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Re-organize to be digital-first, print later and better

Print and digital platforms serve different user needs, with different cycles and rhythms, and require different organizational capabilities. But a bifurcated approach divides up labor instead of maximizing coordination and it perpetuates a losing either/or-ism ("print first or digital first”) that ignore the fact that local news organization's must be "audience-first."

This is an excerpt from “Table Stakes: A Manual for Getting in the Game of News,” published Nov. 14, 2017. Read more excerpts here.

Print and digital platforms attract and serve differing user needs, expectations and habits. And organizationally print and digital have different publishing cycles and rhythms. It’s not a surprise, then, that news organizations often created separate print versus digital newsrooms in the early days of the Web. That bifurcated approach is not likely to work today, though, because it inflexibly divides up labor instead of maximizing opportunities to serve audiences through adaptable and effective coordination. In addition, it perpetuates a losing either/or-ism, condemning news organizations to endless squabbling over whether “we’re print first or digital first” – squabbles that bury the lede that today’s legacy newspaper enterprises must be audience-first.

Such either/or-ism muddies and delays a key insight: continuous digital publishing provides real time story telling and story shifting possibilities that reflect both what is happening to the story as well as how the audience is responding to the story. After Prince died, for example, the Star Tribune’s audience-driven, digital first approaches generated scores of stories and content pieces that the Strib folks curated into a much better printed paper. The newsroom folks recognized that, had they gone print first, they would have lost the opportunity for a better paper in large part because their print focus would have led to fewer pieces of content and far less engagement with audiences.

Three steps can guide your newsroom toward digital-first approaches that also lead to better, more audience-focused newpapers:

  • Create a ‘digital hub’ to proactively manage digital publishing
  • Form a print team responsible for curating the best possible paper from the digital content
  • Over time, shift from audience and platform teams toward full minipublisher teams

Table Stake #7 (use a mini-publisher approach to drive audience growth and profitability) provides guidance for the third step. This rest of this section describes actions to take for the first two.

Create a “digital hub” to proactively manage digital publishing

Digital hubs run by digitally-adept folks serve as the central coordinating point for continuous digital publishing. In particular, digital hubs:

  • Bring together the skills and roles needed for publishing effectively across digital platforms;
  • Guide and coordinate digital publishing done across the newsroom, particularly by audience teams (see Table Stake #1 and, as needed, specially skilled staff (e.g. visual journalists);
  • Operate in real time with a constant eye on audience traffic and engagement
  • Seize opportunities to serve audiences based on breaking news and trending stories;
  • Are staffed in shifts to cover all the digital publishing windows through the day and night, each day of the week;
  • Build digital skills in others by having reporters, editors, and producers “learn by doing” through set rotations of working in the hub.

All four Table Stakes newsrooms formed or strengthened their digital hubs. What they called the hubs varied – e.g. Philly called its hub the “Real time news desk” while Miami named its one the “Central News Desk.” You can pick a name that suits your newsroom – though, as an aside, don’t lose the opportunity to choose a name that reflects the cultural shift you’re hoping to bring about. In this sense, “Real Time News Desk” is superior to “Central News Desk.”


In addition to increased audience reach, usage and engagement, a digital hub:

  • Functions as daily innovation and learning lab where new digital skills are developed, new tools tested and new audience building opportunities spotted and worked in real times.
  • Is the nerve center of the newsroom where data-driven monitoring of day-to-day patterns of audience habits and content interests emerge and get shared with the entire newsroom.
  • Accelerates skill building because folks assigned part time to the hub spread digital writing, production and platform management skills to their regular desks back into their home areas, accelerating the overall development of digital skills across the newsroom.
  • Enhances the quality, timeliness and audience-focus of content – for example, by putting the journalistic talents, accumulated knowledge and insights of experienced editors to better use in reaching and serving audiences.
  • Ensures more work gets done earlier and across the course of the day in developing, testing, versioning and fully preparing stories for the benefit of the print platform and the crunch of print deadlines. In particular, curating a better print report from digital means the peak print workload is lowered, there’s less need for evening and night staffing for print production and resources can get shifted to the hub.
  • Adds energy to the newsroom. It’s one place where the newsroom is alive throughout the day and night, and where staff gather together and interact with one another and with the real-time feedback of audience data, including data about small and large wins that fuel excitement and a sense of achievement.


The digital hub’s responsibilities tie back to the two types of audience-focused publishing windows and include:

For “windows of audience usage”

(day-to-day patterns such as Miami’s “Lunch Bunch”)

For “windows of opportunity”

(breaking news and trending stories)

–  Choosing and naming the daily patterns/windows

–  Making sure the windows are reflected in the digital “universal budget”

–  Publishing to the digital “universal budget” and monitoring that others are publishing to the budget

–  Enhancing basic posts created by reporters/producers (e.g. advanced editing, adding enhanced video)

–  Producing morning and evening “round-ups” or “what you need to know” summaries of major stories

–  Aggregating content to supplement the budget

–  Curating wire stories for local interest and good reads

–  For aggregation and wire services, choosing and fine tuning the criteria for selection based monitoring traffic results

–  Updating developing stories (in conjunction with reporters) based on story evolution and/or traffic results

–  Sharpening social and search headlines and social leads provided by reporters/producers

–  A/B headline testing

–  Providing in-the-moment feedback and guidance to reporters/producers on improvements (e.g. reworking a headline) and informally sharing tools, best practices, and production tips

–  Doing overall, real-time troubleshooting on publishing and poor traffic performance issues

–  Monitoring for breaking news and initiating coverage

–  Covering breaking news until designated editors and reporters/producers take the lead; supporting and coordinating coverage throughout the event

–  Identifying stories with high traffic potential and giving advance attention to positioning and promotion

–  Monitoring trending stories and acting on opportunities to reposition, boost and promote stories

–  Aggregating the newsroom’s own work and that of others on trending and breaking stories


Staffing a digital hub will vary based on the size of your newsroom, current job configurations, and skills. In general, though, the configuration combines folks at the core who can tap into more specialized help as needed:

Ideally, the core digital hub staff (blue area in picture) operate in shifts providing 18/7 to 24/7 coverage. This ranges in difficulty depending on the size of your newsroom, the number of folks with required digital skills, and the demands of desk-by-desk coverage and print. The Table Stakes newsrooms most often found hub staff among the ranks of digitally savvy specialists, editing positions and reassigning night shift copy editors. You can increase your flexibility and options for staffing the digital hub by asking folks to play multiple roles instead of having fixed jobs. For example, a digital editor/producer slot in a shift might be filled by someone also dedicated to an audience team, or an audience/desk editor might take a turn at being the Digital Shift Editor.

Finally, make sure to connect the dots between staffing your digial hub to similar steps you take to ensure folks in your newsroom start the day earlier and so forth (see above). And, link both to what you learn from audience data and analytics. For example, over the course of 2016 to 2017, Miami iterated how they staffed their digital hub (the “Central News Desk”) to reflect what they learned about audiences. They learned they were too thinly staffed on Sundays. Here’s their schedule for Mondays (they set separate scheduled for other days of the week as well):

Case illustration: Miami Herald Central News Desk shift schedule for Mondays.

Note: Separate schedules are set for Tuesday-Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday to optimize staffing to audience traffic flows.

Each of the specialized groups(green areas in earlier “Digital Hub” picture) matter a lot. For example, audience engagement folks drive traffic and engagement, data and analytics folks help tease out what works versus what doesn’t, and newsroom tech/code developers build the tools needed for success. And, given the ever growing visual content on digital platforms, visually skilled folks in your newsroom can make major contributions to the success of digital hubs. Miami, as described below, achieved a 10-fold increase in monthly video plays in 12 months.

Case illustration: Realizing the opportunity of focusing visual specialist on continuous digital publishing.

As part of an initiative to increase video traffic, The Miami Herald reconfigured and consolidated existing photo-video staff to create a new video editor/producer position focused on working with their Central News Desk to bring more, smarter and faster video posting to their digital publishing. The person’s work includes:

  • Gathering video for stories – sourcing and verifying user generated video, securing surveillance, police and first responder and court evidence video;
  • Quickly editing clips provided by reporters sent via Videolicious;
  • Working with and providing tips to reporters on shooting “good enough” video;
  • Adding related video to stories from the newsroom’s video archive;
  • Assigning, collecting and editing stringer video;
  • Aggregating video on breaking news and trending stories from Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram and other social media sources;
  • Watching the play through rates on video via Chartbeat to see what’s working and what could be boosted by video additions.

The video editor/producer helped make “is there video?” a default question in story discussions, editorial meetings and performance expectations (e.g. and expecting (and training) every reporter to shoot and send video clips via Videolicious). Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herals combined to achieve more than a 10x increase in monthly video plays.

Establish a print platform team responsible for curating digital first content into a better print product

Print matters – a lot! Instead of perpetuating lose/lose, ‘print first versus digital first’ battles, newsrooms must embrace audience-first, platform optimal* strategies that boost journalism quality and audience results by curating the best possible print papers from rich, continuous digital coverage, story telling, data and analytics. This means shifting away from print being the platform driving the newsroom to a platform drawing from the newsroom.

Print, just like other platforms (see Table Stake #2), needs a designated platform owner and team to produce the daily and Sunday papers from content produced by the newsroom for previous publication on digital platforms. In selecting and curating content, the print team should match what works best in print with the needs, interests, habits and expectations of print motivated, print preferred audiences.

Case illustration: Forming separate print production teams

In its newsroom redesign, the Dallas Morning News created a separate “Daily Team” to produce its daily and Sunday print editions. The team had new job descriptions that reflected responsibilities for getting the best print content from previously published digital efforts. Staff had to apply for these new positions. Also, when Philly combined the newsrooms of The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Philadelphia Daily News and Philly.com, they created a separate “dailies” team to produce the papers. In yet one more example, just prior to the Fall 2015 kickoff of Table Stakes, the Miami Herald formed a distinct print production group and has continued to adjust its staffing and refine it operations in line with changes in print deadlines and distribution practices.

In particular, print teams must:

  • Be audience first: understand and respond to print-motivated audiences’ preferences, needs and experiences
  • Curate a better print product from the daily flow of digital content
  • Participate in cross-platform planning for major stories and projects
  • Innovate print as a platform

Newsroom leaders, in turn, must support print teams with information, coordination, and digital assets

Be audience first: understand and respond to print-motivated audiences’ preferences, needs and experiences

This may be the print team’s most challenging responsibility. While all platform teams have this same, core charter, only the print team must carry it out in the absence of a constant stream of detailed audience data and analytics about what audiences are actually reading and engaging with.

Nonetheless, the print team can find ways to understand and meet audience needs by:

  • Making the most of audience feedback that is available (calls and emails), adding feedback mechanism and tracking feedback systematically
  • Forming print reader panels to test ideas and gather quick feedback on changes made
  • Using user-centric approaches (often called ‘design thinking’) to identify jobs to be done for audiences from the audiences’ perspective (not the newsroom’s)
  • Applying design-do and test-and-learn thinking and experimentation even if the feedback cycle times are longer and the quantity of feedback points smaller.

Curate a better print product from the daily flow of digital content

Within the overarching mandate to be audience-driven, print must switch from having the deadlines that drive all daily flow to the reverse: curating a better print produce from content already produced digitally.

First, the print team must monitor how audiences engage with stories in the flow of digital publishing throughout the day – and use that information to select, shape and place content in the paper for the print audience.

Second, the print team must pick the single best version of stories (content, visuals, length and so forth) based on:

  • Different versions of the story in different digital contexts and platforms;
  • The range of story perspectives and angles that can play out digitally;
  • The addition of important sources who emerge from seeing the story digitally, including callbacks from earlier attempted contacts;
  • Incorporation of audience responses to the story;
  • Having cleaner copy by the end of day as small things are caught and corrected through the day.

Participate in cross-platform planning for major stories and projects

Among the loudest complaints of digitally savvy folks at the beginning of Table Stakes was the failure of print-centric habits to welcome and incorporate digital folks at the beginning of major stories and projects. Instead, there was a “we’ll get this done and then throw it over the wall to you digital folks” pattern.

As your newsroom moves to print curating from digital instead of the reverse, you must avoid the exact opposite problem: keeping the print team in the dark and throwing content over the wall to them.

Instead, when your newsroom chooses to pursue significant enterprise or investigative stories, series or other major content projects, you’ve got to maximize the return on that investment through early planning and ongoing coordination across the newsroom. Focus must be on where and when to publish the content across platforms, what special content needs to be produced (e.g. visuals), how to produce the special content most efficiently and effectively across platforms, and how best to cross-promote the content across platforms. Print needs to be part of this planning and coordination from the start, though not drive it. (indeed, “hold for the paper” can only be advocated if there is a compelling, overall audience driven rationale and strategy – a likely rare occurrence.)

The need for early cross-platform planning and ongoing coordination extends to projects that are print-conceived and print advertising driven, such as print supplements. The key question is always: how can we deploy content across platforms to maximize audience reach, traffic, and engagement along with revenues and brand building? For example, the Miami Herald used content from a major “Neighborhoods” print supplement for an “exploring neighborhoods” vertical within the redesign and relaunch of Miami.com.

Innovate print as a platform

Possible print innovations can arise from better understanding the print audience’s needs and desired experiences, including:

  • Building on digital successes and innovations. New digital story forms that better serve audiences and are more efficient to produce may be adaptable to print as well – e.g. templated story forms for reporting on public meetings that provide quick-scan takeaways of what a reader needs to know. And thinking in terms of reader needs in moments of time (e.g. the 15 minutes in the morning with the paper) can lead to reconceiving whole parts of the paper. Such was the case with The New York Times’ redesign of pages A2 and A3 in March of 2017 as a quick and engaging roundup drawing on the learnings and success of its mobile platform’s Morning and Evening Briefings.
  • Developing and growing print related products with proven demand. Consider the enduring qualities and attractions of the print experience – scanning and perusing, having a daily habit (time with the paper), the physical tangibility and artifact for remembering and reliving historic moments in time. The print team, in conjunction with business folks, can work back from these attributes to identify and experiment with enhanced or new products to revive and extend print as a profitable platform. Minneapolis’ special print editions about the death of Prince, the Dallas Morning News’ front page coverage of tragic shootings of police, and Philly’s printed offerings related to the 2016 Democratic National Convention all extended print excellence. Even the e-edition might have increased revenues from advertising and sponsorship if seen more as an extension of print instead of just a digital oddity.
  • Creatively supporting print-to-digital subscriber migration strategies. The print team must coordinate with others to implement any overall news enterprise strategy aimed at migrating print to digital users. This may include the development of transitional products (e.g. enhanced versions of the e-edition as above) and special offers and conversion support targeted specifically to the print oriented reader.

Newsroom leaders must support print teams with information, coordination, and digital assets

Newsroom leaders must provide new or enhanced coordination tools, roles and systems to help the print team operate efficiently and effectively. Key among these are:

  • The “universal budget.” As long as it is fully and continuously updated, the universal budget tool described earlier gives the print team a picture of which digitally published stories and story assets are available as well as the status and planned assets of pending stories.
  • Designated points of contact. The digital hub must designate a “print coordinator” on afternoon and evening shifts to ensure the print team has all the content assets and story information needed, including updating any late-breaking stories. Likewise, each audience team or content group must have a role of coordinating with the print team in general and particularly in regard to larger or more complex story projects. All these coordinators are responsible for helping the print team work through any issues/challenges that arise.
  • Digital asset management. A user friendly digital asset management system is needed to ensure the print team has ready access to all story assets. Just as important are clear roles and responsibilities for filing assets, along with 100% compliance by everyone creating assets. This includes clear guidelines on asset requirements and specifications (e.g. metadata to include and minimum photo resolution).


* For sometime now, many journalists have talked of being ‘platform agnostic’ – that is, indifferent to specific platforms. The good news in this formulation arises from de-privileging print. But the bad news is such agnosticism inaccurately suggests that “all platforms are the same.” Instead, each platform has differing strenths and weaknesses for serviing audiences. Hence, platform optimal better describes the job to be done.