Transforming the Architecture  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   October/November 2007

Transforming the Architecture   

As newspapers struggle to survive with heavy emphasis on the Web, bulked-up local coverage and leaner staffs, they are dramatically revamping the way newsrooms operate.

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.

     


The newsroom of tomorrow may be arising today in Atlanta, where the Journal-Constitution's editor, Julia Wallace, has fearlessly upended the organization chart and reinvented the news process.

Or tomorrow's newsroom may soon take shape at the San Jose Mercury News, where Executive Editor Carole Leigh Hutton foresees bold changes and warns, "Everyone here knows that the position they hold today may not be the position they hold in six months. I make no commitment that there will be a business editor or a sports editor or a city editor, because that may not be what we need."

Or it may emerge across the landscape of Gannett papers like the Des Moines Register, where Editor Carolyn Washburn's newsroom, known now as the Information Center, is expanding online work, adding futuristic touches like a Data Desk and merging or eliminating some traditional beats and editing jobs.

Or maybe the newsroom of tomorrow is sprouting in a gleaming tower across the Potomac from Washington, D.C., where the upstart Web site/newspaper the Politico has pirated talent from top mainstream media and touts fresh, stylish, fully converged multimedia coverage.

For years, journalists have wrangled with rampaging change, especially the online revolution that brought vast new duties and the accompanying downsizing that left fewer people to accomplish them. Now these changes are rushing toward a threshold that seems likely to remake the homely print newsroom into a multimedia center fighting for survival and success.

While much attention goes to some new-agey titles (Atlanta has a "director of culture and change") and techy reconfigurations, the editors' intentions go far beyond cosmetics.

"We've changed a lot about what people were called over the years," says San Jose's Hutton, "but not what they do. You can call it a team or a pod or whatever, but it's been the same city desk I worked on as a reporter. In order to really change the newsroom, you have to change the architecture of the newspaper."

Says Jennifer Carroll, Gannett's vice president for new- media content, "This is not about moving the furniture around. It is about completely rethinking the way we are going to do journalism."

Walk around the Journal-Constitution's news operation, sprawled over three floors in its downtown Atlanta headquarters, and you'll see the furniture hasn't changed that much. The clutter seems pleasantly familiar. The usual irreverent posters and knickknacks decorate regular-looking desks and cubicles.

But the "AJC," as locals call it, is not only rethinking journalism, it is flash-forwarding into new ways of doing it.

After months of brainstorming and planning, including several tense weeks in which about half the staff had to apply for new or different jobs, the Journal-Constitution this summer abolished traditional desks and reconstituted itself into four departments instead of more than a dozen. Two produce the content: News and Information, the largest department, supplies breaking news and other material directed first toward the Web. The Enterprise department develops surprising, watchdog-type stories largely for the morning newspaper. The two other departments, Digital and Print, independently select from this content and handle presentation for the Journal-Constitution and its Web site, ajc.com.

Atlanta now has no conventional metro editor, no sports editor, no deputy features editor. Content and production teams have their own leaders, who are supposed to stay in close touch, but no one person oversees, say, the business section from start to finish. The strategy of thinking Web first, talked about nearly everywhere, is demonstrated hourly. The newsroom has no formal late-afternoon budget meeting, but a 1:30 p.m. page-one huddle around a slot editor's desk (which managing editors seldom attend), plus several similar digital and section gatherings. Action at ground level, not orders from on high, is the watchword.

"We had a newsroom built for the old world," says Editor Wallace. "In the old world, the content people had control of print but not online, and I thought that was an unwinnable situation. We can't just be a newspaper anymore. We need to be a news and information company. Online will become the new mass medium, and print will be aimed at settled adults." (Fair disclosure: Wallace briefly worked for me at USA Today in the early 1980s.)

In general, Wallace says, the younger online audience's message is, "Help me navigate my life in Atlanta," while the older print crowd is seeking "deep local news commitment."

So the new AJC structure serves up constantly updated online news, lifestyle guides and interactive multimedia features, with about 5 million unique visitors a month. The print paper, circulation 360,000 daily, 525,000 Sundays, stresses depth and enterprise.

"News and Information, by philosophy, is supposed to think online first. Enterprise thinks print first," says Shawn McIntosh, who indeed holds the title director of culture and change. "This has taken off like a rocket."

Like most newsrooms, the Cox-owned Journal-Constitution has downsized. The news staff totals about 435 after 43 buyouts this spring, down from a high water mark of somewhere around 535. The reorganization, in part, seeks efficiencies that will squeeze the most out of remaining resources.

"A key part of doing more with less is simplifying the structure," explains Senior Managing Editor James Mallory.

Many traditional functions and services have been sacrificed:

• In March, the paper scaled back from delivering papers in all 159 counties in Georgia, plus many areas of surrounding states, to 66 core counties of North Georgia plus a handful in North Carolina and Tennessee.

• Some beats have been dropped or consolidated. There are no more national and regional reporters. One reporter instead of two covers local television. The transportation and public transportation beats were combined. A beat formerly dedicated to Coca-Cola, a preeminent local institution, was broadened to food and beverages.

• The paper will depend more heavily on wire services for regional news, features and sports. It gave up its movie critic (see "The End of the Affair," August/September 2007) and will send fewer sports reporters to national events.

• About 20 editing positions were lost. Layers of editors have been reduced, and team leaders typically supervise more reporters than before. "We had as many as six layers of editors between a reporter and me," says Wallace. Now it's no more than three. Some stories get fewer reads. "We have less of a safety net," she acknowledges. "But it's also about pushing accountability down."

Some coverage has grown. Far more resources now feed the Web. The Digital department has surged from 50 to 65, plus much of the energy of the 180-person News and Information department is focused online. The AJC also has beefed up coverage of local civil courts, suburban development, and social and leisure activities.

Six reporters, nicknamed "the kennel," are dedicated to a metro watchdog and rover team. The watchdog reporters "wake up every morning looking for trouble," explains Hank Klibanoff, managing editor/enterprise. One story they produced: how police officers were hogging parking spaces around a local courthouse and not feeding the meters. The rovers "are in their cars driving around and looking for fascinating stories," such as a 90-year-old woman who comes to work every day at a local store. "

It's part Our Town, part Talk of the Town," Klibanoff says.

Publisher John Mellott voices full support for Wallace ("the best editor in the business today") and her efforts to balance missions and resources, which he calls "equal objectives."

"It is high time," Mellott says, "that we sat back and said, 'What is the proper design that will best serve our readers and best serve our business model?' If we have to deal with the business issues, let's not just go in there and cut X percent. Let's do it right. Let's look at the fundamentals of this business."

One fundamental stands out to Gilbert Bailon, publisher and editor of Al Día, a daily Spanish-language publication of Belo's Dallas Morning News: "We're being resized right now," he says of the newspaper industry. "The revenue is not supporting the old way we operated, and we have to do something about it."

Bailon has both the local and national perspective. He's also the current president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors. He, along with other editors interviewed for this article, can see several trends.

Foremost, perhaps, is the "resurgence of the local" accompanied by "a real decline in regional, national and international coverage."

Others include:

• consolidating sections, such as metro and business, or creating "megadesks" to handle production of several sections

• combining beats or assigning reporters to multiple beats or secondary sub-beats

• eliminating specialty beats, particularly in features and local cultural coverage

• reducing editing time on tasks such as combining wire reports

Carole Leigh Hutton has done many of these things and more at the Mercury News, a former Knight Ridder paper now owned by William Dean Singleton's MediaNews Group. The staff of her 230,000-circulation paper numbers about 200, less than half of what it was during its dotcom-boom heyday. With the paper unable to do all it once did, she intends over the coming months to determine, "What is our place in the market? What is our niche?"

Like most editors, she hopes to "flip the notion" of print first, online second. "We're structured around the one-time thing instead of the all-the-time thing. We will blow up the staff, because if we don't, we can't blow up the newspaper."

To get more of its diminished resources into online journalism, the San Jose paper is saving staff by settling for fewer levels of editing on wire copy; formatting some pages to require less design and copy desk time; assigning some section editors to write their own headlines; reducing support staff (four executives now share one assistant); giving up some suburban beats and the paper's Asia bureau; and doubling up on other beats (for example, a beat once dedicated to the microchip industry expanded to include more local businesses).

Hutton hopes to preserve intense local and business coverage and "at least some level of investigative work," and to keep up morale by "being very candid and respecting the fact that people feel a lot of grief and angst."

At the Media General-owned Tampa Tribune, Executive Editor Janet Coats ticks off her list of priorities. She wants to "build a moat and save at all costs" community reporting (neighborhood, city, county and suburban), in-depth and investigative journalism, and the "ability to explain the complex." And she, too, needs to funnel resources online.

The result, to Coats, should be both a "now newsroom" and a "deep newsroom."

Her news staff, which three years ago numbered about 300, has slid to 270, suffering seven layoffs this past spring. The 218,000-daily Tribune, too, has given up its local movie reviewer, reduced the number of reporters in business, decreased slots in some bureaus and dropped from three to two state capital reporters. Coats has bolstered her continuous news desk by 50 percent, created an interactivity team of eight to nine people and strengthened the online-focused entertainment team.

Down the road, Coats anticipates revisiting the way the paper is put together. "I really think we're going to have to look at whether we need to dramatically re-section the paper," she says – for example, by moving all local news, including business and sports, into one section.

At Gannett, papers are redefining their newsrooms as "local information centers," capable of gathering and distributing information across print, online, mobile and "any other media possible to meet our readers' needs," according to a company handout.

At the company's paper in Des Moines, Editor Carolyn Washburn describes her priorities this way: "revelatory watchdog, surprisingly insightful enterprise, storytelling, very, very local community coverage, digital – and a last piece we call whimsy. That's the perfect mix."

The 150,000-circulation Register has about 195 editorial staff, down fewer than 10 from a 2003 peak, she says, and it, too, is adding online firepower. The Data Desk, for example, works to develop reader-searchable information of all kinds, from bridge safety to where the bathrooms are along a cross-state bicycling route.

Washburn has squeezed out some new positions by consolidating beats (two reporters cover agriculture now, down from three), redistributing work (two editors in features, down from three), and, yes, jettisoning the local movie critic position (to the copy desk).

To underline the online emphasis, the Register is developing new performance reviews that will include sections on reporters' multimedia and database contributions.

At another Gannett paper, the 115,000-daily News Journal in Wilmington, Delaware, Executive Editor David Ledford continues to stress local and investigative coverage. Even during "the transition to a 24-7 news operation," the News Journal aggressively pursues all kinds of searchable databases, such as local police use of Homeland Security grants and chemical waste figures for Delaware plants.

Ledford's staff of about 138 (down about 15 over the past three years) has seen a merger of the metro and business sections plus the transfer of some general assignment reporters and copy editors into multimedia work. A clerk became an early morning online/print reporter, a page designer switched to sports video production, a reporting position was converted to a Web design slot. About eight reporters can capture and edit video and audio.

"You find yourself constantly restructuring," Ledford says. "But you can't pull back from the bedrock. You just can't do it."

Ah, the bedrock. While editors are paid pretty well to jog loyally down the gravel-covered path toward the new newsroom, most worry about the continuing cutbacks and some speak out.

Steven A. Smith, editor of the Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington, wrote pointedly to his staff and his readers, via blog, about his paper's coming cuts.

"Our staff will be smaller this time next year. My guess is we'll be down anywhere from 8 to 12 positions," Smith wrote. "None of us should hold any illusions here. A smaller staff means a lesser paper... Doing more with less is corporate-speak BS and you won't hear it from me. There is no way to make this pig look like anything other than a pig."

In an interview, Smith quickly noted that his family-owned newspaper settles for profits below the "excessive" chain levels. His staff of 137, down from as many as 159 several years ago, has been stable for three years and still could be considered healthy for a 92,000-circulation paper.

But revenue concerns require more paring. So he'll examine steps like merging the day and night copy desks, combining departments such as local and business, and targeting a local arts writing job. He wants to simultaneously build up online journalism while "keeping as many reporters on the street covering the foundational areas of what local journalism is all about."

Smith isn't bitter, but he is blunt. "In the end, it's not going to be as good as it has been. It can't be," he says. "It really pisses me off that editors stand up in front of their newsrooms and spout this blather."

ASNE President Bailon, too, sees the obvious irony in trying to do more things with fewer people.

"We can't give up on the franchise. It takes time and resources and people," Bailon says. "You can't have an outside person come in who is used to selling hamburgers or shoes or T-shirts and says, 'Here's what we can cut back.' Newspapers don't work like that. The metro section is never going to make money.

"I won't say we're at the point where we've ruined the industry and can't deal with it. No. But is there a point of no return? Yes."

Atlanta reporter Craig Schneider was walking to a county commission meeting one recent Wednesday when his cell phone rang. It was an editor redirecting him to a press conference about state family services.

Before the big reorganization, Schneider was the paper's social services reporter. Now he covers health and medicine, but he's still occasionally asked to cover stories on his old beat. He made it to the press conference, filed a few paragraphs of breaking news online, and then "bopped over" to the county commission meeting, returned to the newsroom and wrote both stories for the next day's paper.

"I'm doing more of that," he says gamely. "I feel as though, under the new way, I'm really having to flex my sprinting muscles – drill down, get the information and get it out quickly."

Moving fast is clearly taking hold as a new dynamic. "This places a huge emphasis on 'Stop thinking about it and do it,'" observes Chris Stanfield, the AJC's senior editor for photography. "Now means now. It doesn't mean in eight minutes."

Typically reporters should do a 150- to 300-word "fast file" for the Web and then craft the "day-and-a-half lead" for the next newspaper, says Nunzio Michael Lupo, the paper's managing editor/news and information. To help, Atlanta has created a three-person "dispatch desk" to take copy from field reporters, perform needed rewrites and edits, and feed the Web and print editions.

One stress point is that once reporting and photo teams have developed their content, they lose control over it. Under the traditional system, a section editor could guide a package from assignment to publication. Now, the editor leading a News and Information sports team, for example, isn't in charge of displaying its copy. Those decisions are made by the Digital and Print departments. Some worry about the loss of advocacy and continuity, but others say better communication and collaboration should take their place. Content team leaders are expected to regularly coordinate with print "section editors" and digital "channel managers."

Interestingly, reporters aren't pressed to continually update all their Web postings. "Don't go crazy writing 15 inches for the Web," Lupo says. "Write the 300 words, then turn your attention to print. For many people, this didn't get harder. It got easier."

Adds Shawn McIntosh, the director of culture and change, "Our rule is: If the lead and the head don't change, you don't need to update."

Robin Henry, managing editor/digital, aims to take online journalism beyond the breaking-news mind-set. "We've done really well in kind of indoctrinating the reporters to think online first," she says. "I prefer to think we are in the second phase – not digital first, but digital smart."

The idea isn't to continually post every detail reporters learn but to use online power more thoughtfully. To Henry, reporters should be asking, "Is it interesting, is it actionable, is it something people are talking about, is it something that would be better told visually?"

A related emphasis is what Atlanta editors and reporters call "durable content," information like calendars, guides, sports stats and databases that, with some updating, can be posted and used over long periods. Similarly, a new leisure beat reporter now heads out to local events like festivals, filing real-time consumer service updates on parking, crowds and tickets.

New also is Jennifer Brett's social beat and cheeky blog called The Social Butterfly. It focuses on local names, faces and doings, reminiscent of old weekly newspaper personals columns. "It's almost retro and forward-thinking at the same time," Brett says.

As all this online energy sizzles, you might imagine the angst of the Print department, facing what seems a clear status reduction. But some editors there express relief they don't have to worry about the online pace. "We can focus exclusively on the newspaper. We're not really in the breaking news business," says Bert Roughton Jr., managing editor/print. "We're going to explain it to you and do analysis and write what you want to read... I hope readers will feel the newspaper is visually better, better organized, maybe more thoughtfully assembled."

Feeding the print edition is content from the Enterprise department, where veteran editor Hank Klibanoff presides. "One thing that's different now is the serious concentration of resources on enterprise across a broad spectrum of stories," Klibanoff says. He has teams doing investigations, narratives and profiles, and explanatory journalism, along with specialists in business, sports, features and the "kennel" of watchdogs and rovers. Their jobs demand both long-term projects and "done-in-a-day" stories.

A danger, conceded by almost everyone, is that Enterprise reporters will be seen as an elite squad and the News and Information staff as worker bees. When staff members were required to apply for jobs under the reorganization, a disproportionate number applied for Enterprise. In one case, 44 people sought four spots on the narratives and profiles team.

McIntosh, who is assigned to manage such transitions, recognizes the problem. "We have to change what we reward," she says. "We have to make sure the people breaking news on the Web are as valued as the people writing the Sunday takeouts."

Another issue is workload. One problem, the Print department's Roughton says, has been accepting reduced breaking news expectations. "You have to let go of the notion of being the newspaper of record," he says.

Still, with digital journalism sucking up more and more energy, there are fewer bodies devoted to print. Bill Steiden, for example, was the Washington and politics editor under the old system. After the reorganization, he became the national/ world/business editor for the Print staff. About four years ago, he says, the paper had a national editor and six subeditors, a staff that shrank to himself and two subeditors, leading to some long days.

"When you take a lot of people out of the equation," Steiden says, "there's still a lot to do. You get into more of a rip-and-read mode. I find myself moving earlier versions of business stories than I'd really prefer. You just say, 'Let's get something moved, and I'll come back to it if I have a chance.'"

Top editors see many of those stresses. Shortly after our interview, Steiden e-mailed that the paper planned to restructure his job and add an editor for business.

Reporter Schneider agrees there is more work as well as some rough spots between departments, but he also sees some blue sky. "I'm driving news, I'm not just responding," he says. "I don't think of myself in a subsidiary role here." The fact that a reporter in Enterprise also writes stories overlapping his beat doesn't seem to bother Schneider. "We are much more collaborative now, and I'm totally cool with that."

"Totally cool" is a phrase that could also come to mind as you tour the infant newsroom of the Politico, located in Rosslyn, Virginia, just outside Washington, D.C.

Born this past January (see Drop Cap, February/March 2007), the Politico has generated precious buzz and lured some all-star journalists to work on its Web site and the 30,000-circulation newspaper that accompanies it one to three days a week (depending on whether Congress is in session).

The floor plan and organization model seem fairly standard: rank-and-file staffers at desks in the middle of the room, top editors with conventional titles in glass offices along the sides. What's cool is not so much that the Politico is doing something radical as, in the words of Managing Editor Bill Nichols, a print veteran, "being part of something that's growing and not cutting back."

To be fair, the Politico lives in the niches, not the mainstream. It focuses its coverage on Capitol Hill politics, the presidential campaign and Washington lobbying, promising "enterprise, style and impact." But as a newcomer, the Politico might well hold lessons for existing newsrooms, starting with Internet primacy.

"From day one, we have tried to be a Web-focused company," says Executive Editor Jim VandeHei, who, along with Editor in Chief John Harris, left the top ranks of the Washington Post to start the new venture. "We have been successful in creating the ethic: Let's just get the story and it doesn't matter when or where it goes."

Politico.com posts content throughout the day, uploads remaining copy from its print edition each evening and tries to schedule something fresh for the morning Web rush. Most copy, print and Web (except blogs), goes through a copy desk, although some "time-sensitive" material gets posted at odd hours and edited after the fact.

As a niche publication, it stresses a magazine-like style. VandeHei encourages writers "to use your insight and understanding to push the story in a different direction."

At a traditional news organization, VandeHei says, "changing a bureaucracy, changing a mentality, changing the way you view your job is tough if not impossible. Being here I feel liberated. Let's experiment."

So far, of course, the Politico hasn't made a cent of profit, although VandeHei expresses hope of breaking through by year three. As numerous people point out, the Politico operates from the same building where USA Today began 25 years ago, also as a nontraditional, money-losing gamble, one that eventually paid off, big-time (see "Full Court Press," October/November 2007).

The Politico's 60-person editorial staff occupies newish digs just beyond the newsrooms of two D.C. television stations also affiliated with Publisher/owner Robert Allbritton.

Except for people dedicated to online production or newspaper design, the staff is converged, though it wasn't at the beginning. Managing Editor Nichols marches a visitor down a curving corridor to a small room that originally held the Politico Web producers. Almost immediately, he says, everyone knew such isolation was a mistake, and the online staff now sits in the middle of the newsroom. "We want an absolutely seamless Web/print mix," he says. "There's no division whatsoever.

"A big part of what we are trying to do here is have fun," Nichols says. "We don't want to turn into an insurance office... If someone's got an idea, they just walk in. We don't have a lot of people writing memos or going through focus groups."

No one really knows what tomorrow's newsroom will look like.

But Atlanta Editor Julia Wallace argues passionately that, however things evolve, the old ways must yield. She scorns the idea that her paper is preoccupied with process. "Unless you get the process right," Wallace says, "you're not going to reach your ultimate goal. You can run around saying, 'Let's put on a play, Let's put on a play.' But who is going to make the costumes? Who is going to paint the scenery?"

Obviously, it is far too early to judge the Atlanta experiment, but in the newsroom everyone seems to be talking about it. Staff members regularly debate, for example, whether their work has become too local and parochial. On the day after the catastrophic Minneapolis bridge collapse in August, the Journal-Constitution's front-page display photo showed local high school football – something nearly everyone I spoke to regarded as a misjudgment. On the other hand, several say the reduced newsroom layers and fiefdoms allowed much nimbler, quicker reporting and posting about Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick's legal troubles.

Some journalists have left, others are looking and some report that morale has deteriorated. In a note to staff members several weeks into what she called the "new world," Wallace invited comments about both "success" and "struggles" and said editors were moving quickly to fill vacancies.

Based on both on-the-record and off-the-record conversations with more than two dozen Atlanta journalists, it seems to me that they are a bit wary but willing.

Hank Klibanoff has a mound of credibility with the staff, based partly on his work during the glory days of the Philadelphia Inquirer and partly on his winning, along with Gene Roberts, the Pulitzer Prize this year for "The Race Beat," their book on coverage of the civil rights movement (see "Above the Fold," June/July 2007).

"I can tell you that based on every bit of experience I've had, I don't feel for one minute that our mission devalues the newspaper," Klibanoff says firmly. "I would not have gone through this if I thought we were selling out our values."

One staff member who asked to remain anonymous was more negative. "I look at it like a military placement," he says. "This is what I'm assigned to do... And anyway, nothing lasts more than a year at this paper." Another staffer demanded to speak on background, then, presumably safe from being seen as sucking up, lauded Wallace's adroitness in managing change.

Most representative, perhaps, were the comments of transportation reporter Ariel Hart, who now doubles on the public transit beat. Hart acknowledges there is more work but takes a measured view. "I'm only one person. I can only do so much. I will be culling. But it has the potential upside of culling out some of the inside-baseball stories we were doing. Though that has a danger, too, because as you're doing those inside-baseball stories, you are making contacts that might yield a big story later."

Then she leans forward and says fervently: "But this is the key. This is the nexus of everything for me. Thank God we are moving forward. We could be sitting around watching this place be whittled down to nothingness and wondering when we would cease to exist. We have not done that. We have a vision."

Stepp wrote about young journalists in AJR's April/May issue.

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