NOLA Notes: Build digital-first structure and culture (or, do you have a prayer or a plan?)

Another in a series of posts from notes taken at the National College Media Convention in New Orleans.

Update appended Dec. 1 regarding the “digital managing editor” at The State News.

Updated Dec. 6 with a link to details of Emerald Media Group’s restructured newsroom. 

You’ve figured out that the “right now” needs of your digital audience are not the same as the “read more in depth later” needs of your print audience. You’ve coached and cajoled. And if you’re like most college media editors and advisers, you seem a long way from your goal.

The biggest reason may be pretty simple. Your organization’s structure and culture are at odds with what you really want.

Ryan Frank, president/adviser at Emerald Media Group, said he had a moment of clarity when he considered the digital vs. print needs created by every University of Oregon football game. He realized that “the kid who worked 12 hours on gameday,” filing furiously and writing the digital game story (actually only part of the Emerald’s game coverage) was simply not going to thoughtfully write the smart follow-up for the Emerald’s Monday print product. Either she would think print-first and neglect the immediate online needs, or she’d be exhausted by the digital needs and file a print story that just shoveled what was already online.

“That was my light-bulb moment. The structure just doesn’t fit if digital journalism is a priority,” Frank said.

Frank’s solution was to create a robust digital division alongside the still-strong print division. So in the football stadium press box, there now is an Emerald writer who is devoted to the print story plus the staff members producing words, photo galleries, etc., for social media and the web. (Click here for much more detail from Frank on the Emerald’s structure.)

Where your digital “structure” falls on your organizational chart depends on your size, needs and culture. You may need one or more digital section editors, a managing editor/digital or even an editor-in-chief/digital.

The central point, as I’ve written previously on the topic of building daily digital discipline, is that anything that must be done with discipline must be somebody’s job. “Let’s all remember to post to the web,” is what my friend the management consultant would call “a prayer, not a plan.” So is, as Frank observed, telling everyone to be sure and remember to write a great new story for print.

The dual needs of print and the web must be an explicit part of every plan you make, including story assignments.

Judy Gibbs Robinson, editorial adviser for The Daily Oklahoman and, says event assignments there now require the writer to submit five paragraphs 30 minutes after the end of the event. Think about the impact that rule (or a version of it) would have on your reporting and filing practices. And yes, this even applies to a new staff member, who knows to call an experienced editor to help them. (And this means an editor is on duty, another part of building that digital structure.) And everyone in the Oklahoman newsroom knows that if you can’t devote 30 minutes after the event to writing that story, don’t take the assignment.

(I’ll post more later on specific practices of successful digital-first news staffs.)

Robinson (like your humble blogger) worked at The Associated Press back when being first meant running to a pay phone and dictating a story to a rewrite desk. She reminded me that all of us learned how to do that thanks to patient editors at the other end of the phone who asked us the right questions to elicit the most important information in the right order. (I must share that Robinson raced a United Press International reporter to the phone — and later married him!)

In addition to editors on duty at the right times, Robinson notes that digital products greatly increase art needs: still photos, video, galleries, slideshows. That takes people — and, again, people who live and breathe digital as their mission.

“It takes more people to do more,” Robinson says. If you try to do more with the same staff size (which is what most of us try first), you’ll fall into the trap of “feeding the beast” — that time-consuming print product. Or you’ll dangerously neglect that print product (which, in most places, is what’s paying your bills).

Another big change is the level of training needed. No one is a fast writer, shooter, photo editor or videographer on Day One. As previously noted, this makes “resource velocity” all the more important. In training sessions, Robinson always talks about the digital and print missions.

Summarizing lots of other great advice:

Judy Gibbs Robinson, University of Oklahoma:

  • Establish rank. At Oklahoma, the online editor and the print editor report to the managing editor. Use rank to signal to people, “This matters.”
  • Create positions, like an engagement editor, social media coordinator, chief videographer, blog coordinator. Those people start enforcing standards and coaching and make everybody’s performance better.
  • Measure performance. Robinson wants a big screen to post Google analytics in real-time. This is a norm now in digital-first newsrooms. (Here’s some advice on using analytics to target your “true” digital audience.)
  • Move the furniture. Put the online desk into the heart of the newsroom.
  • Change your documents. Story budgets shouldn’t be print-centric. There are now proprietary college media content management systems, and you can do a good bit with Google Docs/Drive and/or WordPress.
  • Recruit bloggers – lots of them! Each blog about a group or interest or living arrangement is a “micro-beat.” Host it all on your website. (Maybe you should have a “blogathon” in your newsroom?)

Ryan Frank, Emerald Media Group:

  • The Emerald now has online and print editors for major sections. So an online sports editor plus print sports editor, and online sports desk plus regular sports desk.
  • Some traditionally minded journalists will resist. Some will quit. Frank is blunt: “We have an Emerald type. If you don’t fit into that, we’re not the place for you.” My advice is be careful when you discuss that. Limit your leadership “type” to an attitude about serving the audience and keeping the organization financially sustainable. That’s what Frank was talking about, and it’s not negotiable. Beyond that, of course you want every type of person from every background to do the best journalism.
  • The Emerald began to change with an “Evolve” project, followed by a full-on “Revolution” project. Frank says having a project with a name, a logo and target dates for draft reports, final reports, presentations to governing boards, etc., drives the process and maintains focus.

Jacob Sorensen, director of student media, University of Utah

  • Jim Brady, editor-in-chief of Digital First Media, says changing culture is one of hardest things to do.
  • Sorensen oversaw a detailed process to spell out vision, mission, strategy and tactics for all student media outlets. They came up with great ideas. The result, in Sorensen’s view: “nothing.”
  • He’s working on a new approach, better recognizing differences between radio, print, etc. Each unit will work on its own mission statement (supporting an overall mission). And he is making sure that students drive the mission statement and plans within each units.

Jason Manning, director of student media, Arizona State University 

  • Find identity and mission.
  • Ask, “Why are you here?”
  • State your highest purpose.
  • Seek relevance.
  • Offer value.
  • Build relationships.

Update, Dec. 1, 2013: Harvesting my NOLA notes for another post, I’ve just run across a relevant bit of information from Omar Sofradzija, editorial adviser for The State News, serving Michigan State University: That newsroom now has a “digital managing editor” in charge of promptly posting breaking news and updating social media sites. They want their Facebook page to be just as up-to-date as their home page.


About adviserdavid

Student media director, Georgia Southern University

Posted on November 25, 2013, in Digital/social, Leadership, NOLA Notes. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

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