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Back to the future: How mobile-first and print-first newsrooms are similar

By Dietmar Schantin

Institute for Media Strategies

London, United Kingdom


The digitalisation of the media business, and especially in newsrooms, has been going on for two decades or so. There is no doubt the industry has come a long way in using digital platforms to build revenue streams beyond print advertising and circulation.

We can see some newsrooms have finally made the proper turn into digital, and a few of them are now going full speed into mobile-first. Interestingly, the organisational principles for this transformation are not so different from those of 1998 as one might think.

Newsroom 4.0 has more in common with the newsroom of 1998 than people may realise.
Newsroom 4.0 has more in common with the newsroom of 1998 than people may realise.

Yes, audience expectations and technologies have dramatically changed. The world has become much smaller and the pace much faster. News media have become a two-way interaction instead of a one-way transmission. But compelling and creative storytelling, reaching as many people as possible, and making an impact remain at the core. What has changed are the tools, platforms, and finance sources.

So, what is the real difference between 1998 and 2018? Let’s do a quick recap.

It was in the 1990s when news organisations started putting their print content on the Internet. Organisationally, there were separate teams for the print edition and the Web. (Mobile Web did not exist; WAP browsers appeared in the early 2000s.)

These teams carried out the three fundamental jobs, which are basically creating content, selecting and deciding what do to with it, and packaging it. Print thinking and ways of working ruled; deadlines and workflows were print-centric. The digital people were tolerated but were often seen as second-class citizens, very often more skilled in technology than in journalism. We call this way of organisation Newsroom 1.0.

As digital grew in importance, the cross-media newsroom — Newsroom 2.0— emerged. There were separate heads for platforms, but no separate teams for content. Reporters wrote for print, the Web, or wherever they were needed.

This concept became popular because, at first glance, it was quite easy to implement: You told the section head, “It’s the same job with the same people, you just produce now a print version and a digital version.”

This was also the time where “integration of print and digital” became, for some people, a synonym for “easy way to save money.” The results of this concept, basically a so-called matrix organisation, were often work overload and confusion. It also brought about quality issues, conflicts between platform heads about when to publish what, and conflicting briefs for the section heads with conflicting goals.

But even if this way of bringing digital and print closer together and integrating them had its flaws, it was the first time print journalists started thinking about, and working for, digital. It laid the important groundwork (particularly by Nordjyske Medier in Denmark in 2004) for digital journalism in many media houses and everything that came after it.

The next evolution was to the media-integrated newsroom, or Newsroom 3.0. In this concept, the decision of where to publish is left to the section head, who becomes a mini editor-in-chief for his or her topic. There are no separate responsibilities for print and online anymore; it is integrated in the section. The Daily Telegraph in London was the first one to implement this concept back in 2006.

To make this concept work, you need premium people in leadership roles. Section heads have to have multi-platform talent, which is very difficult to find. If the person has a print background, digital is likely to suffer. And if the person comes from a digital background, print is likely to be neglected. This is, in fact, what has emerged from at least 10 years of experience with planning and implementing digital 3.0 newsrooms in a variety of countries and cultures.

So, what have we learned? We have Newsroom 1.0, where the focus is very much on print. That was followed by the cross-media newsroom, which has difficulties because of the competition between platform heads and a high complexity if new platforms are added. And with the media-integrated newsroom, finding qualified leaders can be a problem.

At the same time, the world around us has not stopped moving and developing. Digital has become the dominant channel for news and content consumption. The introduction of the iPhone in 2007 revolutionised the way people interact with technology.

For most news Web sites today, mobile phones are the number one device people use to visit a site, and the share is still growing. Some people predict that, in five years, the typical desktop home page we know today won’t exist anymore.

Paid content and digital circulation revenues have become a crucial part of any news media business plan. With very few exceptions, substantial customer growth happens only on digital platforms.

That leads us to Newsroom 4.0. It may seem odd, but we’ve come full circle. It very much resembles the first iteration — the print-centric newsroom around in the late 1990s — but with one key difference. Instead of being print-centric, it is now mobile-centric. We’ve basically taken Newsroom 1.0 and digitalised it.

In Newsroom 4.0, the mobile-first newsroom, sections are responsible for creating story packages for mobile. Not for the Web site, not for print, not for any other platform, but for mobile, because that’s where the growth is now and in the foreseeable future. This is a mobile-first newsroom creating first-class mobile products, stories, and news flow aimed at the mobile reader.

A mobile-first approach makes sense for several reasons. For one, mobile is often where newspapers are lagging the most. While mobile growth is exploding, reader surveys often show a lack of satisfaction with mobile products. It isn’t just about the story formats and news alerts; mobile products often don’t respond to the way in which people interact with their phones. One reason for this might be that in many newsrooms there is still a desktop Web site obsession, perhaps because the newsroom mostly works, for practical reasons, with desktop screens.

This leads to the situation that mobile publishing, in many cases, means taking the Web site and making it smaller by using responsive Web design techniques, for example. But this often looks terrible and always is a compromise. The solution must be to optimise for mobile: Begin there and make it bigger for Web publishing; do not optimise for Web and make it smaller for mobile.

While the focus is on mobile, other platforms are not neglected at all. Small and dedicated teams create specific products for them. They don’t need to duplicate stories, but they modify them for their specific needs. For example, a print team would choose what to use from the story packages created by the sections, because in print you don’t have unlimited space. Graphics, pictures, and headline needs are different as well. Copy-and-paste from one platform to another has never been a good idea, whether it’s from print to digital or the other way around.

Each of these newsroom concepts — from Newsroom 1.0 to Newsroom 4.0 — exists simultaneously today (or versions of them) in newsrooms around the world. For instance, The Wall Street Journal was one of the first global brands that made the transition to Newsroom 4.0 in 2017, and a number of regional and national news brands in the Nordics have been doing this as well in recent years.

Newsrooms continue to evolve since the world evolves. Currently, mobile consumption is what the media industry has to master because the audience is there. The next potential big consumption change is already on the horizon: Audio content, screenless interaction, and news consumption may very well be the next challenges. That also means flexibility that allows for change has to be built into all newsrooms. We have to be able to go where our audience wants us today and tomorrow, and I am quite sure we will be moving one day to Newsroom 5.0.

About Dietmar Schantin

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