Time to dismantle the newspaper factory culture

I always loved working in a newspaper factory. 

I worked in the newsroom, far away from the fast-moving machinery — unless you counted my typewriter keys — as deadline approached. But I was well aware my building was a factory and my company a manufacturer.

You smelled ink when you walked into the building. You heard and felt the rumble when the press started. In the hallways and lunchrooms, the inky smears on clothing and skin identified the factory workers who turned my words and my colleagues’ work into the daily miracle.

Once, as editor of the Minot Daily News in 1992, I got to yell, “Stop the presses!” (You had to yell, by the way, or you wouldn’t be heard.)

Much as I loved the factories I’ve worked in, I also embrace my current professional challenge: “Unbolting” my company’s newsroom from the factory’s deadlines, culture, and processes. 

We don’t know when the presses will finally stop for good, but we do know that our future is digital and that our current growth is digital. And my company, Digital First Media, is trying to seize that digital future by breaking free from the factory culture before we stop the presses.

Our newsrooms have been aggressively learning digital skills and experimenting with digital techniques since John Paton set the former Journal Register Company on its digital-first path in 2010 and created Digital First Media in 2011, when we took over management of MediaNews Group.

When we look back on how far we’ve come, we congratulate ourselves on the pace of change.

But John busted us last fall at a meeting of the DFM senior editors: He told us our newsrooms were still essentially print newsrooms with digital operations “bolted on.”

I’ve visited 84 of our newsrooms, including all of our daily newspapers, many of them multiple times. And I knew immediately that John was right.

With a simple industrial metaphor, John had identified the cultural, structural, and workflow obstacle that was slowing our digital transformation: For all our digital tools and talks, our newsrooms still think and work like newspaper factories.

I set to work planning Project Unbolt.

DFM newsrooms are committing this year to taking a huge wrench to that bolt and twisting it off. We need to free our journalists to think and work for digital platforms and digital story forms.

We need to turn Digital First from an aspiration to an achievement.

Of course, we’re still going to be manufacturing newspapers (even though we’ve outsourced most of the actual factory work). No one has stopped the presses. So we’ll have a few journalists responsible for making the newspaper from all that digital content, mostly in regional hubs serving multiple newsrooms.

We’ve produced Web sites since the mid-1990s from our newspaper factory. I’m confident we can flip the bolting around and become digital newsrooms with print operations bolted on.

We’re starting with four pilot newsrooms that we’ll work intensely on unbolting in the next few months: the New Haven Register in Connecticut, Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, El Paso Times, and News-Herald in Willoughby, Ohio.

In these newsrooms, we’re working to transform ourselves in six respects: coverage and storytelling, processes, engagement, planning and management, mobile, and standards.

Each of those areas breaks down into several components. For instance, under coverage and storytelling, we assess how close we are to digital ideals for each of these pursuits:

  • Live coverage of events and breaking news.
  • Timely coverage of routine daily news.
  • Enterprise journalism.
  • Opinion journalism.
  • Beat coverage.
  • Data.
  • Photos.
  • Videos.
  • Interactive storytelling.

Where we’re farthest from the ideals, we will develop plans for swift and strong improvement. We’ll be reporting about our successes and our mistakes on the Project Unbolt blog, with occasional updates here on INMA’s Culture Change blog, as well. 

If we love those old factories — and I do — we will honour them by transforming our newsrooms to carry the work of the press into the digital age.

About Steve Buttry