I have some advice for Larry Kramer and Gannett on running a nationwide network of newsrooms as a single operation.
Ken Doctor speculated yesterday that Kramer, publisher of USA Today, might lead Gannett’s editorial operation as a single unit.
As Gannett separates its newspaper properties from its broadcast and digital properties, Doctor tried to parse what Bob Dickey, CEO of the print operation, which will keep the Gannett name, meant when he said he would be “uniting our different news businesses into a single, nationwide news powerhouse.”
If Gannett’s journalists were to be centrally directed, they would comprise 2,700 journalists, the largest single journalistic workforce globally.
Gannett gives a lot of corporate direction to newsrooms. Currently the Newsroom of the Future is the Gannett wave, but earlier thrusts have emphasized Information Centers (2006, after the Newspaper Next report), First Five Paragraphs (2000 or so, when I was a Gannett reporter) and News 2000 (that was the priority when I interviewed for a Gannett job in 1992). And I probably forgot a few. Remind me, if you recall one I missed. Update: I forgot ContentOne (2009).
The company also is consolidating print production in regional Design Studios, a trend throughout the industry.
But, as Doctor noted, Gannett editors don’t work for a national corporate editor:
Those editors now report solely, within a traditional newspaper structure, to their paper’s publishers. Gannett senior vice president for news Kate Marymont (“My job is to elevate the journalism across Gannett’s local media sites,” says her LinkedIn job description.) leads editorial planning and strategy. Like her peers in similar positions at newspaper companies, she may act as an editorial advocate, but doesn’t have line authority.
I worked for nearly three years at a company where the newsroom editors did report directly to a corporate editor. Early in the formation of Digital First Media, I was on a conference call with all the publishers when CEO John Paton told them their editors would report to Editor-in-Chief Jim Brady. Publishers would still be in charge of the local budgets and the local operation, but for all journalism matters, Jim was in charge.
I was one of a handful of editors who reported directly to Jim, and I visited 84 newsrooms, including all DFM dailies, so I suppose I’m as qualified as anyone but Jim to share some lessons from our brief experience trying to run a single journalistic workforce.
I will neither boast of our successes here nor criticize our mistakes (mine or others’), though I will make passing references below to my DFM experiences. The lessons below are my own observations and advice to Kramer and Gannett (if Doctor’s speculation is correct), based on successes and mistakes at DFM and many experiences that were a mix of both. And I suspect some other companies might seek to better unify their news efforts.
Here’s my advice for Kramer and others who may lead national news operations:
Give the editor the news budget
An editor or chief content officer (Kramer’s title) needs budget authority as well as editorial authority. In other words, the editor should decide how and where to spend the company’s full editorial budget. Publishers shouldn’t be able to look to the local newsroom to make staff cuts, and the company shouldn’t order a certain percentage cut from newsrooms across the whole company.
Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think Gannett or DFM or any newspaper-rooted company is finished cutting staff. If company revenues continue to decline and profit-margin expectations are high, that workforce of 2,700 journalists will decline, too. But I’d put the top national editorial person in charge of deciding where and how to deploy all of those journalists (obviously, with input from the individual newsroom editors and some regional editors). That means cuts may be deeper in some areas (topically or geographically) than in others.
You need to figure out how to charge the local budgets for content, perhaps on an assessment that reflects the size of the local staff as well as the regional and national content provided to the local products, perhaps with some credit for the national value of locally produced content: Iowa caucus coverage from the Des Moines Register, automotive coverage from the Detroit Free Press, etc. When the news staff is cut, the content chief makes the cuts (or, if you’re successful, decides where to add positions), and adjusts the assessments accordingly. Beyond that, the publisher makes further cuts to the local budget as needed outside the news budget.
Clarify the publisher’s role
The publisher is the leader of the local operation, and the face of your business to much of the community. She should not be completely removed from the news and editorial operation. You need to clarify what that role should be. Some possible roles (or issues to consider):
- I think the publisher should probably be a member of, and possibly chair, the editorial board, if you still have one.
- The publisher should shield the newsroom from efforts by advertisers or community leaders to influence news coverage. The national structure gives the publisher the excuse to tell wannabe meddlers that he has no authority over the newsroom and, in fact, is barred from interfering, to ensure independent news coverage for the whole community.
- The publisher still leads the local enterprise, and the local editor participates under the publisher’s direction in department head-meetings, product-development efforts across departments, community events and other enterprise-wide matters.
- The editor and publisher should meet regularly and have a strong working relationship.
- If the publisher already has a blog or column, or if a new publisher proposes writing one, that’s an acceptable arrangement (but it’s subject to editing). But a publisher shouldn’t have to write.
- The publisher and editor should work out who writes notes to readers about business matters such as changes in paywall rules, subscription prices, staff cuts and the like.
Key leaders must support and execute the strategy
A good news operation thrives on diverse opinions and points of views. Cantankerous, difficult journalists are going to provide some of your best work, and every editor knows that. You want vigorous discussions at the highest level and you want a diversity of opinions.
But if you’re going to succeed in leading an organization in change, your leadership team needs to be pulling together. Everyone doesn’t have to agree on every aspect of the strategy. But every editor needs to agree on the basic goals or (with perhaps some acknowledged disagreements on the goals) agree to pursue them openly and aggressively. And they need to really do that.
Leaders who support your strategy half-heartedly, pay it lip service or actively undercut it are a huge impediment to progress and eventual success. I don’t care whether you deal with them by persuasion (either direction), reassignment or by firing them, but you have to deal with leaders who aren’t going to carry out your strategy aggressively. You can’t have them in key leadership positions.
Identify key leaders
Both at the newsroom level and in key regional and national corporate positions, you need strong leaders who are going to lead your staff in challenging times. I know of at least two Gannett editors, Kevin Anderson in Wisconsin and Josh Awtry in the Carolinas, who are excellent choices for their current regional roles and prospects for bigger roles eventually.
In this week’s purchase of DFM’s Tex-Mex cluster and a smaller cluster of news operations in Pennsylvania, Gannett acquired two distinguished veteran editors leading strong clusters with excellence in news coverage and digital transformation, Bob Moore in El Paso (last year’s Ben Bradlee Award winner) and Jim McClure in York, Pa.
The two clusters also include a lot of talented newsroom leaders with potential to flourish in bigger roles in a national operation: Becky Bennett in Chambersburg, Pa.; Sylvia Ulloa in Las Cruces, N.M.; Ramon Bracamontes in El Paso; Randy Parker in York; Aaron Bracamontes in Carlsbad, N.M. And I know other Gannett newsrooms have many more leaders I don’t know as well.
Identify local stars who deserve a national stage
An operation of 2,700 people is going to have some local favorites who might have appeal to a broader audience. An important aspect of the national operation should be effectively sharing this content nationally (or even in specific markets that might share an interest).
Daniel P. Finney of the Des Moines Register is a perfect example. He’s a great writer who’s a perfect fit for the local columnist/blogger job, and many of his columns are just of local interest. But his candor about his morbid obesity, and his open daily struggle to lose 300 pounds is inspiring in a way that connects beyond geography. Gannett needs to help those columns/posts find a national audience, and any national operation of local newsrooms needs to identify and spotlight the local stars who transcend geography, whether for a single story, a series or regularly.
York’s Jason Plotkin was a DFM Journalist of the Year last year who’s one of the most talented visual journalists I’ve ever worked with. An effective national operation should carry his stellar work to a larger audience. Other talented visual journalists joining Gannett in the DFM deal include Markell DeLoatch in Chambersburg and El Paso Times Photo Editor Ruben Ramirez.
Buffy Andrews, also from York, played some national and regional roles with us at DFM and is exactly the kind of creative, hard worker that a national operation should help flourish. Lucas Peerman is a digital star in Las Cruces who could play a bigger role.
These are just a few of the people I know who could play key roles in this national operation. And I’m sure I don’t know even 200 of the 2,700 Gannett news employees.
You don’t need to move all your stars to Gannett headquarters in McLean, Va., to thrive. Many are deeply rooted in their current communities and want to stay and enjoy their lives there. Sometimes you just bring more audience to the work they’re already doing. Sometimes you find a hybrid local/regional/national role someone can play based in a current newsroom.
Training is essential
You can’t achieve significant change in news operations without significant training. The best training operates on multiple levels:
- Full-time or part-time trainers at the corporate level (my visits to DFM newsrooms usually included some training).
- Full-time or part-time trainers at the newsroom level.
- Partnerships with national training organizations, such as Gannett’s partnership with Poynter.
- Partnerships with local universities.
- Attendance at state, regional and national press association conferences, conferences and seminars of journalism organizations, etc.
- Bringing in outside trainers to local newsrooms or events for regional clusters or national editors meetings. (Disclosure: I offer training services for news organizations, so I should note the obvious self-interest in this point.)
Flood the zone
When huge national news breaks in or near one of your communities, especially if it’s not a metro operation with a huge staff, send help from other newsrooms. You not only help the home newsroom provide blowout coverage of a huge event, you ensure your best possible coverage to all your newsrooms of the big national event.
I’ll make an exception to my no-DFM-boasting promise and link to the post we did about lessons learned from DFM newsrooms collaborating in coverage of the Sandy Hook massacre in Connecticut.
Keep a strong focus
I wasn’t mocking in listing the various changing priorities of Gannett through the years. A company needs to change priorities as business conditions change and as goals are achieved. None of the Gannett themes had as gimmicky a name as Project Unbolt, which I conceived and named to help DFM “unbolt” from print culture after Paton accurately described our newsrooms as print newsrooms with digital operations “bolted on.” A name that comes from corporate always invites mockery, but it also can make an important point about focus.
What’s important is carrying out the focus. If we succeeded in unbolting our newsrooms from print, we had the ideal name for our project. If Jim’s and my departure and the uncertainty caused by the sale left the bolts fastened, or even tightened them, we deserve (and can take) the mockery.
As for Gannett, I like a lot that I’ve seen about the Newsroom of the Future and its efforts to focus the newsrooms’ work. If it successfully focuses Gannett journalists on the work of the future and helps lead the company to a prosperous future, this will be successful. If it’s merely a cover (and unsuccessful at that) for staff cuts, which accompanied most, if not all, of the Newsroom of the Future reorgs I’ve seen, it will be a bust and deserve the mockery.
Demand some national compliance
On some matters, the content chief should insist that local newsrooms follow companywide practices and orders. Choose your shots carefully. They should be important matters that move your operation forward or help you measure movement, where local nuances don’t matter much. Don’t put up with a lot of crap in these matters. Local editors need to accept and respect the authority of the top editors. Consistent defiance on following important national standards would be grounds for removing an editor, in my view.
Allow for local news judgment
You want strong local editors who cover their communities well. You might have a big national package that you’ve planned for blowout coverage on home pages and front pages throughout the company. But if you planned it for the day when the flood hit Cedar Rapids, I would blow it off the home page and the front page. You need to recognize that as good editing and not defiance.
Both the national editors and the local editors need to talk and learn together as they find the right balance of national and local authority.
The community needs a local editor
However small a staff gets, however small a community is, a news organization needs a local editor, both as a leader of the staff and as a face of your news operation in the community.
As some of the hierarchy of an organization gets regionalized and nationalized to gain efficiency, the top local editor in some communities starts to become, in many ways, like a city editor or even an assistant city editor in a larger operation. But don’t reduce these jobs too much. A staff needs a leader on site, and a community needs an editor to relate to (complain, praise, suggest news tips, speak to civic groups, write a blog/column).
Even if the local editor doesn’t retain all of the planning, budgeting, personnel and product authority that the position once held, a local newsroom should have a local editor. Maybe the staff cuts reach a point where you’re really a bureau and not a newsroom, and you have to tell the community that the editor is in a different city (and try to develop that relationship). But I’d maintain local editors to some degree as long as possible.
Local brands have value
Efficiency might call for eliminating some mastheads and uniting multiple newspapers and news sites under a single title. But I hope that the assessment of that situation recognizes the value of the local brand and the local attachment to the brand. That value does diminish as staff cuts harm local coverage, but some newspapers have long community roots and an important community presence that attaches to the name that people identify with the community.
I’m a realist. I understand the efficiency of delivering one product, digital or print, across a region, with local tabs or headings where people can find the local news that used to be on a front page or a home page. And I can see the value in building a strong regional brand. But I hope the value of the local brand is an important consideration in those decisions. Declining products aren’t necessarily going to reverse that decline by trying to introduce another newspaper brand into a community as a replacement for a liked and trusted brand.
And, let’s be honest, these decisions are likely to be made on the business side, not the content side. But I hope news executives will advocate for consideration of the value of the local brand in making these decisions.
Emphasize live coverage
Live coverage — live streaming (unless you don’t have rights to a sporting or entertainment event), live tweeting and liveblogging, live chats about community issues and events — is an important way to change the work and the culture of news operations. Make it the standard practice for coverage of events and breaking news in your communities.
Gannett already does this in its Best of Gannett program, so I won’t go on at length here, except to encourage updating categories to reflect your corporate priorities. I was fortunate to run DFM’s awards program and it was a lot of work. But I heard a lot of appreciation from the journalists whose work we spotlighted. Some of the most enjoyable work I did was calling the winners of annual DFMie awards.
National operation may not be best
Update: Prompted by a private exchange of messages, I want to make clear that I’m not advocating that Gannett or anyone else try a national news operation. I saw a lot of benefit in what we did at DFM, and I’m proud of what we did. But we also encountered problems. We didn’t operate that way long enough for me to say that this way is better or that it isn’t. Gannett and other national companies might be best advised to leave editors reporting to publishers, with national editorial teams offering guidance and leadership but not managing local newsrooms. But this is a time of experimentation when we can’t afford to defend how we’ve always done it. I’d like to see someone try a national news operation for longer than we did, and following this advice. But I’m not sure that’s the best way to run a news company.
What are your suggestions?
I welcome DFM colleagues, who have worked on these challenges before from the corporate or local end, to offer suggestions and observations as well. Or Gannett staffers considering how your company’s future might unfold. Or other journalists wondering whether your company might try a unified news operation. Add your suggestions in the comments, by email — stephenbuttry (at) gmail (dot) com — or in social media. I will add them to the post.
Disclosures: As I’ve done before, I’ll disclose more than you probably care about, because more is better when being transparent. I originally had these next to paragraphs higher in this post, but it was taking too long to get to my advice. I add them here for context:
In addition to reflecting my DFM experience, this post also uses some of the strategy I thought about in 2012 when I considered an offer to be a corporate content officer, leading a smaller group of print and digital newsrooms. I turned the offer down, but came close to accepting it and gave a lot of thought to how the job should work and what I would do. I’m sure the advice also reflects experiences in other newsrooms, as well as three years working for the American Press Institute and working with newsrooms around the world.
I’ll also add that my knowledge of what Gannett is doing now may be incomplete and out of date, so some of my suggestions here may apply more to other executives who may take on Kramer’s and Brady’s challenge in the future.
Beyond the obvious DFM connections already disclosed, I have long and deep ties with Gannett, too. I worked for the Des Moines Register from 1977 to 1985, leaving right before Gannett bought it from the Cowles family (but not solely because Gannett was buying). I returned for two years under Gannett ownership, from 1998 to 2000. I was a competitor of the Register and Gannett’s Iowa City newsroom in 2008-9 as editor of the Cedar Rapids Gazette and of the Register from 1993 to 1998 and 2000 to 2005 as a reporter for the Omaha World-Herald.
I also have been a Best of Gannett judge and have been a visiting trainer in at least six long-time Gannett newsrooms, plus all 11 of the dailies Gannett acquired this week from DFM. I have had at least two interviews that I recall for jobs I didn’t get with Gannett. And I have friends who formerly or still work at Gannett headquarters, USA Today and newsrooms across the country. And I invited several Gannett editors to be discussion leaders in my American Press Institute days. I cited Gannett databases several times in my 2008 Newspaper Next report. I’ve criticized Gannett’s paywall announcements. And I’m sure I’m forgetting other collaborative, competitive, laudatory or critical interactions.
I dropped names of a lot of former colleagues in this post, including some close friends.