“A Digital First journalist views a story as a process, not a product.”
— Steve Buttry, The Buttry Diary
“When digital comes first and print last, then the article is something you need to put together to fill the paper; it’s not the goal of the entire process. The process is the goal of the process: keeping the public constantly informed.”
“Change the meetings to change the culture.”
— Star-Telegram Digital Strategy Committee
“So, what are you going to do about changing the meetings?”
— Jim Witt, Star-Telegram executive editor
“I hate meetings.”
We have a structural challenge in our newsroom, starting with the morning meeting. It’s still built around the old model of print story as assembly-line product, with pieces added along the well-worn path to a one-time ship date.
In a digital-first world, the daily story is not a linear creation but an organic project that grows and changes — in public — throughout its useful life, which can last several days past print publication.
The structure of a digital first story, then, might go like this *:
- Story is conceived.
- Reporter or editor tells Twitter and Facebook audience what they know.
- A few graphs and/or a video or a photo gallery are posted on the website.
- The story idea is run through the “platform” filter: What are the visual, interactive, multimedia opportunities? This is NOT a stop on the assembly line, but part of the story conception process.
- As the story takes shape, audience feedback to previous iterations is read, measured, considered and, if relevant, included in the next update.
- The reporting is updated continuously, including after print publication. Updates include more information, but also relevant links and source material, videos, photos, etc. Of course, we can’t do this with every story. We have to pick the most significant ones. (Which means we have to know which ones are most significant on the web.)
- Note: At some point, we have to deliver a product to print. But that might only be a pause, or even a detour, in the process.
* Or it might go completely different. That’s the fun part. There’s no template anymore.
All of us — with the possible exception of those who can write like a dream — have to be self-sufficient, 360-degree storytellers to survive. That means no more handing off from reporter to editor to photo desk to graphics department to copy desk to design desk to print publication; full stop, story ends, on to the next thing.
Digital-first requires journalists to learn a variety of skills and take a collaborative approach. Not everyone can be great at everything. But, for example, the reporter or editor who has made it a priority to learn what makes a good photo — and can snap one in a pinch — can plan and tell a much richer story than the one who hands off the budget line to the photo desk and doesn’t think again about the visuals.
It’s all part of the process.
If we built our morning meeting to support the premise of story as process (and, I would add, as multi-platform creation), how would it look?
The editors pitching stories must speak the language of the digital toolbox and discuss how their stories will take shape through those tools.
The Breaking News Story: Bob is at today’s announcement of the big renovations at Rangers Ballpark. He will Tweet live from the news conference and I will quickly rewrite his Tweets into a short story for the web. Photo said they would email a photo as soon as the event is over, and I will toss in a poll listing the renovations and asking users to vote for their favorite.
I’d like to post that on our Facebook page, too; I’ll ask the online desk for help when that’s ready because I might be tied up. We’ll use the Twitter-generated quick post as a template for a longer, more thoughtful story, which is due for online by 3 p.m. Bob has his laptop and will write from Starbucks so we can get the story more quickly.
The Multi-Platform Investigative Piece: Karen is working on a good investigative report about a local company that makes gaming machines. As she did the reporting, she wanted to see how the machines work, which reminded her that her readers want to see it, too. She shot a short iPhone video of the machines and might need help getting it posted. We don’t think the story is complete without the video, so we’ll hold it until we can get the video ready.
Questions at the meeting might include:
1. Which of your stories is getting/should get the most traffic/attention/buzz, and how do we capitalize on that? Choose one that’s already posted/published or one on tomorrow’s budget. That means we all have to come to the meeting with a knowledge of metrics and digital distribution, along with more traditional editor skills.
2. How can the story be told beyond a one-shot print deal? Let’s run it through the platform filter. Should we break off a piece for Facebook? Will the reporter read the comments with an eye toward engagement? Does the story refer to something that will happen today or tomorrow? If so, how and when do we plan to update? We might initially spend more time on missed opportunities, but if we keep at it, we should start to get out ahead of things.
3. What will you do today to improve your digital skills? It’s OK if the answer is the same several days in a row. But let’s toss around thoughts on writing better search headlines, who to follow on Twitter, how to use Facebook, what makes a good photo, etc.
This is only a start. One thing I’ve learned is that one person can’t push this out. Everyone has to buy in and bring his or her own thoughts and ideas. I hope this post at least sparks a discussion among all of us in the Star-Telegram newsroom.