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:
- 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?
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.