Exiling online staffers to the hinterlands

News organizations would be wise to integrate their online journalists into the main newsroom

This column appeared in the May 1998 issue of The American Journalism Review.

Walk into the newsroom of almost any newspaper with a Web site and here’s what you won’t see: Web journalists. That’s because the online operation has been ghettoized — shunted off into a farflung no man’s land.

The Los Angeles Times‘ Web team? They’re down the street. The New York Times‘? Across Times Square. The Washington Post’s? Across the Potomac.

“What does that tell you psychologically about how the newspaper bigwigs view the Web operation?” says Howard Witt, The Chicago Tribune’s associate managing editor for interactive news.

But a handful of papers are doing it right, and the trend clearly lies in the direction of a multimedia newsroom. The Wall Street Journal, Christian Science Monitor, Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, Kansas City Star and Detroit Free Press all have integrated newsrooms where Web and print journalists work side by side. The Orlando Sentinel established a multimedia desk in the newsroom in January, and the Chicago Tribune moved its Web producers one floor down into the newsroom in March.

“I’m stunned, really, at how few papers do this,” says Kurt Greenbaum, who until recently served as editor of the Sun-Sentinel’s Internet Edition, which launched in October 1996.

The paper’s staff of 11 news, sports, features and graphics producers is dispersed throughout the newsroom. Reporters who covered the pope’s trip to Cuba in January phoned in audio dispatches for the paper’s Web site twice a day along with their stories for the print paper. And when breaking news happens — as when the sheriff of Broward County died — a “rewriter” dusted off a prepared obit, updated it and had the news online in 15 minutes, Greenbaum says.

“Newspaper reporters today have grown up with the culture that at a certain time my story will be done,” he says. “But 30 years ago, when papers had three or four editions a day, it was just expected that the story would be constantly updated and never really done.”

Adds David Blackwell, the paper’s deputy managing editor: “The bottom line is that our site needs to reflect the offerings of a 370-person editorial staff and not just the work of a dozen producers and online editors.”

THE KANSAS CITY STAR made a conscious decision to interweave the online and print operations when its Web site launched in April 1996. “We felt it was important to be visible in the newsroom,” says Stan Austin, online managing editor, whose desk abuts a print reporter’s desk. “Part of our mission was to educate the staff about e-mail, browsers and using the Web as a reporting tool.”

He and his four online editors attend editorial and department meetings and stay close to the metro desk to keep on top of the news. When an FBI investigation resulted in the indictment of city officials, print reporters in the field fed the information to their assigning editors, who in turn conveyed it to the Web staff, who stitched together the story and posted it on their site together with background from the paper’s archives. The paper’s Web site also beat the local broadcast media in reporting the mayor’s decision to turn down a post in the Clinton administration.

“These are stories that people are going to see on the 6 or 10 o’clock news,” Austin says. “With the Web, we can at least tie broadcast TV and give our readers some context and perspective, as well.”

At the Chicago Tribune, the print staff’s integration with the Web staff is far further along than at most publications. Every weekday, the paper’s business reporters file not just for the 8 p.m. print deadline but also for a 4 p.m. Web deadline so readers can learn what happened in the financial markets that very day.

In March, the Tribune culiminated an eight-month project with an ambitious series on child charities, and the Internet Tribune let readers probe the reporters’ findings in more depth. The morning after the series debuted, the foreign editor, two reporters from the series and two representatives from child-welfare agencies engaged in a live Webcast.

Why don’t more papers meld their print and online staffs? “Because it’s hard and it costs money and there’s not an immediate payback,” Witt says. “But newspapers need to learn to be patient and think of this as R&D. We need to become technology information companies. Otherwise the other guys are gonna eat our lunch.”

As the digital convergence breaks down the barriers between print, television and computers, newspapers should remember a simple truth: The newsroom is the heart of and soul of a news operation. If a paper is to ultimately succeed in cyberspace, it needs to take its Web journalists out of that small back room and put them into the trenches where they belong.

JD Lasica
Written by JD Lasica
JD Lasica is an entrepreneur, author, journalist, photographer and blogger. | CONTACT