Reinventing the Newsroom  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   April 1995

Reinventing the Newsroom   

Newspapers are flattening hierarchies, creating reporting teams, circles and pods, dismantling fiefdoms, liberating designers. Will all of this trendy tinkering create better journalism?

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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The morning news meeting is humming along at Norfolk's Virginian-Pilot, and you'd almost think you were at a normal newspaper.

Here's your standard cluttered meeting room, week-old front pages pinned to corkboard, aging state press association awards tacked to a wall. Nine journalists hunch around a conference table, which, inexplicably, has a glass punch bowl in the middle. Naked wires dangle from the ceiling, rigging up a conference call to outlying bureaus.

"We're thin, real thin. We need some ideas," the metro editor is grumbling. Someone pitches a suggestion, but the relevant reporter seems to have vanished. A brief firefight flares because one desk is hogging photographers on a crime story stakeout.

It hardly seems the setting for journalistic revolution. But the Virginian-Pilot is one of a growing number of newspapers experimenting with significant structural changes in how news is gathered and presented, how newsrooms are organized and managed, even how meetings work.

Outward ordinariness to the contrary, this 210,000-circulation paper has become an industry leader in what seems to be ritually called "outside-the-box" thinking, prompting some definite rejiggering of newsroom organization charts that have looked the same for decades.

In places like Norfolk and Columbia, Dayton and Grand Forks, Albuquerque and Orange County, newsrooms have changed more than their philosophies about what makes news. They have created new jobs, structures and processes that transform how reporters and editors operate on a day-to-day basis. The rationale lies in the belief that ways that worked well for the hot-type, pencil-and-paper era need updating, that newspaper people need to break out of their ruts.

"You have to make structural change if you're going to sustain other changes in news philosophy and approach," contends Gil Thelen, executive editor of the State in Columbia, South Carolina. "The power of the old way is so bloody incredible that you've got to shake it up, hang it out, scare the shit out of it, whatever you can. And the only effective way I've found to do that is through the structural route."

Though many newsrooms have gone through myriad changes, interviews with writers, editors and consultants across the country pinpoint several trends that may have staying power. Among them:

Flattening newsroom hierarchies. This means simplifying chains of command to speed decisions and reduce resistance to change. Norfolk, for instance, has no managing editor, and five deputies now serve where 11 assistant managing editors once did. Thelen's State has an "office of the managing editor," where staffers can get quick responses from any one of five senior editors.

Working in teams. Teams, also called pods and circles, usually consist of six to 12 writers, artists and editors, organized by topic or coverage responsibility. The central idea is that teams produce more grassroots initiative, broader coverage and happier newsrooms than top-down management does. Sandra Mims Rowe, an early advocate of teams, installed them in Norfolk and brought the concept with her to Portland's Oregonian (see "A Brand New Ballgame," November 1994).

"We're trying to strip off the captain's bars and sergeant's stripes and replace the do-it-because-I-say-do-it approach with one that is genuinely team based," says Dayton Daily News Editor Max Jennings. As Norfolk reporter Patrick K. Lackey puts it, "If dogs are tugging against a leash, they'll fight. If you remove those tensions, they won't."

Shifting power away from sections and departments. In "newsrooms without walls," staff members no longer work for particular sections. The goal is to de-Balkanize notoriously turf-conscious news territory. "No one has worked for a section here since 1990," says Tonnie Katz, editor of the Orange County Register. "It keeps us flexible and more in tune with our readers."

Reorganizing news desks and copy desks. Here, changes seem driven in part by computerization and pagination and in part by recognition that designers and copy editors should be more involved at the front end. Many papers have created design desks or presentation teams, replacing the old city desk-to copy desk-to news desk assembly line. Others are trying the "maestro system," a cooperative editing plan introduced by Buck Ryan, director of the School of Journalism and Telecommunications at the University of Kentucky.

Supporters see these ideas as helping position newspapers for a new century. Critics see them as fads diverting attention from the basic job of doing better journalism. Beyond the conceptual debate, however, is a more down-to-earth matter: What do the changes look like at ground level? How do you get a newspaper out while everyone's busy re-engineering the work place?

To see how change works on a daily basis, Norfolk is a good place to look. This morning's news meeting, to begin with, isn't as traditional as it appears.

As usual, Editor Cole Campbell isn't present; today, he's attending one of the paper's many leadership training sessions. Neither is the city editor; the paper doesn't have one. Among those gathered are leaders of the 911 Jump Team (for breaking news), the Real Life Team and the Global Team.

Metro Editor Rob Morris runs the meeting. His title seems curious since he has no reporters, no staff and no specific coverage responsibilities. Reporters (and nearly everyone else at the Virginian-Pilot) now work in teams of a half-dozen or so, and they no longer are organized by section. As story ideas drift out during the meeting, Morris maintains a master list on a flip chart, and the stories float to parts of the paper that merit, or need, them.

Morris' role is pivotal. As the day wears on, he will seldom sit down, shuttling from one part of the newsroom to the next, serving as a kind of floor commodities broker, or super-slotperson, coolly buying and selling and steering stories as the news operation pulses around him.

Despite the hunted look he seems to perpetually wear, Morris says he enjoys the new system. "We used to have this outrageous bureaucracy where, if you filled out the forms, you'd done okay," he says. "We're trying to simplify that."

Here's how it works: The paper has about a dozen reporting teams, organized around topic rather than geography. They meet regularly, generating daily stories and projects. Each has a team leader, an editor who operates more like a coordinator than an old-fashioned boss-supervisor. Sometimes team leaders decide where stories go, but often reporters negotiate directly with the people who produce various pages. Eventually the stories percolate up, making it onto Morris' flip chart list.

Lackey, a member of the Real Life Team, writes news and feature stories from Norfolk and the surrounding area, an assignment that once produced constant turf squabbles. "It used to require a court order for me to do a story," Lackey recalls. "Now things are pretty wide open."

Generally, Lackey conceives an idea and shops it around until an editor buys it. "In some ways, it's a writer's dream," he says. But he acknowledges that the lack of hierarchy sometimes brings more responsibility than a writer wants. "I feel like I'm my own father now," Lackey says. "Where I used to try to sneak things past editors, now I have to be careful because it will get into the paper."

The system can have other drawbacks, as Norfolk reporters and editors freely acknowledge. Details can get overlooked; for example, on this day in early January, the Virginian-Pilot is still running a metro-front charity promotion headlined, "Give kids a merry Christmas."

In addition, breaking news can be neglected as teams concentrate on their projects. Under the team approach, Norfolk Editor Campbell has observed, "The daily report is thinner. It's lost some of its muscle tone."

Caught up in planning and packaging and long-range thinking, team reporters can be slow to jump on hard news when it intervenes. Often, the team system reduces the number of general assignment reporters and leaves fewer pounding the sidewalks or staking out meetings, press conferences and other old-standby news locations. To combat that problem in Dayton, according to News Manager for Public Life Marty Steffens, the Daily News has added general assignment reporters to certain teams and has worked to free more reporters to "troll for news."

Despite potential pitfalls, editors say they see net gains from their new systems. Campbell says his newsroom is smarter, more productive, more collegial and more in tune with readers; most important, he thinks, overall quality is rising, story by story. Columbia's Gil Thelen believes that well-managed circles can produce better copy all around, "a combination of heft, substance and interestingness."

At the Orange County Register, Editor Tonnie Katz maintains that topical beats and team approaches (her Southern California culture group, for instance, covers topics such as fashion and hobbies) haven't sapped vitality from the news report. "Although everybody is expected to write for every section," Katz says, "things fall very naturally into place. It's not that the old things disappear from page one or the metro section. But new stuff gets there now. We've never, never had a problem with not enough copy."

In Columbia, Thelen and Managing Editor Paula Ellis report similar results. The paper has four news editors who coordinate content and space; "circle editors" who function as assigning editors; and five to eight reporters per circle, covering topics such as the workplace, religion and kinship (family issues).

An even more revolutionary system holds in Dayton, where Editor Max Jennings keeps a printout called "Who Does What in the Newsroom" on his desk to make sure he doesn't get confused. Jennings has organized his newsroom into "gathering" and "producing" teams, run by "news managers." There are reporting teams for public life, private life and real life, and editing teams for news presentation, news events and news trends.

Not everyone takes to the new systems, either inside or outside newsrooms. As Jennings puts it, "We have convulsed our newsroom, and there's no question we have paid a price for it." At most of these papers, some staff members have quit or been forced out.

Two veterans with widely differing approaches to newspapering have warned of the dangers of runaway trendiness in The Bulletin, the publication of the American Society of Newspaper Editors.

"Nonsense is the kindest word I can think of to describe what's going on," wrote H.L. Schwartz III, publisher of the Trentonian in Trenton, New Jersey, criticizing the current preoccupation with change. Retired San Francisco Examiner Managing Editor Frank McCulloch added a piece titled, "Instead of abstract change, try something more solid."

In an interview, Schwartz ascribes his rock-hard line to the lessons of publishing a tabloid in a competitive market. Mentioning a paper that developed a list of the top 10 subjects its audience wanted, he bristles, "The height of absurdity." "Idiocy," he fumes about a paper abolishing the title of editor.

"They're getting involved in all this hokey bullshit instead of putting out a hard-hitting newspaper," Schwartz contends. "People are getting away from what really moves circulation, and that's news, stories that have gut appeal."

While Schwartz smokes with hostility, McCulloch, who spent 45 years in newsrooms, is mainly skeptical.

"Under different names and in different eras, a lot of this has been tried before," says McCulloch, a legendary figure who has served as executive editor of McClatchy Newspapers, managing editor of the Los Angeles Times and Time magazine's Saigon bureau chief. "It seems to me that newsrooms are edging toward a trap: Substitute jargon and you've got something new. Calling an editor a facilitator isn't going to change anything."

Instead, he believes, papers should concentrate on upgrading the quality of their reporting, writing and editing.

Carole Rich, a former reporter and editor who now teaches journalism at the University of Kansas, likes the idea of change. But she wonders about the endurance of the team concept. "I think people are territorial. They need their structure and their security," she says. "It's the psychology of the newspaper animal. We are such ego-driven people that I don't know if this collaboration will work for a long time."

Proponents of the new approach accept that risk; they stress that dramatic change is necessary. Newspapers are losing their share of the market, especially among young readers, and the new high-tech information age is breeding more threatening competition than ever before.

"Philosophically, we're trying to recognize that the old hierarchical way of running a newsroom is not going to get us there from here," Jennings says. Katz talks about moving from "linear" to "circular" management to keep in tune with today's workers and today's understanding of efficiency and productivity.

At the Charlotte Observer, an 11-person task force has begun a five-month project, financed by parent Knight-Ridder, to study newsroom structure and recommend changes. "The pace at which newspapers have changed in the past 20 years is much too slow," says Managing Editor Frank Barrows. He hopes for a simple outcome: "If we could make the process less cumbersome, we could make the journalism better."

A key point of optimism at the moment, several editors say, is that the new structures produce far more ideas and initiatives from non-managers. Jennings rattles off several recent examples: a copy editor and systems editor who came to him with a proposal to rejuvenate a Newspaper in Education project; an aviation writer who suggested producing a fax newsletter for a local air show, and an auto racing writer who delivered a food section cover on pasta diets preferred by race drivers. Under the old system, he says, "these people did not have a true ownership of their jobs and they did not feel welcome to come forward with their ideas."

Essential in the swirling change is what Katz calls "tremendous communication." If you thought traditional newsrooms held a lot of meetings, the new newsroom may strike you as conference crazy.

They're conferring again in Norfolk. This is the daily 2:15 meeting, really more of a huddle than a formal meeting. Six editors, designers and team leaders are gathered around the A1 pagination terminal in the middle of the newsroom.

Like its conference room, the Virginian-Pilot newsroom is pretty standard. Potted plants, stuffed animals, wiseacre cartoons decorate desks and walls. A spare tire leans against someone's chair. An aquarium bubbles. CNN plays on overhead monitors.

But here and there are indicators of changing times, like the sign designating the "panic and phobia desk," or the one reading "911 Jump Team" where the city desk should be. And there's no brass at this meeting, just Metro Editor Morris and the regular cast of mid-level decision makers. Campbell wants the staff, not himself, to make most front page calls.

It's a pretty big news day in Norfolk, where a man named John Salvi has been arrested and charged with killing two abortion clinic workers in Massachusetts. Already on the screen is a rough dummy showing the lead package, with a banner headline proclaiming, "Salvi: Kill me or ordain me," based on a statement the suspect has given authorities.

The 911 Team has Jumped all over this story, and the biggest problem now is art. Photographers have been deployed around town, seeking a photo as Salvi is sent back to Massachusetts. One enterprising staffer has even chartered a plane to simply sit out on the tarmac hoping for a good view. (Evidence you can't stamp out turf: Editors trade jibes over whether the Graphics Team or Justice Team will pay for the plane.)

But even if the big story is under control, Morris is having trouble with "muscle tone." Somebody asks about that idea that emerged at the morning meeting; the reporter who should do it still hasn't been found, Morris admits. A wire editor wants help chasing the local angle of a national business story, a front page prospect. "We'll do it tomorrow," temporizes Morris, who can't round up a writer. "What about a business reporter?" someone asks. "They're putting out the weekend section," Morris mutters.

But it's early. And in reserve is an article Patrick Lackey has written, complete with art, that's ready to go anywhere from A1 to the metro front to the features section.

Papers also are changing their structures for presenting the news.

In a report in the Newspaper Research Journal, University of Hawaii journalism professor Ann Auman found that "more and more newspapers have been adopting some form of a design desk" where, typically, pages are designed or paginated, headlines written, infographics created and packages layered and coordinated.

Copy editors, once the last people to lay eyes on a story, now often get involved from the beginning, especially on projects and centerpieces. At the Star Tribune in Minneapolis, Editor/General Manager Tim McGuire says copy editors and reporters often work together on teams.

"We've been running with the same city desk and news desk and copy desk that we had in the '30s," says McGuire, a free-thinking innovator who also chairs the Change Committee of the American Society of Newspaper Editors. "We've been doing it the same way for 60 years. Why are we worshipping that?"

A guru in this area is Buck Ryan of the University of Kentucky. He says more than 240 news organizations have ordered his video explaining the maestro approach, and he has worked with newsrooms from Biloxi, Mississippi, to Portland, Oregon. His system involves a coordinating editor (the maestro), who convenes writer, copy editor and designer, very early in the process, to discuss story focus, illustration and packaging.

Structurally, Ryan believes, newspapers may be seeing the end of the news desk or copy desk as a desk that operates on copy at a fixed point in the process. Instead, individual editors join teams that include writers, artists, assigning editors and others, and they follow through together.

The change, according to Ryan, requires new ways of thinking. "You blow the minds up first," Ryan quips. "You blow the desks up second."

His goal is to reduce the traditional assembly line, where a story is handed off from desk to desk without much coordination. Ryan says that if you "allow everyone – from the editor to the library researcher – to contribute, and let the story idea drive the organization of the newsroom, then you break through."

The all-important 4:15 meeting has begun in Norfolk, and again Morris and company huddle around terminals in the A1 pod.

The Salvi story continues to develop, and the designer now has a full working dummy on the screen. There's more talk about the rest of the front page (a big hole remains unfilled at the bottom). Morris' relief, Night Metro Editor Bill Henry, has arrived, and Morris actually sits down for a while as the editors puzzle over what might be front page-worthy.

One oddity, compared to similar meetings at other papers, is that no one hands out copies of each section's news budget. In fact, there's not a word of discussion about what will go in the sports or feature or other sections.

Morris, however, has been wheeling and dealing all day, keeping in touch informally with all the specialty editors. He knows what stories are destined for the business page and the feature front, and he's been scouting, since early morning, for items that should be promoted on page one, or even moved there. He expresses confidence the pieces are falling evenly into place.

By now, the pace of the newsroom has picked up, and packaging and presentation are uppermost. The Virginian-Pilot has a modern, layered look, and writers, editors and designers confer frequently on the paper's many headlines, subheads, summary decks, pullout quotes, infoboxes and other reader aids.

One noticeable aspect is that reporters seem heavily involved in the discussions, perhaps more than under a system that relies on traditional editor-dominated desk structures.

Esther Diskin, who covers religion, values and ethics, likes the freedom and responsibility of the new system, including the fact that reporters do a lot of the interacting editors once did.

During our brief interview, Diskin jumps up at one point to consult with a reporter with whom she's jointly writing an article. Moments later, she's off to talk to editors about final packaging of another project. No cold handoffs here.

Though it means a lot of meetings and conferences, Diskin appreciates all the deliberation. "An issue is debated by a larger group of people, which enlarges a reporter's perspective," she says. "If you changed back to the old structure tomorrow, I believe people would be calling each other to consult."

More drastic structural change looms, of course. The newspaper newsroom itself may even be doomed.

Some journalists are already talking about the "virtual newsroom," where reporters and editors connect electronically and don't even need a place to gather. Other editors foresee the newsroom as a giant information factory, turning out material not just for a newspaper but for specialty publications, audiotext, faxes, cable broadcasts, databases and who-knows-what else.

But before Big Change hits, many other modest but important structural changes are mounting and editors are pushing to make them work. That's what has been going on all day in Norfolk, where Editor Campbell and a roomful of senior editors have been discussing missions, customers and strategies, with the help of two corporate "coaches."

This is, Campbell believes, a model for how the new newsroom will evolve. Leaders will set direction and try to create the culture for change. Newspeople will run the newsroom.

On this shift, it seems to work. Tomorrow's Virginian-Pilot appears on schedule. The Salvi package – two stories, three photos, a pullout quote, a developments box and a summary of his statement – dominates page one. To fill that hole at the bottom, the nightside has scared up a strong piece: A local jury has recommended that a couple go to jail for 106 days and pay $106, a day and a dollar for every day that they were convicted of starving their infant son.

Patrick Lackey's story, nicely packaged, finds a home on the metro front. The local angle on the business story doesn't get done. About the only command decision for top editors is whether to use some salty language in John Salvi's statement. There is, of course, a debate. The language makes the paper.

Once it probably wouldn't have. But times and processes change. "I've told my staff we are not going back," Campbell has said. "We have made these changes. Some of them are working beautifully. Some need help. But we are not going back." l

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