To mark the relaunch of the Editors Weblog, the World Editors Forum is running a special series entitled "Doing More with Less." The series highlights major trends that editors-in-chief are using to steer their newsrooms through the difficult economic climate. The fifth in the series takes a look recently revamped Tampa outlets the Tampa Tribune, TBO.com and WFLA 8.
Media General's Tampa news outlets have been leaders on the path towards integrated newsrooms for years. Now, as the financial situation at American newspapers weakens, the Tampa Tribune, TBO.com and television station WFLA 8 have used essential cuts in staff numbers and resources as an opportunity to go a step further in creating a completely converged newsroom. On November 10 last year, the 'Interactive Newsroom' went into operation, in which all three platforms, print, online and TV, were further combined.
It is unclear exactly how many staff have been let go, but senior editor Dennis Joyce told the Editors Weblog that so many empty desks were being removed that there was "plenty of room to play football in our newsroom." He described the staff cuts as a "sad development", but as audience editor Susan Newman commented, there is not much time to dwell on missing colleagues as staff still have to get their product out each day. And Joyce stressed that the developments were "far more" than just a cost-cutting measure: they would have been "a good idea anyway."
Change happened fast. Joyce said that he had "never seen the likes of it", and estimated that the newsroom had been transformed in about 30-45 days. The physical layout has changed, and many staff have been assigned different responsibilities. Two floors of the news centre are being used for newsgathering, with print editors and television reporters sitting next to each other.
Separation and elimination
The crucial principle underlying the changes is the separation of content generation and distribution within the newsroom structure, while eliminating duplication in both reporting and delivery of news.
Reporters and editors have been divided into 5 work groups known as "circles" that include people from across disciplines and platforms. The 5 circles are:
- Deadline (the largest)
- Personal Journalism
- Data (the smallest)
Part of the Deadline circle is the "Live Desk", which is the 'air traffic control centre' for the whole newsroom; it knows where all reporters and crews are at all times and what they are working on, so that it can reallocate resources accordingly. The smaller the team, the better, Joyce explained: whenever possible one or two staffers produce content for all platforms. For instance, photo and video operations have been completely converged and all staff now carry "both weapons". Sometimes print-based reporters are also sent off with a camera too.
Content then moves to the six "audience editors", new positions created during the last round of reorganisation. The audience editors are comprised of two print experts, two online experts and two television experts. Susan Newman, one of the six who has 22 years of television experience, defined their role as "managing the content and process in the systems to make sure that all of the platforms are publishing content that is relevant for the audience." The group studies audience metrics and "anything else that measures how content is moving online," to establish how people want different types of information at that moment. Assigning resources to stories and deciding on follow-ups is all part of audience editor responsibility, and they make sure that content is not duplicated unnecessarily from platform to platform.
The new audience editors "make sure that all of the platforms are publishing content that is relevant to the audience"
Finally, the three platform specific groups of 'finishers' are in charge of taking the content produced by the five circles and allocated by the audience editors, and preparing it for distribution on to the various platforms. As Newman put it, they are "those who have to get the product to the place it needs to be" (copy desk, designers, online producers, TV producers and anchors). Finishing groups must also collaborate to ensure that relevant content is available to other groups in an accessible format. For example, the television group would take a broadcast piece and extract quotes and stills to send to the print group.
The organisation of the newsroom's day has also been modified, with a new, cross-platform content meeting taking place at 7am each day, at the time when a "huge contingent" of reporters arrive. During this meeting, editors produce outlines of content that will be in the print edition the following day and on television that evening, and make sure they are taking advantage of their online audience during the key 7am-4pm period. Previously, this outline evolved gradually during the morning. The last editorial meeting of the day is at 3.30pm, when the focus truly switches to the following day's work.
Newman emphasised the greater efficiency within the newsroom as levels of senior management have been eliminated. "When you do want to make a change you can make it happen so much more quickly than before because there are fewer people who need to sign off on decision making." The audience editors report directly to the news leadership group, who are the three managing editors for print, online and television.
Increasingly local focus
In conjunction with reforming management of content, the focus of content has also come under scrutiny. Local news coverage is on the up. Joyce explained, "Local is pretty much where we believe our future is. The unique content that will make us valuable to our audience increasingly appears to be local news, as the audience will not get that anywhere else. That is definitely our focus." Newman added that if they do cover national news, they find the "local spin on it." She mentioned the special community pages on TBO.com for which they do "micro-reporting" in different Tampa communities and encourage user-generated content. The website allows comments on every story, and reporters sometimes use information conveyed in comments to spark further story development.
"Local is pretty much where we believe our future is, as the audience will not get that anywhere else."
Enthusisastic staff response
Reactions from staff have been generally positive, Joyce explained. "Had it been an undertaking done outside these economic times we probably would have had more angst. But when you consider the amount of staff reductions and layoffs that we have had recently, a news centre reorganization is seen in an entirely different light, people are now happy to have jobs." When it comes to integration, the group is already "way ahead" when it comes to accepting that breaking news online is essential, and people have been trained for years to learn the skills needed for working on other platforms. Newman added that people are adapting well: "There isn't a journalist who works for this company who doesn't understand that it's not about being platform specific anymore."
The obvious question that springs to mind is: is this new system going to work? Can a newsroom compensate for staff cuts and diminishing resources by reorganising? Other local newspapers are undoubtedly watching closely to see whether they should follow suit. According to Newman, "we are doing better content now, and we are not missing things," stressing that the newsroom is "giving the audience the content in the way that it will be able to consume it." However, the Tampa outlets are in a relatively "unique" situation, Joyce emphasised, as they consist of the number one local newspaper in the area, and the number one local television station. So compared with a print publication which is frantically trying to train staff to produce video for its website, they already have access to top videographers from the television side. In light of current financial problems across the industry, maximising on available resources and avoiding overlap definitely makes sense.
One potential problem could be that the generalised nature of content gathering risks eliminating any possibility of the three publications having a unique voice. But if the finishers are good enough this should not be a problem. It is too early to offer any kind of verdict on the Tampa outlets' forward-thinking approach, but their willingness to innovate and make the necessary changes to make the best use of what they have shows that they have sufficient ambition and determination to survive. As Executive Editor Janet Coats put it, "we are here to stay."