Newsroom structures must adjust to digitisation

By Silence Mugadzaweta

Alpha Media Holdings

Harare, Zimbabwe

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Newsrooms across the world are preaching digital-first. Print may not disappear — at least for now — but publishers are hurrying to claim their space as digital becomes the new focus.

Like any other transformation, newsroom transformation demands a decisive strategic turnaround. This can be done in right now, creating a structure that supports a 21st-century newsroom. And convergence is at the heart of such a newsroom.

Research and data are key. Reconsidering editorial operations is also critical for becoming more efficient in the nerve centre of the business.

They often say taking care of digital and print will take care of itself. However, in many newsrooms, it has proven to be so difficult to change from a print-centric focus to a digital focus. Change is difficult to grasp and understand, and many companies are just frightened by the word “digital.”

Understanding convergence

“Digital convergence now means that most devices are rather similar in nature,” wrote Tom Goodwin in Digital Darwinism. “We once had single-purpose devices that did very different things. Radios, TVs, Walkmans, video players, answerphones. Things were all different, and each was a key part of an ecosystem. Now devices are functionally similar.”

Just like our gadgets, thematic desks in newsrooms used to be independent of each other, running parallel entities despite belonging to the same organisation and sometimes even publishing the same newspaper.

Thus, modern newsrooms tend to have a flatter structure, with decentralised decision-making. This translates to creating compelling content, a key component of good journalism — which is on high demand as the media confronts competition from citizen journalism and digital threats.

In a paper published in 2011, Joakim Hultin and Daniel Skog noted: “No matter where you apply convergence, it always refers to the same general concept — the coming together of two or more elements, fields, or areas. This means that several fields, previously separate from each other, begin to merge together and new areas are formed where they overlap. The attitudes of the combined fields create this new area with unique properties where new ideas, services, and functionality may flourish.”

However, convergence demands a set of new skills. This may result in laying staff off, but training can compensate for this. Generally, it means newsroom structure has to heavily lean on digital: The planning is digital, and print comes later.

Among other benefits, convergence encourages evidence-based decision-making, and audience feedback and product performance are considered before making decisions. Specialisation and efficiency, global reach, and audience-based content creators are other benefits.

Efficiencies in editorial operations with a digital focus

A tried-and-tested winning formula for digital transformation is to have a digital-focused newsroom. Content is king, and editorial is the manufacturing hub for a publishing house.

Workflows need to be examined: Have these been automated? Are multiple steps and systems involved in editing and publishing? How efficient are they?

The Standard Group in Kenya has successfully implemented this through its customised content management system (CMS) and global planner. It requires doing the basics well since chains are as strong as their weakest link. These are steps to transformation.

Copy flow needs to break copy-filing bottlenecks previously dependent on print deadline routines. This not only reduces production costs but allows online spaces to exist in constantly shifting patterns, allowing for faster publishing to meet peak audience times.

CMS upgrades are a key component in the convergence matrix. Progressive newsrooms have developed customised CMS that speak to their markets and the data they have without limitation. Again, the Standard group is one such an example: It has developed its own customised CMS, which is ideal for a media house. Owning technology allows media houses to own data.

Enhanced content in a converged newsroom

Teams of editors that plan together accelerate well-focused forward planning, which may be divided into medium- and long-term projects, with the bulk of work being produced daily.

These teams are composed of fast news journalist who break and maintain flow on the digital side, compared to brand journalists who focus on analysis and investigation pieces. This surfaces and assures content differentiation, offering a great window of opportunity for online reader revenue.

Story structure is also vital. Does the story require graphics? If yes, is the data available or do we have enough data? How many pictures do we need? Are they available in our library, or we need a fresh set?

And, according to Women in News, newsrooms should: “Work towards a single production hub, consisting of multi-skilled, platform agnostic copy editors and production editors that can work for print or Web seamlessly. Have a very small team of senior newspaper specialists (chief sub, top copy editor, revise sub, page manager) to simplify and streamline print production, pulling deadlines forward.”

Newsrooms cannot rely on old management methods to produce compelling content in the face of digitisation. As print continues to become less viable each day while digital continues to gain traction and recognition, publishers need to set up a structure that is receptive of this new business model.

Old matrices and strategies won’t fix digital Darwinism.

About Silence Mugadzaweta

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