Digital First Media editor: ‘The days of doing everything by gut instinct are long over’

Digital First Media editor-in-chief and Bay Area News Group (BANG) boss Dave Butler tells his journalists that “we all need to engage our readers even more” and rethink old news rules.

“Do we really think, for instance, that every story must be 25 inches?” he asks. “Every Sunday piece must by 35-40 inches – or longer? Are you reading all of these long stories — on your phone? (Of course not.) Does a one-sentence story seem just right for Apple’s watch? (Does to me.)”

He adds: “Print will continue to shrink and digital will continue to grow. The bottom line may well be this: Change and change faster. That’s not a new concept, to be sure, but one we need to embrace even more.”

The editor-in-chief’s memo:

From: Dave Butler
Date: Wed, Jun 3, 2015 at 4:47 PM
Subject: An update….
To: &BANG News All

Colleagues:

For the past several weeks, news and business executives have been meeting to discuss our path forward in light of the upcoming budget year and the challenges our industry continues to face.

As many of you know, I’m just back from sitting in on budget discussions for our company’s largest units — and it’s clear that we are all wrestling with similar issues. We’ll need to address these challenges irrespective of who owns the company./CONTINUES

Based on these discussions and meetings, some themes seem clear. I wanted to share them with you. There’s nothing startling or revolutionary. But for me, they underscore that we must make more fundamental changes to the organization’s structure. Here are some of the themes that have surfaced, often in the form of questions:

— We need to simplify things. Major clusters with multiple titles and multiple web sites will likely need to consolidate into more streamlined operations. Does it still make sense for BANG to have 10 daily titles, 4 web sites and 20-plus weeklies? What’s the “right” number for the next several years? Should we focus on two regional dailies — one for the East Bay and one for the South Bay, one major news web site, and an assortment of community weeklies?

— Journalism seems to be dividing itself between local town, government and community coverage on the one hand, and more sophisticated and exclusive local enterprise reporting, breaking news, sports opinion and personalities on the other. This latter group gets the bulk of web traffic. Should our Bay Area companies be organized along these lines rather than our traditional geographic and historic mastheads?

— Everybody has a camera and there are a lot of smart people who could contribute more content. (Just look at our photo contest results in Sunday’s newspapers.) How do we plug into these folks? And how do we capitalize on the expertise of people for some special topics like we have done with classical music and restaurant reviews? Along these same lines, we must re-examine our use (or lack thereof) of wire stories and photos of local and regional topics we decide to cover with staff time that the wires also are covering. Is the payback worth it in terms on more relevant information for our readers and more traffic because the content originated with us? One example for us to look at — is it worth sending a photographer to ALL home games of both local baseball teams when AP and Getty also are staffing? (We’re paying three times for the photos.) This is the kind of tough decision we must make to ensure that we focus our staff resources on producing that exclusive local content we expect readers to pay for.

— We must figure out video. Is Tout the answer? Do we do something else? Clearly this is an editorial-approach matter as well as an advertising and technology issue. Robust video for mobile devices is a must-have in the future, or so it seems to me.

— All journalists are going to have to continue to be able to utilize various multi-media platforms as well as having broader knowledge of new tools to tell stories. Say what? That means most everyone will need to be able to write stories, take photos, understand how graphics can be used, and collect info for data bases AT THE BEGINNING of the reporting process, and not at the end, or mid-way through the preparation of a story. (Tweeting and posting stories are other key elements.) I remain totally baffled when I hear that a reporter is writing a story and is just then going to put in a photo assignment and hasn’t thought about including a map, secondary sources of info for the web and other extras to make the piece really special. This approach is outdated and yet we still see it over and over. Are big papers better served by having specialists, or do smaller papers have an advantage in the digital world where a journalist can do most every job because he/she has to?

— Are we best-positioned to take advantage of changes ongoing on the web, especially for mobile? While we know we need new technology, do we have people in the correct digital jobs now — or has time passed us by? How do we get ahead?

It seems to me that these themes point to a world where we have very skilled staffers performing certain functions while a different group handles more routine matters. That happens now, but maybe we need to structure the organization in this manner.

So where does that leave us? We have vacancies we must and will fill. Some postings are going up now. Likewise, we undoubtedly have jobs that should change. We have gotten or are getting new programs that give us metrics to gauge reader responses to what we do. Readers can’t be expected to know about all topics that could be of interest. There is still plenty of need for our professional decision making. But the days of doing everything by gut instinct are long over. We all need to engage our readers even more. Do we really think, for instance, that every story must be 25 inches? Every Sunday piece must by 35-40 inches – or longer? Are you reading all of these long stories — on your phone? (Of course not.) Does a one-sentence story seem just right for Apple’s watch? (Does to me.)

And so, in the days ahead, we’ll be tackling these issues. There is no clear and easy path for our industry. But we know that journalistic values must be maintained. We also know that the web operates differently from print and we have to cope with a changing world and find the appropriate balance. Print will continue to shrink and digital will continue to grow. The bottom line may well be this: Change and change faster. That’s not a new concept, to be sure, but one we need to embrace even more.

-Dave

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