Tronc, late to the game, is doing a massive digital remake of its newsrooms

Journalists at Tronc’s eight local newsrooms learned the day before Valentine’s that the company is launching big plans to get its editors and reporters pivoting to digital.

In a three-page, all-hands memo, Tronc president Tim Knight shared a vision of that company’s future and a host of coming changes.

  • Newsrooms will be reorganized. “This ... is a transitional process, and we’re counting on each newsroom to fill in the details for its particular market,” the memo says. “But we do know this: Our newsrooms will be flatter. We will have fewer job titles across the newsrooms and across the company and a higher reporter-to-editor ratio. We will use openings as an opportunity to add diversity of skills and backgrounds, both with hires and promotions.”

  • All Tronc papers will be designed and produced out of a Chicago headquarters, called the Design and Production Studio. Local newsrooms, however, will continue to make decisions about Page One stories and how they are played. “In collaboration with the editorial managers within each business unit, the DPS team will compile the best content our newsrooms and partners offer into daily print newspapers that serve our most loyal subscribers and advertisers."

  • Most newsrooms will be “hiring new talent” and increasing pay. “Over the next six weeks, while positions are being determined in line with our plan, we expect each local newsroom to review base compensation; where appropriate each newsroom will make pay increases reflecting either change in responsibility and/or adjusting to market. All pay changes for staffers not governed by collective bargaining will go into effect on April 1.”

Knight told Poynter that the initiative “sets up high-level parameters” for defining and measuring success in digital transformation.

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The program is the result of “six months of planning and six previous months of research.” So it would have included the Los Angeles Times and San Diego Union Tribune were they still part of the company. Those publications were recently sold to a local billionaire.

Tronc's remaining papers are the Chicago Tribune, New York Daily News, Orlando Sentinel, Baltimore Sun, Hartford Courant, Sun-Sentinel of Fort Lauderdale, Daily Press of Newport News and The Morning Call of Allentown.

Parallel efforts to reorient sales staffs at each of the papers are underway, Knight said.

The Sun Sentinel recently installed a new editor-in-chief and a new general manager. The Chicago Tribune also has added a new managing editor for audience.

The changes are in the same vein as reinvention efforts at McClatchy, Gannett and other chains as well as at some locally owned individual papers. Table Stakes, a foundation-backed consultancy for big metros, has been operating for several years, but Tronc has not participated.

While the Tronc initiative shares digital and culture change objectives, it is not modeled on any one of those.  

Knight and Colin McMahon, senior vice president for editorial operations, said that there was not a mandate to deemphasize some beats and elevate others. That too might vary by market. A stated objective is greater diversity of all kinds in staff and in story selection.

Poynter has heard from journalists in some Tronc newsrooms who found the initial description of the new plans both vague and discouraging. There’s uncertainty about the future of some beats and the sense that journalists may be asked to become mere content creators.

At another Tronc newsroom, however, the move to reorganize is welcome, we were told. It will all depend on the details.

Bruce Dold, editor-in-chief and publisher of the Chicago Tribune, sent his own lengthy memo to newsroom staff earlier this week explaining some of what will be happening and the goals.

The Tribune’s broad mission will remain unchanged he said, but:

“We won’t fulfill this mission if we don’t become more digitally relevant and establish ourselves as an essential part of people’s lives. We have to change the way we work and challenge our assumptions about how we create stories and relate to our readers.

“We must put the audience at the center of what we do. A strategic goal for this newsroom is to produce digital journalism so meaningful, habit-forming and essential that people are willing to buy digital subscriptions.”

While some of the details are pretty vague, the necessity to be more nimble is a clear goal for all the papers.  

“We need to be quicker to the punch on more stories,” McMahon said, and when questioned, added that he meant both getting stories up more quickly and doing more of them. “We need to be more aggressive in knowing which ones the audience engages….”

As mentioned in the memo, the plan includes incentive pay. Knight said that while the details were still being worked out, the incentives would go to top producers in the form of raises, not as bonuses.

Knight, McMahon and others on the team will be visiting all the newsrooms as the program rolls out. Knight said that the newsroom reinvention is being accompanied by a parallel effort to transform ad sales paper by paper.

“If we came out of this process covering the same things the same ways we are now,” McMahon said, “that would be a failure.”

Here's the full text of Knight’s memo:

February 13, 2018

Dear Newsroom Colleague,

We are excited to share plans we have been working on over the past six months to reimagine how our newsrooms deliver on our journalistic mission and accelerate our transformation to a truly digital-focused company.

Excellence in journalism remains our top priority.

This conversion is about creating more meaningful journalism that our audiences want and delivering it at a faster clip; developing new approaches to engage our readers, both directly and through our original reporting; and focusing on topics and approaches that our audiences find the most relevant.

Investment is a critical part of the plan. The pending sale of the California News Group will allow us to accelerate our investments in people and technology. To thrive as the digital leader in our markets, we recognize that our local newsrooms must reward their high performers, hire new talent, and train their journalists to excel at existing and emerging digital platforms. We also need to provide the newsrooms with the tools they need to better engage their readers. The rollout of the Arc publishing platform is only a first step to do just that. Throughout this process, we have worked diligently with each Publisher and Editor-in-Chief to incorporate their insight, based in part on conversations they have been having as part of a Newsroom 2020 planning initiative we began last year. Together we have developed a framework for the newsroom of the future.

Our local newsrooms are redefining their jobs and structure so that people are in the best position to create and deliver news content for the rapidly changing demands of our audience. We will become smarter about using audience data to respond to readership trends, while identifying stories and topics that connect with our audience.

This applies not just for daily breaking news but also for the high-impact enterprise work that is the foundation of the company’s mission: factually informing our audience and being a community leader.

Excellent journalism that people value makes us stand out from the crowd. Knowing more about what people value — particularly our paying subscribers — is critical to our financial and journalistic success.

What else is critical to our success? Our people.

As part of this process, we want to reinforce how highly we value our talent across the company and recognize the efforts you all put forth on a daily basis. As we implement our plans to move the business forward, we are committed to supporting our local newsrooms in providing competitive compensation for all our editorial colleagues.

Over the next six weeks, while positions are being determined in line with our plan, we expect each local newsroom to review base compensation; where appropriate each newsroom will make pay increases reflecting either change in responsibility and/or adjusting to market. All pay changes for staffers not governed by collective bargaining will go into effect on April 1.

Additionally, we will collaborate with each local market to develop a merit, performance-based compensation pool tied to executing on our transformation plan. Each local market is expected to put the appropriate metrics in place during the performance achievement process.

This reorganization is a transitional process, and we’re counting on each newsroom to fill in the details for its particular market. But we do know this: Our newsrooms will be flatter. We will have fewer job titles across the newsrooms and across the company and a higher reporter-to- editor ratio. We will use openings as an opportunity to add diversity of skills and backgrounds, both with hires and promotions.

Each newsroom will decide how roles, responsibilities and performance standards need to change to meet market needs. And we believe the new structure will provide new pathways for journalists to grow and thrive.

Despite changes made over the last decade to become more digitally focused, our newsrooms are still tied to the demands of the daily print newspaper production cycle. So, like other leading news organizations that have taken bold steps to hasten their digital transformation, we will create a new central business unit headquartered in Chicago, called the Design and Production Studio, or DPS, to produce all our print newspapers.

The DPS will hire a team of accomplished page designers and respected news editors from our newsrooms in Chicago and other markets. In collaboration with the editorial managers within each business unit, the DPS team will compile the best content our newsrooms and partners offer into daily print newspapers that serve our most loyal subscribers and advertisers. Content will be created, edited and prioritized in each newsroom by local staffers working in SNAP. Decisions about what stories go on Page One and local coverage choices will remain in each local newsroom. Details about other weekly, monthly and other products will be shared as plans are finalized.

Last week, the company announced the development of a central team at Tribune Interactive (TI) that will create new digital products and build out a growing syndication network housed within Tribune Content Agency. We are still in the early stages of those initiatives, but we see them being additive to the primary work produced by each of our newsrooms. We will gather feedback and share more as it develops.

Here’s what’s in the works:

• Each local market will develop and detail its version of our newsroom framework by
March 31, with the resulting changes being put in place over the coming months. Group and individual meetings will be held at each news organization by your Publisher and Editor-In-Chief over the next several days to provide greater detail.

• A new local newsroom organizational chart and related job classifications will be shared by supervisors in each market shortly. In most markets, we are happy to report that we are investing in our newsrooms, and on balance local newsrooms will be adding editorial positions in order to increase their local market coverage.

• The Design and Production Studio, which will be led by Cristi Kempf and report to Colin McMahon, will start hiring immediately. For those interested in being considered for these roles, the postings will be available on Inside Track by the end of this week. During times of organizational change, it is essential that our local leadership provide multiple communication opportunities to both share information and, importantly, receive feedback. Each local leader is developing a comprehensive communication plan. In addition, members of our team will conduct local market visits starting in April.

We fully understand that change of this scale can be challenging and disruptive. But it can also be liberating, invigorating and filled with new opportunities. Our newsrooms have a history of meeting any challenge. And given that the work you do each day is so very important to each of our communities, we’re asking everyone to stay focused during this transformational period. We appreciate all of your continuing efforts.

Sincerely,
Tim Knight
President

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