Roanoke reorganizes for digital first publishing, lays off 3

MediaWire Memo
The Roanoke Times is reorganizing its online news department as it shifts to a digital first strategy that editor Carole Tarrant calls “just the first wave in what will be an ongoing evolution.” In a memo that announced the retirement of two longtime staffers, layoffs of three people and the shift of four online employees to newsroom areas, Tarrant acknowledged that “we do not expect to see growth in our print advertising base. The moves we are announcing today demonstrate that, while we are certainly not abandoning print, we are pursuing growth where growth continues to reside — on the digital side of our company.” The reorganization is happening in advance of a new content management system next year, website redesign and mobile development plans. The memo follows.

FROM: Carole Tarrant (Editor)
DATE: 11/14/11 11:15 AM
SUBJECT: announcement

Good morning,

I’m writing today with news that’s difficult to share.

As our publisher Debbie Meade wrote to you this morning, each department is assessing its needs now that the voluntary retirement offer is over. We saw two longtime news employees, Rob Lunsford and Cody Lowe, retire as a result of the RIO. In addition, in the past month we also decided not to fill one of the news EA positions as Caitlin Sellers leaves later this week.

Unfortunately, we still are in a position where we need to reduce our staff. We are eliminating three positions: Shaun Hoy (sports copy editor), Kurt Heine (metro team leader) and Jim Ellison (multimedia producer II). They will be leaving us at the end of the month. I hope you will join me in thanking them for their service to our newsroom.

We will have a staff meeting at 4:30 p.m. today in the news conference room to answer your questions about today’s news. I would ask that you read the rest of this email beforehand, because it provides important background about a larger reorganization involving the online news team.

Please understand that Michael and I struggled greatly over these decisions. We were proud that we, unlike most newspapers, avoided layoffs as the recession kicked in three years ago. We took advantage of attrition and restructured our work, often incorporating creative ideas that you all made and invested in. We couldn’t have done it without you.

However, the recession continues to hold on and we do not expect to see growth in our print advertising base. The moves we are announcing today demonstrate that, while we are certainly not abandoning print, we are pursuing growth where growth continues to reside — on the digital side of our company. As painful as today is, I hope you will find some solace in knowing we are aggressively pushing forward. We must do so, now, so we can remain a competitive and vital business, one where your own careers can continue to grow.

Beginning this week, we will take the first concrete steps in building a newsroom that is oriented first toward delivering news online. We are reorganizing the online news team in anticipation of the dramatic changes that will occur next year as we install a new content management system, redesign roanoke.com, launch a new mobile application and further explore the delivery of news via tablets.

These efforts, combined, represent the online equivalent of getting a new printing press. The newsroom, working closely with IT, will be investing considerable time and money in this digital expansion. Roles will undoubtedly change, and the reorganization we announce today reflects just the first wave in what will be an ongoing evolution.

In the end, I believe we will have created opportunities for you to learn new skills and have more direct contact with our website. What the “digital first” mantra means, in practical application, is putting the power of online publishing in all of our hands, extending the ease of blogging to all of our content.

Meanwhile, on the IT side, you will see an increase in developer resources as we address the critical need of expanding our online audience and replacing the significant decline in print advertising. As a company, we have committed to shifting resources from other departments, including news, to support this growth in IT.

In the newsroom, we will spend the next six months assessing roanoke.com from the perspective of readers as well as you, the newsroom content providers. We ultimately want a newsroom that publishes first in the most appropriate medium — be it mobile, tablets, desktop or print.

But — and I can’t emphasize this enough — we will need all of your smart thinking, flexibility and creativity to get us there. That’s because the efficient, one-size-fits-all assembly line we built to get the paper out nightly will change, no question.

The first phase of these changes begins with the reassignment of three online news employees and one IT employee. Each one has been assigned a temporary home team or cluster of teams, with the instructions of getting to know the team’s current workflow and its ambitions for reaching more readers online. Once their fact-finding missions are complete, they will be expected to be the champions for these teams as we train on a new system, reconstruct workflows and inevitably run into competing interests. They also will give us needed “ownership” of high-interest niche areas within roanoke.com.

Under this structure: Ryan Loew will be point person for sports/photo/video, Stephanie Ogilvie for news/social media, Marie Stewart (on long-term loan from IT) for features/blogs and Meg Martin for copy desk/design.

All four will report to me directly but be expected to talk frequently with the leaders of their respective home teams.

Meg’s title will change to online projects editor, allowing her to focus more exclusively on development of the new site and other critical projects and less on day-to-day management. Ryan’s title is now videographer and Stephanie’s social media editor, both of which will reflect their emphasis moving forward.

Outside of the online news team, we are also making other organizational changes that reflect our need to work more efficiently and at the same time grow new initiatives. Those changes don’t result in other job losses but they will mean different assignments for some individuals.

Danielle Dunaway, whose time previously had been split between the newsroom and editorial, will become a full-time editorial assistant in news. Belinda Harris will take on Danielle’s previous duties with the editorial department as the coordinator of Letters to the Editor.

Two other colleagues will also get new responsibilities. We’ll share details of those changes at this afternoon’s staff meeting after we have talked with the people affected.

In the coming days we will also work with metro editors Brian Kelley and Megan Schnabel and New River editor Todd Jackson to reorganize our news reporters into three teams.

I would like to end by re-emphasizing a key point — the idea that we need to work differently. Will we be stretching ourselves, our capacities, as we adjust to the newsroom’s new makeup? Of course, at least temporarily.

But the changes we are making today are not written in stone, and Michael and I are committed to listening to you as we evolve. We are, in fact, counting on you to provide more ideas about working more efficiently or not doing some things altogether.

Our doors are open.

Carole

Carole Tarrant
Editor
The Roanoke Times / www.roanoke.com

FROM: Michael Stowe
DATE: 11/11/11
Subject: Saying goodbye to two great journalists and colleagues

Cody Lowe and Rob Lunsford have both dedicated more than three decades of their lives telling the stories of Southwest Virginia. They leave us this week much in the same manner that they did their jobs all those years – very quietly but with a huge impact.

Neither wanted a public send off in the newsroom. We agreed to their requests but couldn’t let them leave without a note of appreciation. They will be missed – not just by us but by the many readers who have enjoyed and benefitted from their work.

Rob’s departure literally changes the landscape of the newsroom. Since he joined the newsroom full-time in 1978, Rob has worked at the same desk, in what was once a radio broadcast booth manned by Frosty Landon. “The shape around me has changed,” Rob told me. “But I have been in this corner the whole time.”

Rob started at the newspaper in 1977 designing ads for the “creative services” department, working in the office now home to the human resources director. In between designing ads, Rob would take on illustration assignments for the features department. It didn’t take long for newsroom leaders to move him upstairs full-time.

Rob has won numerous awards in his career for his graphics and illustrations but none defines him better than his 2007 Rugaber Award (named after former publisher Walter Rugaber), which is presented annually to a newsroom staffer who “has displayed, day in and day out, an intense curiosity, a depth of understanding, and an enterprising drive to discover unique and significant stories.”

Rob joined the paper a few years after graduating from Virginia Commonwealth University.

Cody, a proud UNC graduate, was city editor of the Elizabeth City (N.C.) Daily Advance before joining the newsroom as a copy editor in 1978. He was named Neighbors editor in 1981 when our community sections became tabloids inserted in both the morning and afternoon editions of The Roanoke Times & World-News. As a result, Cody recalled in a 2000 news story, he sometimes worked 24 hours straight without a break.

Cody took a much higher profile in the community in 1989 when he was named the paper’s religion writer and started writing “The Back Pew” column each week. His columns on religion and ethics resonated with many different audiences, often resulting in spirited debates that played out in the Letters to the Editor. Cody won the Virginia Press Association award for Best Column writing in 1995 for The Back Pew. Cody rejoined the left features and came back to news in 2003 as Roanoke County reporter, a beat he held until earlier this year when he moved to the business team.

The newsroom won’t be the same without them on Monday.

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  • http://twitter.com/stretchphoto Stretch Ledford

    Since they’re going digital first I wonder why they let a multimedia guy go?

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_MF2UH5EZ3DJ4RS6VUZ7UF7GNWU marks

    This is a very well reported piece with one exception and one that no one wants to talk about.  Content.  The switch to digital means nothing for mid-size papers.   has it meant anything anywhere for the early adapters?

    Content means being in touch with your readers.  I am in Roanoke 3 times per year and every business person I meet says they find the paper to be out of touch with the readership.   It is an ultra-left paper in a red city.  Figure it out folks.

    Content matters and with the internet people can go find the content they want.

    No one likes losing jobs, but lets not blame it on a digital strategy.  Management knows it is out of touch with the region, they just don’t care.