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Christian Science Monitor Interview Part 2: Preparing the newsroom for a paperless future

Christian Science Monitor Interview Part 2: Preparing the newsroom for a paperless future

Following on from Part 1 of our interview with the Editor-in-Chief of the Christian Science Monitor, John Yemma - where we looked at why the CSM is pursing a digital future and how it prepared its readership base - we now look at what is happening inside the CSM itself. Yemma and his team are restructuring the newsroom, its mindset and the technology powering it. This is the cutting edge of news distribution, and Yemma talks us through how it is preparing itself for uncharted territory.

Restructuring the newsroom - rebuilding the engine

The next big step for this revolutionary new "newspaper" model was in the newsroom itself. How does a traditional daily newspaper restructure its newsroom team to prepare itself for the uncharted digital waters ahead? Yemma is overwhelming positive about undertaking the task of remodelling the newsroom, saying, "We essentially get to sit here and take our car engine apart and put it back together. It was an automobile engine that was built for the print world and now we get to take it apart and rebuild it for the web-first world. That is a tremendously exciting prospect because that means instead of having to serve the print master, which has its own production schedule and arbitrary deadline, we free ourselves, and we are therefore able to be much more immediate and relevant online."

Currently the CSM has one staff orientated to producing the print CSM and a small online staff who repurpose the print content for the online edition. Yemma tells the Weblog that the team is organising itself into a "three pronged operation" with a common editorial model - under the editor, managing editor and includes the national, international and photo editors, and foreign and domestic correspondents, made up of about 70 to 80 people - feeding two smaller divisions. These two smaller divisions are the weekly print desk and the website desk, in each case they will have a small production staff. This differentiation between the magazine and the web is vital, "as print has its own needs to produce a good and valuable product" so it needs a minimal but dedicated staff. In the same way, the web has to have a focused staff to keep the site running and up to date. Yemma reports they will have about 10 people each devoted to the web and weekly. For the weekly this involves a team that will build a coherent weekly magazine - working on articles that will need to have a longer shelf life - and the overall look and feel. Similarly the website staffers will have a dedicated team of technical producers who will work on the entry page to optimise it for web traffic.

Yemma says that it has not been necessary to radically change the shape and layout of the newsroom to push through this change as the common editorial pool will be driving content and this remain largely intact. There will likely be some moving of desks to put the weekly staff together and so forth, but nothing radically different.

New technology to aid the change - democratising the web

The CSM is introducing new content management systems to facilitate this move, a print CMS and a new web CMS. This new system will allow the common editorial pool to directly feed both operations and allow the editorial staff to have much more influence over the website. CSM are using K4 CMS for the print edition and is currently closing the deal for a new CMS for the web edition. The new web system according to Yemma will, "democratises the whole operation of the web so non-technical assignment editors with the common editorial pool can update the website directly." Therefore, the majority of the content will feed from the editorial pool but the focused web team will work on the homepage itself.

Retraining for the digital future

This new business model will not only result in a rebuilding of the newsroom, but a rebuilding of staffers. The CSM has already trained its team for multi-media publications and now it is undertaking a programme for its new future. The team are being trained for the new CMS platforms; however, the new system does not require extensive training, as it is a very user-friendly system. CSM is continually training staffers for the web, as "the future is the web. Everybody knows that." On the weekly, the assignment editors will have to rethink content to make it move "evergreen" and thus hold up for much longer on the shop shelf, and the content will have to be prepared multiple weeks in advance. The CSM is an analytical newspaper so it is already somewhat prepared for this new style of content, but Yemma says, "it is more rethinking than retraining, a magazine mindset is different to a daily mindset."

Managing staffers through uncertain times

It is exciting times at the CSM, but how do you manage staff through these uncertain times. Yemma says, "Be as open as possible about what you are doing. While things are still being developed and you don't want staff to prematurely publicise, you must be careful about you say, as anything you say in a newsroom can get outside of the newsroom. In fact, I would be disappointed if it didn't; being good gossips is part of their job. I would sometimes say things like "If theoretically we were going to have a weekly and no more daily....", the team would laugh, but I can't really say it as I do not want it to show up on a blog or something. I also tried to give them all the information. I tell you, it is much easier to remember your story when you are honest than when you make things up!"

Yemma reports that he worked with the University of Southern California and the Knight Media Digital Centre, and they performed an anonymous survey of staff. As a result, the staff were able to freely express their opinions about the changes without fear of it damaging their career. The team at USC and Knight compiled all the results and gave this to management, so they could see exactly how their staff were feeling. Yemma reports that the feedback was, "appropriately sceptical, but not overly. Again, I would be disappointed in journalists if they weren't sceptical. I would not expect everyone to be completely on board, but they appear to be largely on board."

Yemma says that that the combination of the town hall meetings, sitting down and talking with the different departments, and the anonymous survey are all necessary when managing a team through change.

Staff sackings

Yemma admits that, like many US newspapers, the CSM will be forced to let staff go. Yemma expects to reduce staffing levels by between 10% and 15%, which translates to 10 to 15 people.

Yemma told the Weblog that the staff cuts will take place in summer of next year and the time between now and then Yemma is publicising these staff cuts to the team so that hopefully levels may be reduced organically with people naturally looking for other jobs on hearing this news. Yemma admits that this will only get them part of the way there with the economy being what it is currently. Yemma is also working closely with the Human Resources department and they plan to offer a redundancy package, outplacement assistance and counselling.

The future

Looking at the radical change that the CSM is pursuing, one cannot help but feel that this type of radical restructuring is exactly the type of thinking what will pull the news industry out of its current slump. The media needs newspapers like the CSM to pursue these new strategies, as the industry has evolved very little in the past 100 years and it needs to start taking some radical risks to ready itself for a radically different future. Whether this model will prove successful, time and the market will only tell; but it is undoubtedly a brave and exciting undertaking.



Katherine Thompson


2008-11-19 16:03

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