Perhaps there is a time and place for everything. The era of newspapers operating wholly separate online divisions clearly has ended, and the era of integrated newsrooms has begun. From that union we're all learning some things.
While preparing an internal company report, I put out a call last month: What have you learned from about newsroom convergence? I heard from dozens of veterans of this process, across the United States and in Europe. I also went fairly deep inside four Morris newspapers to capture learnings from "formerly all print" reporters, editors, photographers and "formerly all digital" producers. Here's what they told me.
Merging print and online staffs is the right thing to do. Regardless of print or online background, I heard strong consensus on this point. If anything, we all should have moved more quickly, more forcefully and more thoroughly. "We took too long to converge, allowing two separate cultures with very different ideas about how a converged operation should look, to hum along, ignoring each other," said one reporter.
Done right, it's a big win. "Convergence is, overall, a huge help to innovation," said one online producer. A senior editor agreed: "It's a monster plus. Convergence puts you in a position to succeed." But, he continued, it only opens a door, and you have to walk through it. "It doesn't guarantee success. That comes from leadership and teamwork. But it puts you in a far better position to head in one direction as a team."
Moving the chairs around isn't enough. "We need to adjust our management and reporting structure," said an online producer. If the newsgathering system still looks like it's built to serve print sections, that's what it will do. From a senior editor: "I should have rethought the entire system even more than I did."
Culture gaps are deep, persistent, and troublesome. The union of online and print units brings together people with very different points of view about how to do journalism. Expect conflict. "We had huge respect issues, on both sides," recalled one senior editor. "Online producers felt the newsroom had no idea what they did. And the newsroom felt online had no knowledge of journalism." The result was suspicion and hostility. "There were no saints on either side."
It's not a union of equals. Printies may outnumber onliners 10:1 or even more, and the editors with the most political power come from the print side. "We converged and began feeling treated like the JV squad," said one online producer.
There's a great danger of throwing away what we should have learned. At one western newspaper "a portion of the online staff was moved into the newsroom and simply shunned. Their experience was wholly ignored .... the newsroom brought in print editors over the online operation. New media people watched helplessly as these newcomers bumbled along like it was 1995." Said an online producer at another newspaper: "‘Too many people are retracing the steps (and the mistakes) already taken by online over the previous 10 years.’"
People don't know one another, and they make bad assumptions. In some cases, onliners assume printies are anti-Internet when in fact they've been extremely frustrated by organizational walls that kept them away from the digital side. In many cases, printies mistakenly assume onliners aren't journalists. "Many still see me as serving a tech services, rather than editorial, role," said one digital native with a journalism degree. Beware: This can breed bitterness.
People are confused by new structures and responsibilities. "Who's doing what?" asked one middle manager from the print side. "With roles changing on almost a daily basis, it wasn't always clear who had to perform a particular task."
The strongest resistance to change can come from the online side. This may be surprising, but it shouldn't be. Everyone with turf naturally wants to defend it against any move to redistribute power, authority and responsibility. For senior editors suddenly faced with supervisory responsibility for online media, this can be a very difficult challenge. "Converging different skill sets means taking on people who do work you don't understand," said one senior editor. "There needs to be a BS filter." Said another: "We let the online guys get away with too much because they knew more than we did about the tech side. Too much time was spent negotiating and not doing." Editors need help sorting fact from convenient fiction.
Understanding the online medium isn't just a matter of technology. Missing this point can lead to trouble. A veteran of a midwestern newspaper chain said his company's biggest mistake was "putting someone who's worked in print their whole life and is 'learning online on the job'" in a position to make key decisions about website vision and strategy. "It takes a ridiculous amount of hand-holding and reprogramming of their brain." A West Coast online veteran recalled how, "in one legendary moment, it was decided to place a disclaimer above stories with links in them to alert the reader that the 'blue, underlined words' were links to other sites. This was in 2006." But don't make the mistake of thinking this viewpoint is confined to digital separatists; I heard strong appeals for training in "online thinking" from longtime print reporters and editors.
Recognizing the dangers that come from unification is the first step toward mitigating them. Where there's been success, the veterans of these changes can point to some key decisions and actions that helped pave the way:
Involve the stakeholders. "All involved were taken into account and considered -- big points!" said one digital veteran. "Newsroom and digital leaders conducted visioning sessions to jointly lay out plans for online and print. The newsroom truly moved to a get-it-online-now mentality."
Communicate the strategic reasons. And communicate them again. "Top management explained, again and again, why we must go this way," said a digital editor in Germany. "The result: The staff got this message. And concerning print and online, we have quite a good team spirit now."
Recognize that on-the-job training is part of the newsroom tradition. Don't expect journalism schools to provide prebaked multimedia experts. And don't assume that a journalism degree is the only way to become a journalist. "I had French, engineering and theater majors -- and they were all doing journalism," a senior editor recalled, describing a formerly all-print newsroom. Hire -- and retain -- for aptitude and attitude.
Train for skills, and open the training to all. "We hosted video and audio training sessions and invited everyone in the newsroom to attend, no matter their position or role," recalled one digital manager. "Unbelievably, about 95 percent of our folks volunteered to train. It proved they recognized the necessity of this to advance their careers, and they fully embraced it. We just didn't meet the resistance I expected and was prepared for." Skills training isn't just for skills; it helps alleviate the fears many print journalists have when facing a transition to digital media.
Train for digital thinking as well. For example, one mountain state editor noted that "Social media goes both ways. Using Twitter and allowing readers to comment on stories and blogs is nice, but we need to establish that our journalists must respond back to those comments, and contribute to the discussion." It's not a one-way street any more. Keep in mind that most journalists are highly task-focused, don't spend a lot of time thinking about media theory and changes in the media landscape, and know relatively little about the business and commercial side of newspapers. Fill in the gaps.
Be absolutely clear about roles and responsibilities, and position digital journalists as significant journalism leaders. Publish the table of organization. "By creating the news director position, we really put a foot forward and proved how important this was," recalled one reorganization veteran. Face the "respect" issue directly, and reinforce the message. "Teach the print folk about online journalism -- and how it isn't the refuge of teenagers and pasty-skinned outcasts," said another. Publicly identify and respect competencies.
Across all my conversations and email interviews, one thing was clear: This is a journey, not a destination. Nobody thinks they have it right. Not everyone is going to survive the trip. But the ones who do will share a common trait: They want to come together as a team. That desire runs deeper in our newsrooms than many might think. Foot-dragging on digital media has become socially unacceptable in many quarters. That's a victory worth celebrating.