Power Struggles over Converged Newsrooms May Diminish Value of Web Sites

When I heard that The Washington Post had let go two well-known video journalists, Steve Yelvington’s tweet summed up my initial reaction: “WP online layoffs are sad and self-defeating, a step backward as printies seize power.”

While the Post isn’t officially talking about individuals affected, I’ve confirmed that Travis Fox, winner of more awards than I want to list in this space, and Pierre Kattar, who has also won his fair share of awards, lost their jobs at The Washington Post.

This isn’t the first time a well-known multimedia figure has seen his job changed or eliminated. Just over a year ago, Colin Mulvany, who helped train many of the newspaper folks doing video today, was moved from multimedia editor to a daily news photographer at The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash.

Of those laid off last week from the Associated Press, as many as five may be multimedia editors.

Layoffs are an epidemic, and lots of great journalists are losing their jobs, but it never fails to startle me when Web employees, in particular multimedia staff, are among them.

It’s not that reporters, photographers and copy editors are unimportant. They are important. It’s that Web and multimedia staff have always been a relatively scarce commodity, with skills that have been developed in-house, for the most part. Producing original content for the Web has been a low priority in many newsrooms, and those that do are rare indeed.

These latest job losses make it clear that managers still don’t place a premium on the hard-to-find skills that are going to be so important to journalism as we try to keep our audiences. Each loss of someone doing video, programming, data or interactive graphics is going to be very hard to replace down the line.

As Web staffs shrink, and journalists get bogged down in site production work, I worry that we’ll lose the multimedia innovation and creative effort in these tough economic times, and end up with flat sites no one wants to visit.

Economic troubles have had more than one effect — in addition to the slashing of newsroom budgets and staff, it has intensified a power struggle for control of converging newsrooms.

The power struggle between the Web and print folks at the Post has been well-publicized. Washington CityPaper wrote an extensive piece on it over a year ago, and recent discussions over pay for Web producers highlight the struggle to understand the value of those on the digital side by managers of the newspaper.

Derek Willis, a former newspaper Post employee who moved to the Web side, blogged this week about how his transfer from the print operation to the Web site was held up by print editors who couldn’t understand how his work might be as valuable for the online product.

Everyone loves to pick on the big players, and there’s some smugness going around as the Post struggles with that convergence, scheduled to be complete early next year. But the sad fact is that the power struggle at the Post is not unique — it is being played out in newspaper and broadcast newsrooms across the country, to the detriment of the news business in general.

This is not just about the Post. It’s about all of us.

In seminars here at Poynter, many participants seem discouraged, but to me, it appears worse for online editors and producers. Maybe that’s because I relate to their struggles, which began well before I came to Poynter a year ago. The pervasive feeling among many multimedia producers is that the work of the last 10 years to create new story forms is slipping away, sped by newsroom managers uninterested in any nontraditional journalism.

For years, many folks in legacy newsrooms across the country had no interest in the Web. Then, a couple of years ago, they suddenly saw what online folks had been telling them for a long time — subscribers and viewers wanted information differently. Now, I see online newsrooms facing a surge of middle- and upper-level managers trying to get some control before it’s too late.

I get calls and e-mails every week from producers upset that newsroom editors with no online experience are taking charge of Web sites while digital natives are getting shouldered aside. These digital natives are not young people with no management chops, but newsroom veterans who moved to the Web before their colleagues started paying attention. Some who are taking control don’t quite understand the value of Web content in general, and they find it even harder to understand the value of multimedia (video in particular).

Tom Kennedy, former director of multimedia at washingtonpost.com, told me this is part of the bigger issue of newspaper managers considering text as the primary story form. “You take the industry meta-problem with valuing visuals, and you transfer it to video, which has an even bigger problem of being understood.”

As I wrote last week, there is an industry-wide debate over the most valuable types of video stories to produce.

Fox and Kattar frequently worked on in-depth video reporting and longer, reported feature stories, which has been typical of the video produced by the Post’s Web site. Those video story forms don’t drive as much traffic on most sites as breaking news and sports videos. People familiar with the Post told me that this is part of the power struggle — that folks on the print side want more of an emphasis on breaking news videos in order to build more traffic.

Add to the debate the problem of how you compete with television, generating a lot of video with a small staff and relatively limited resources. And many managers around the country still don’t have experience overseeing video production, so they lack knowledge of the time, training and effort it takes to produce fast, high-quality video.

Not long before I left startribune.com last year, I had a team leader tell me it was pointless to do a video story. “It’s not like people sit at work and watch video on their computers,” she said.

Print and TV managers too often become “a focus group of one,” as Theresa Collington, executive producer online at WTSP-TV describes it, trying to impose their view of the multimedia universe onto the Web site.

Editors can tell you exactly what the newspaper truck drivers do. Too often, they have no idea what each person on the Web team does. Even worse, they dismiss the value of those skills. If Web staffs are younger, there is dismissive joking about “the children.” If they have different backgrounds, they are dismissed as lacking depth. When I came to the Strib from television news, I was told by a newspaper photographer that I couldn’t understand what she was trying to do, “since you aren’t a journalist.”

I’m not trying to say that those of us who care fiercely about digital content have all the answers. Clearly we don’t. And an us vs. them, whose-job-is-more-valuable fight doesn’t help anyone.

How do we move forward while cutting budgets and jobs? I don’t know. I do know that in the past, people who were in charge of the newspaper or television newsroom had a deep passion for the medium itself. It’s a shame to lose that tradition for the newsroom of the future.

Clearly, this is a tough economy, but it seems shortsighted to cut back on multimedia at a time when innovation is more important than ever to our survival. And even more short-sighted to hand the future to those who got us in this spot in the first place.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Derek Willis quit his job at The Washington Post’s newspaper operation so he could be hired online.

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