Getting 'digital first' right in the 'newsroom'

"Digital First!" is a great battle cry, and thank you, John Paton, for giving it to us all. It is pure leadership, a flag planted forward declaring that newspapers now see print as the past and digital as the present and future.

As it is adopted in places as disparate as the Guardian in the UK, the student newspaper at the University of Georgia, and at Morris, where I work, we all have to be on guard against a too-facile interpretation, especially in newsrooms.

It's not about publishing news online first.

That's no revolution. We were doing that in 1994 at the Star Tribune, on a pre-Web digital platform. So were Access Atlanta, OnWisconsin, and other pre-Web newspaper online projects. The "continuous news desk" is a very last-century idea. Can we assume that we publish news while it's still news, and move on?

Digital First is about making the future your first priority, with everything that implies.

It requires restructuring all your priorities. Not just when you do it, but what you do and how you do it.

It requires grasping what is different about digital media -- and leveraging those differences.

So what are those differences? There are many, but here are three worth pondering:

  1. Time. It's not just about the volatility of news. Brands are volatile. Ideas are volatile. Change has accelerated. In such an environment, "the way we do things here" is probably wrong. Challenge everything. If "news" is "old" moments later, are there things you could be doing with your time that create longer-lasting value?
  2. Surplus. Newspapers evolved in an era of information scarcity. As I write this, an estimated 12.51 billion Web pages are at our fingertips. In such a glut, clarity and simplicity become scarce. What are you doing that helps guide people through this clutter?
  3. Control. Gatekeeping died back in the last century. Everyone is a self-publisher. Information flows around would-be barriers in a globally networked conversation. You can't manage information in this environment. But can you lead? Do you understand what is implied by that question? How can you leverage this process?

Our newsrooms can be powerful advantages as we battle for survival with competitors that are legion. Or they can sink us. Veneration of tradition is dangerous. Mourning for the past is dangerous. Blaming others is dangerous. This does not mean our traditions contained no wisdom, or that we are better for having lost so many colleagues, or that others played no role in our predicaments. It's just that looking backward during a battle will get you shot.

The business model of a media company is this: First, attract an audience that is, for lack of a better term, "commercially interesting." Not all audiences are equal. Then make money either straight from that audience, or by selling audience attention to others (through means such as advertising), or some combination.

Accepting an audience responsibility, as opposed to just a news responsibility, is critically important. 

To accept an audience responsibility, a "newsroom" must grasp and own three major initiatives,  not just one. They go by many names, but here I'll just attempt descriptions.

  1. Tell me what is happening now, and what it means. Responsibility for "news" doesn't go away, it just gets more complicated in the chaotic bazaar of realtime journalism where the community plays a major role. The audience is not passive. It has creators, not just consumers.
  2. Help me find the information I need in my daily life. I'm not just a citizen and a voter. I have information needs that relate to my job, my role as a consumer, and my entertainment. Some of those needs are peculiarly local. Information that isn't news is a blind spot that newsrooms must overcome if they are to continue to exist.
  3. Help me connect with people. The need for human conversation is as powerful as the need for food and the need for shelter. A community begins with conversation. A community without conversation will die. As a community journalist, nothing you do is more important than tending to this responsibility. It's not a distraction from your job. It is your job.

Digital First certainly is not unique to newsrooms. It has other meanings for other departments.

For sales, it means radical changes in focus, in goals, in incentives, in the complexity of the product line, and in degree of sophistication of salespeople. If, as some claim, print dollars are being traded for digital dimes, then it means learning how to stack dimes quickly and efficiently.

For print production, it means making hard and often unpalatable decisions to cut costs so that the inevitable decline of print does not kill the broader organization.

These changes are not always pleasant, but failure to change is not an option.


Hi Steve, Just wondering what's your take on this. You mentioned that Digital First isn't about "publishing news online first". Did you mean this in context of daily newspapers where "news is still news" refers to a period of say, 24 hours or less? Say, when talking about monthly magazines, for example regarding technology, gadgets and etc; and a corresponding online portal - how crucial then, is getting news published online, and how relevant, then, is your article in this respect? Much thanks for your reply. Mike

Hi Steve, Well put. I'm not heartless and I'd much rather see cost reductions that don't result in job loss. Who wouldn't? But companies are often being asked to make decisions about their business that can have two paths. 1. "Our decisions are based upon extending the length of the print decline as long as possible and thereby keeping as many people employed for the longest period of time." 2. "Some decisions may hurt our existing business but are necessary if we hope to transition into a new business." Which is another reason why Paton says to put the Digital People "in charge of everything." It's a huge conflict of interest if a decision maker would like to guarantee that things drag out at least until she/he is retired or that the successful future of a company doesn't include their position at all. In their position, I might not want to lead the Digital First charge either. But I would.

Great analysis! I bet you'd enjoy reading the book Spin Cycle, if you haven't read it already. It's written by a former Clinton Administration press secretary (I forget which one) and talks about how the 24-hour news cycle has completely transformed news presentation as we know it. Fascinating book, for those of us interested in such things (I'm a former press secretary and speechwriter).

I really like your distinction of audience reaponsibity instead of news question that baffles me is you say "some say" you are trading dollars for dimes. Your answer is clever but you seen to not agree that dollars are being traded for dimes. Somebody with your experience certainly has seen the financials. Is it true in your experience or have you seen dollars trades for dollars? Or at least quarters?

Marketers on the whole are moving print dollars to digital dollars. The problem is where they're going, not how much is there. The "dimes to dollars" meme reflects a print-centric view of financials, not a market-centric view of opportunity.

Money that used to go to print advertising is now going to a variety of channels, ranging from building and maintaining your Ford dealer's website to search engine optimization and marketing to daily deals. If you run your online business as a digital version of print, you're not going to participate in a lot of that spending.

Online users don't care how often your print product comes out. Now is all that matters. You can schedule your enterprise work in any way that makes sense (maybe coordinated with print, maybe not) but anything that's event-driven demands immediacy.

The computer magazines have done a pretty good job of adapting, at least the ones that survived. The photo mags have been pretty much wiped out -- I don't even know if any of them still exists. I get my photo gear info from Web-only sites like

I tend to think of magazines as special-interest communities and tend to see the digital media opportunity there as convening an interactive conversation, rather than making glittery iPad editions as the designers might prefer. But not all magazines are alike.