In 2012, the Newspaper Division of The E.W. Scripps Company, now part of Journal Media Group, and the Knight Digital Media Center at USC/Annenberg formed a learning partnership designed to accelerate the transformation of newsrooms in 13 markets from print-focused organizations to multi-platform news and information providers. The partnership, called the Four Platform Newsroom initiative set its goal as producing “significantly more high-quality journalism and audience engagement first for the web, smart phones and tablets and then turn to print at the end of the cycle.”
A bit over two years into the initiative, the newsrooms are reporting significant progress despite many challenges, including ongoing staff downsizing. According to a report on the results and key learnings from the partnership so far, “Digital Leads: 10 keys to newsroom transformation,” these newsrooms have increased activity on digital and social platforms by developing unique coverage of local topics of high interest to their communities. They have embraced new ways of interacting with audiences, including social media, real-time coverage and hosting community forums. They have begun to regularly produce video, data and other non-narrative story forms. At the same time, they have found ways to streamline print production, focusing more effort on digital platforms.
Here is an executive summary the ten key elements presented in the report (which is organized around these elements and explores each in greater depth):
- Strategy: The initiative was grounded in an overarching corporate strategy for multiplatform journalism that set a high standard but was flexible enough to evolve over the life of the initiative and to be adapted as necessary by each newsroom. It sought to focus efforts on watchdog, data, real-time, and grassroots journalism and on intensive coverage of “franchise topics,” unique coverage of high interest to potential digital subscribers.
- Research: The company provided local consumer research to help newsrooms identify potential topics of high interest to target groups, generally younger than 55, who wanted their news and information on digital platforms.
- Staff ownership: To foster staff ownership of changes, newsroom leaders appointed staff committees to determine key coverage priorities based on the research. The leaders took on the role of facilitator.
- Process: Creating a consumer-focused newsroom culture was critical, so the process was designed to connect journalists with digital news consumers. Each newsroom committee identified two to four local “franchise” topics of high interest to specific target demographic groups. Then committee members interviewed dozens of people from these groups. They learned about their interests and media consumption habits, including which devices they used and when. Based on the interviews, the journalists created “personas,” composites that reflected the users they would make coverage and engagement plans to serve.
- Leadership and culture: Corporate and newsroom leaders kept up a steady flow of clear, consistent communication about the initiative. In newsrooms with healthy cultures and collaborative leaders, the process was quick to take hold. The process also revealed newsrooms with cultures of control and mistrust.
- Organization-wide buy-in: Newsroom leaders and committees made sure key people on the business side – particularly the publisher and the advertising and marketing staffs – understood and supported changes in coverage. Active engagement by marketing energized the process and paid dividends in raising the profile of franchise and other digital work.
- Training and tools: The initiative included KDMC and company training in digital strategy and literacy as well as skills training, encouraging adoption of simple tools. It relied heavily on obtaining free or low-cost training as well as partnerships with the Poynter Institute and Investigative Reporters and Editors. Stewart also created regular opportunities for peer learning within and amongst the newsrooms.
- Organizational change: The initiative did not prescribe templates. Asnewsrooms began to implement their digital and social media initiatives, they altered their organizational structures, workflows, job roles and other internal practices to meet the new priorities. They made significant changes in resources used for print production and began evolving the roles of copy editors and page designers.
- Priorities: Editors relentlessly looked for ways to cut traditional coverage to free resources for more compelling digital work. The initiative offered newsrooms a framework (and permission) for deciding where to cut back using “filters” that reflected the new priorities.
- Feedback loops: Through web and social metrics or by reconnecting with key audiences, newsroom teams assessed what was working and what was not. They saw evidence that they were connecting with digital audiences; some said their coverage was driving subscriptions and digital activation, where print subscribers gain unlimited access to smartphone, web and tablet channels.