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From AJR,   February/March 2012  issue

New Approaches for a New Era   

How the Seattle Times and Wichita Eagle are revamping their newsrooms to achieve a more digital focus. Wed., October 26, 2011


By Morgan Gibson
Morgan Gibson (mgibson@ajr.umd.edu) is an AJR editorial assistant.     

Newsrooms across the country have responded to the digital age by revamping their looks with makeovers, losing a few pounds and nipping and tucking here and there.

The Seattle Times had more work done.

The Times' newsroom recently underwent an extensive renovation that brought its local community to the forefront of the newsgathering process and shook up the traditional newsroom hierarchy.

"One of the primary motivations for us was the concern that since our resources have gotten tighter, we're trying to do all these different things and develop a multiplatform newsroom. We seemed to be requiring everything of everybody. I think in that regard we were losing some focus," Executive Editor David Boardman says. "Everyone was focusing very much on the pipeline and not what was going into the pipe."

As news dissemination evolves and spreads to a variety of platforms, it's easy for newsrooms to get caught up in these delivery pipelines and lose focus on what's going through them, Boardman says. The Times realized it needed people who could concentrate on each of these aspects, the content and the delivery. Boardman says his paper had become too inwardly focused on technology and its business model.

To address these problems, the Times needed more than a makeover.

The reorganization, which began last April, completely throws out the old handbook of a newsroom having two separate fiefdoms, one for print and the other for online. The Times brings the two together by focusing on three concepts and, conveniently, they all start with the letter C: creation, curation and community.

The first C, creation, restores the paper's attention to producing solid journalism, shifting the focus back to what is actually going into those pipelines. Creation comes down to "paying attention to what's going on out there," Boardman says.

The creation team includes reporters, photographers, videographers and their editors. Everyone who reports, no matter whether they use a pen and pad or a camera, is lumped together in one team. Managing Editor Kathy Best headed the Times' digital unit, so you'd assume she would be in charge of the design squad, but, on the contrary, she's leading this group of newsgatherers.

In another corner stands the curation team. Its job is to focus on finding the best ways to make technology work for the Times. So once the creation team reports and produces brilliant journalism, the curation experts figure out how to deliver that information in the most effective and engaging way across multiple platforms, including the Web, the smartphone, the tablet and, yes, the old printed newspaper.

The team includes desk editors, designers and producers, both print and digital. Suki Dardarian, who was managing editor for print, is the curation leader of both print and digital a flip similar to the one on the creation team with Kathy Best.

"It's a really interesting dynamic to watch the two of them take to their own worlds and mix it up in new ways," Boardman says.

The goal, Boardman says, is to combine the design and editing expertise of the paper's formerly print-only staff with the Web staff's digital knowledge. Print editors who know how to put a newspaper together are now working with Web editors to serve all platforms. "This plan puts those people together in much closer quarters," Boardman says.

Last, but certainly not least, is community. This team is in charge of integrating the Times' reporting with the people who live in the Seattle area. Carole Carmichael, formerly the Times features editor, oversees these efforts. The community team also works with curation to develop new ways of interacting with readers and the public, including social media.

One step the Times has taken is bringing in a "community chair" to attend the Times' news meeting each Wednesday. The community team takes suggestions from the staff and area residents on whom to invite. So far, Boardman says, attendees have ranged from representatives of the Washington State Dairy Commission to church leaders to representativeness of local Native American tribes to small-business people. These Seattleites critique the paper's coverage, talk about their own organizations and activities, and suggest story ideas the staff "picks their brains," Boardman says.

This ambitious restructuring started with conversations among a handful of top senior editors. They conducted retreats to talk about the challenges facing the paper, as well as everyone else in the business, much of which, Boardman adds, took place over glasses of wine.

While the Seattle Times' approach was not modeled after any other paper's, the Northwest daily is hardly alone when it comes to redesigning its newsroom in an effort to better compete in the rapidly transforming news environment. In Kansas as in the Pacific Northwest, remodeling is aimed at making a news organization more digitally oriented.

Sherry Chisenhall, editor and vice president/news of the Wichita Eagle, led the effort to restructure her newsroom as part of a six-month digital media fellowship at the Knight-McCormick Leadership Institute at the Knight Digital Media Center at the University of Southern California. She, along with other Eagle editors, worked with the coaches at USC Annenberg, by phone from Wichita and at the institute, on how to give the newsroom a digital-first approach.

"There are very old processes in place in newsrooms that are there for good reason," Chisenhall says. "To get digital first, you have to break down these processes and build new ones."

Those new processes involve changing virtually every aspect of the newsroom's operation. The Eagle staff has reversed field and now strives to think about the Web before the morning paper. "Print just comes later in the process. You don't ignore it, you focus equally on both," Chisenhall says. "We're filing with more urgency to the Web and reversing workflow to get stories to Web first and print second."

A crucial change in the restructure is shifting whom reporters and editors report to. Reporters previously worked for print editors, but now almost everyone reports to a top digital editor. Most content departments now report to the Eagle's deputy editor/interactive, John Boogert, who participated in the Knight Digital Media Center leadership program with Chisenhall.

In addition, there are editors who oversee production, print and investigations. The deputy editor for print is in charge of the next day's newspaper, including ensuring that stories posted earlier are restructured for the paper. The senior editor for investigations is responsible for overseeing the Eagle's watchdog reporting for both short and long-term projects.

Another deputy editor focuses on the production of both online and print and is in charge of the news desk. This news desk, formerly the copy desk, combines Web producers with copy editors who used to edit for print only. It's staffed 18 hours a day starting at 6 a.m. to handle stories for both the Web and print.

The Eagle intends to soon eliminate what remains of the "overnight dump" of stories from the print edition onto the Web site, Boogert says. "We're nearing our ultimate goal of every story being posted online first."

The changes up to now have been newsroom-focused, but closer contact with the local community, la the Seattle Times, is "a huge next step for us," Chisenhall says.

Boardman believes the entire notion of one-way communication, especially with a local paper in a metro area like Seattle, is eroding if not imploding. "The key to the future is to be enough in touch with the community to understand what they want, to know what's important with them to be a part of the community," Boardman says. "It really is kind of a feedback cycle if it's done the right way."

Boardman is pleased with the changes and, while it's still early in the process, he says it's clear that the initial goals of the reorganization are being achieved.

"There is new energy and focus around our enterprise reporting efforts. We are revitalizing watchdog reporting, long a strength of this newspaper. We are revising work flows, breaking away from the print-focused assembly line of the past and [moving] to a more dynamic and flexible system," Boardman says. "And we are doing much more knowledge-sharing among people with various perspectives and experiences, both within our newsroom and from the outside."

While these changes have led to major steps in digitizing the paper, Boardman is adamant that print remains an important part of the picture. "What it's about mostly is making sure we have really great stories and really great news and information that people can't get anywhere else, and then presenting it to them in the most effective ways," Boardman says. "In the center of all of it is engagement with our community."

The biggest positive to come out of all this change, he says, is breaking out of old patterns and finding new ways of doing things. "The key for me, and our primary goal, is to really have a forward-moving newsroom."