This guest post from Silas Lyons, editor of the Redding Record Searchlight in California, continues my discussion of the Four Platform Newsroom program at Journal Media Group. I blogged Wednesday about the Digital Leads report that reviewed the newsroom transformation efforts of the former E.W. Scripps Co. newsrooms. Friday I blogged the answers of three JMG editors to some questions I asked about the program.
Today I have two responses from Redding, Calif. Lyons sent his answers to my question after I published Friday’s post. Michelle Rogers, a former colleague of mine at Digital First Media, is Content Editor at the Record Searchlight and sent me links showing some of the Redding newsroom’s work.
I asked: “How did you choose and develop your franchise topics?”
Lyons: We learned the most from this part of the process. The smartest thing we did early on was to listen to Knight Digital’s advice to be very ambitious about outreach to people in our community who truly represented the personas – they were between 25 and 50 years old, professional, had kids or a mortgage or both. For a small newsroom (under 20 people including me) and a smaller Four Platform team (8), we put a huge effort into those interviews, netting close to 40 people and developing a very solid basis of data.
While not professional market research, it was better in some ways because the responses were very real to the people developing the plan. They didn’t just ask which topics would interest the personas, but where the interview subjects get that kind of information now, what they feel is missing, what kinds of devices they use to access different types of news and information, what kind of real-life situation they’re in when they’re using those devices.
We also collected candid feedback on what keeps people from turning to us more, or from paying for our content. One example: A successful, educated community member who said, “You guys are way better than TV, but they’re free and they’re basically good enough.” It was a real impetus to stretch our plans, knowing the reality of the challenge we face.
The dumbest thing we did early on was to exclude mid-level editors from the process. In an effort to completely hand the control to front-line journalists, we wound up with a disconnect between them and their direct supervisors. Fortunately, we were able to find a better balance while still working on Get Out!, our outdoors activity coverage franchise, and we had everyone on the same page for Shaping Our Future – which was by far the larger and more transformative of the two franchises. We began developing it immediately after implementing Get Out!
Buttry: What role did live coverage play in your transformation?
Lyons: In our minds, we were doing a lot of live coverage before the Four Platform project began. But what we realized is that there’s this enormous field of opportunity just beyond breaking news. You can live-cover fires and accidents and even city council meetings all day long, but that’s still going to come up short.
As we were working through the process, Mizell (Mizell Stewart III, Managing Director/Content for JMG) began very intentionally talking about “real-time reporting” instead of “live breaking news.” We’re all word people, and that subtle shift of language was very meaningful to me. And so, like a lot of the other Journal Media Group newsrooms, we’ve started taking the initiative to create live coverage opportunities where we wouldn’t have thought of them before.
Last year, we launched Shaping Our Future just in time for the most hotly contested local elections in years here in Redding. We live-covered (ScribbleLive and video streaming) major events that related to both the elections and our Shaping Our Future focus areas of public safety, land use and people making a difference. We also hosted what I believe was by far the most intimate and substantive debate between opposite sides of a major local ballot measure campaign. Again, we broadcast it live (from our conference room with a rigged up backdrop) and took audience questions on the fly using ScribbleLive and Twitter.
We’re building on this now. I began to realize, as I listened to the franchise committee working on its plans, that we were missing a leadership position that could implement and expand their vision. We reorganized the three mid-level editing positions, consolidating more of the reporting staff under Managing Editor Carole Ferguson, and were able to recruit your former DFM colleague, Michelle Rogers, into our open and newly defined position of content editor. Michelle’s expertise was in digital tools, social media and training, and she had run the Southeast Michigan Media Lab in Ypsilanti, where she took the knowledge directly to the community. Here, she’s continued her work with our staff but is now expanding it beyond our walls through the creation of the 530 Media Project (530 is our area code). She’s holding workshops to teach blogging, SM and other skills (the topics themselves are crowd sourced) to community members all year. Every one so far has had a waitlist.
We’re also working on a partnership with a non-partisan local group to cooperate on a large public forum later this year, tied to a significant piece of journalism one of our reporters is working on. And we’ll be hitting a dozen local groups that reflect our personas in a “listening tour” to talk about what they’re seeing in our coverage. Our franchise team members are going to go back out and interview another 35 people in our persona demographic to find out where we need to adjust course. We’ve come to see the face-to-face strategies as fully integrated with our digital strategies. It’s all about the connections and engagement.
Saying ‘yes’ a lot
My last reflection may not be related to any of your specific questions but it has to do with leadership. The beauty of the Four Platform process was that it created a tangible plan for doing good journalism and supporting our business objectives – and all of it came from people who actually do the work.
Because I’m completely bought in but didn’t come up with it myself, I find that I’m in the happy position of saying “yes” a lot. As the editor, I can continue to uphold high standards and make resource decisions and do the things editors are supposed to do. But it’s in the service of a plan that I’ve fully endorsed, rather than initiated. I’ve seen this tried and abandoned many times in our business, and usually it’s just so much sappy business book babble about flat org charts and servant leadership. In this case, it’s been real.
In case it’s useful, here’s the introductory column I wrote when we launched Shaping Our Future last April.