Digital First Media slowly changes newsroom deadline culture to reflect digital realities

The best way to change the culture of an organisation is to change how you work.

In our Project Unbolt pilot newsrooms, we are working to change how journalists handle routine daily news coverage.

The newsroom has already changed its coverage of breaking news and big events, with live coverage for the Web and heavy use of digital tools such as social media.

But the newspaper-factury culture of the newsroom has still dominated how we cover routine daily news.

Walk into a newsroom in the early evening, and you’re likely to see reporters and editors feverishly writing and editing stories that will appear in the next day’s newspaper. Those stories will publish digitally hours before they publish in print, and this probably feels “digital first” to the reporters and editors who work on them.

But the timing of the work and publication is still dictated by the needs of the newspaper factory. And those stories all publish after the day’s digital attention has tapered off with the end of the normal office workday.

I used to work for some evening newspapers. Our factories operated on a different schedule that required reporters to file routine daily stories by mid- or late morning. They can do it and we need to get reporters filing stories during daytime hours again.

After the Des Moines Tribune died in 1982, we had reporters from the old evening Tribune working on the same Des Moines Register staff with reporters who were used to the culture and workflow of the morning newspaper.

A complaint quickly arose among longtime Register reporters that the editors were “letting” the former Tribune staffers go home early.

My response was that they turned in their stories.

Because evening newspaper reporters didn’t have to work evenings (unless they were covering evening events), their families expected them to be home for dinner and some evening family life (or the workers expected to enjoy some night life outside the newsroom). The reporters were used to finishing work by 5 p.m. or so and heading home. So they did.

The reporters who were used to the morning-newspaper culture thought that 10 p.m. deadline meant that’s when they should turn their stories in. But the former Tribune reporters knew that on most days you could do your work during the day, like normal people. After all, that’s when your sources work.

However, workplace culture is powerful and eventually the former Tribune staffers started working late into the evening to get their work done, like the morning-newspaper reporters they had become.

In Project Unbolt, we’re focusing on the digital future with a workflow that’s reminiscent of the afternoon-newspaper past.

When we can, we want to beat that evening deadline for the morning newspaper by several hours. Get an early start and turn in your story in the morning or early afternoon, and you’ll generate some interest — and maybe even some impact — that day, while the news is timely.

For coverage of events during the day, reporters can tweet live from the event and feed the tweets into an article on the site, using a tool such as ScribbleLive, CoverItLive, Liveblog Pro, Superdesk, or a Twitter widget. This gives your community coverage as the event is happening — and as people are checking news during their workday — rather than hours later during the evening.

In trying to change the workflow at the New Haven Register, one of our Project Unbolt pilot newsrooms, I noted that a day’s murder trial story posted to the Web site at 8:30 p.m. I encouraged live coverage, which the Register did for the rest of the trial, generating more than 14,000 engagement minutes, with visitors staying on reporter Randall Beach’s liveblog for an average of 11 minutes.

Another of our Project Unbolt pilot newsrooms, the Berkshire Eagle, had even better success, generating 25,855 engagement hours with live coverage of a murder trial, with people staying an average of 21 minutes.

Live coverage of events such as trials, sporting events, or meetings is an important change in how journalists work. We’re at the events gathering content anyway.

But instead of waiting to write just for the morning print edition and post that story in the evening, we focus on telling the story now for the digital audience. For a trial and many other events, that’s during the day.

If the reporter’s routine daily story isn’t an event, we want the reporter to shoot for a mid- or late-morning deadline, like an evening-newspaper reporter used to. Or early afternoon will do. Or file the basic news in a few paragraphs in the morning and update as subsequent interviews provide reaction and explanation.

When State Senator Ed Meyer retired, Register reporter Ed Stannard posted a quick story about the retirement and the possibility that Ted Kennedy Jr. would run for Meyer’s seat. Stannard’s original story posted at 11:34 a.m., and he updated it several times. The story received 4,000 page views.

Evening work should be reserved for stories breaking in the evening or for evening events such as meetings or ballgames. And those events also should be covered live.

We can still produce stories for the newspaper factory if we serve the digital audience during the day. But we can’t serve the digital audience by waiting until the factory’s deadlines.

About Steve Buttry

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