According to a story by Jeff Howe in Wired and several blog posts, after running a series of pilot projects over the past several months Gannett - the publisher of USA Today (an innovative newspaper that journalists dismissed when it launched 25 years ago) and of some 90 other American daily newspapers - has decided to implement by May a radical reorganization of all its newsrooms, renaming them "information centers" and structuring them into seven job areas:
- Digital: charged with selecting the best platform for delivering a given news
- Public service: which will try to involve readers in helping out with public-interest investigations
- Community conversation: expanding the concept of the editorial page, mixing commentary, editorial and blogs, and encouraging readers participation
- Local: expanding local coverage and re-establishing sports, business and feature reporting into hyper-local areas
- Custom content: connecting with identified target audiences and looking for efficiencies in repurposing content across different platforms
- Data: managing the acquisition of information (including that readers-generated)
- Multimedia: leading all visual presentations across every platform.
This is a gigantic departure from the way newsrooms are currently (and have for decades been) organized: foreign/domestic/metro/business/culture/sports/etc or similar. It will require a truly remarkable mindshift by journalists, photographers, copyeditors and all the rest of a newspapers' staff - and there will be alot of cultural resistance (newsroom cultures are notoriously conservative). Here is how Craig Dubow, the Gannett CEO, summarizes the findings of the pilot projects in an internal memo:
What they found is remarkable: Breaking news on the Web and updating for the newspaper draws more people to both those media. Asking the community for help, gets it - and delivers the newspaper into the heart of community conversations once again. Rich and deep databases with local, local information gathered efficiently are central to the whole process. The changes impact all media, and the public has approved. Results include stronger newspapers, more popular Web sites and more opportunities to attract the customers advertisers want.
The Wired story says that the initiative is meant to emphasize four goals: prioritize local news over national news; publish more user-generated content; become a 24/7 cross-platform news operation; and use crowdsourcing methods asking readers to collaborate on large investigative research efforts. On this last point, it quotes an example of distributed journalism from the News-Press in Fort Myers, Florida (circulation 100'000). In May, the readers from the community of Cape Coral began calling the paper complaining about the high prices - as much as 28'000 USD - being charged to connect new homes to water and sewage. Rather than assigning a reporter to do a long investigation, the News-Press asked its readers to help them find out what was going on.
The response overwhelmed the paper. (...) Readers spontaneously organized their own investigations: Retired engineers analyzed blueprints, accountants pored over balance sheets, and an inside whistle-blower leaked documents showing evidence of bid-rigging. (...) In the end, the city cut the utility fees by more than 30 percent, one official resigned, and the fees have become the driving issue in an upcoming city council special election.
Of course, Gannett is not doing this only to produce better journalism: as Dubow states in that internal memo:
Simply, appealing to more and different readers helps bring us more and different advertisers. A key facet of the Information Center is understanding our customers in ways we never have before - and that will help our advertisers reach the people they need.
And saving money is certainly also a key corporate goal. Still, Gannett has understood that while newspapers have a long future in front of them, they need to change in order to remain relevant in the new information ecosystem - to change beyond layout cosmetics. Gregory Korte, a Gannett investigative journalist, is quoted in the Wired story saying:
The newspaper of the future is going to need more programmers than copy-editors, and we're going to have to figure out how to make that transition.
A pretty provocative statement (a similar sentence was heard from Carolyn McCall, CEO of the UK's Guardian, last month) that won't please most journalists but gives a clear sense of the extent of the task ahead: building a new model around a newspaper's key assets, which are a methodology to acquire, verify, manage and format information, and a community of readers. The methodology will have to become much more sophisticated and multilayered (database management, data-mining, multiplatform, etc), and the links to the readers reinforced and made bi-directional.
The two aspects of this that I find most interesting are the deep focus on local and micro-local, and the call to readers to help out in news-gathering. Alot of course still needs to be figured out - and the whole thing may still not work out at the end. But whether it will succeed or not is the wrong debate. While other publishers are creating study groups and pondering and shifting a logo here and inviting a blogger as "guest columnist" there, Gannett is turning its whole boat, radically, trying to re-imagine journalism and to re-implant it in the community. I am certainly gonna follow this with alot of interest, but I would like to hear your opinion: just click on "comments" below. (I'm also quite sure that something similar has been implemented already by some scandinavian newspaper: I will try to find out).
(Previous related posts: 22 Oct 06: Experimenting with hybrid journalism; 19 Oct 06: What should magazines do online?; 29 August 06: Oldthink vs newthink; 10 June 06: Don't speak: point!; 18 March: Comment is free)