I was fortunate enough to spend part of Tuesday listening to David Boardman (@dlboardman), the former editor of the Seattle Times, talk about how his newspaper had re-invented itself to take on the significant challenges the newsprint industry is facing. It is a success story of note, especially as the only other daily newspaper in Seattle was closed down in 2009 and the Seattle Times not only survived but went on win Pulitzer prizes for its journalism.
Listening to Boardman speak it was apparent that the changes made at the Times weren’t small and cosmetic but were large, sweeping and affected every aspect of the business. There were many highlights listening to him but the most notable for me were the following:
- Establishing the mission statement of the Seattle Times as it looked to reinvent itself was a process that involved all staff.
- There were cultural challenges getting staff to see technology as tools for their jobs and not just as delivery systems.
- There were challenges in breaking down the barriers between business and news.
- There were cultural challenges in getting everyone to see news “as a conversation”.
- The focus was on getting “feet on the street” doing stories and reducing the numbers of staff just processing copy.
- The number of copy-editors was reduced significantly but other new roles (multimedia etc) expanded.
- The newsroom was re-organised into three areas: creation, curation and community. The creation team was about generating content, including words, pictures, graphics, videos. The curation team about editing, design, prioritising news. The community team focused on community outreach projects and bringing the community into the newsroom.
- All staff were trainined in new technologies such as SEO, analytics and social media. What was most notable was that all staff underwent this training, not just a handful of “digital” people.
- Staff were trained in social media and editors were made responsible for ensuring reporters did use social media.
- The Seattle Times partnered with local bloggers. They started with five blogs and eventually grew that to around 60. Articles from these blogs were promoted on the Times‘ front page and drove traffic to the bloggers. Boardman said that this was initially a hard sell because it seemed counter-intuitive to be driving traffic away from the Seattle Times‘ website. But, he said, in practice pushing readers to high-quality content meant they would come back for more.
- The new media world is not about being “platform agnostic” but about taking advantage of the opportunities each new platform offers.
- Perhaps the most interesting project instituted as part of the makeover was the idea of bringing community members into the newsroom. Every Wednesday a member of the community, from CEOs to activists to religious representatives, is invited to the planning meeting. At that meeting the first 30 minutes are for the diary meeting. The second half of the hour is allocated to the community member to talk about what they are interested in.
Boardman concluded with perhaps the most striking example of how the newsroom had been re-skilled and re-energised. The promotional video below was made by journalists in the newsroom and not by a specialist marketing agency.
Boardman was speaking at the Future of News colloquim organised by the Wits School of Journalism. One of the other presentations, by Jos Kuper, on the news-reading trends among the youth has been neatly captured by Anton Harber.