A publication of the World Editors Forum


Sun - 17.12.2017

Towards the virtual newsroom... in 2015.

Towards the virtual newsroom... in 2015.

What is a newsroom? Offices, computer terminals, journalists, talent, an ambition to belong to the "Fourth Estate"? A bit of all of that, but particularly a collective intelligence that manages to produce quality information within a given time frame. This type of intelligence, founded on the gathering together of individual talents at a single location, is confronted today by a three-fold threat:
- the crisis in the newspaper industry that is leading to job cuts,
- technology that allows the creation of other forms of collective intelligence, e.g. in networks,
- readers and users who contest the monopoly of power of the journalists and want to act as players in the information production process.

A certain type of newsroom has existed for the last two hundred years - from the beginning of the 19th century - but this model is dying before our very eyes and we are struggling to envisage what the newsroom in the year 2020 or 2030 will look like. In order to obtain a clearer picture, a distinction must be made between three phases in the design and organisation of newsrooms.

1) The pyramid model

It took Europe more than half a century to develop its newsroom model, from 1785, the founding date of the Daily Universal Register, forerunner of The Times of London, to the widespread availability of the "penny press" with The Daily Telegraph and Courier in 1855. It was during this period that there arose the distinction between the editor and editor-in-chief, the organisation of the newsroom into desks and the introduction of the practice of holding editorial meetings in the morning (to decide the content of the following day's paper) and in the evening (to put together its front page).

The pyramid information model also emerged from this period, with the printers in the basement, the linotype operators and advertising on the ground floor, the desks on the various floors and the management offices at the top. This is how the newsroom of the New York Inquirer was depicted in the Orson Wells film Citizen Kane, and is a good reflection of the power set-up at a classical newspaper: everything begins and ends with the chief editor, there is no other authority and the news production cycle is vertical between the base and the summit.

This model has lasted nearly two hundred years and has been implemented all over the world.

2) The centralised production model

The pyramid model was not contested up to the beginning of this millennium, but it gradually began to disappear with the emergence of a convergent newsroom with responsibility for the Internet as well as new information distribution platforms.

Thus the major buzzword of the new millenium is "convergence." The challenge is to integrate two newsrooms that have little in common: different readers, different working rhythms, different news selection criteria, etc. And the "hub and spokes" model that prevailed at the beginning of the 21st century features, symbolically, the chief editors together in the middle and all the desks arranged on the periphery. Two elements differ radically from the pyramid model: firstly, the idea that all journalists work (officially) for all platforms with a proximity between traditional journalists and new media journalists; secondly, the obligation for the desk heads to "play together" and to work to multiple deadlines throughout the day.

Often in this environment, a centralised and productivist model emerges, as at The Daily Telegraph in 2005. Centralised, as it does not really break with the pyramid model of the 19th century: you find the same desks (foreign politics, social affairs, etc.) and the same philosophy of content production. Productivist, as all integration policies have led to job cuts, from 12 to 20% of the payroll. The unspoken understanding among all newspaper groups is that "modern" equates to "staff reductions." This in itself is not reprehensible, as new content management systems permit significantly increased productivity.

Nevertheless, this model remains ambivalent. On the one hand, it largely resolves the question of integrating two newsrooms and two news production methods. On the other hand, it remains attached to the traditional model of collective intelligence that dictates assembling of hundreds of journalists in one place. It is exactly this "hub and spokes" model that is facing upheaval, making it the last classical one rather than the first of a new generation.

3) The virtual newsroom in 2015

Though we are not there yet, all the technological, human and conceptual elements are in place to create the new form of collective intelligence that will continue to call itself the "newsroom", but will be much more digitally-oriented than today.

Four changes to watch:

A - It will no longer be necessary to assemble the content-generating reporters in a single location, i.e. those who produce the articles, postings, videos, contents. Mobile technologies will allow them to spend nearly 100% of their time in the field and to format and distribute content from their computer or mobile phone. Likewise, consulting with their section heads or the morning conference with their colleagues can be carried out virtually.

The era of the "virtual newsroom" will arrive on the day when the journalist's phone will be his office.

B - The second revolution is already under way. This concerns an end to solely relying on material produced by journalists. Whereas in the past, a good article used to be one written by a member of the editorial team, in the future a good article will be closer to a wiki (collaborative work) because it will integrate elements beyond the work of one journalist: alerts, comments, multimedia elements, etc.

This development will mark the emergence of working in a network together with "readers-content producers". It will empty the newsrooms a bit more because all these casual contributors will obviously not be physically present in the newsroom. But it will be necessary to have a dedicated professional team to carry out fact-checking.

C - Who will be left in the slimmed-down newsroom of 2015? The senior editorial staff of course, but also all those not involved in purely journalistic input. Let us call this new category "dispatching and repackaging journalists" - those responsible for finishing and distributing the information. Such journalists do not generate the information, but they make it available on all the platforms operated by their media group. Their creative input will focus mainly on developing applications for the tablet computers and e-readers that are re-inventing the "daily me" or the personalised newspaper. This category of journalists will represent between one third and half of the editorial staff.

D - The fourth probable development will affect the location of the video studio in the newsroom: today - except at the Financial Times in London - it is situated in a corner and regarded as a nice-to-have, but minor element in the information production process. Tomorrow, the widespread availability of high-speed Internet and smartphones will make it a central and unifying element in a newsroom. Some newspaper organisations will become producers of video material or animated images (Flash) and distance themselves from the production of written material, both for the web and for paper.

In fact, this virtual newsroom exists perhaps already on a small scale, for example at the Huffington Post. This will be the subject of our discussion on 7 October at the 17th World Editors Forum in Hamburg , Germany (see www.wefhamburg2010.com).



Bertrand Pecquerie


2010-06-23 11:37

The World Editors Forum is the organization within the World Association of Newspapers devoted to newspaper editors worldwide. The Editors Weblog (www.editorsweblog.org), launched in January 2004, is a WEF initiative designed to facilitate the diffusion of information relevant to newspapers and their editors.

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