On the 100th anniversary of his newspaper, publisher Dolph C. Simons, Jr. shared his philosophy and perspective with those who’d assembled to acknowledge the Lawrence (Kan.) Journal-World’s milestone and to recognize the 200th birthday of the Bill of Rights. "We believe it is important to look upon our business as an information business, not merely a newspaper or cable television operation," he said. "We want to stay abreast of new developments and be able to deliver news and advertising, as well as other information, however a reader or advertiser might desire."
He spoke those words on December 12, 1991. Even those enmeshed in this process of change could not have imagined then how the Internet would become our catalyst to make colleagues out of competitors and precipitate physical and philosophical shifts in our newsgathering operations that continue apace today.
Being small and a family-owned company are attributes that have helped us to become a multimedia news organization. The daily Journal-World has about20,000 subscribers, but our weekly newspapers—with our newer ones distributed free—reach another 42,000 households. We operate a phone company through our cable infrastructure. It serves 12,500 lines and, with our cable TV programming, we reach more than 32,000 households. And in 2005, we acquired an ABC network affiliate television station in nearby Topeka. We’re also an Internet Service Provider with 20,400 customers. Our Web sites extend widely the impact of what our print and TV reporters produce and also the reach of our advertisers.
We’re news people, and this means to us that we are the storytellers for the communities we serve. Our founders were journalists, and two members of our owners’ family have served on the Associated Press board; all have been active in various trade organizations. Our organizing principle is that content brings readers and viewers to us and, in turn, those readers and viewers bring us advertising. It’s an old business model to which we are bringing the advances our ever-changing technology allows. We are not afraid to take risks; if we’re doing our job well, we know we are bound occasionally to upset some readers, viewers and advertisers. People don’t need to like us, but we do want to earn their respect. We do this by focusing on quality, with the belief that if we take care of our customers and our community, they will take care of us.
When our publisher considered starting our cable TV operation, an industry leader advised against it; he’d scouted the city and observed the numerous television signals available off-air. Simons proceeded and later said of his decision, "I would rather have tried it and failed than to have seen someone else try it and succeed." This competitive, risk-taking spirit now propels us into the era of media convergence.
Bringing Parts Together
With our guiding principles as a foundation, in 2000 we decided to combine our newspaper and cable television news operations, putting print and broadcast reporters side-by-side in a newsroom, along with a small but growing staff in our Internet operation. To do this, we gathered as much information as we could about newsroom convergence by talking with people at the Chicago Tribune and working with Jimmy Gentry, who was then dean of the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Kansas. We traveled to Tampa, Florida to see its combined newspaper and television operation, and our architects and newsroom managers came along when we went to the Orlando Sentinel.
Once the lessons were absorbed, we bought an old Lawrence building, which is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and remodeled it as our News Center. It became the hub of our multimedia newsgathering operations and the place from which storytelling for our community emerges.
There was hesitancy and uncertainty in the minds of our news staff as we set out to make these changes. For years these reporters and editors had operated in competition, yet now they were being asked to meld into one multimedia organization. The mortar that would hold them together was prepared in a series of small group "convergence sessions" in which the company’s owners and top managers shared with employees the history of the company and stressed the necessity and opportunity for the company to serve the community better by competing with the media from nearby metropolitan areas instead of among themselves. They also offered assurances that the proposed changes had their enthusiastic endorsement.
Groups of newsroom staff members—selected by me in consultation with managers—were launched into a week of exercises designed to help them to analyze how job duties could be shared. Multimedia assignments were created to help acquaint them with one another and with each other’s responsibilities and prepare them for the time when they’d be working together. They were helped in overcoming their concerns and fears by the values they shared, such as honesty, accuracy and fairness, and by their day-to-day operations of planning stories and meeting deadlines.
Included, too, in these small groups were production staff, employees from the business office, circulation and advertising. Almost all of the departments of the broadband company and newspaper—managers and hourly employees alike—were represented in the training effort so that everyone would have some exposure to the change in operating philosophy. The intermingling of employees also gave staff members the opportunity to gain an appreciation of the company’s various components, but the primary intent of these training sessions was to focus on how the news staffs would operate in the converged company.
The training process stretched over a year because we did not want this transition to strain the news departments, which were short-handed when colleagues were excused for the convergence training. As each group went through the training, members provided ideas that were then incorporated into it, as well as leadership for the next group; this slower paced, learn-as-you-grow strategy provided additional opportunities for larger numbers of "competitors" to blend more easily into a single organization. At this time, too, print, TV and Internet news managers were working together to plan the layout of the News Center that would combine what had been separate facilities into a converged newsroom. Technology issues—our TV staff used PCs while our print and online people used Macs—were addressed with the creation of an Internet-based assignment system that enabled everyone essentially to be on the same platform.
In August 2001, news staff from television, newspaper and online physically moved into the News Center and began to deal with challenges that arose.
The Multimedia Effort
Now the job of the newsroom leaders changed from designing the workspace to dealing with the staff issues that surfaced within it. When newspaper staff were uncomfortable with appearing on television, they were not forced to do so, and TV staffers who didn’t feel comfortable writing for the paper weren’t forced to do that. Workloads were stabilized to assure that multimedia responsibilities would not overwhelm any individual staff member, yet everyone was encouraged to look for ways to contribute that took advantage of the converged newsroom. When reporters found documents to support their reporting, they would be scanned and used on the Web site. If a tape recording was made of an interview, key quotes would be extracted and used to enhance the Web site display of that story. As time went on, peer-to-peer training helped integrate more of reporters’ work into multimedia presentations.
Soon the work of our reporters and editors was being featured in textbooks, and they were being invited to share their experiences at major industry seminars and conferences. Faculty from the University of Iowa and Kansas State University came by to study what we were doing, and the Associated Press Managing Editors sponsored credibility studies examining facets of our operations. Recognition of this kind offered a real boost to our small media company and reassured our newsroom staff of the value of their innovative work. Internally, the company recognized its top performers with a special round of pay increases.
During the past five years, newsroom leadership skills have evolved as the expectations of reporters’ and editors’ multimedia engagement have increased. Participation in these new approaches to storytelling is part of each of our employee’s annual review process. Three phases of leadership emerged as a part of our convergence efforts:
The first phase laid the groundwork. A more collegial style encouraged rather than demanded participation. It facilitated efforts and was more project centered. Success was more likely than failure because the nature of the efforts allowed more time, involved more planning, and in many respects enabled staffers to self-select for involvement.
The second phase involved less hands-on management. It became what we termed "organic" convergence. Fewer projects were planned; more sprang from breaking news and the daily routine of more comfortably and confidently dealing with the multimedia tools and jobs.
The recently instituted third phase puts in place a manager with clearly defined authority. A managing editor for convergence can now make news decisions across all media. He doesn’t need to encourage; he can command. This ensures that we do not miss opportunities that "organic" convergence might have overlooked or passed by. The authority and responsibility vested in this new leadership position demand a vision that transcends any one medium and a vision to maintain the company’s role as the community’s historian, storyteller and whistleblower. It definitely requires the gift of encouragement.
Training for employees is being reinstituted at a time when news staff know that the expectations for their involvement in multimedia storytelling are increasing. We are instituting more frequent online chats with print reporters and pushing responsibility onto newspaper section editors and others, not simply leaving it to our online personnel. We also want photographers, no matter which is his or her primary medium, to be able to produce images for all media. In other words, it has become time to step up the pace. And we are paying particular attention to evaluating which medium works best with what kind of stories, or part of a story, and then having our coverage reflect those findings.
One recent example of news presentation involved this summer’s release of local census data. The Journal-World reporters did an in-depth look at the numbers in the course of examining local government policies likely to be impacted by the surprising decline in the city’s population. Our TV reporters used this news as a peg to tell the story of a family who moved from Lawrence to a small town nearby; their circumstance and concerns illustrated some of the factors influencing the census numbers. On our Web site we created an interactive database to help readers and viewers navigate through graphs of these trends; we also gave online visitors an opportunity to post their comments and offer feedback and tips to the news staff.
Growth Comes With Lessons
Convergence is neither easy nor simple, and the commitment to it must be renewed daily. In the transition to convergence, we’ve lost no staff member, but as we seek applicants for jobs in our multimedia newsroom we emphasize an expectation that employees bring a multimedia background. We seek versatility in our new employees and also look for an eagerness on their part to join with long-time staffers who have achieved status in their professional lives because they were "early adopters" of our convergence efforts. Today, in our News Center, print reporters also report and present stories on television and TV reporters and anchors produce stories for the newspaper. Their early embrace of multimedia storytelling has made them leaders within our newsroom; among them is Joel Mathis, who is now our managing editor for convergence. These multimedia staffers are paid better than one-dimensional peers at other news operations our size, too.
Our print circulation climbed steadily as we ventured into convergence. In measuring our cable television viewership we found that our local news programs beat the networks. We are in 80 percent of the households in our core market, which has a low satellite dish penetration compared to other markets. Our company also has the highest penetration of cable broadband Internet customers in the nation. Our main Web sites record about 30 million page-views each month; Internet traffic has increased beyond our expectations, and this means we’ve virtually sold out of advertising "space" on our Web sites. Our experience with newsroom convergence also moved us into other "converged" efforts involving advertising, the business office, and human resources.
Convergence is expensive. As a private company, our financial circumstances are not revealed to the public, but we have invested significantly, especially for a company of our size. In 2005 our online revenues were just under one million dollars—profitable for the first time. The early years are ones we consider a long-term business investment. We expect profitability going forward and intend to capitalize on the abilities of the Internet to deliver customers for our advertisers.
What’s next? More convergence, of course. Although we already produce podcasts and vodcasts and SMS-messages, they seem destined to become more prominent parts of the communications streams. We’re reexamining our entire organization to look for other opportunities to use resources of ourcombined news staffs in a more integrated, efficient fashion. Such opportunities include creating new Web sites with the potential to capture national audiences. Achieving this goal will put a premium on the ability of our journalists to excel in the use of our multimedia platforms. We will likely also need to find or develop specialists—staff members who gather content for multiple media outlets but who do not themselves present it. One reporter, for example, might cover routine police, fire and city or county offices, preparing agate lists for use in the newspaper, and the information can also be used on television and podcasts.
It is possible we will rely more on contracted employees than we do today. Instead of continuing to add staff, we might seek out talented individuals for specific assignments to supplement the work of our full-time employees. Citizen journalism will play a significant role, too. In October, with the University of Kansas School of Journalism and Mass Communications, we conducted a citizen journalism academy, offering a level of practical training for some people, and for others a look at the ethical and other considerations that guide our work. The courses also served to demystify the process of gathering information and editing it for presentation to the community.
Even given an expanded region for our efforts, our focus remains intensely local, which is what our surveys tell us our readers and viewers want. With new content-management system software we’re developing, information will be brought more directly to the neighborhood level, and our customers will be involved in dialogues with us and their neighbors through online comments, blogs, forums and file-sharing opportunities.
Doubtless the road ahead will have unexpected twists and turns; we intend to drive it, as we always have, with our brights turned on. Only now we will be delivering information in many different ways and letting consumers decide on the delivery method they prefer at the time they want to access our product. No longer is this a one-way street: While they are choosing how to absorb what we can offer, we’ll be listening carefully to them and to our newsroom staff to figure out new and better ways of interacting with one another.
Ralph Gage is chief operating officer for The World Company and a journalism graduate of the University of Kansas.