Newspapers around the world are facing a challenging time, not only because of the current difficult economic climate and declining advertising revenues, but also because of the ever more rapid push to multi-platform publishing and the changes to the operation that this has involved. Is it time the whole operating model underwent a shake-up? Neil Benson, Editorial Director - Regionals, at Trinity Mirror believes that newspapers need to radically overhaul the entire structure and that, being from a "conservative industry", they have been "overly-cautious" for far too long.
Benson, and the three Editors of the Birmingham titles affected, have rewritten the rulebook on workflow and newsroom management at the Birmingham Post (Editor Marc Reeves - business orientated newspaper), Sunday Mercury (Editor David Brookes - tabloid) and Birmingham Mail (Editor Steve Dyson - a popular evening paper); and the new system is scheduled to go live in mid-October. Benson says that in previous recessions for the media industry, the standard way newspapers have responded is to cut the pagination of the paper and axe staff, but Trinity felt that this was simply "inadequate". Benson says, "The financial pressure is nothing new, but the additional factor is the internet and convergence and the effect that this is having on the industry, so we felt that rather than do the straightforward cost-cutting, we needed to do something much more imaginative." The Editors Weblog spoke to Benson to get all the details.
Trinity Mirror has been using the same tried and tested newsroom workflow as most other newspapers, ie, (1) journalist writes the article, (2) submits it to the news desk, (3) designer fits the story into the page, (4) sub-editing desk scrutinizes, and (5) final revision and publication. This whole system has been completely turned on its head, with Benson stating, "We are truly a multi-media business now, so lets structure for that." The old five-step system has now been honed down to just three steps: create, place and complete. Benson says that not only did they have to look at the overall operating costs in the current difficult economic climate, but they also wanted to fully integrate multi-media working practises into the operation. With the advent of new publishing platforms, such as mobile and the Internet, newsrooms have had to adapt rapidly and have thus frequently "bolted-on" on new practises to the traditional model. Benson wanted to revamp the whole process so that multimedia is fully integrated into the operation.
The new workflow system is as follows:
1) Reporters - who will now be known as multimedia journalists*, - create the content.
2) Send to the "Multimedia" desk where a newly trained multi-skilled team will not only check the copy but also place it into heavily templated pages. This is the key step in the reinvention; here Trinity have merged the news editing and production function into one.
3) Page finishing, revising and tidying up.
Benson says he cannot remember such substantial changes being made to a newsroom in 35 years. Not only will this system help to cut costs and integrate multimedia publishing, but it will also cut down on the time between a reporter finding a story and it appearing in print or online. Furthermore, the three titles at Trinity Mirror Midlands will all be sharing a newsroom; so if a big story breaks the merged newsroom can push more resources towards the story and cover it more thoroughly than was ever possible before.
Integrated newsroom - open space and collaboration
One of the key areas where the changes can be seen is in the newsroom team itself; the individual Head of Content or Head of Sport for each title will be merged and will now work across all titles and channels. Furthermore, the whole team, including advertising and sales, will all be on one floor working together.
In the centre of the new newsroom (the whole team is moving to a new purpose-designed site in Birmingham in about a month's time) there will be a structure that Benson describes as being "like a broken doughnut" (ie, a round structure, open at two points for exit and entry) which is the multimedia desk: everything will be directed from this central hub. It will also contain the conference table where all of the news meeting will take place, making it open to the entire staff rather than in the Editors office behind a closed door as in the past. This structure also enables the multi-media desk staff to always be at their workstations even during the news meetings.
Furthermore, over the summer, a new publishing system was introduced called "Content Watch" (produced by a MediaSpectrum) which is completely web-based making it possible to file copy and sub copy from anywhere.
Training journalists: the "nuts and bolts" of integration
The training programme undertaken to make this radical change in structure possible has been comprehensive. Benson describes the training as "nuts and bolts" and philosophical, ie, enabling the team to "think" multi-media when they are working. Staffers are all being equipped with laptops for filing on the move and Smartphones (Nokia 95 Smartphones for shooting video, streaming video, and take digital pictures), so there have been practical training sessions for the new kit, being led by the Head of Multimedia and the editorial training manager.
The team have brought in Paul Bradshaw from Birmingham City University, who has an online journalism blog, for the philosophical side; the sessions involve talks on multimedia and issues surrounding it for senior staffer, who will then "percolate this knowledge down". The staff have also been attending a series of multimedia awareness sessions led by Andrew Dickinson from the University of Central Lancashire, who also has a journalism blog.
Benson is very clear on the importance of this training programme, "We are asking people to do something very new, and unless you invest in the training it is not going to work."
Managing the team through unfamiliar waters
Another key consideration for Trinity Mirror in this reinvigoration of its newsroom has been its staff. The process resulted in 65 voluntary redundancies at the newspapers and this understandably caused concern for staffers at the group's Birmingham titles. Furthermore, with the whole workflow system being turned on its head, staffers were required to apply for roles within the new structure. This, reports Benson, was a difficult decision and one "not taken lightly". However, the changes in structure are so radical that they felt it was necessary to take this step to underline the enormous change the Birmingham titles were undertaking, and for the staff to truly consider if they wanted to be involved in it. Benson reports, "We had our eyes open, we expected a big reaction."
Bearing this in mind, management moved ahead quickly and launched a consultation period where staffers had one-to-one sessions to discuss concerns and ask questions. Rapidly after, the job application process started.
The UK's National Union of Journalists took a role in the process, telling management that they would fight any forced redundancies; thankfully, the voluntary process proved successful and a strike was averted. Benson reports that communication was open with the union throughout the process.
Trinity Mirror Midlands is nearing the finishing line in this whole process, but with the benefit of hindsight, would they have done anything differently? Benson says that he does not feel that there is a "fundamental" in the process that they got wrong. He does believe that the communication process with staff is vital and needs to be as open and detailed as possible. For Trinity, communication has been, "pretty good, but more would have been better."
Furthermore, with the office move planned well in advance and with Trinity's desire to undertake the changes before the office move so teething problems could be ironed out, lack of time was an issue. Benson says, "Ideally, a bit more time, but then again I have been involved in projects in the past where you can give yourself too much time. Being journalists, we all like a deadline."
* The multimedia journalists role now involves shooting video, taking picture, and so forth, as well as being equipped to file from anywhere with the new web-based publishing platform.