From Flip Cams for all reporters to our ideaLab (http://bit.ly/ch0ew2) to our Ben Franklin Project ( http://bit.ly/apHRbA ), the employees of Journal Register Company are leading the way in exploring how a tired old newspaper company can become a fast acting and faster thinking news company.
From harnessing the Crowd to better plug into local content that works to exploring the Cloud to publish on all mediums in an open-source environment, JRC is pushing hard to make our transformation both complete and successful.
Jon Cooper, our Vice President of Content, has a nickname for all of our projects underway to turn our newspaper company into a Digital First company. He calls it Thunderdome.
This week you could hear a big clap Thunder over our tiny 6,000 circulation daily in Middletown CT.
Middletown Press Editor, Viktoria Sundqvist, working with a staff of only 10 people but with the courage to experiment, pushed her paper completely into a Digital First – Print Last environment. Viktoria doesn’t have it perfect yet – who does? – but she is setting the paper up for success and to be able to continue to cover her community just as it has since 1884.
I’ll let Viktoria tell her story below but before I do that I want to thank her and her staff for showing us that change can happen no matter the resources or the circumstances.
By Viktoria Sundqvist
The Middletown Press Digital First Strategy
Since March, we have tried very hard here at The Middletown Press to figure out a way to evolve from Print First to Digital First. We made some half-hearted attempts, which ended up getting us stuck in a land of confusion.
“Was that story posted to the web or not?” Eh… not sure. “How about this one?” Yes, it might have been up for part of the day. Let’s post it again in case people missed it…
Last week, we decided to Just Do It. Monday evening we made a plan. Tuesday morning we went Digital First. And we haven’t looked back since.
Identifying the main obstacles.
Two things came to mind: The copy editors and their schedules.
All schedules in a newsroom pretty much circle around the print deadline. Some reporters come in during the day, but if nobody else is in the office (like myself), their stories won’t get uploaded to the web unless the reporters do it themselves.
With a fairly young and inexperienced staff, I prefer to have an editor take a quick look at a story first. Plus, the reporters are out reporting for most of the day, and can’t be stuck in front of their computers uploading stories. They should be able to just e-mail them in – to someone – from wherever they are (and eventually upload the stories themselves and have an editor look at them later to fix it while it’s live).
Since copy editors are already in front of their computers all day, it seemed natural to me they would be the group to start with.
If we are going to try to be a 24/7 operation, we cannot have most staff working 3-11 p.m. and leave the mornings uncovered. And why should three people (copy editors) ALL be in the office at the same time, while I’m the only one there in the mornings?
I knew that in order to embrace Digital First, schedules had to change. I had an idea of how I wanted them to be, but I left it up to the copy editors to work out their own plan.
Making the plan.
I limited our experiment to my three copy editors and excluded sports because the entire department only has 2 people, who are doing their best just to get through the day. And you don’t have to be a sports editor to upload sports to the website, so as long as they provide us with stories, we can all do the webbing.
When I told the copy editors “We have to go digital first NOW. Does anyone have any ideas for how we can do that?” nobody had any ideas. They understood the urgency, but we’ve been struggling with this for so long they just couldn’t see the light.
The complaints are always the same. “We have too many pages to do” and “I would do more with the website if I could, I just don’t have the time.”
We really don’t have too many pages – it is just a matter of perception and how you plan your day. It takes 30 seconds to stop and post something on Twitter, then continue with your page.
I needed the three of them to understand this. I needed them to learn how to think “outside of the page.”
My plan for that was simple. For three days, I would take on all the pagination of the daily paper. (We only have about 13 news pages for The Middletown Press on an average day, then a tab twice a week, plus a 28-page weekly newspaper).
I picked three days when all of us would be there, I told the copy editors they would have to figure out how to run the website for the next three days, and then I left the room.
The copy editors’ strategy.
After an intense hour in the conference room behind closed doors, the copy editors came out and said, “So, do you want to hear our plan?” I certainly did.
They had come up with three shifts: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., 1 to 9 p.m. and 4 p.m. to midnight, covering the 14-hour period when most people are active on the internet (yes, the very early morning is important too, but they planned to have the midnight person set stuff up for that).
Every copy editor would be responsible for the web for 5 hours each. The other three hours of their shifts would be spent working with reporters, editing things that came in, proofing the pages I was doing, returning phone calls, planning feature pages, etc.
What we found.
For me, putting out the print product was a breeze. All the stories were already edited and readily available on the web. I saw what had art and could easily make a plan for what I wanted on which page.
One thing we noticed was that we seemed to have so many more stories once we started this strategy than we’d ever had before. Suddenly, submitted press releases were made into usable pieces, and I ended up making more pages into local ones in order to fit more material.
We were also able to look at what stories got a lot of hits on the web, and what the comments were, before we determined where they should be placed in the paper (although keeping the seniors in mind, I have been trying to tone down the crime stories for the print edition no matter how many hits they get on the web).
In order to avoid confusion and to save some time, all reporters were asked to e-mail their stories to the editor in charge at any given hour instead of logging into Prestige, our editorial system. The editors would then post the story on the web and edit it, then put the edited version of the story into Prestige.
On our first day, we realized that we didn’t want to mess around with the police blotter since this is our most read story of the day and people expect some consistency. The blotter stayed in its allocated spot, and was posted each day at 12:01 a.m. as usual.
Obituaries, opinion columns and letters to the editor we did the same with – we don’t have enough of them to spread them out throughout the day, and people expect to read them only once a day (for now).
We also only posted our daily poll question once, and left it up for the entire 24 hours.
Since we share a Sunday paper with New Haven and don’t have reporters working Saturdays or Sundays (they all do stuff in advance for Monday’s paper), we also decided that holding 2 feature stories with art would be the best plan so we would be sure to have at least one local story both on Saturday and Sunday mornings. Then we post whatever news releases come in over the weekend, or if we get lucky, we post breaking news.
Weekends are the real tough days for this, and we’ve never had good traffic those days to begin with. Six months ago, we didn’t even post any new stories on Sundays; we just left Saturday’s stories up for another day. That’s all changing now, and we are waiting for the readers to catch up.
The web results.
We noticed a significant growth in web traffic during our experiment, but this slowed somewhat towards the end of the week. However, the drop-off rate from the early morning traffic into the afternoon slowed significantly, and the amount of time each person returned to the site increased dramatically. The amount of time each visitor spent on our site also increased.
On the downside, several individual stories may have gotten fewer hits than we anticipated because there were now so many stories up on our site and, at times, they were a bit difficult to find. For next week, we are working on improving this as we try to keep the popular stories up longer and keep them in prominent positions even though we might move them around a bit to make the site look fresher.
The long-term plan.
After the three-day test period, I slowly introduced the pages again to the copy editors. But now, they are doing a few pages in addition to their web duty, not posting to the web when they have time after being done with their pages. After the test period, I hope they will all split their time better between digital and print – the goal is to be at 70/30, with the least amount of time spent on the print product.
Of course, three days a week we only have two copy editors working per day, in which case we will split the day into two shifts – 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and 4 p.m. to midnight. On those days, instead of posting things to the web and Twitter and Facebook every half our/hour, we stretch it to every other hour and breaking news.
To me, the important thing isn’t how often each person posts stories, it the fact that their thought-process now leads to the right conclusions: Web, e-mail blast, Twitter, Facebook, print.
A success story.
While some have taken to this new strategy faster than others, we have all made progress here at The Middletown Press. Copy editors who had never used Facebook and Twitter are now sending out breaking news alerts and using social media sites. When a story comes in, they say “that would be great for the Facebook page… and maybe we’ll run it on A3.”
The copy editors are also the ones telling reporters to get their stories in earlier, and to get more photos and videos because it will look better on the site.
We still have things to learn, but all in all I’d like to say we successfully switched to a Digital First newsroom.