Notes from the unification

Perhaps there is a time and place for everything. The era of newspapers operating wholly separate online divisions clearly has ended, and the era of integrated newsrooms has begun. From that union we're all learning some things.

While preparing an internal company report, I put out a call last month: What have you learned from about newsroom convergence? I heard from dozens of veterans of this process, across the United States and in Europe. I also went fairly deep inside four Morris newspapers to capture learnings from "formerly all print" reporters, editors, photographers and "formerly all digital" producers. Here's what they told me.

Merging print and online staffs is the right thing to do. Regardless of print or online background, I heard strong consensus on this point. If anything, we all should have moved more quickly, more forcefully and more thoroughly. "We took too long to converge, allowing two separate cultures with very different ideas about how a converged operation should look, to hum along, ignoring each other," said one reporter.

Done right, it's a big win. "Convergence is, overall, a huge help to innovation," said one online producer. A senior editor agreed: "It's a monster plus. Convergence puts you in a position to succeed." But, he continued, it only opens a door, and you have to walk through it. "It doesn't guarantee success. That comes from leadership and teamwork. But it puts you in a far better position to head in one direction as a team."

Moving the chairs around isn't enough. "We need to adjust our management and reporting structure," said an online producer. If the newsgathering system still looks like it's built to serve print sections, that's what it will do. From a senior editor: "I should have rethought the entire system even more than I did."

Culture gaps are deep, persistent, and troublesome. The union of online and print units brings together people with very different points of view about how to do journalism. Expect conflict. "We had huge respect issues, on both sides," recalled one senior editor. "Online producers felt the newsroom had no idea what they did. And the newsroom felt online had no knowledge of journalism." The result was suspicion and hostility. "There were no saints on either side."

It's not a union of equals. Printies may outnumber onliners 10:1 or even more, and the editors with the most political power come from the print side. "We converged and began feeling treated like the JV squad," said one online producer.

There's a great danger of throwing away what we should have learned. At one western newspaper "a portion of the online staff was moved into the newsroom and simply shunned. Their experience was wholly ignored .... the newsroom brought in print editors over the online operation. New media people watched helplessly as these newcomers bumbled along like it was 1995." Said an online producer at another newspaper: "‘Too many people are retracing the steps (and the mistakes) already taken by online over the previous 10 years.’"

People don't know one another, and they make bad assumptions. In some cases, onliners assume printies are anti-Internet when in fact they've been extremely frustrated by organizational walls that kept them away from the digital side. In many cases, printies mistakenly assume onliners aren't journalists. "Many still see me as serving a tech services, rather than editorial, role," said one digital native with a journalism degree. Beware: This can breed bitterness.

People are confused by new structures and responsibilities. "Who's doing what?" asked one middle manager from the print side. "With roles changing on almost a daily basis, it wasn't always clear who had to perform a particular task."

The strongest resistance to change can come from the online side. This may be surprising, but it shouldn't be. Everyone with turf naturally wants to defend it against any move to redistribute power, authority and responsibility. For senior editors suddenly faced with supervisory responsibility for online media, this can be a very difficult challenge. "Converging different skill sets means taking on people who do work you don't understand," said one senior editor. "There needs to be a BS filter." Said another: "We let the online guys get away with too much because they knew more than we did about the tech side. Too much time was spent negotiating and not doing." Editors need help sorting fact from convenient fiction.

Understanding the online medium isn't just a matter of technology. Missing this point can lead to trouble. A veteran of a midwestern newspaper chain said his company's biggest mistake was "putting someone who's worked in print their whole life and is 'learning online on the job'" in a position to make key decisions about website vision and strategy. "It takes a ridiculous amount of hand-holding and reprogramming of their brain." A West Coast online veteran recalled how, "in one legendary moment, it was decided to place a disclaimer above stories with links in them to alert the reader that the 'blue, underlined words' were links to other sites. This was in 2006." But don't make the mistake of thinking this viewpoint is confined to digital separatists; I heard strong appeals for training in "online thinking" from longtime print reporters and editors.

Recognizing the dangers that come from unification is the first step toward mitigating them. Where there's been success, the veterans of these changes can point to some key decisions and actions that helped pave the way:

Involve the stakeholders. "All involved were taken into account and considered -- big points!" said one digital veteran. "Newsroom and digital leaders conducted visioning sessions to jointly lay out plans for online and print. The newsroom truly moved to a get-it-online-now mentality."

Communicate the strategic reasons. And communicate them again. "Top management explained, again and again, why we must go this way," said a digital editor in Germany. "The result: The staff got this message. And concerning print and online, we have quite a good team spirit now."

Recognize that on-the-job training is part of the newsroom tradition. Don't expect journalism schools to provide prebaked multimedia experts. And don't assume that a journalism degree is the only way to become a journalist. "I had French, engineering and theater majors -- and they were all doing journalism," a senior editor recalled, describing a formerly all-print newsroom. Hire -- and retain -- for aptitude and attitude.

Train for skills, and open the training to all. "We hosted video and audio training sessions and invited everyone in the newsroom to attend, no matter their position or role," recalled one digital manager. "Unbelievably, about 95 percent of our folks volunteered to train. It proved they recognized the necessity of this to advance their careers, and they fully embraced it. We just didn't meet the resistance I expected and was prepared for." Skills training isn't just for skills; it helps alleviate the fears many print journalists have when facing a transition to digital media.

Train for digital thinking as well. For example, one mountain state editor noted that "Social media goes both ways. Using Twitter and allowing readers to comment on stories and blogs is nice, but we need to establish that our journalists must respond back to those comments, and contribute to the discussion." It's not a one-way street any more. Keep in mind that most journalists are highly task-focused, don't spend a lot of time thinking about media theory and changes in the media landscape, and know relatively little about the business and commercial side of newspapers. Fill in the gaps.

Be absolutely clear about roles and responsibilities, and position digital journalists as significant journalism leaders. Publish the table of organization. "By creating the news director position, we really put a foot forward and proved how important this was," recalled one reorganization veteran. Face the "respect" issue directly, and reinforce the message. "Teach the print folk about online journalism -- and how it isn't the refuge of teenagers and pasty-skinned outcasts," said another. Publicly identify and respect competencies.

Across all my conversations and email interviews, one thing was clear: This is a journey, not a destination. Nobody thinks they have it right. Not everyone is going to survive the trip. But the ones who do will share a common trait: They want to come together as a team. That desire runs deeper in our newsrooms than many might think. Foot-dragging on digital media has become socially unacceptable in many quarters. That's a victory worth celebrating.


Excellent points, Steve. Many of these items can be applied to "converting" as opposed to "converging" traditional print newsrooms at "smaller than metro" newspapers. Here the resources are not as great so the need to improvise is stronger. Changing structure to involve a digital leader or at least an online champion (better yet a content editor), climate change (multiple deadlines throughout the day), emphasizing the unique opportunities each medium brings (Google locator maps for every story with an address, photo galleries, engaging reader feedback live.) The bigger struggle I think is developing a sense that information for each "product" must be somewhat different and how does one reporter satisfy utilize both venues without merely copying the work. We're still working on articulating. It's evolving.

I have passed this link around in my company -- powerful lessons and ammunition here that we will apply in our own organizational thinking. Many thanks for posting.

I always have to ask, "What makes you think that putting people who bled audience and failed to connect with an audience in print, 'in-charge', will help you grow audience online?" Readership is not a format challenge, it's a content challenge. There has been a social paradigm shift that, quite frankly, the majority [not all] of print journo's simply do not get or know how to address. The old-iron mindset and practices of what is journalism, news, and of importance has to be tossed out before a media organization can move forward and be successful. Otherwise, it will be a continuing story of declining readership, declining revenue, and bankruptcy.

I'm with Palmer, and not only because I had the privilege of working with him for a year. The hardest problems I've had as an "online" person leading a convergence effort in the newsroom haven't been with teaching technology. I've got a room full of people who can use our CMS, know at least rudimentary HTML, can edit audio in Audacity and have at least heard of Twitter. The problem, though, is helping them understand the audience and how to meet that audience's needs. I get the feeling a lot of the time that when I make content suggestions, people think I'm trying to dumb down the content or pander to voyeuristic tendencies. I'm really not - I'm just following the stats. Unlike print, where you can't tell IF YOUR STORY IS EVER READ, I can tell you that online. And it might hurt, but if you let it, it can teach you something!

Great, great post, Steve. As Joan indicates above, I too have found myself extolling that one particular benefit of online -- the ability and opportunity of real-time statistics. By extension, this leads to another issue that may put "printies" *really* outside their comfort zone: consideration to identify measurable objectives/benchmarks first to gauge success later. If time, resources, money is spent on developing an online initiative that soon after results in statistics that indicate a less than engaged viewership, what then? Does the newsroom's structure even allow (1) for such a "post-mortem" discussion to take place, and (2) to do something about it without feeling their journalistic integrity is either being threatened or beholden to "the Man"? Yes, Joan -- "it might hurt, but if you let it, it can teach you something!"

I come from an agency background and it's fascinating to read about the same struggles in a slightly different context. Jim's comment about adding a "digital leader" (we'd call that person an "experience lead" or "interaction designer") is crucial. What print people often don't understand is the addition of that role. I often have to harp: "Design comes second -- if it doesn't work, it's worthless". They also confuse editorial with architecture and design with usability. We tried to integrate a few years ago and failed. I attribute the failure to a lack of incentive on the print side (demand was not yet flagging for print) and my strategy to work from the production end of the process up. This time we first integrated the account managers and began to bring in the design directors on a consulting basis. It was on the job training but certainly not about "technology". It was about new constraints, new possibilities and usability. It's working pretty well and now the editors and designers are getting pretty good at it.

Absolutely on-point and very true to my experiences. Promoting this now.

I find it somewhat ironic that managing change among professional communicators is just as difficult as it is in any other organization. Most of the difficulties identified in this truly excellent post come down to communicating and understanding. Even in the comments we see broad swath categorizations about "print" or "online" people. I hope my own experience is not completely unique, but I have a degree in Radio and Television, worked as a newspaper reporter and editor, and have a decade of content management and semantic web experience. I can assure everyone that diversity of experience on a team can lead to stunning successes, as long as people are not playing out petty jealousies, making unfounded assumptions, or building little walled empires. Bravo to Steve for bringing all these points together in one place!

Steve - any similar learnings or observations from the sales side...

It reminds me of the old newsrooms I used to work in - only worse because there are two classes of people for the more senior hands to laud it over. I think part of the problem is that news production has become/is inherently very heirarchical. Information is power, journalists are sophisticated information manipulators and they play games. They are adept at these games and have been playing them for decades. 1. This is not at all what online media is about (it is generally more playful - expressive and free); 2. It makes for slow expensive production which is the oppositie of what needs to be achieved to meet business objectives. I pity the onliners outnumbered by printies 10-1 in converging news rooms. Unfortunately it is a fact that in news production someone does have to be in charge - the problem is that the people who can handle the power in a light-handed enough manner to both encourage innovation and efficiency did not grow up in traditional newsrooms. There needs to be a massive change in the culture in order for convergence to work. For online-only workplaces like mine the challenges are different - but substantially easier to deal with than the culture wars that ^^ the post above ^^ most clearly observes are taking place in newsrooms everywhere. Good luck out there.

Can't say I agree with this assertion that convergence is the right thing to do. I've been print before and now online for the past decade. The more I see, the more I believe that print and online are two different beasts. Letting print take over online - which is what invariably happens in convergence - will only result in online going down with the print ship. Print journalism is stuck in a rut - doing the same thing they've always done for decades and they're not producing news in a way that reflects the needs of modern-day news consumers. Convergence only creates the expectation that "now everybody can do stuff for online". Reality is that online doesn't want or need everything that print produces. Much of that is the generic news that everyone already has. Online news is about attracting eyeballs and generating traffic - good journalism helps, but doesn't necessarily build good traffic. It's a ghetto out there and if you're wearing gloves and playing by Marquis of Queensberry rules you are not going to survive this downturn. It's about producing content that news consumers want to read and delivering it in a way they can digest it quickly and easily. Most printies are so blinded by tradition and oblivious to what it takes to make something work online that they are not able to make the transformation, let alone led us out of the wilderness. Say no to convergence. It's a total crock. And guess what? I'm over 40.