digital journalism are plentiful and daunting. But you know how to overcome obstacles. Think back on your favorite war stories of nailing the big breaking story in the face of huge obstacles (for me, it was the 2008 Iowa floods when I was editor in Cedar Rapids). You overcame those obstacles with a combination of resourcefulness, teamwork and persistence. Apply the same combination in new ways to the challenges of becoming truly a Digital First newsroom. Make the obstacles part of your war story. Obstacles are not excuses.
Focus on the future
As the top editor, you are more responsible for ensuring that your staff does a better job next week and next year than for handling every detail of today's news coverage. Sure, you run the show and you need to be involved in the day-to-day coverage. But you also need to trust your staff to cover the news without you micromanaging (and stealing some of the fulfillment they feel in their jobs). The top editor's primary focus should be on helping your newsroom achieve long-term Digital First success.
When you hear a staff member say, "I'm not comfortable with ..." or when you start thinking you're uncomfortable with a new development, examine and understand the discomfort. You may need to embrace and work through the discomfort, rather than avoiding or relieving it. We're not going to achieve Digital First success in our comfort zones.
What are your leadership lessons?
I encourage Digital First editors, other newsroom leaders and other journalists to share examples here of ways that you or your editors are leading your staffs in meeting these challenges. Update: Kathy Vetter of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and Guy Lucas of Media General have written thoughtful responses to this post.
Buffy Andrews Another awesome post, Steve. Very thorough. I think leading my example is so important. Our editor, Jim McClure, is great at doing this. No other editor I’ve ever had sits in the middle of the newsroom with everyone else doing his work, even though he has a nice office. He blogs, tweets, posts on Facebook, uses a smartphone and iPad. He’s not afraid to ask for help when he doesn’t understand new technology. For example, he asked me to help him set up Hootsuite and how to use it. He was a digital leader long before it was fashionable and has always led our newsroom with a clear vision. I can also say the same for our managing editor, Randy Parker. Talk about passion, this guy is so passionate that it drips from his brow. And it’s not a show; he’s sincere about who we are and where we’re going. They are two leaders that i am proud to follow.
I also think praise is really important. While it can be done digitally (and I do) or face-to-face, I often find that taking the time to write a handwritten note is very much appreciated. Sometimes, I’ll buy a box of Kudos bars and write a note to each staff member expressing my appreciation or pointing out something they did well. I find inexpensive ways to express my appreciation. I’m going to be honest. I am so looking forward to 2012. I haven’t been this excited about journalism in a long time. Your focus on the future is right on. It’s exciting and thrilling and yes, a bit scary, but I think that all of the editors at the York Daily Record are psyched about the journey. I love that we’re willing to try new things and if we fail, we fail and move on. I always tell my kids that failures are the building blocks to success, and I truly believe that. I’m better today because of my failures and what I’ve learned from them. Here’s a post from my writing blog that I wanted to share about determination and failure: http://buffyswritezone.blogspot.com/2011/12/long-quote-of-day-from-me.html Again, thanks so much. And if anyone has any ideas or ways you’d like to share about how you praise your staff (like the Kudos bar idea), I’d love to hear them. Steve Buttry Thanks for sharing the link, Buffy! In just a day in the Record newsroom, I could see the leadership qualities you described in Jim and Randy (and you) and a culture that embraces the full range of tools and techniques to deliver strong journalism. I love the series of foundational documents on the YDR Insider blog. Buffy Andrews (@Buffyandrews) Yes, our newsroom culture is amazing. Whenever I go to a seminar or conference I always come away feeling like I work in the best newsroom around. I can’t tell you the number of horror stories I’ve heard from people in newsrooms that are led by editors who just don’t get it. I’m fortunate to work in an incredibly supportive environment that encourages innovation and continually challenges us to serve our readers in the best ways possible. On behalf of Jim and Randy, thank you for your kind comments. We are all looking forward to a great 2012. And for those of you who are not familiar with our YDR Insider blog. Jeff Bunch (@jeffreyrbunch) Wow, amazing! You’ve summed up so much of the struggle here on so many levels – but mapped out a path that struggling print-focused editors can follow. As a former digital editor in two newsrooms that were making the transition, the points you make here were proven true on many occasions. Thank you and best wishes to you, Mr. Paton, and all the change agents in journalism! Scott Downs Steve – Outstanding post. Many great ideas to apply in and out of the newsroom. We just launched our transparency blog last week – LDN insider – and I’m very excited about the possibilities. There isn’t a whole bunch there yet but I’m proud of our start and have even posted a couple times myself (and I came up on the advertising side).
How Digital First succeeds at making money
I have blogged this week about various aspects of Digital First journalism. For any of that to succeed, Digital First must succeed as a business. It will. It is. I'm not going to explain that in detail in this post, though. I'm going to shift to curation (an important process and skill in Digital First journalism), because lots of people have already explained the business aspects of Digital First well. John Paton, CEO of Digital First Media (and Journal Register Co. and MediaNews Group) explained the Digital First business approach better than I would (which is good, since he's the CEO) in his June address to the International Newsroom Summit in Zurich: How the Crowd Saved Our Company. His recent post on news media as medium and messenger elaborates, including the slide below. His September post announcing the formation of Digital First discussed some of the results of the approach so far (and we're just getting started). Peter Kirwan's analysis of the Digital First approach also provides a good explanation. Ken Doctor's post The newsonomics of ComboCo gave some insight on our plans (though much of it was speculative, so you might not see everything he mentioned). Digital First entails experimentation with new business approaches as well as new journalism tools. Subscriptions or meters (the preferred terminology of paywall advocates) hardly count as experimentation, because they have been tried so often and so many ways, with different results. Jeff Jarvis has an intriguing idea, though, with his suggestion of a reverse pay meter. Jeff rightly says his proposal can't work, because it relies on persuading people to pay. But I think some of the principles might work to encourage engagement in a model where the rewards come from sponsors, rather than from persuading users to subscribe. The reverse pay meter reminds me a bit of the membership approach encouraged by Steve Outing. I'd like to explore a mashup of Steve's membership idea with some of Jeff's ideas for rewarding member participation. You can expect Digital First to make some money on Facebook (and other social media) as Alan Mutter suggested that publishers should do. Dan Conover has some really insightful ideas for how a Semantic Content Management System and structuring content as data could create value in the information journalists gather. Of course, I've written a fair amount on possible ways for a Digital First business to succeed, too: • • • • Cultivating multiple revenue streams Taking a different approach to obituaries (and other life stories) Mobile-first strategy The Complete Community Connection (my blueprint is nearly three years old and parts are surely outdated, but I'm sure other parts remain valid)
I'm not saying that Digital First Media is going to do all of the things I've described here (except those John Paton says we're doing). But I think you'll see our company trying a good number of these approaches and succeeding at most of them. And I hope other companies that have declared themselves digital-first try other revenue approaches.
I do know this: Newspaper advertising revenues have dropped by 64 percent (after adjusting for inflation) from the third quarter of 2005 to the third quarter of this year. After 21 straight quarters of dropping ad revenues, the news business needs a new revenue approach. I think Digital First is that approach. I'll write more about Digital First journalism after the holidays. People have already requested blog posts on beatblogging and on the workflow of business, investigative and feature reporters as well as reporters with multiple beats. I've been thinking of writing about training and how you measure Digital First success. I'm planning posts about the Digital First approaches to breaking news and engagement. What are other aspects of the Digital First approach you'd like me to blog about?
• Barney Lerten How about talking a bit, Steve, about the different Digital First approaches of the different legacy media – radio, TV? Steve Buttry I’ll think about this, Barney. I’ve never worked in radio. Have already discussed lessons from TBD. Not sure what more I have to say. Being fully candid might burn bridges more than I care to.
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