Posted by: structureofnews | October 23, 2010

The Dis-Integrating Newsroom

USA Today’s “universal desk” is no more.  And with it, according to Rick Edmonds at Poynter’s Biz Blog, comes the end of a five-year attempt to integrate the newsroom across all platforms.   So there won’t be a single central operation to spread content across the various outlets – print, online, mobile, etc –  but instead individual hubs built around areas of coverage or platforms.

The big advantage of the new approach, (Publisher Dave) Hunke said, is that USA Today will be able to focus on growth opportunities both by platform and subject matter. Absent such basic change, USA Today would “continue to scrape and move” material from print and its website to mobile and tablet platforms, where they are a clumsy fit at best.

That’s a big change in mindset – and a good one.

That’s not to say that integrating newsrooms was a bad idea to begin with; no one wants to go back to the days of feuding print and online operations, duplicated coverage or just a lack of coordination.  There’s lots of pluses to having more coordinated planning and streamlining of operations and processes.  Certainly in many newsrooms, integration has barely begun or hasn’t gone far enough – and needs to go much further.

But even more importantly, the thinking behind such moves has to go much further – and that’s why USAT’s decision makes sense.   The implicit – sometimes explicit – mindset behind many central, one-size-fits-all news operations is the “platform-agnostic” view once famously put forth by New York Times publisher Arthur “Pinch” Sulzberger Jr.  That’s a view of the world that centers around the content we produce, with small nods in the direction of the various channels to push it to consumers.  Should this be tweeted?  Does that need video?  Can we get a quick web version?  What about putting the extra images into a slideshow?

I noted in earlier post that being platform-agnostic fundamentally undercuts the platform and the product – and, ultimately, the content.

…as many people have pointed out, you have to be platform-specific in how you deliver products and services.  Otherwise you’d simply videotape a stage play and broadcast it – if you thought your product was ‘plays’ and you were platform-agnostic as to whether people say it on stage or at home on TV.  It’s silly not to adapt your product to the medium/platform, in this case TV.  Hence the difference between plays, TV and film.

A central newsdesk in a mainstream media organization will almost always think in terms of “story,” and then adapt that to other channels/media.  That’s not a bad thing, given that the key channel for that organization is probably the newspaper or the newscast, and they need to serve it first.  But it also means that it’s less likely to think beyond the story, to the creation of new products that aren’t story-based, or to create processes that require journalists to do non-story-related work – such as filing to a database, or geolocating events for us in a mobile platform.

There are newsdesks that are more far-sighted than others, of course; but it’s a structure that will likely tie a newsroom to its core, original medium – and hobble any move away.

That doesn’t mean newsrooms should abandon all integration efforts; there are lots of efficiencies to be gained from pulling people together.  But there should also be clear champions for specific products and platforms, who have the power to at least make their case for doing things differently.



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