About five years ago, as newspapers began to launch themselves onto the World Wide Web, a loud disclaimer arose from the online staffs: We’re not just the newspaper on the Web, we asserted indignantly. We’re different, weinsisted. We’re interactive. We do more. We do it faster. Friendlier. And, on top of all that, we’re free.
All of that was probably true. Especially the free part.
Yet, despite our look and feel, most of us were indeed the newspaper on the Web. Maybe we packaged it differently, adding archival depth or searches. Maybe we got the news online faster than it hit the street. And maybe we added programming that let our readers more easily interact with us and with each other. But if you looked hard, it was painfully clear: From news stories to classified ads, the bulk of our content continued to be harvested from the pages of the paper itself.
Across the country and around the world, journalists experimented with approaches. Should we, like our paper parents, lead our home pages with news? And, if so, what kind? Should we become portals of useful information to our communities? Should we adapt ourselves to beat our broadcast competitors by valuing speed, perhaps a bit too much? Or should we let our users determine what we published, in part because it was so easy for them to tell us, either by their e-mails or by us tracking their traffic patterns on our sites?
Many of us wondered: Where was and what should be our own coherent editorial voice?
At this early stage, finding such a voice was wishful thinking. Why? We simply didn’t know enough about our new medium to use it to its best advantage. Even if we thought we had the knowledge, most of us didn’t have the resources to implement it. So we plowed along, teaching ourselves HTML, all the while regarding our programmers as demigods and trying to convince many on the print side of our organizations that we weren’t out to devour them, but to lead them to the future of publishing instead.
We had to start bringing in revenue, too. Those Web programmers—and producers and designers and the hardware and software they work with each day—are certainly not free. We created niche content areas such as health and travel to attract niche advertising. We redesigned our original designs. We struggled to maintain content areas such as restaurant and lodging listings that became dated almost immediately after they launched. We upgraded computers and servers, and we tossed out old code and did it all over again with new code. We added breaking news without having a staff of online reporters to write it. And, before the cables were even laid down for broadband delivery, we started thinking about how to do wireless.
All of this was usually done with a bare minimum of staff. It wasn’t unusual for our half-dozen or fewer people, often working in pods isolated from the rest of the company and desperate for bigger operating budgets, to be fueled by a drive to do something new and the desire to make it a success.
Still, it has not been enough. As more and more people—from our online readers to fellow print employees to the industry at large—tune into the efforts of newspaper Web sites, they have become more demanding. We all hear the same questions. Where is all that editorial innovation you’re supposed to be generating in this new, expansive medium? How come you don’t have all the stuff The New York Times or Washington Post or some other fill-in-the-blank Web site does? And, jeepers, you can’t even give us some of what your own paper can—like the brides, the comics, the sports agate, the daily Jumble or a copy of a story from 100 years ago.
Sigh. Just when I was feeling good because the server decided not to break down. But after six years as an online editor, I have to admit that the questioners have a legitimate point. It’s time for all of us to be doing more with our new medium, to shape the direction of both newspaper Web sites and newspapers. It’s a very big job. Despite extraordinary efforts, it’s more than most tiny online staffs can handle as quickly as the market requires or as perfectly as the print side might demand. The requirements of speed under which our new media enterprise exists means that we don’t always have the luxury of time to perfect our product before we put it out for public consumption.
What’s the answer? Though hard to accomplish and, at first blush, seemingly contradictory, the answer lies in finding ways for these entities to work together. What makes this hard is that uncomfortable clashes between traditional and emerging cultures will inevitably occur across a range of issues and attitudes involving editorial control, the speed of change, and competition for tight financial resources. But the result can also be an enlivening of an old culture through the infusion of fresh ideas and a sharing of resources to benefit the long-term good of the entire news organization—and its audience.
How does one go about doing it?
While I don’t have sure-fire solutions, I do know one thing: It doesn’t happen overnight. A foundation needs to be laid to encourage cross-departmental communication, generation of ideas and, eventually, sharing both the burden and the rewards of transforming the best of those ideas into constructive action.
Here’s a look at how we’ve been building that foundation at projo.com and The Providence Journal:
We began by removing physical barriers between online and print staffs. No longer are we in separate rooms, or even separate buildings. About two years ago, online production staff took up residence in one end of the main newsroom. Online advertising staff gained cubicles in the newspaper’s advertising department. It was this in-your-face tactic that forced print staff to recognize our existence while giving them the chance to see how we operated and to use us as teachers of computer basics, from how to browse the Web to online sales techniques to answering e-mail.
In our market, where broadcast competitors feed off Journal stories and no wire service could fill the bill, we made a commitment to breaking local news on the Web. This resulted in a dedicated online reporter being transferred from the print staff, one who would be aided by reports from print reporters on the scene or in the know.
During the past year, we’ve made more strides, bumping the number of online reporters to two in order to provide backup and expand hours of coverage. A year ago my own desk, along with those reporters, was moved to the middle of the print newsroom, next to assigning editors and city reporters.
Sometimes it feels like we’re straddling an old wooden fence, uncomfortably balancing between the ever-developing methods and new services of the online staff and the set patterns and daily duties of the print staff. But the online reporting staff is not alone anymore. This summer, we narrowed the focus of two online production staffers to features and sports, changing seating and hours so they can communicate more directly with their print counterparts. That helps us keep on top of what that department has up its sleeve, while making it easier to brainstorm on how the Web can play off that print material.
We’re looking at instituting similar links with other editorial departments. And we’re working on a redesign of the entire newsroom that will make the online staff an integral part of daily operations, while anticipating the growth of news coverage and delivery in a variety of forms, around the clock. We’re also increasing the number of special projects and series that we’ve brought to the Web from the paper, adding online-only features as we’ve learned them, such as production of existing audio and video or animation of graphics and photos.
In the past, we’ve had to wait for such projects to be proposed by newspaper staff and be added as an afterthought to the planning, reporting and editing process. It’s a system where the paper has led the parade. It’s reactive, not proactive, and it can result in projects that essentially look and feel like “the newspaper on the Web.” We’re ready to stop doing that. And I think our timing is good.
Our parent company, A.H. Belo, is one of the publishing organizations now introducing bar-code technology to its newspapers and TV stations that will point to pages of related content on the Web. Using a scanning device, readers will be able to capture the URL of a specific Web page embedded in the code. Software installed on their computers will then interpret the code and call up the Web page automatically on the computer screen.
By its very nature, it aims to bring the two mediums together by adding a value to the original while bringing attention to the new one. The move also coincides with projo.com’s most recent efforts to increase news updates, experiment with telling stories in multimedia form, and expand its advertising sales. As a result, it’s been the biggest impetus to date for the print and online staffs to coordinate their efforts as they push to make sure that a reader who makes the effort to scan those codes gets a good deal in return on the Web.
As a start, we’ve promised each other that we will seek out projects that lend themselves to Web enhancements and work together to make them happen. That might mean a print reporter needs to learn how to gather digital audio or a Web designer must figure out ways to emphasize his artwork and animations as the entry point to a series. Or it might be as simple as crossing the newsroom to have a little creative chat—something we couldn’t do two years ago.
Examples of recent projo.comprojects done in tandem with
Providence Journal staff:
“Rescuing the Right Whale”
“An Upstream Fight”
“A Nearly Perfect Summer”
“Os Deportados: America’s Unwanted”
“Near-Miss at Green Airport”Despite advances, we haven’t yet figured out how to make it a smooth crossing. At times, it’s been downright painful as we coordinate projects geared toward print deadlines, staffing and audiences, with both groups doing things we’ve never done before while promising in that oh-so-inflexible print that the Web version will be there, live and on time.
That’s when we need to remember to look at the results. Recently, we produced online versions of a series documenting efforts to save the right whale, explored the potential for tourism along an old mill river, and shared the summer with wealthy Newport society. All have aimed at bringing stories to life by providing the voices of real people or showing the Web viewer the scene as if he were there himself. Our stories have merged in-depth print narratives with action, all the while maintaining the editorial standards and sensibility that print journalists say set them apart from most of their broadcast counterparts.
We’ve given those online versions special attention in the pages of the paper by labeling them as “Digital Extras.” It’s a move that not only helps promote the Web site but, just as importantly, adds a “digital” element to the paper, making it seem more current and more willing to recognize and accommodate the growing number of ways our audience gets its information. Perhaps some day that will be a primary function of the newspaper, letting it serve as a pointer to other forms of information and communication, while remaking its pages to focus on what it can do best, such as summarizing the news and providing post-event analysis.
The approach we are now taking is, to me, the editorial voice that we’ve been searching for on the Web. This is how we can be more than “just the newspaper on the Web.” This may also be how so-called print journalism survives. For when it comes to telling a good story that serves our community, it doesn’t matter whether it’s on a press web or a worldwide one. All that matters is that we are one.
Andrea Panciera has been the online editor for The Providence Journal Company since mid-1994, starting with the development of its first online service via Prodigy and remaining through several incarnations on the Web. She began her newspaper career as a reporter and editor for her hometown paper, in Westerly, Rhode Island, leaving to attend the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. She worked at New York Newsday and as an adjunct professor at Columbia before joining the Journal, where she held a variety of assigning and desk positions before assuming her current post.