Newspaper newsrooms need to adjust the metabolism

The Knoxville News Sentinel ran Part 2 of the Scripps Howard News Service package on the “Future of News” today. The first installment ran Sunday. (Other E.W. Scripps newspapers ran the series or parts of the series earlier. Several, like the News Sentinel, also did local pieces to go along with it.

My contributions were Q&As with Dave Morgan and Elizabeth Spiers. I mentioned the Dave Morgan piece in a Sunday blog post. Here’s one of the questions and answers from the piece with Spiers.

Elizabeth SpiersQ: How do traditional mainstream get digital products wrong?

A: (I gave a talk about this a couple of weeks ago, so from my notes:) They don’t understand their audiences because they’re not used to using data aggressively.

They view their sites as mere brand extensions and fail to treat them as stand-alone media properties.

They don’t understand usability and make their sites pretty but impossible to navigate, and then naively think they’ll educate their users to find their content.

They don’t understand Web metabolism and produce content that’s stale.

They think Web content is inherently inferior when it’s merely different, and create inferior Web products as a result then wonder why they’re not succeeding.

They fail to monetize their products properly, then underpay talent and wonder why they can’t recruit good writers.

As someone inside a newspaper and who has worked on newspaper websites for over 15 years, much of what Spiers says resonates, particularly what she calls the “web metabolism.”

Even with convenient phrases like “Web first” and “continuous news,” newspapers remain all too often the final, but authoriative confirmation of the already known. That market position, the confirmer of the already known, is not likely to be a winning business model, no matter how trusted the source.

Some of that comes from just not thinking; some of it from a failure to embrace the new news environment; but often the answer from editors and reporters is they were just too busy focusing on getting out the print edition to think to get the news out on the website or even send a text alert.  Blame it on staffing cutbacks if you want, but newspapers typically have the largest editorial staffs covering a local geographic market.

While a “platform agnostic newsroom” (another of those buzz phrases) sounds like a transformed newsroom, the rhythm of newsroom life is still predominantly based on the 24-hour cycle of print deadlines, stubborningly resisting efforts at change.

Print certainly demands the focus. It still generates the majority of the revenue for newspapers and my guess is that most U.S. newspapers still have a larger local market audience in print than digital (although the gap is rapidly shrinking). It is also clear that the future will be digital. The argument shifted from “if” to “when” some years ago for all but the most curmudgeonly of print stalwarts.

But can newsrooms change their metabolism?

(Photo provided by Elizabeth Spiers)

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