If you run a newsroom or wish to lead a digital transformation in your newsroom, you should read Tom Meagher‘s Things I never learned at newspapers about making news on the Internet.
Go ahead. Read it and come back. Nothing I say here will make sense until you read it.
Now that you’ve read it, some thoughts from me:
You should get to work quickly learning and applying the points he discussed. This is as helpful a guide for transformation of a newsroom as anything I have written or will write about Project Unbolt, so I’m making it part of my Unbolt series (I’m planning several more posts this month).
Tom said it all better than I will, but I’ll elaborate on a few of his points:
Journalist-developers must be woven into the assigning side of the newsroom and involved in stories from the very beginning, not sitting around waiting to pretty things up at the last minute.
The deli-style graphics department that Tom described was never a good idea in our print-focused days, and it simply can’t work in a digital newsroom. As I described in a post on enterprise stories, you need to consider interactive and data possibilities as you start planning stories. In fact, specialists in data and interactive journalism should drive story planning themselves, with their own ideas, rather than just helping reporters execute their own stories. (And reporters should be learning data and interactive skills, so they can do much of their own work.)
Brian Boyer’s post on the NPR Visuals team deals further with how a newsroom should work with interactive specialists.
Hiring and Training
The expertise that this new style of storytelling demands simply doesn’t exist in most news organizations. Our job is to develop these skills where we can and to hire for them now, and the smart editors will recognize that you’re probably not going to find people with these skills by only posting on journalismjobs.com.
Few things are more urgent for a newsroom than hiring people with data and interactive skills and paying for your staff to learn more data and interactive skills. If you have an opening, you should consider hiring one (or more) of Tom’s and my former Thunderdome colleagues.
And for individual journalists, few things are more urgent than learning more data and interactive skills. You will become more valuable to yourself and future newsrooms. If your employer won’t pay for you to attend conferences and seminars such as the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting, Online News Association or Knight Digital Media Center, invest in yourself and pay the cost yourself. Or just dig in and learn some data and interactive skills yourself.
Anyone can lead a project, but somebody must lead.
Newsrooms need to put more digital people in charge of more things. Our CEO at Digital First Media, John Paton, has said many times (and been praised and criticized for saying it) that news companies need to put the digital people in charge. We haven’t done that enough at Digital First, but you should do it in your newsroom, whatever company you work for: Develop leadership skills and project management skills in your digital stars and your eager digital learners. Individual stories will be better if they are leading the project rather than following orders. And your newsroom will be better as you give more responsibility to people who can see the future more clearly and are pursuing it more boldly.
In an email exchange, Tom elaborated:
We have too many people who are digital consumers in news and not digital makers, which is what’s going to end up making a difference. … Building news interactives requires ‘print people’ and ‘digital people’ alike to learn an entirely new workflow and process to do it well, and that’s why you need the project manager.
However far you’ve come in learning digital skills, you should work on learning more, on becoming a digital maker and then on becoming a project manager and a newsroom leader.
Most CMSes are designed to prevent the kind of monkeying around that this new kind of online storytelling requires.
Crappy content management systems are a huge impediment to digital innovation at most newsrooms. I was pleased that Project Unbolt plans included work on a new publishing system. I’m disappointed that the CMS project has been sidetracked, but hopeful work on it will resume.
Journalists publishing digital content need to be able to break out of formats and templates and use links and embeds easily. They need to experiment. Don’t use the CMS as an excuse for doing lackluster work. Work to get a better publishing system or find ways to work outside the system, as Tom describes.
Experiment and learn
Failure is an option. Our data team was willing to try anything new, knowing that even if it bombed spectacularly, we’d walk away with the know-how to make our next project work. …
The key to good iteration was in our post-mortem reviews. After each deployment, we’d pause to collect our thoughts, to write down what worked and what didn’t and to craft a list of features we’d want in the next project. Then we’d use those ideas over and over again to make our work better.
You’re not going to master digital journalism by just doing what Tom or I or anyone else tells you. You learn by practice, by experimentation and by learning from failure and success. A failure that leads to success was a success.
People notice good work
When we began, we inherited a small email list of a couple dozen local DFM journalists who were data-curious. By the time Thunderdome shut down, the listserv had grown to about 120 people, from San Jose to New Haven. Newspaper journalists want to learn how to do data analysis and develop for the web. A newsroom that supports them in practicing and mastering those skills will reap the benefits. You have to start building that culture.
Tom and his colleagues on the Thunderdome data team made a stellar contribution to DFM. Those 120 people from San Jose to New Haven are making and will continue to make notable contributions to their newsrooms.
Editors need to read Tom’s post and consider what you need to do in your newsrooms to build the culture that Tom described.