Focus, job functions are evolving as newsrooms undergo digital transformation

By Justin Eisenband

FTI Consulting

Washington, DC, USA


Nearly all news organisations today accept that the future is digital. Accordingly, news organisations around the world have invested in both people and technology to help transform their business models.

However, while most news publishers have made investments, the bigger challenge remains how to transform the fundamental print-first organisation, processes, and mindset that pervade newsrooms today.

In the digital world, reporters have the ability to write, edit, and create multi-media-based journalism from anywhere. In fact, doing so is critical to keep pace with breaking news and readers’ expectations for news across an 18-hour cycle.

Print-first organisations have to adapt as digital becomes a greater part of the publishing ecosystem.
Print-first organisations have to adapt as digital becomes a greater part of the publishing ecosystem.

However, our work with publishers across the world indicates many newsrooms have struggled to transition from the legacy “print-first” principles that have guided decision-making for decades to “digital-first” and “audience-centric” principles that must guide the future.

In practice, what does it mean for a newsroom to be “digital-first”? How can newsrooms move from the “print-first” mentality to a “digital-first” mentality?

Content creators are multi-skilled and versatile

As news consumption patterns have evolved in the last decade, the role of content creators — reporters, photographers, videographers, editors — within the newsroom must evolve with those changes.

Historically, responsibilities were clearly delineated. Reporters had a beat and researched a story, conducted interviews, and produced written content around that topic. Photographers and videographers went into the field and captured visual content to support stories. Editors did the final read on content and determined where content would be located within the print newspaper.

However, in a “digital-first” newsroom, the lines between these roles are blurred.

No longer are reporters able to be singularly focused on the written output. Reporters need to be trained in all aspects of news creation. At a minimum, they must be aware of how their content is expected to be marketed and distributed across various channels. Reporters as the ultimate content producers should have digital end-products in mind when researching and producing a story. As such, content can be amortised across various channels from Web/app articles to newsletter formats, social media short-form summaries, data-driven journalism, and even audio and video formats to meet readers where they are.

News organisations like the BBC have recently doubled down on these “digital-first” reporters. BBC new hires are expected to be able to provide deeper analysis, data journalism, and deeper investigative pieces as well as understand design, distribution, and marketing.

The sequenced model has now become converged and simultaneous

In the legacy “print-first” newsroom, content distribution revolves around print production deadlines. Reporters aim to complete stories by a certain deadline with all distribution occurring early the following day based on production and distribution scheduling. The workflows are entirely sequential as distribution of content is limited to a single, static channel that lacks any interactivity with the audience.

In a digital-first environment, workflows are flexible and tasks often overlap.
In a digital-first environment, workflows are flexible and tasks often overlap.

However, a “digital-first” newsroom considers distribution throughout the day through various product formats, of which print is an important — yet not a deterministic — part. While content production and distribution can still be planned on a daily basis, flexibility is core to the underlying organisation and processes.

Content is consistently updated to reflect new information. The newsroom tracks recent trends and builds content around these topic areas. Only later in the day does the editorial team begin to think about the print edition, considering what content has been produced throughout the day and curating that content for the next day’s print edition.

Data guides decision-making

Important newsroom decisions such as what content to produce or whether an article is placed behind the paywall should be determined by the underlying metrics. Yet, in many ways, this can be the most challenging transition. Incorporating usage of data into newsroom processes must be effectuated without overwhelming complexities and clear goals that are driven by key performance indicators (KPIs).

Therefore, it is vital to introduce KPIs to the newsroom that are highly visible, highly targeted, and easily actionable. While analytics and marketing functions can evaluate and strategise, ultimately the underlying content is the most critical driver in attracting, engaging, and retaining audience.

To support the newsroom in executing on these strategies, objectives must be clear and measurable, and perhaps most importantly, not overly complex.

Content must support all aspects of a publishing company through digital transformation.
Content must support all aspects of a publishing company through digital transformation.

Transitioning from “print-first” to “digital-first” is ultimately a cultural and mindset change

It is no easy task to change the “print-centric” habits of the newsroom that have been engrained for decades. The cultural and mindset changes of a newsroom that are needed to execute a transformation cannot be overstated.

While the transition may be difficult, developing a “digital-first” and “audience-centric” mindset through skills versatility, optimised workflows, and data-driven newsrooms will provide the foundations to support the digital news products that audiences demand today.

About Justin Eisenband

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