5 Ways Newsrooms Can Catch Up to Digital-Savvy Competitors

The common narrative about newspapers goes something like this: The advent of digital media and its continued growth sent newspapers into a tailspin. Newsrooms that didn’t scramble to adapt suffered big losses, folded or scaled back, or even switched to online only models. Realizing the precipice before them, local and national newsrooms alike immediately embraced the advent of free and low-cost digital tools. A myriad of workshops and conferences got everyone up to speed on how to use these new digital tools and—voilà! Newspapers lived to fight another day.

Of course, this narrative is likely a lot of BS—at least according to “The Goat Must Be Fed,” a Duke Reporters’ Lab report released on May 14. Instead of embracing low-cost digital tools for presenting data in innovative ways during the digital revolution, the report says that “editors and producers cling to familiar methods and practices even when they know better, more emerging digital alternatives are available, often for free.”

The report, written by Mark Stencel, Bill Adair, and Prashanth Kamalakanthan, presents findings from interviews with more than 20 U.S. newsrooms and journalism organizations.

If there’s one thing the leaked New York Times Innovation Report taught us, it’s that even a national newspaper widely praised for its smart use of digital tools shows symptoms of being oriented towards an outdated, analog model. “The Goat Must Be Fed” further shows a significant digital skills gap between large national organizations, the most willing to experiment with digital tools, and small local newsrooms, which are far less likely to do so. Still, the newsroom isn’t doomed.

“It’s not an all-or-nothing argument. We didn’t say kill the goats; we said change the goats’ diet,” says Stencel, a digital fellow at the Poynter Institute and NPR’s former managing editor for digital news, who also worked at The Washington Post and covered science and tech for the News & Observer in Raleigh-Durham, N.C.

Here are five ways newsrooms can change their diet.

1. Kill unnecessary traditions to pave the way for new ones.

“There’s a lot of ritual to the newsroom. We have our meetings, we have our formats, we have our set deadlines, and a lot of the business of being a newsroom leader is the ceremonial tending to those rituals,” Stencel says. Breaking away from those rituals allows space for fostering different types of conversations. “If you can make the innovation process part of the newsroom, then you’re not making this false choice between innovation and the day-to-day,” he adds.

One of the reasons this is challenging is because of newsroom culture. If you think about it, the person put in charge of running a newsroom is often most invested in the way things used to be done, since that way of working got them put in charge. Breaking away from the mold may be painful at first, but it allows time for experimenting with telling stories in novel ways—so you’re not just giving lip service to digital tools, but actually using them.

2. Incorporate digital tools into everyday reporting, not just one-off stories.

One way to bridge the digital divide is to stop viewing digital tools as bells and whistles and to expand their implementation beyond investigations or big events.

“When it comes down to it and there’s a big snowstorm, a big fire or a major calamity, [many reporters] focus more on what they’ve always done and less on these tools,” Stencel says.

But there’s no need to limit digital tools to ‘big’ stories—incorporating them into day-to-day reporting about real estate, business, and sports can be just as useful. Digital tools have been effectively used for weather maps, scoreboards, stock market tables, and even movie listings and rankings.

“We have all kinds of ways of telling stories other than writing 500 words about this today, but the vast majority of time in most newsrooms is totally focused on the machinery that generates 500 to 1000 words on a subject,” Stencel says.

An example of stepping outside that mold for everyday news is KPCC’s fire-tracking app.

“Essentially it tells you everything you need to know. You don’t need to create a prose-based inverted pyramid story about how many more acres the fire has consumed today because the app tells you that,” Stencel adds.

The app updates multiple times with key facts (acreage covered, percentage controlled, homes evacuated), freeing up reporters from the task of summarizing the same three data points over and over again. This allows reporters to tell poignant stories of the fire’s victims.

3. Don’t get locked up by content management systems.

Content management systems (CMS) do an awful lot to make it easy to post and arrange stories. But it can be challenging to add charticles or web apps or other new formats to an existing site infrastructure.

“We’ve designed our homepage in a way that suggests we’re going to post a lot of stories frequently, and we’re going to update them frequently, and we’re going to put more stories up a lot so that you’ll come back and look at us more and more…and that’s exactly how you become a goat herder,” Stencel says. “You’ve conceived a work flow and built a tool around that work flow, and now you’re mutually depending on each other.”

This makes it hard to interject new story formats that don’t fit seamlessly within your CMS. Those limitations can become real barriers to innovation.

Instead of being a slave to your CMS, work with an agile web design team to see which modifications are available. And keeping novel new format ideas in mind during any redesign effort (or when signing up for a CMS or third-party service) can help prevent future problems.

4. Find new ways to present your data—or your competitors will.

Newspapers may find themselves feeling frustrated when sites like BuzzFeed, HuffPo or Gawker find new ways to present their data and garner much more traffic, despite a lack of original reporting. “If other people are doing smarter things with your underlying reporting than you are,” Stencel says, “then shame on you for not thinking about it and/or recognizing it and figuring out how to do it yourself.”

5. Let journalists experiment with tools.

The report listed a handful of tools that newsrooms of almost any size can use, such as Google Media Tools, Tableau Public, Chartbuilder, DocumentCloud, the Overview Project, Tabula, PANDA Project, and TimelineJS. But having people learn basic skills, or even organizing newsroom-wide trainings, is often ineffective.

An alternate option is to allow individuals to experiment with these tools on their own, and then present their findings to the team. That’s exactly what Deseret Digital Media in Salt Lake City did. During his first year as a managing editor and director of content, Burke Olsen assigned specific applications to task members for a month. They would then report back to the team about how the tool could assist their storytelling efforts.

“The biggest challenge is that I feel like when we ask members of our team to do something new that it’s a zero-sum game,” Olsen said. “It means that they need to move something off their plate. We’re trying to produce smart content and present data in visually appealing ways, so we’re constantly looking for tools that allow us to do it well.”

Instead of asking people to find tools to make data work well, Olsen and others found it effective to assign tools to specific people, having them pilot for a month then report back and act as the resident expert.

While some tools have been difficult to use or don’t integrate well with their CMS, others are adopted on a case-by-case basis, such as Infogram for chart-making and PicMonkey to create shareable images, with pictures taken from Creative Commons or the Library of Congress. Sometimes apps that look interesting are modified and built in-house.

Becoming familiar with a wide swath of digital tools doesn’t mean that all reporters need to be experts. And this isn’t to say that everyone should try to be good at everything.

“I’m not a big believer in the mythological backpack journalist who’s a great data reporter, a great photographer, a great writer, a great editor, fast as lightning and also able to write amazing in-depth stuff,” Stencel says.

A newsroom combines the talent of multiple people. However, Stencel says, using tools makes it easier for people to be good at more things, even if they’re not great at all things.

The bottom line

The report’s findings can also be extrapolated to apply to other areas where many newsrooms are behind the curve.

“We were very specifically talking about data journalism and data tools in the report,” Stencel says, “but you could argue that the same forces apply to your ability to take on multimedia or take on social media or take on any of the other digital multimedia social challenges that every organization faces.”

The way to bridge the digital divide? Divert some the newsroom’s energy away from the status quo and towards innovation.

“In our business there’s a lot of fetishizing around the way we do things and it makes it very hard for us to figure out what to stop doing,” Stencel says. “It’s as if the company that became IBM said, ‘Yes, these computers are going to be big and exciting, but we really need to stick with cash registers and typewriters because it’s what we’ve always been good at.’”

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