At The Dallas Morning News, becoming truly digital means starting over
DALLAS — Inside the third-floor newsroom, The Dallas Morning News looks like a lot of American newspapers. Fluorescent lights stretch across low ceilings. The carpet is speckled gray and sufficiently stained. The floors creak. One elevator only goes to the second and fourth floors, never the third.
The Morning News is housed, for now, in what journalists there call the "Rock of Truth." The downtown building, home since 1949, gets its nickname from the words engraved into stone that stretches above the front doors. They read:
Build the news upon the rock of truth and righteousness. Conduct it always upon the lines of fairness and integrity. Acknowledge the right of the people to get from the newspaper both sides of every important question.
On Wednesday, the newspaper announced plans to explore a move from the building. Those plans are, at this point, vague. We don’t know if the building will remain standing, where the staff will relocate to, or when.
But the building itself is in many ways representative of the serious struggles facing the newspaper. It’s part of the city’s history. Walking under the giant letters that spell out a mandate for journalism is inspiring, many journalists there say. But inside, a lot of things just don’t work anymore because they’re so old. And building fixes on top of what already exists just creates new problems.
The Dallas Morning News faces the same forces confronting the rest of the newspaper industry: the painstaking and painful process of re-imagining and remaking something that worked very well for a long time that now has a crumbling business model, an audience that’s moved on, technology that is constantly shifting and a culture largely entrenched in the way things used to work.
Mike Wilson, editor of the Morning News, came to change that.
When he arrived at the paper from ESPN's FiveThirtyEight in 2015, he knew bringing Dallas' only remaining newspaper into the digital age wasn't merely a matter of having a jazzy homepage. Moving to a new building wouldn’t fix everything, either.
Last summer, he and a group of colleagues split into three teams and spent three months figuring out what needed to change.
Their final recommendations: Tear down. Start over. Build it together.
The first time he walked under the words on the building’s front, Wilson felt proud to work at a place that carved its values into stone for everyone to see.
“And I thought, I don't want to do anything to take a chip out of that rock," he said.
When he started, there were already efforts to be a digital-first newsroom. But the newsroom wasn’t set up to succeed because it still tackled the news from a print perspective. The morning news meeting didn’t happen until 10:30 a.m., hours after the digital audience had started paying attention. When people discussed stories, they talked in terms of inches and sections. Hitting evening print deadlines was the daily goal.
Wilson commissioned Empirical Media, a New York-based consulting firm, to work with the newsroom and navigate a new path. But the company didn’t plan to come in, observe and prescribe. They wanted the Morning News to do that.
From June through August, 23 journalists at the newspaper divided into three teams. The content team asked if the Morning News was creating what the audience wanted, especially on the Web. The organization team looked at day-to-day operations and asked if they were still working. And the skills team asked, simply, are we ready? What skills aren’t here that must be?
In the old printing press area, the teams met often for days at a time to work through different phases of the project. They interviewed more than a dozen news organizations and circulated anonymous in-house surveys. Each team shared their findings with Empirical, which worked with the Morning News’ data team to analyze 65,000 posts from a 10-month-period. The teams presented the newsroom with a 159-page report.
The Morning News hasn't shared the findings of its report publicly. But it did share a summary with Poynter that begins with a call to action:
We won’t let the Rock of Truth crumble. Not on our watch.
The Dallas Morning News urgently needs sweeping change. Because we haven’t had sufficient evolution, we now need a revolution.
Our entire approach to telling, presenting and promoting our stories has to change to serve our increasingly digital audience. Every job in the newsroom must change. We must set different priorities.
If we cannot find a way to make digital a compelling experience that is compatible with the daily lives of our readers, then not only will our fortunes decline, so will our public service.
We must act.
The future is digital. In fact, the present is digital — and we’re missing out.
The summary notes several times that the core values of the Morning News won’t change. But it was clear early in the process that other kinds of massive shifts were going to take place.
"I think a lot of people in the newsroom were probably skeptical," said Keith Campbell, deputy managing editor for news and business.
Paul O'Donnell left the Morning News in 2014 for the Dallas Business Journal. He was skeptical that the Morning News could really make transformational changes. In November, he returned as the business vertical editor.
Will Pry did the same. He worked as the mobile editor years ago but got so frustrated by how stuck things were, he left the newsroom for the Morning News’ digital products team. Pry came back, too, as the news vertical editor.
But Wilson knew that not everyone would be willing to go along with the changes the three committees were digging into.
In July, the newspaper offered 167 people buyouts. Thirty-four accepted. Campbell and Pry were among the people who were offered buyouts and chose to stay. Since, the Morning News has hired about 25 people, and it has 12 positions open in a newsroom that has 290 staffers at full capacity.
Wilson’s transparency throughout the process was important, Pry said. At least it felt humane. The buyouts meant a loss of institutional knowledge and talent, “which is real,” he said, but “you want people to be ready and bought in and to believe in what we’re doing.”
Robyn Tomlin's childhood summers were spent in Dallas with her great-grandparents, who read The Dallas Morning News. She didn’t come into the building, however, until her first day as managing editor last September. She took a selfie with the Rock of Truth.
Tomlin has worked in legacy and digital newsrooms, including as editor for Digital First Media’s Project Thunderdome. By the time she arrived, the report was out, people were accepting or turning down buyouts, and the work of putting the 159 pages worth of ideas into practice was just beginning.
It was insane, she said, exciting, and she jumped in and tried to catch up.
The findings of the three teams spurred some big changes:
Everyone had to apply for a new job. Staffers weren’t reapplying for their current jobs, because many of those would soon no longer exist.
"We just basically wiped the slate clean," said Wilson, who previously worked at the Poynter-owned Tampa Bay Times for 18 years.
Using an in-house app, everyone still at The Dallas Morning News had to choose and rank their top three job choices. Not everyone got where they wanted to be. Some people stayed where they were. But the process, which was long and led to lots of uncertainty and anxiety, also gave editors the chance to see where people would like to be in the future. Now, more than half of the newsroom is in new jobs.
No more desks and beats. Teams now organize into hubs oriented around topics such as breaking news, justice and high school sports. As part of their coverage, each reporter is expected to develop an obsession to follow, inspired by the way Quartz organizes coverage around changing phenomena instead of fixed institutions. As at Quartz, they’ll refrain from covering institutions just because they’ve always covered them. And unlike beats, obsessions aren’t expected to live forever. To start, reporters are expected to pitch an obsession that they can report on regularly for six months.
According to the Morning News' findings from this summer, "obsessions can be offbeat."
But some will fulfill our highest and most important Rock of Truth ambitions. Phenomenon-based stories can carry strong moral purpose and not shrink away from contentious societal debates. A central part of our job continues to be holding public officials accountable to the obsessions of our public trust in their office. But obsessions are also an admission that we can’t encompass all aspects of civic life. No news organization has the resources to cover every incremental development in a world as fast-paced and complex as ours. Getting something 'on the record' is not a justification for writing boring stories that no one reads.
They’re letting go. “We can’t be everything to everyone anymore,” O'Donnell said.
The business desk wrote about earnings reports as a matter of routine, regardless of whether or not any real news was in those reports. Letting go of some of those habits has been hard for some reporters, especially veterans, to give up, he said.
“What do you let go of? That’s always the key question for us,” he said. “What do we not do today?”
Staff know they’re not the only source out there, Pry said. In the new plan, one of the key recommendations is to curate more.
“We’re not the paper of record that we were,” he said. “I think our goal is to do what we do best and then aggregate and link off to the rest.”
They’re learning from their own startup. One year ago, the Morning News officially launched a site that would serve as both an experiment and, hopefully, an example. It was inspired by a question: What would happen if they created a vertical, removed it from the newsroom and ran it like a startup?
For the entertainment site, GuideLive, they brought in people with digital skills, including Hannah Wise, a UI designer, developer and reporter. They worked with a small tech development firm. They built a custom content management system. And they organized their schedules around a digital workflow.
A lot of what the Morning News has challenged and changed in the last few months was piloted first at GuideLive. And many of the people from GuideLive’s original team, including Wise, are now in different verticals throughout the newsroom, guiding the transition.
“Time and time again," Wise said, "people were able to go back and say, ‘it’s OK, GuideLive did this.’”
It’s acting like a website instead of a newspaper. Morning news meetings used to start at 10:30 a.m.. A group of editors took turns sharing budget lines from their departments. They slotted the stories for the next day into a spreadsheet.
Now, their morning meeting is a headline rodeo.
For the first few minutes of the 9 a.m. meeting, editors grab dry erase markers and scribble headlines across a white board wall. Then, they vote. They move on to analytics and see what worked and what didn’t on social media from the day before.
Amanda Wilkins runs the daily headline rodeo. Wilkins, now audience development editor, previously ran GuideLive. Her team runs the major social accounts, manages push notifications, works on boosting recirculation and puts a big emphasis on headline testing.
She’s hoping to get the Morning News on Facebook’s Instant Articles. And her team wants to work with the analytics editor, yet to be hired, to set key performance indicators that make sense for each hub and each individual reporter. She also wants to use analytics in a way that’s actually comparing apples to apples, she said. Right now, seeing the top stories in terms of pageviews and uniques can be encouraging for the Cowboys’ writer, but how can they measure success across hubs?
People have to know what their audience looks like, Tomlin said, and at some point, everyone will have goals for growth.
“It’s not because we want to put quotas on people, but it’s because we want people to understand that it’s part of the job.”
If journalists don’t have the digital skills needed, they’re going to get them. Included in the introduction to the report and among a detailed list of goals is to get everyone at the Morning News more training. Editors are planning to analyze where the newsroom’s greatest needs are so they can conduct training to satisfy them.
The Knight Foundation prompted them to think about the business plan. In that 159-page report from the summer, the journalists at the Morning News were clear that they weren’t tackling the business plan.
That changed when the Morning News was selected as one of four news organizations to share in a $1.3 million grant from the Knight-Temple Table Stakes Project. It brings together several departments: advertising, human resources, editorial and product/marketing.
Now, a group of people from across the Morning News get together quarterly with other newsroom teams and meet weekly in-house. They’re examining what’s most important to the business as a whole, not just the Morning News’ journalism.
“It’s forced us to connect those dots back up a bit,” Tomlin said.
The missing piece was looking at how to drive the business model forward. Now, they’re creating concrete goals and outcomes that drive accountability.
Meanwhile, The Dallas Morning News' revenues are holding steady even as its parent company, A.H. Belo, endures the advertising woes afflicting the newspaper industry. Last week, Belo disclosed that its total revenue was flat last year despite a slight decline in advertising and digital marketing sales.
They’re still figuring out what this means for the print edition. While everyone else now writes primarily for the Web, there’s still a small team that just deals with the newspaper. For Denise Beeber and Erik Schutz, who work on that team, the newsroom’s transition feels very bumpy.
“We took processes that we had in place for decades and we blew them up,” said Beeber, editor of the print team. “So people are uncomfortable, it’s fair to say.”
Schutz, print coordinator for the news vertical, underestimated what a challenge the transition would present, and he didn’t foresee how much copy the digital side would actually produce. For now, several hubs still work in their own CMS. And the site changes quicker than print editors can keep up with it.
Still, Schutz is optimistic. Wilson brought in a new energy with him. And what they’re doing is radically different.
There’s some resistance, Beeber said. Some people have done their jobs the same way for 30 or 40 years. Now, they’re putting out a print edition with fewer people and more autonomy, she said, “which is exciting but also a little scary.”
BUILD IT TOGETHER
The staff got through the re-evaluation, the buyouts and the new job process. Then, in January, something came that most people weren’t expecting. Both the neighborsgo and FD magazines were closed and 19 people were laid off. Since then, nine of those people have been rehired.
“That was really painful,” said Tom Huang, enterprise and training editor and a Poynter fellow. “It felt like a setback in the reorganization of the newsroom.”
Still, the last year has been transformational, Huang said. It’s more change in one year than he’s seen here in 23. Bruce Tomaso, who edits breaking news and enterprise stories, has been at the Morning News since 1984.
“The glacier used to move one inch every century,” he said. “Now it’s moving an inch and a half, so it feels really fast.”
The Morning News is just beginning to try the changes recommended in its report. There’s a mix of anxiety and excitement in the air, said Troy Oxford, interactive graphics editor.
“Now I’m glad I’m here,” said Oxford, “There was a point where I was feeling like there wasn’t much future for me here.”
Jon McClure, the data and news apps editor, feels the same way. Data and app development used to be sequestered. It felt like they weren’t even part of the newsroom.
“We now find ourselves in a very, very different situation,” he said.
Applying for new jobs and waiting to see what happened wore on people, he said. Now, people are figuring out what they’re really supposed to be doing.
He's not sure if ideas that were clear to the people working together this summer will be as clear to a larger group of editors.
“Will they be able to grasp hold of the vision?”
And can all the journalists? Some people are still turning in 80-inch stories with a sidebar, Oxford said.
“I don’t know if this shakeup will actually shake them into evolving.”
But some people are already seeing changes.
Wise, now in the breaking news hub, recently covered a huge gathering of evangelicals at AT&T Stadium. In the past, it would have been a 19-inch story. But Wise’s editors told her to iterate as she went and that they’d build with her.
Brandon Formby covers transportation for the Morning News. He recently went to a meeting where nothing new happened. A year ago, he would have written a 15-inch story. This time, he didn’t.
Yes, it’s been tough to see colleagues take buyouts and to see sections get cut. And yes, it’s been tough to reapply for jobs and to try and figure out what works in a totally different way. But:
“It’s kind of like saying, ‘Oh my God, this life boat is so crowded,’” Formby said. “It’s like, shut the fuck up. You’re on the lifeboat.”
THE JUGGLING ACT
Legacy news organizations like the Morning News face at least two big hurdles, said Raju Narisetti, senior vice president for strategy at News Corp.
Narisetti spoke about legacy news organizations in general and not the Morning News specifically, but newspapers, broadcasters and magazines share this problem. Significant portions of their revenue come from legacy offerings — such as print editions — so significant money has to be spent to keep those wheels turning, Narisetti said.
“So the juggling act is very, very hard to do in reality while those that have started out in the digital era don’t have the same challenges.”
The second challenge has to do with who’s in charge. Many of the people running legacy organizations have spent most of their careers inside them. They may not have much time in their careers left. And they’re probably surrounded by people in similar circumstances. So they’re often unwilling or unable to make riskier moves, and that leaves them doing a lot of patchwork, Narisetti said.
“It used to be one step forward and two steps back, now it’s two steps forward and one step back,” he said, “but you’re still not gaining ground.”
Legacy papers are doing some things right, he said, and with good intentions. The Wall Street Journal is aggressively pushing Snapchat. The New York Times is going after Virtual Reality and native advertising. USA TODAY is embedding its core product in Gannett papers. And The Washington Post has a clear drive to accumulate a massive digital audience.
But none of them have it figured out yet. Neither, he said, have digital-first sites. You can admire BuzzFeed’s ability to grow its audience and VICE’s ability to attract millennials, but no organization has yet to find a sustainable business model that’s growing and profitable at the same time, he said.
“I don’t think any one of them has actually figured it out, either.”
A WAY OUT
So what does The Dallas Morning News look like a year from now? Or five? When do staff settle into this new way of working?
Everyone Poynter spoke with in the newsroom had their own version of this answer.
"I think we've all come to the idea that it will be constant change from here on out," Huang said.
"If we ever are in a routine again, we're doing it wrong," Pry said.
"I don’t know if there’s ever going to be a point where we’re there," Wilkins said. "I think probably we’ll improve and improve and improve, and then our goals will change."
A lot has already changed since Wilson came to the paper. People are in new roles. Some people are gone. Most of the people left aren't thinking about tomorrow’s print edition. And at some point, the Rock of Truth will likely no longer be the physical home of The Dallas Morning News.
“In a way, the goal is to always be ready to start,” Wilson said.
Not everyone is sure it will work. But most want to try. There's already excitement around the breaking news team's ability to move quickly and build as they go.
Formby and Avi Selk, a breaking news and enterprise reporter, discussed the bigger implications of the changes one Friday on the way back to the newsroom after lunch.
“It’s a chance to do good work while we still can,” Formby said.
“Yeah,” Selk agreed, “this may be the end of journalism as we knew it throughout the 20th century... So, OK. If it’s the end, at least I can say I was part of it, and I can say I was part of an effort to try to find a way out.”
They drove through downtown Dallas toward the newsroom. When they arrived, they entered through the back.
Inside, they took the elevator that actually works.
Correction: An earlier version of this story said Paul O'Donnell left the Morning News in 2014 as business editor. He wasn't business editor at the time he left. Also, the section about staffers applying for new jobs notes that the jobs people had would soon no longer exist. That's been corrected to say that many of them would soon no longer exist.