June 18, 2014

When Bert Roughton Jr. was tasked 18 months ago with reorganizing the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s newsroom to better address the newspaper’s digital challenges, he looked outside his own newsroom — and outside the newspaper business — for inspiration.

Bert Roughton Jr., managing editor/senior editorial director of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

He found it at the Aspen Ideas Festival, where he learned about Quartz’s “obsessions”; at a GigaOM Mobility meetup; and in the pages of Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs biography, which made him think about how to develop products for consumers. (He also read Clayton Christenson’s “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” of course.)

“I’m not sure our business fully grasps where the world is going,” Roughton, AJC’s managing editor/senior editorial director, told Poynter in a phone interview. “I’m not sure the discussions journalists are having about the future are as useful as they should be.”

That’s why AJC’s digital reorganization, now underway, is intensely focused on audiences, in terms of both what the newspaper chooses to cover and how it covers it. The audience-centric approach has led to staff reorganization (but not layoffs), putting digital experts closer to reporters and editors. And it led to a culture change, where experimentation is encouraged and asking for permission isn’t.

Among the books that inspired Roughton as he was reimagining the AJC newsroom: “The Innovators Dilemma” by Clayton Christenson, “The Master Switch” by Tim Wu, and “Steve Jobs” by Walter Isaacson

Previously, Roughton says AJC had mastered getting up-to-the-minute breaking news online, but the day was still organized around the daily print paper and the week was still organized around the Sunday print paper.

This meshes with Steve Buttry’s lessons about “unbolting” digital from print: Many newspapers have found ways to put out useful digital products while being hamstrung — or supported, depending on your perspective — by print. But they could so such more if print were deemphasized. (For his part, Roughton describes the daily newspaper as “this extremely inconvenient thing we have to produce every day that still pays us all.”)

AJC didn’t become perfect at digital overnight just by switching seating arrangements, moving the 10 a.m. meeting two hours earlier, and reconsidering Sunday as the best time to reach large audiences. But Roughton says it’s in a better position to respond to reader needs and make iterative changes to how it gathers news.

10 independent ‘topic teams’

Each editorial team consists of one senior editor, a co-editor/coach, two “audience specialists” who worked in AJC’s previously separate digital department (more about this role in a separate post), and reporters. And it won’t just be reporters contributing bylined work: “It’s not a bad thing for the staff to see that we’re all in the content business,” Roughton said.

The inspiration for AJC’s 10 “topic teams” comes from Quartz, The Atlantic’s business site, which gave a presentation at the Aspen Ideas Festival. Roughton later visited its Manhattan newsroom to find out more about the site, which eschews traditional verticals for what it calls “obsessions.” An example: “The Next Billion,” which focuses on how the Internet is spreading to emerging markets, mostly via mobile devices.

So far, AJC topics are fairly routine: State/Federal government, Local government, Features/Access Atlanta, Atlanta Now, Sports, Education, Economy and Hot Topics, with two watchdog teams. But the teams will be charged with developing those broad topics into themes based on audience research, Web analytics, and the news judgment of editors and reporters. Here’s how Roughton put it in a document detailing the reorganization plan:

Each topic team must develop a guiding statement of what they cover based on audience metrics, research and judgment. Instead of a collection of beats, each team will have a coherent theme against which to work. The topic statements should evolve as audience demands and circumstances change. For example; instead of covering a bunch of individual companies, the Economy team might focus around a topic such as “Metro Atlanta’s recovery from the Great Recession and how that is reshaping the economy for our audiences.”

The economy team is the first to start thinking deeply about what their topic means. Christopher Quinn, editor of the 14-person team, sent team members a questionnaire intended to get them thinking about their beats and audiences:

  1. Define your beat, what do you write about and cover?
  2. Why is what you write about and cover important to our readers?
  3. Who reads your stories? Who is your audience?
  4. What does our audience need from us that they cannot get elsewhere?
  5. What are the subjects that we ought to be covering that we are not covering?
  6. What are we covering that we should not pay so much attention to?
  7. What are the two or three economic trends in your area of expertise that will be shaping metro’s future in the next year?
  8. Are your goals and expectations for your job clear, and is the direction the paper is going clear to you? If not, what questions do you need answered?
  9. Do you understand how our social media works, and what are you doing to push your stories on social?
  10. What is the best way to organize our team to write the stories and cover the subjects we ought to be covering? By subject matter/organizing into pods/what else?
  11. What tools do you need to do your job that you do not have now?
  12. What can the econ team do that no other business in metro Atlanta can do?

“We had one team meeting for more questions and a bit of refining,” Quinn told me via email. “We’ll have another half-day in July to further refine our thoughts and ideas and probably dig in from there, start reporting in our new framework and refine it as we practice it.”

Roughton said he envisions the economy team “won’t do a whole lot of reporting that will be directed at corporate boards in Atlanta.” Instead, it’ll be “much more focused on our broader audience and how they experience the economy.” Routine stories about a local Fortune 500 company won’t be covered if they can’t be defended as relevant to AJC’s wide audience. Stories won’t be done just for the sake of doing them.

Freedom to experiment

Echoing the language you might expect from someone talking about a tech startup, Roughton said topic teams are encouraged to experiment quickly with new ideas, “fail quickly and move on,” and enjoy the freedom from a “top-down, militaristic” approval process. From Roughton’s reorganization outline:

The topic and specialty senior editors have broad authority to direct their teams and are accountable for engaging with their audiences. Decisions are made as close to the front-line as possible. We seek to move with the alacrity of digital competitors. With a focus on innovation, senior editors are encouraged to experiment with approaches to their journalism.

“I can’t exaggerate the importance of this,” Roughton told me. “We’ve freed everyone to experiment as much as they need to.” An example: Washington correspondent Daniel Malloy’s rap about election day issues. (It included a promo for the paper, too: “Yo, wake up Georgia, it’s election day / The AJC got the news in every way / We bring it it to you on sites both free and paid / We work hard all night, you know we don’t play.” Here at Poynter we enjoy a good newspaper rap.)

Roughton described the video as “extremely accurate, down-the-middle, perfectly good journalism that almost rhymed.” And the key is that Malloy (or “Rapper D-Mal”) didn’t have to go up the food chain for permission.

“If everything has to come up to a managing editor for a green light,” Roughton said, “we’re dead.”

Next: AJC editor: ‘I can’t have people stuck on beats’ without audiences

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Sam Kirkland is Poynter's digital media fellow, focusing on mobile and social media trends. Previously, he worked at the Chicago Sun-Times as a digital editor,…
Sam Kirkland

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