Center Stage  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   April/May 2006

Center Stage   

The Internet has become an integral part of the way newspapers distribute their content, a phenomenon that’s only going to increase. AJR's senior editor takes a firsthand look at four papers’ Web operations.

By Carl Sessions Stepp

Carl Sessions Stepp (cstepp@umd.edu) began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.

After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.

In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.

     

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It's only 9 a.m. and today's Houston Chronicle has barely hit people's doorsteps, but Sylvia Wood, the Chronicle's online local news editor, already is working a breaking, and heartbreaking, story.

A 15-year-old boy has been killed playing with a pistol with three friends. As seems so common, the boys thought the gun was unloaded. They pulled the trigger once. A harmless click. The second time, the ninth grader was shot in the chest.

Wood has posted a brief on chron.com. She has a Chronicle reporter on the way to the scene and is scrambling to locate a yearbook photo of the victim. She's also juggling two more spot stories while around her, in a newsroom as quiet as a library, print colleagues shuffle in sipping from their Starbucks cups and grunting their good mornings.

It is a scene repeated more and more often as mainstream newsrooms adjust to becoming two worlds in one. The rollercoaster rhythm of print – the steady early climb followed by the precipitous plunge to deadline – is being joined, and may soon be overtaken, by the Web's all-out, all-day, all-night news cycle. Like the arrival of a gigantic planet next door, online newsrooms have begun exerting a culture-changing gravitational pull.

What do online newsrooms look like? How do they work? How are they affecting their print neighbors? I recently visited online newsrooms of various sizes and interviewed journalists within and outside the online world. The results were enlightening, and sometimes surprising.

First, at places large enough to have separate online newsrooms, they look similar to their print counterparts, except they are cleaner, quieter and younger. You see the usual rows of desks grouped into pods, with executives occupying glass offices. But things tend to look newer and sleeker, with carpet still unstained. There seem to be more twentysomethings. And because Web journalists mostly post copy gathered by others, there is less reporting going on and thus less noise.

Organizationally, online newsrooms are arranged by section. But you also find TV studios and mysterious hideaways where technical wizardry takes place (one at washingtonpost.com is known as The Cave). Titles vary. Online journalists are as likely to be called producers or news directors as editors.

A vital difference: With many people posting and without fixed schedules, it is impractical to funnel all content through a copy desk. So a fair amount of copy produced by the Web staff gets little or no editing, and few items get the multiple reads routine in print.

Design isn't a daily concern. Most homepages have a standard look, with a low-tech tool or template that lets editors post easily. Covering breaking news – especially crime, a role that had been appropriated by broadcast – is making a comeback. The running spot-news blog seems especially popular.

Most striking are two clear, probably transforming trends: a move toward merging online and print newsrooms, and a surge toward producing news almost around the clock. These changes may well revolutionize newsrooms, and they raise important questions. Who will produce the volumes of copy required? How will quality be monitored without the overlapping layers of editing? What will be stressed in hiring? How will all this affect the enduring and ingrained newsroom culture?

To explore all this, a good place to start is the sprawling operations of the Houston Chronicle and chron.com.

Dean Betz, chron.com's online news editor and in effect its managing editor, is hurrying to the newsroom's 4 p.m. meeting when he encounters, in an elevator, Dudley Althaus, a Mexico City correspondent on a home visit.

The reporter has heard the paper wants him to start a blog. Betz nods. The reporter wonders how you balance news and opinion in a blog. Let's discuss it with your editor, Betz replies. In the hallway, the Chronicle's reader representative, James Campbell, buttonholes Betz. He's already blogging. They chat about it as they enter the news meeting, a huge affair involving more than 35 people. Betz sets up an online connection projected onto a big screen.

He's called on right away by Editor Jeff Cohen. Betz describes what chron.com and its competitors have been posting.

Some key financial reports are due today, and Cohen presses for quick online publication. "We have got to be getting these stories up the second they come in," Cohen says. Then he announces, to predictable titters, that the Web site will be partnering in some unspecified way with a local Web-based dating service.

From blogs to business data to dating, Web activity is seizing center stage in Houston.

Betz, 44, says the goal is "making the newspaper and the Web site one thing. That's the only way newspapers have any chance of making things work – not thinking they are newspaper companies, but that they are news companies."

Editor Cohen, 51, is a convert. His print newsroom has about 350 staffers, and the paper's daily circulation is about 520,000. As at most newspapers, circulation and penetration have dropped, but Cohen says "we have more than made up for it on the Web." With 20 editorial staffers, the Web site draws some 2.9 million unique viewers a month and makes a profit. "It's obvious you have to start devoting more of your resources to the Web," Cohen says.

For now, most Web staffers work from the paper's 10th floor. Only Sylvia Wood sits in the fifth-floor city room. But all that is going to change.

Cohen opens a binder to show his online goals for 2006: to generate more content from readers, develop more Spanish content and "further integrate the Web and the newsroom."

He leads a brisk tour of space being remodeled to bring Web journalists onto the newsroom floor. "In order for it to be clear what we're doing," he says, "they've got to be close – in sight, in mind, not out of sight, out of mind."

Environmental reporter Dina Cappiello, 32, understands. "Psychologically, the physical presence says, 'This is important. This isn't going to be an afterthought.'"

The one Web editor inside the newsroom, Wood, sits with other assistant city editors at the center of the action. Here, she says, "You're pretty much clued in as to what the reporters are doing."

Wood, 39, works a 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. shift. She takes a handoff from an overnight editor, sits in on the morning news meeting, trolls early for updates and spot news, and tries to post about eight local items a day. "My goal," Wood says, "is to get as much as we can up before the 12 o'clock news."

The morning flurry stems in part from the fact that visits to chron.com spike as people arrive at work. The entire morning paper "rolls over" onto the Web around 12:30 a.m., but the site evolves all day. There are updates and Web-only features from sports and entertainment as well as news, plus numerous discussion forums and blogs by staff members and readers.

Legal reporter Mary Flood, 52, a Web enthusiast who has covered Enron-related stories for three years, says she has filed as many as 12 updates a day from important court cases. "It's simultaneously made things more exciting and more exhausting," she says.

Wood, Flood and practically everyone else acknowledge that with speed and continuous posting come risks. "The chance for error probably soars," says Flood, who urges sources to look for mistakes and alert her. "On the other hand, you can correct those errors immediately and forever."

Most Web content does get edited, although blurbs, headlines and short items may be posted directly by one person, and some contributors' blogs are unedited.

Cohen stresses that "I would prefer to have it completely accurate, vetted and dead-solid perfect rather than racing to get it up. If there are five editors that read every story before the newspaper version, there may be just two or three who vet it for the Web site. But still they are acutely aware of the accuracy issues."

Scott Clark, 46, the Web site's vice president and editor, says Web producers want better quality control. They consult wire service veterans about handling the fast pace. "We're jumping into stories in progress, and we get things wrong, the natural errors that come from the fog of news," Clark says. "We talk about knowing when to 'vague it up' and wait for the facts to settle. People on the Web recognize that they're seeing a flow and not the newspaper end product. They expect to come back and see that the story has changed. But the standards of journalism on the Web are the same as in print."

Almost everybody also agrees that the 24-7 cycle stretches resources.

Science writer Eric Berger, 32, is another big Web fan. As a reporter and SciGuy blogger, his is a familiar byline online. He tells about covering the launch of the shuttle Discovery last July. He rose before dawn and blogged from 4:55 a.m. through the 9:39 a.m. launch until 11 a.m., then wrote a print story for the next morning's front page. He isn't complaining, Berger stresses, but it's clear the Web adds work.

Reporter Cappiello underlines the point. "Industrywide, not just here, the Web requires more labor," she says. "I'm a little concerned how a reporter who covers cops is going to not only file, file, file for the Web, but report the print story and do the Sunday enterprise story."

Cohen does foresee his Web staff growing this year. Still, extra work and all, these journalists and others increasingly welcome the chance to revitalize their work. Blogging has been a big incentive; all those writers who wanted to be columnists now have the chance. You still encounter some skeptics, but it seems that a corner has been turned.

"There are people who think this is a ridiculous extension of their job," Flood says. "I look at this as my new job. It's the future of news. I love it."

This will also be the year of print-online integration at USA Today, where Editor Ken Paulson wants "a single 24-hour news organization." He's even moved the site's top executive, Kinsey Wilson, to the paper's masthead as an executive editor. For now, the online newsroom still occupies it own floor in USA Today's gleaming McLean, Virginia, skyscraper. But Paulson says that "culturally, we're merged," and over the coming months many sports, business, features and other online staffers will move side by side with their print counterparts.

On the day I visit, the Web staff is gathering for its 8:15 a.m. "cabinet meeting," so called because the nine editors huddle around a row of metal filing cabinets.

USAToday.com staffs its homepage around the clock, although less gets posted once the newspaper's contents are uploaded by midnight. Today's homepage editor, Brett Molina, 30, has been on duty since 6 a.m., updating stories about a mine fire and an Osama bin Laden tape.

The news meeting, one of several daily, resembles the typical print get-together, except more attention goes to multimedia and special effects. For example, Chet Czarniak, 55, the online managing editor who presides, expresses concern about live coverage of the mining disaster. "If raw video comes in," he warns, "be careful what we use."

Another exchange highlights the costs and benefits of immediacy. An editor has spotted what he calls a classic dumb headline, "Flawed coin was a mistake." Unlike in a print edition where it would live forever, the head is quickly rewritten.

With more than 10 million unique visitors a month, USAToday.com has 75 editorial staffers, with a funky combination of titles, some from print, some from broadcast. They face an unusual mission, since they don't produce local news. Their national audience spills over several time zones. Viewers come for assorted news, sports and the special packages and surprises associated with the USA Today brand.

USAToday.com puts less emphasis on breaking-news updates from its reporters than on special stories, imaginative packaging and Web-only features. "I'd rather have their 'breaking analysis' than chasing the basics," says Executive Producer Jody Brannon, 46. "What we're trying to do online," she adds, "is celebrate a new way of storytelling that leverages our expertise in visuals, graphics and multimedia." For example, video editor David Freer, 22, is fixing up an on-site TV studio and plans to "pump up this site" with video.

The action seems nonstop, with the homepage changing at least every 15 or 20 minutes. "The pace is just incredible," Czarniak says. "Saturday at 11 p.m. is just as important as Monday at 11 a.m. Speed to market is vital. It's not even a deadline a minute. There are constant deadlines. Our train is always leaving the station."

News Editor Randy Lilleston, 46, sees print people learning "broadcast sensibilities." "Stories are not permanent," he says. "They evolve. The story you read now is not the same as the one you'll read in two hours."

Lilleston, too, worries about balancing accuracy and speed. "Do you get the vetting you get in a newspaper? No, you do not," he says. But he adds crisply, "I reject the idea that online is an excuse for sloppiness. One of my goals is to knock down the idea that it is OK to be temporarily wrong. It is not OK."

Lilleston sees progress toward online safeguards. For example, most items posted directly are short, so typos and errors may be relatively easy to spot. Without a copy desk, editors are expected to turn to the person sitting next to them for a "second set of eyes." They constantly read behind one another, before and after postings.

News Director Patty Michalski, 33, who oversees the homepage, advises, "Get it right the first time. If it means taking two seconds longer, so be it." Michalski also stresses those small but all-important headlines, subheads (known as "chatter") and blurbs. Those few words often determine readership. She pushes posters to seek suggestions from others and to consider "anything to make it a teensy bit more specific."

Across the sites I visited, editors are emphasizing journalistic skills over technical know-how. A few years ago, Czarniak says, hiring priorities were something like 60 percent technical skills, 40 percent journalistic. "Now we're going the other way. The tools are much improved. It's easier to publish now. What we're looking for most are people who know good storytelling."

Even at USA Today, where the newspaper helped revolutionize design, the look of the homepage remains relatively constant. Too much change, says Brannon, "complicates the experience for the user." Except for mammoth stories, the homepage sticks to two or three "standard looks," with templates for easy posting.

Nor did I find many signs of the totally converged reporter, prowling for news with notebook, tape recorder and digital camera and wearing a videocam as headgear. Increasingly, reporters do take photos and provide audio, and some sites are experimenting with giving reporters, especially abroad, cell phones that allow video feeds. But few yet have the time, or capability, to function as multimedia do-it-alls. "I've seen their video," laughs video editor Freer, "and I don't like it."

For now, the big step is consolidation, a culture shock in itself. Czarniak says merging makes sense for production, quality and content. "The ultimate vision is that there are conversations about content among everyone," he says. "You're not concerned about the platform. You're concerned about how to tell the story."

Other major papers are moving toward consolidation, including the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. But merging news operations can be complicated. In some places, the print newsroom is unionized while the online newsroom is not. Sometimes more than one corporate structure is involved. Besides, independence has its own advantages.

So not everyone is consolidating. A prime exception is washingtonpost.com, located across the Potomac River, in Virginia, four miles from its print sibling.

Technically, it's a separate company: Washington Post-Newsweek Interactive. Post Ombudsman Deborah Howell, in a column last December titled "The Two Washington Posts," quoted Post Co. CEO Donald Graham as saying that, while the two versions obviously must cooperate, each is a full-time, stand-alone operation.

Many Web staffers privately believe being closer would help. But there also is a sense that separate status lets the Web site flourish outside the shadow of the magisterial printed Post.

In February, the Newspaper Association of America named washingtonpost.com as the best overall news site among large publications.

Staff members also point out that coordination by phone, e-mail and instant messaging is easy. In addition, a seven-person Continuous News Desk inside the Post's print newsroom provides copy and liaison.

Here, too, the online newsroom resembles that of a newspaper, except that the architecture is more modernistic, the tones more subdued. It's a jeans and sneakers environment, but less rowdy than many city rooms.

Executive Editor and Vice President Jim Brady, 38, says it sometimes feels like an insurance office, and he goads people to walk rather than e-mail across the room.

A big challenge, Brady says, is "getting a newsroom to move at lightning speed." But he sees somewhat less pressure here because, with stories constantly being posted, "there isn't the big run-up to deadline and then a sigh of relief."

The site, with about 65 full-time editorial staff and 20 to 24 part-timers, received 8.2 million unique visitors in February, according to Nielsen//NetRatings. About 80 percent are not from the Washington area, so the homepage is "bifurcated." A computer reads the ZIP codes of incoming viewers and directs them to either the local or the national homepage.

Dominating the room is the newsdesk, a semicircular command center occupied by a homepage editor, breaking news producer and photo editor. They work facing 10 monitors tuned to local and national news and weather. Two people have overnight duty, but the action picks up with the 5:30 a.m. arrival of a dayside homepage editor. Regular news meetings take place at 7 a.m., noon, 3 p.m. and 7 p.m.

Deputy Editor Meghan Collins Sullivan, 31, oversees the homepage and what she calls "the constant decision-making process." Rarely do more than a few minutes pass between updates, and the site gets frequent feeds from the Continuous News Desk's writers and other Post reporters. "There's a different sense of urgency here because we are on constant deadline," Sullivan says. "We don't have a limited amount of space. We have an infinite amount. So you can always be doing new things."

Sullivan and homepage editor Kenisha Malcolm, 28, convene the noon news meeting, similar to those at other Web sites. On this day, about 15 people take part, including, via conference call from the Post, Lexie Verdon, 51, from Continuous News. There's the usual discussion of upcoming stories, plus attention to audio, video, special features and the explosively popular blogs and online discussions.

Brady's second in command, Editor Howard Parnell, 45, grew up in nearby Falls Church, Virginia, and delivered the Post as a kid. He spent more than a decade working in print and the past 11 years online. Parnell agrees that the biggest difference online is the 24-7 pace. But he also sees across-the-board similarities.

"The managing people part is similar," he says, "and the emphasis on storytelling, on getting it right, and, just as it was in my newspaper days, the idea that this is a public trust."

Consolidation's not that big an issue at the Daily Times in Salisbury, Maryland, where the "online newsroom" consists pretty much of City Editor Joe Carmean posting from his desk when he has time.

This morning's Web lead is about the newspaper itself, where a press breakdown has delayed delivery for hours. Papers are being printed at another Gannett paper up the road, and many won't be delivered until after lunch. With regular carriers unavailable, Executive Editor Greg Bassett and other honchos have been drafted to run delivery routes. The phone is ringing ceaselessly, and people wander into the lobby scouting for copies.

Ironically, the print version's front page can be found only one place this morning: on the Web site (delmarva.com), which regularly links to a pdf version of page one.

Bassett, 45, in the office since 4 a.m. and out on his route since 9, finally makes it back around 2 p.m., having just delivered his last 50 copies to subscribers at a local jail. He edits his hometown paper, which is unusual in this mobile age. In fact, he was born in the hospital directly across the street.

The paper has 28 editorial staffers, about 29,000 in circulation and 130,000 unique Web visitors a month. It's a small, community-oriented operation, but Bassett sees the future as clearly as anyone else, and he embraces the Web's potential.

"We write for online and update for print," he recites, echoing a refrain heard often around Gannett. "The only time I'm happy is when I have a newspaper in front of me and a tuna sandwich in my hand. But my 9-year-old son is going to get all his news from his cell phone."

When corporate executives solicited his training priorities for this year, Bassett specified "how to set up a 24-hour newsroom" and "how to write for online."

For now, only a handful of newsroom staffers can post, including Bassett, Carmean and Managing Editor Erick Sahler. More are being trained, and Bassett hopes to hire a full-time "online champion" this year.

Contents from the paper and several affiliated weeklies are automatically uploaded through Gannett's Digital Production Center, and Gannett provides additional Web packages. Wire news is also automatically updated. The Web site does relatively little with local sports, has no discussion groups or blogs (though one is planned), and offers only occasional audio. Its emphasis is on breaking news.

Like his counterparts at larger papers, Bassett pushes reporters toward feeding the Web quickly.

Around noon the day I visit, a reporter files a short piece on a morning meeting. City Editor Carmean scans it, then calls the writer. "Just one quick question," he says, and then peppers him with seven questions. (Editors are like that.) A few minutes later, Carmean calls up the Web template, types in a headline and subhead and posts the story.

Sahler, 39, sees the Web as a vehicle for once again competing with broadcast to cover wrecks, fires and early meetings.

"If there is a murder, before I could be content to wait for the cops to gather information because I was only thinking of publishing for tomorrow," says reporter Ben Penserga, 27. "Now I have to grab what I can for the Web."

Carmean concedes that Web duties lengthen his day by about two hours, but he claims not to mind. "Sure it's long hours, and there are a lot of time-consuming elements," he says. "But I want to do it. I want this stuff on the Web. I want to reach a younger audience. There is no second place in journalism."

Back at the Houston Chronicle, Sylvia Wood has, before noon, posted a yearbook photo of the ninth grader and a staff-written story on the shooting. Now she is racing after other stories.

It is easy to imagine the time, coming soon, when the 24-hour Web cycle dominates the newsroom tempo, work flow and culture. It will bring new excitement, but giant demands for resources in a time of cutbacks and thin reserves. It may also bring serious quality-control issues. Print journalism's credibility has long been connected to its layers of editing.

As for tomorrow's journalists, they will more likely be identified by their function than by their medium. As newsrooms turn into diversified information retailers, the biggest distinction may be between those who develop the content and those who distribute it, via print, broadcast, the Internet or other channels.

Eventually, many editors foresee consolidated newsrooms with a single chain of command and few distinctions between print and online. For now, most aren't leaping quite that far. First comes the physical merger. That will bring both groups into side-by-side cooperation but maintain, at least at first, their separate identities. After that, who knows?

"The endgame," says Chronicle Editor Jeff Cohen, "is to have all our excellent journalists producing content, and air traffic controllers putting it on the various platforms."

Or, as Sylvia Wood says: "Whether it is the Web or print or handhelds, the future is giving people news when they want it and how they want it."

Senior Editor Carl Sessions Stepp (cstepp@jmail.umd.edu) teaches at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland. He wrote about newspapers' increased interest in short-form narratives in AJR's August/September 2005 issue.

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