Reset the rhythms of your newsroom to match the rhythms of your audiencesDouglas K. Smith, Quentin Hope, Tim Griggs, Knight-Lenfest Newsroom Initiative,
Start by setting a clear goal to close the gaps you identified in Section 3 related to misalignments between when you publish content versus when and where your target audiences look for content. In effect, this goal seeks to have the line of when you post track exactly with the line of when/where the audience shows up (see graphs of misalignment at Star Tribune and Philly in Section 2).
Then take the following steps to achieve that goal:
- Match deadlines to audience windows while setting expectations that journalists monitor and update stories as merited by audience response and opportunity
- Change shifts so that folks show up to work earlier and provide continuous coverage
- Modify key editorial meetings in terms of timing, purposes and participation.
Match deadlines to audience windows
Deadlines powerfully shape journaltic workflows and practices – especially deadlines that carry the traditional force of print deadlines. Unlike with print, though, newsrooms can’t be in the game with ‘once a day’ deadlines. Instead, to close misalignment gaps, you must match deadlines to the realities of conitinuous digital news consumption throughout the day.
One way to do this is to set deadlines to match two types of audience-driven windows:
- Persistent, repeated windows of audience usage based on target audience seeking and reading habits. For example, the Miami Herald frames its weekday daytime publishing in these four windows:
Noon – 2 p.m.
- Windows of high audience interest driven by breaking news and trending stories. While these are unscheduled and of uncertain length – maybe a few hours within a day, maybe over several days – they still have rhythms against which deadlines can be set. e.g.:
– First alert – being first (and right) in notifying your audience
– Continuing coverage – giving reasons to keep checking
– Follow-on coverage – engaging through other angles and underlying issues
– Spotting early
– Promoting and positioning
– Building-on and extending
Review your analysis of your audience’s usage patterns (and/or, as suggested in Section 3, the usage patterns of desired audiences in your market that you fail to serve or underserve). Define your own digital publishing windows for both regular audience usage patterns and opportunistic moments of audience interest linked to breaking news and trending stories. Coin meaningful and memorable descriptions for these windows (e.g. Miami’s “lunch bunch”). Finally, set and hold folks in your newsroom accountable for meeting deadlines linked to these windows.
In addition, you must reset journalistic expectations away from the “once and done” approach of print and toward creating short versions as previews of the fuller story to come, producing multiple posts from one story, updating and versioning stories that continue to develop, and later aggregating the story with related pieces. One essential aspect here is shifting journalists’ mindset from a focus on A1 placement and how many inches a story has to a passion and focus on serving audiences well wherever and whenever those audiences seek out content. In this regard, Dallas Morning News leaders proclaimed, “Time is the new inches.” Administratively, it’s also key for folks in the newsroom to enter stories underway and update their status in the budget, work with the central news desk on scheduling against the best audience window, and collaborate with platform and audience specialists on enhancements and promotion of stories with particular audience promise.
Change shifts so that folks show up to work earlier to provide continuous coverage
Having one deadline a day kept staffing schedule relatively simple for print workflows. Staffing for digital publishing across persistent as well as episodic (that is, breaking news and/or trending story-related) audience windows is more involved. In general, three areas of change are likely involved:
- More staffing earlier in the day – e.g., shifts starting at 6 a.m. or even before for some folks; an 8 or 9 a.m. start for many more; and, moving staff (e.g. copy editors) from evening/night shifts
- Longer hours of continuous coverage – e.g., 18+ hours a day, 7 days a week
- More varied shift structures to cover all the publishing needs
- Split role shifts – part of a continuous shift in one role and part in another role
- Split time shifts – a day’s work split into two shifts with time in-between
Making these changes can trigger concerns if the new work schedules disrupt personal patterns related to child care, schools, spouse’s work, etc. In addition, such changes may demand changes to union/guild work rules. If so, then the shifts might need to be considered in the context of other negotiations. All of these factors underscore the importance of advance planning, communications and discussion of rationales and necessities, and sufficient lead times for making personal adjustments.
Modify key editorial meetings in terms of timing, purposes and participation
Daily editorial meetings are a telling artifact of a print-driven legacy. You can tell a good deal about a newsroom’s progress on this Table Stake by noting when these meetings are held and what’s discussed. Correspondingly, making fundamental changes in their timing, purposes and participation instigates and signals fundamental change. In particular, you must make these changes with the objective to be driven by digital publishing – not just to accommodate it.
To give a sense of this, here’s a profile of changes made by three of the Table Stakes newsrooms to their morning editorial meetings:
|Philadelphia:||10:30 a.m. meeting
– print focused
– begins with foreign and national news
– cursory review of online traffic at the end
|8:30 a.m. teleconference
– key editors
– run by website’s RealTime news desk
– focuses on identifying and directing online content for morning and afternoon
11:30 a.m. meeting
– all desks
– begins with discussion of website analytics
– focuses on identifying and directing online content for afternoon and evening
– includes digital story pitches and headline tryouts
|Minneapolis||10 a.m. meeting
– paper budgets
– discuss print newspaper
|Starting at 5 a.m. on Slack “am plan” channel
– Quick strike teams and department digital reps identifying and discussing upcoming stories and reporting digital plans
8:15 a.m. digital huddle/brainstorm
10 a.m. meeting
– digital metrics
– digital plans for the day
|Dallas||10:30 a.m. meeting
– department heads
– share budget lines to slot stories into next day’s paper
|9 a.m. headline rodeo
– editors (and anyone else)
– write headlines conveying essence of the stories
– discuss/question/improve headlines
– vote for headlines to lead digital
– analytics debrief on what is and isn’t working digitally
Note that these changes go beyond resetting the start time of morning meetings to also include:
- Shifting the purposes and focus of meetings away from story status toward audience reach and engagement. Traditional, print-centric editorial meetings too often focus on who’s working on what stories, when those stories will be ready, and when and where the stories will appear in the paper. Even worse, such meetings can be no more than recitations of information that should be but isn’t available in easy to use budget tools. Instead, the purposes and focus needs to shift from stories per se to audiences and how the stories can better serve audiences:
- What stories do we have and/or need to meet audience interests and needs in the coming audience window(s)?
- How can audience appeal and engagement can be sharpened? What is or are the best headline(s) for digital platform(s)?
- What story forms should be used and how do those fit audience needs such as how much time they have to read, view, absorb?
- What is the story’s visual appeal? Is there video to include?
- How should stories be socialed and possibly promoted?
- How might stories be versioned for earlier initial publication and extended play?
- Changing the dynamics of the meetings. Meetings that are largely round-the-table recitations of story lists feel perfunctory and lifeless. Meetings characterized by sharing, learning, problem solving and collaborating – with the audience in mind –are animated and energizing. Consider, for example, Dallas’ “headline rodeo.” It combines a focus on better digital publishing (better headlines) with real-time skills training and workshopping headlines as a group. Indeed, the focus on the best possible headline doubles as a powerful crucible for developing strong points of view about what is this story, which audiences does it serve, and what are the needs, issues and problems of those audiences to which it responds.
- Modifying the participation and leadership of the meetings. The participants in print-focused editorial meetings typically mirror the structure and hierarchy of traditional newsrooms (i.e. desk or department heads with the managing or executive editor leading). In contrast, digitally focused editorial meetings should include folks leading digital publishing and audience teams (Table Stake #1), key platform owners (Table Stake #2), and digitally skilled audience developers, social leads and others. Moreover, inviting – even at times requiring – others from across is a great way to spread digital skills, reinforce workflow changes and spot new talent. Moreover, consider changing who leads some of these meetings. For example, the Miami Herald’s 4 p.m. meeting is led by a young staffer who is their social media lead and who has demonstrated great ability on their Central News Desk. You can also rotate leadership.
- Continually reworking the overall schedule of meetings and check-ins to keep planning ahead of publishing windows that can vary by platform. Given multiple digital publishing “windows” across the day, editorial meetings need to be scheduled for planning ahead of each of these defined windows so that your effort stays proactive instead of reactive or retrospective. For example, the Miami Herald’s 4 p.m. meeting is now focused three objectives: late afternoon publishing that is in process, plans for evening publishing and lining up the following morning’s “early eyes” window.