City newspapers in the US have been among the toughest hit by a disrupted business model and economic recession, and those that want to survive as successful businesses are being forced to make some dramatic changes to the way they operate.
One such paper is The Seattle Times. After its competitor, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, closed its print edition and let go the majority of its journalists in 2009, the Times absorbed many of its readers and experienced a welcome rise in print circulation. However, like most US newspapers, it must still seek to cut costs.
Faced by shrinking resources and the need to make use of more and more platforms, The Seattle Times, under the leadership of Executive Editor David Boardman, radically restructured its news operation.
Whereas the newsroom was traditionally separated by platform – print and digital – staff are now divided by position in the news reporting process. The three teams are:
- creation: the reporters, who report the stories, without thinking about platform
- curation: the editors, producers and designers, who choose the best platform for each story
- community: the team who make sure that the paper’s journalism reaches the community via social media and elsewhere
Boardman will speak about this new structure at the 19th World Editors Forum in Kiev in September in a session on ‘Beyond integration.’ We asked him for more detail about the reorganization process and how it has affected the paper.
WAN-IFRA: Many editors say the most challenging element of newsroom restructuring is changing the mindset of staff – would you say this is true in your experience?
Boardman: That was a challenge initially but I wouldn’t say that it was necessarily the largest challenge for us. Our staff moved through that pretty quickly – I think the economic reality has shaken people very quickly and effectively from whatever old patterns they had and has forced them to pick their feet up out of the clay pretty dramatically.
In terms of the willingness to change we see that pretty readily. However, there are certainly cultural challenges for people whose body clock, metabolism and way of thinking were built around a particular set of deadlines.
WAN-IFRA: So what have you found to be the greatest challenge?
Boardman: There are two challenges that are even bigger for us: one is simply that all this change is concurrent with us continuing to make the staff smaller and to focus on cost-containment. At the same time that you are trying to reinvent processes and, frankly, trying to get people to do a lot more work, you are also shrinking the staff and trying to do that in an as effective and intelligent way as possible.
Another significant challenge for us is some labour issues – they are not confrontational particularly but historically (as at many US papers) the print-focused legacy staff was always unionized and the digital staff not.
As we work to integrate staff we have to navigate around rules and that’s can be tricky.
WAN-IFRA: Would you describe your new newsroom as ‘digital first’?
Boardman: Actually, I would not say that. There are a couple of stock phrases, ‘digital first’ being one and ‘platform agnostic’ being another, that I very pointedly do not use.
To me, it’s not about digital first and it absolutely is not about platform agnostic. That’s a concept that I reject out of hand. It’s about using all of the platforms we have to their optimal level and yes, that often results in digital first, but not always. There are certain stories that we produce that are very specifically aimed for print and that are far better presented in print and may never manifest themselves digitally. In the traditional flow of covering news, yes we do go to digital platforms first, but we are really training our staff to think about the particular strengths and competencies of each platform, and what are the audiences of each.
WAN-IFRA: How is your content tailored to different platforms?
Boardman: On the smart phone, we know that people are looking particularly to that for breaking news, or weather or traffic - it’s immediate. Most people are not going to read a five-part series on their phone.
We are thinking about the tablet as a lean-back experience that is most often used in the evening. We are trying to tailor content to that aspect and creating a far more visual presentation that is also far more curated and contained.
The newspaper, particularly the Sunday newspaper, we really see as the centerpiece of our presentation going forward.
But I don’t want reporters thinking about the platform, I want them thinking about the story and the information. Sometimes, for a breaking story, they have to start thinking about the platform as they are gathering the because of coursewe expect them to be tweeting and sending dispatches and photographs.
Essentially, however, reporting is about the story, and the platform is the vehicle for that story. And I think that’s a very big malady of our profession right now is that many journalists are focusing on the pipeline itself more than what is going into it.
WAN-IFRA: What have been the most significant changes made to your website?
Boardman: We implemented a major redesign of the website a few months ago: we are doing more video, we are doing more slideshows, more interactive graphics, and really highlighting social media more.
We’ve added a prominent feature that we call ‘The Today File.’ It’s almost a blog format, for breaking and developing news and as such it provides a very easy vehicle for reporters to post short versions of information and stories as they get it. This is liberating for them as they can almost handle it as a wire service dispatch, and that really frees them up later in the day to craft a more thoughtful and in-depth story for the next day.
WAN-IFRA: How closely do you work with the community? Do you operate initiatives such as crowdsourcing?
Boardman: What we do is reach out to the community when we are working on stories; for example, we did a series recently called ‘Recession Generation’ in which we spoke to people in their early twenties who were having difficulties finding employment, or people with PhDs who were waiting tables. So we didn’t use them to do the actual reporting, but we used social media to reach out and find great examples and stories.
Next, we used social media to organize a networking event after the series had finished. We had these people come in to our newspaper and brought in experts to counsel them on effective résumé-writing and job searches. So we used the community at the start of the process, and helped them out at the end.
We also have a significant network of community bloggers. Seattle is a very wired city with probably hundreds of small news and information blogs around the area. Two years ago we began a community network in which we partnered with five neighbourhood blogs. Every day on our homepage we link to the best items on these blogs and send them traffic. We have now grown the network to more than 50 partners ranging from neighbourhood blogs to communities of interest – boating, parenthood, or beer!
Even though we don’t get the traffic from this, we believe - and our metrics indicate to us – that it has helped our traffic too, and people come back to us as this creates a sense in the community of us as a town square, and us as a very open community convener, instead of as us as a fortress.
WAN-IFRA: Are you considering charging for digital content?
Boardman: Absolutely we are considering that. Most metropolitan newspapers in the US are going to, and we are seriously studying instituting digital subscriptions and perhaps some sort of a metered paywall. Our research shows us that our audience values what we do enough that we might be smart to do that. We don’t have any immediate plans to do it but we are seriously studying it
I can’t imagine us going to a hard paywall, rather a metered approach where we could retain a lot of the traffic that we get from around the world on such topics as Microsoft, Boeing and Starbucks. But again, we are still studying that.