The Parris Island days for newsrooms

Ryan Sholin, our host for this month’s Carnival of Journalism, asked an intriguing question on Friday: “What should news organizations stop doing, today, immediately, to make more time for innovation?”

Newsrooms intrinsically abhor dropping things partly because of the “one reader rule.” The one reader rule states that if you take even the smallest thing away, at least one reader will call to complain about the loss of their “favorite thing about the newspaper.” And it’s added back. It’s developed into a don’t take anything away mindset.

Some people call that customer service or even “reader focused.” Sometimes it is; often it’s not.

Drill SergeantThe current audience and economic pressures on newsrooms are finally forcing changes in behavior, an economic and business culture version of the drill sergeant and the raw recruit at Marine Boot Camp on Parris Island, S.C. The recruit thought he was in shape; he finds otherwise.

Life is going to be different – If we live through the transition. It’s tough and bloody, and not all of us will make it. But we are relearning. Newsrooms will no doubt be trimmer, stronger and more nimble in the future.

And while these painful economic changes take place, journalists must innovate, adapt, refine, and experiment.

And fast. Daunting, but doable. We are responding to the economic drill sergeant’s challenges to remake ourselves and our newsrooms.

In an attempt to answer Sholin’s question, I decided to ask people within my newsroom and within my parent company, E.W. Scripps … I considered that an innovative way of meeting my assignment deadline. I got a some fantastic answers even on a Friday afternoon before a long holiday weekend.

Update (an addition): Silas Lyons, Editor and VP for New Media Content, Redding Record Searchlight:

We need to immediately stop working five days a week, at least on the core paper and Web site. We also need to stop coming in to the office on that fifth day. It’s amazing what a small team can do when they work somewhere else (in our case, it’s an off-site warehouse) for one day out of the week. Just making that simple commitment forces decisions about what not to do, or what to postpone — and I think those are different answers for every department, at every newspaper.

Hope that helps. I realize it will elicit the obvious sarcastic answer — you usually only work five days a week? — but you get my point.

Don Kausler Jr., editor of the Anderson Indepedent-Mail in Anderson, S.C.:

News organizations have to let go of the old notion that we can be all things to all people. We have grappled with this at the Anderson Independent-Mail, and our talk has turned to action.

One thing we have let go of is a daily lifestyles section, which has enabled us to restructure our newsroom. We have merged our city desk and lifestyles staff into a content staff that now focuses almost exclusively on local news, and the focus is on reporting news Web first, as instantly as possible.

Where once we published a Life section seven days a week, we now publish an entertainment tab on Thursday, a handful of Faith & Values pages on Saturday and a page called Vibe on Sunday. We still have puzzles, syndicated advice columns. comics and TV grids, but we aren’t burning staff time or running up freelance expenses by producing lifestyle features.

In our shrinking newsroom, we no longer have enough reporters to cover traditional beats such as government, education, business, health, etc. Now all of the reporters on our content staff are general assignment reporters. They are assigned to geographic regions, and they cover government, education, business, etc., in that region (or they wrangle content from freelancers).

In this new newsroom, we have dedicated one reporter to reporting exclusively for our Web site, He works a 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. shift, chases fresh news with a laptop computer, digital camera and video camera. We reverse publish some of his material, but nothing goes in the newspaper unless it already has been on the Web site.

By the way, we converted from a broadsheet to a tall tab on April 22. Other newspapers talk the talk about reinvention. We walked the walk. We’re proud of our dynamic “new” publication.

Jay Small, general manager, Newspapers Interactive Group, E.W. Scripps Co.:

Here’s one that always ticks off my old SND friends, but I wholeheartedly believe it:

Stop art directing features fronts and packages as if they’re concert posters. Almost all newspapers I see nowadays long ago reached “design affluence,” where their inherent formats are more than good enough to present a good story with a good headline and related visuals). So why invest the cycles fidgeting with custom letterforms and Photoshop filters?

And no newspaper should still spend permanent full-time staff time doing features illustrations — get a stable of free-lance illustrators and commission them as needed.

I like seeing designers focus on the best ways to present information for “absorption” — don’t just attract interest, hold it, and help people remember the messages we offer every day. Infographics that use visuals to describe a series of events should also make it easier to prepare a related story — because you don’t have to repeat that same series of events in prose.

Susan Alexander, features editor for the Knoxville News Sentinel:

The thing that I find most frustrating is a mindset that we can’t do things outside our job descrips. Ex: a designer comes to me for a columnist’s shirttail rather than looking it up on last week’s column (which is exactly what I did); a copy editor asks a question about copy rather than going to the writer or trying to find the answer himself; a designer waits for a headline rather than writing one and moving on.

I think we have to stop today with the “that’s not my job” attitude and realize if we’re going to get it all done, we’d all better buy in.

(U.S. Marine Corp photo. Parris Island, S.C., is where the Marines have boot camp to train many of its recruits.)