This is how an unbolted newsroom works

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As Digital First Media works to “unbolt” our newsrooms from print processes and culture, we need a vision of the “unbolted” newsroom.

This post will elaborate on the characteristics of an unbolted newsroom, the goal of Project Unbolt, which DFM announced yesterday, following John Paton’s first public mention of the project last week.

In yesterday’s post, I described this newsroom generally, saying it will change in six characteristics (not listed in any particular order):

  1. Coverage and storytelling
  2. Processes
  3. Engagement
  4. Planning and management
  5. Mobile
  6. Standards

Here I’ll describe in some depth how the unbolted newsroom works and thinks in each of these respects. How newsrooms will achieve each of these priorities will vary according to a variety of circumstances such as size, clusterwide operations and the creativity and talents of local staff. The issues and techniques listed here are not exhaustive and do not preclude local newsrooms from pursuing digital priorities not spelled out here.

I welcome suggestions about points I’ve omitted here or better ways to make my points. I’ll update as I get suggestions. Leave your suggestions in the comments below.

1. Coverage and Storytelling

Live

Virtually all event coverage and breaking news coverage are handled as live coverage, with ScribbleLivelivetweeting, livestreaming, etc. This includes sports events, government meetings, trials, community festivals, etc.

Live coverage is routine for the unbolted newsroom. Reporters and/or visual journalists covering events plan for live coverage unless they have a good reason not to (a judge won’t allow phones or computers in a courtroom; a family would rather not have you livetweet a funeral; connectivity at a site is poor).

Timely

Digital platforms feature fresh news every morning. Breaking news, fresh content and event coverage are posted during the day when they are timely. Evening tablet edition includes fresh content.

Instead of shooting for the deadlines of a morning newspaper, the newsroom strives to post accurate stories (text, video, interactive) quickly to digital platforms. This applies not just to breaking news and events but to other daily news stories: We strive when possible to publish during the workday when our audience is the strongest.

Enterprise

The biggest and best enterprise stories are planned as digital packages with elements such as video, interactive graphics and databases, published at optimal times for digital audience (perhaps not all at once).

We don’t publish these stories digitally on Sundays or Saturdays, but publish sometime during the week, with a print version publishing Sunday after digital publication. Publication might stretch over multiple days, starting Wednesday or Thursday with 2-3 days of new digital content, followed by a Sunday print story, followed by a live chat Monday. Sunday stories reviewing a week’s big news story publish digitally before noon on Friday, unless new developments Friday morning demand the reporter’s attention for timely digital posting.

We may not develop a single standard way to publish enterprise content, but possibly multiple standard approaches and occasional special methods. Our efforts to refine our processes for enterprise stories will be guided by digital tools and opportunities and a sense of experimentation, rather than by our need to fill the Sunday newspaper.

Opinion

Opinion content is a mix of editorials, columns, cartoons, staff blogs, community blogs, live chats, videos and other interactive content. We need to lead the community conversation, as we always have through our editorial pages. But we need to develop that leadership more aggressively and creatively using digital tools. And we need to join, stimulate and curate the other conversations going on in the community.

Beat blogs

Reporters work primarily in beat blogs, publishing content for niche audiences, freed from the deadlines, space considerations and story structure of the print product. Blog posts will be promoted from the home page, on section fronts and social media as warranted. Reporters and/or editors will edit blog posts for publication in print products as needed.

Data

The newsroom develops data skills – both specialists and basic data skills throughout the newsroom. The unbolted newsroom experiments with ways to use data for journalism, interactive databases, data visualization and structuring and updating archival content for continuing value.

Photos

Reporters and visual journalists file photos quickly from breaking news scenes and events. Newsroom regularly solicits and curates photos from community. Visual journalists produce frequent Media Center photo galleries.

Video

Reporters and video journalists produce and quickly post Touts with most stories. Newsroom livestreams important events and breaking stories. Newsroom produces frequent webcasts. Newsroom solicits and curates community videos. Visual journalists produce storytelling videos with big stories.

Interactive

The unbolted newsroom experiments with storytelling and curation tools to make stories more interactive with quizzes, interactive databases, maps, polls, timelines and other features that help users experience stories, rather than simply reading or watching them.

Journalists master the tools that prove useful for frequent jobs, but are continually experimenting with new tools and techniques.

2. Processes

Workflow

Newsroom workflow focuses on production of content first and primarily for digital platforms. While content management systems dictate parts of workflow, newsroom works with CMS developers to improve the workflow.

Deadlines

Daily stories that are not breaking stories or events being covered live get deadlines based on digital needs: maybe 11:30 a.m. if possible to catch the lunch-hour readers or 3:30 if possible to make an evening tablet edition. Late-afternoon or evening deadlines are only for events happening then.

Editing

Editing time and energy are focused on ensuring and improving quality of content before (or quickly after) digital publication.

An exception might be reassignment of one or more editor in a new version of the old “rewrite” role, rewriting print stories from live event coverage so that in some cases, the reporter covering an event doesn’t ever write a “story,” but might produce lots of tweets, Touts and other updates that feed a liveblog, and an editor crafts some of that into the print story. (The rewrite role might live in the regional production hub, rather than in the local newsroom.)

Headlines

Reporters and local editors write strong SEO headlines for content. As needed, editors in local newsrooms and production hubs edit those headlines for print.

Promotion

The newsroom promotes local stories and Thunderdome’s national content (localized where appropriate) on social media. Reporters, visual journalists and/or editors write conversational posts for Facebook, Twitter and Google+, posting images where appropriate. Visual content is also posted frequently to Tout, Instagram, Pinterest, YouTube and other relevant social media.

Print production

As much as the content management system allows, print production will be limited significantly to the production hub. Local involvement will be minimized, perhaps to designating content for page one and section fronts and reviewing pages before publication.

3. Engagement

Transparency

The editor explains newsroom decisions and developments regularly in a blog, social media and community appearances. The staff are encouraged to share the “story behind the story” in social media and blogs as well as community appearances.

Where time permits, newsroom invites community input before and during news coverage. The newsroom engages regularly with the community in person by such means as a community editorial board, community meetings, posting of daily budgets and open and/or livestreamed planning meetings.

The newsroom discloses potential conflicts — personal or business connections with the people and organizations covered.

Conversation

Branded social media accounts and individual journalists’ social media accounts have a conversational tone that engages the community as well as promoting digital content. Crowdsourcing and curation are part of the daily routine, asking the community about stories and harvesting content created by the community.

Social media

Everyone in the newsroom is active on social media, including at least Twitter, Facebook, Tout and Google+, using them and other tools such as Instagram, Pinterest, YouTube and Foursquare for gathering news, engaging the community, reporting news and posting links to digital content.

Curation

The newsroom regularly curates content from the community from blogs, social media and news releases, from organizations and people in the community telling their own stories and from other professional media.

Hangout

When possible and when sources are willing, journalists use Hangout rather than telephone for interviews with people they can’t meet in person, using YouTube to livecast and record the interview for use on digital platforms. The newsroom uses Hangout/YouTube (or other video tools) regularly for livecasts with journalists in the field.

Network

The newsroom has an active network of community blogs and community social media accounts which are promoted on the digital news products and engaged with the newsroom in various products. Newsroom staffers regularly recruit new members to the network. The newsroom experiments with different ways of curating content from the network. The newsroom engages in person with network members through training and other events and through collaboration on community projects.

Other engagement 

The newsroom has strong community engagement, involving a combination of events, outreach, contests and in-person engagement by inviting the community into the newsroom and by engaging out in the community. Staff members engage with comments about their work on the website and in social media.

4. Planning and management

Meetings

The daily planning meeting, if any, is in the morning, focused on the day’s news coverage plans, early traffic and engagement, stressing the need for early posting and frequent updates for unfolding stories. The morning meeting does not focus on the morning newspaper.

If the newsroom has an afternoon meeting, it reviews the day’s digital coverage and looks ahead to evening event coverage and the morning newspaper as well as news that’s expected the next day. This should be a smaller meeting but probably can be handled with the print editor conferring individually with the appropriate people.

Enterprise meetings plan interactive elements, video, data and other content that will require significant planning.

News budgets

Daily and long-term news budgets list digital coverage tools and techniques that stories will use and list live coverage plans and deadlines for posting initial takes of unfolding stories.

Staffing

More staff specialists focus on digital duties such as mobile, social media, data visualization and interactive graphics than on print duties such as page design and print graphics (allowing for the skewed regional duties of a newsroom serving as a regional print hub.)

Metrics

The unbolted newsroom uses digital metrics to evaluate the effectiveness of content and engagement and to provide more relevant, engaging content and experiences. All staff members have access to metrics and know how their performance will be measured. The newsroom works to refine and improve its use and understanding of metrics.

Collaboration

The newsroom works closely with sales and technology colleagues to ensure opportunities to develop effective products and maximize revenue without jeopardizing editorial integrity.

Staff development

Each staff member has a personal digital plan, worked out with his or her supervisor and the top editor, and is held accountable for following the plan for personal digital growth.

Training

Editors place a high priority on training in staff time and in budgeting. Staff members who have mastered important skills or experimented with new tools train their colleagues. The newsroom participates in DFM training opportunities such as webinars, regional workshops and competition for DFM slots at national conferences.

Editors and staff members watch for external training opportunities, such as state press association conferences, seminars offered by national organizations such as Poynter or the Knight Digital Media Center or online training such as courses offered by News University or Lynda.

The newsroom shares training opportunities with members of its community network.

5. Mobile

Use of mobile tools

Editors and staff in the unbolted newsroom routinely use mobile tools in their work and in personal news consumption. Most of staff routinely uses newsroom’s app and/or m-dot site.

Planning and monitoring

In daily planning meetings, editors check and discuss presentation of content on various mobile platforms and tools. Planning always includes mobile platforms.

Leadership

The newsroom has a designated mobile leader and the top editor places a high priority on mobile.

Engagement

Engagement efforts deliberately seek to invite participation on mobile devices. Contests and conversations explicitly invite engagement on mobile devices at community events.

Apps

The newsroom develops mobile and/or community apps for coverage of special events or major community issues or interests.

Mobile products

Newsroom offers products to engage and inform the community routinely on mobile devices, such as customized text and/or email alerts, email newsletters and tools that facilitate community reporting.

Metrics

Editors follow mobile metrics closely, using their analysis to improve coverage and deliver content that engages and interests the community.

News gathering

Staff members use mobile tools routinely to gather content and report from the field. 

6. Standards

Accuracy 

Our content must be accurate. Journalists should verify facts before publication in social media or any of our own platforms. We must say how we know what we know and we must say what we don’t know. Staff are trained in verification of information gathered from the community from social media and other platforms.

The newsroom should have an accuracy checklist and expect journalists to use it to prevent errors.

Corrections

The unbolted newsroom corrects all errors that editors or staff members become aware of. Every story should have a link to a form readers can use to notify the newsroom of errors. The newsroom corrects errors in stories and adds notes saying the story (or other content) has been corrected and what the error was (unless the error was potentially defamatory). The newsroom should also publish all corrections in one place that is easily found in website navigation.

Communication

The newsroom should have an updated code of ethics and should regularly discuss ethics and how to apply ethical standards in new situations the staff might face.

Attribution

The unbolted newsroom names and links to all digital sources of information, including the competition, even if linking is not easy in the content management system. Where possible, journalists should embed digital content, rather than quoting it. Stories should link to or embed source documents.

Leadership

Editors should model and uphold strong ethical standards while leading newsroom conversations about how to make ethical decisions in new processes and circumstances.

Social media

Journalists should be personable and professional in interactions with the public, including on social media.

Accountability

Managers and staff members have digital goals and their performance is primarily measured by and rewarded for digital achievement.

Project Unbolt blog

I will be blogging about the work of Project Unbolt here on InsideThunderdome, crossposting to The Buttry Diary, my personal blog.

Editors and staff members of the pilot newsrooms for Project Unbolt (New Haven Register, Berkshire Eagle, El Paso Times and News-Herald) will also be blogging about the project as they learn lessons from their successes and mistakes.

We also invite our Digital First colleagues to blog about your unbolting efforts. Other newsrooms won’t get my attention initially at the same level as the pilot newsrooms, but we’re not expecting them to be spectators in the unbolting process. Let me know — sbuttry@digitalfirstmedia.com — if you’d like to blog about your unbolting efforts.

What do you think?

We also invite guest posts offering advice and observations about the unbolting process from journalists outside our company or from people in the communities we serve. Contact me if you’re interested in contributing.

Disagreements are welcome here, too. If you think we should change our unbolting priorities or if you think we’re going about it wrong or trying some things that won’t work, feel free to suggest a guest post.

I’m not interested, though, in guest posts advocating a more cautious path. You are welcome to express nostalgia or fret about the decline of print in the comments. But Project Unbolt is about moving forward and that’s what the blog will be about.

Steve Buttry

By Steve Buttry

Steve Buttry is Digital Transformation Editor for Digital First Media. He oversees our efforts to transform newsroom operations and culture to more effectively pursue our digital goals. His duties include responsibility for social media and community engagement. He has visited most DFM newsrooms personally, leading workshops and coaching editors and other journalists in following the Digital First approach.

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