This column appeared in the May 2015 issue of the PANPA Bulletin
Canadian media guru Marshall McLuhan’s mantra that the medium is the message has already passed its use-by-date. Publishers produce content across a range of converging platforms and journalists are less likely to define themselves by a single format. How can reporters who file video and audio, as well as written reports, realistically call themselves “print journalists”?
I spent much of my career as a “print journalist” and I guess that many reading this column would wear that label with equal pride. We should not, however, get too sentimental because time has caught up with us, and those entering journalism now come pre-packaged with multimedia skills and a predisposition toward digital access.
Only the technically traumatised attempt to hold back this tide of change and the integration of print and online in the newsroom is now passé – or should be. However, the task of newsroom integration is far from done, with more challenging aspects yet to come.
New Zealand may provide some useful insights into how these challenges can be met and there is no small amount of symbolism in the fact that the lessons will be learned from both print and broadcasting.
Fairfax Media has already embarked on a major restructuring project called News Rewired. It involves the rollout of an Adobe CQ web content management system, adoption of a ‘digital first’ philosophy, reporters ‘writing into the page’ (which it calls ‘publish ready’ content), and a proposed restructuring that will redefine its news management.
APN’s New Zealand operation, NZME., will bring its print, online and radio operations under one roof before the end of the year and will co-locate its New Zealand Herald, NZME news service and radio journalists on the same floor. It remains to be seen whether this will lead to a single editorial structure.
Meanwhile, NZME.’s radio rival MediaWorks has combined its television and radio newsrooms and launched a new breakfast show simulcast on TV3 and Radio Live. The new show and the single newsroom are attracting interest because the company has vowed to preserve the strengths of both media rather than following a tendency to privilege the television side of the operation (witness BBC World Service attempts to re-use TV news on radio). It will be a test of whether the strengths of individual forms can be preserved in a multi-media environment.
The challenging aspect of these moves lies in the structural and institutional implications. As Austrian journalist Dieter Bornemann said last year in a study comparing changes by six members of the European Broadcasting Union: “ ‘Sitting together’ does not necessarily lead to ‘working together’.”
Bornemann’s study highlighted a number of common themes:
• Journalists need to be led – not forced –into the changed environment.
• Training is essential but equal skills and talents in all media (the one-man-band) are difficult to attain.
• The right content management system and associated technology are vital.
• News production coordination is significantly more demanding and time-consuming in an integrated environment.
• Professional change management is needed during transition.
Fairfax Media appears to have anticipated these themes in the carefully coordinated rollout of its News Rewired project. It is addressing the leadership, training and content management issues, while the multimedia talents and skills of staff is something that must develop over time.
However, the New Zealand plan incorporates some radical change. The most controversial proposals are ‘publish ready’ production by reporters, and a component of the national and regional restructuring proposal that would abolish at least five newspaper editor positions and replace them with regional editors responsible for generating news across all platforms.
Reporters will have to undergo training and a praise-worthy form of accreditation before they are allowed to assemble their own words, pictures and video for Fairfax’s websites and content will be limited to material that is ‘not legally risky’. However, quality issues won’t disappear overnight and it is one of the cruel realities of editorial life that the story with the lethal snakebite is the one you did not anticipate. It is not a system without risk but there is already some evidence of reporters honing their multimedia skills.
In principle, the editorial restructuring proposal – which incorporates new national roles (such as national sports editor) as well as regional change – is worthy recognition of the need for structures that reflect the multi-platform focus and sends a signal to staff that their thinking also needs to change. The regional component, however, appears to go further than similar restructuring in the group’s Australian operation. The risk lies in how it will be perceived by residents in provincial centres who have seen the editor of their regional newspaper as a standard bearer for the town and region. Time will tell whether locals feel short-changed when the newly created regional editor’s attention is to be divided between the regional newspaper and responsibility for feeding into the national platforms operated by Fairfax.
Yet the potential rewards outweigh the risks in integration on the scale Fairfax has initiated and NZME. also stands on the brink of potential innovative change. It will be well worth watching that space.