In October, the South Florida Sun Sentinel unveiled a site redesign, a newspaper redesign and a new plan to cover the news. Called “The New Digital,” the plan was aimed at changing workflow and doing away with old print-based habits held by many of the journalists there. Except for one desk, everyone at the paper would work and produce for the Web.
Almost eight months later, I caught up with some of the staff at the Sun Sentinel to see how “The New Digital” is going.
“Change for many people can be scary, and you think, ‘oh we have this new initiative and it has a name and there are all these changes,'” said Jake Cline, arts and entertainment editor. “Once we started practicing it, it was fairly seamless.”
Here are three things I learned about how it’s going:
1. It takes time to break old habits
Cline’s work and his workday has changed a lot. Now, he’s able to get started earlier in the morning, and his team of reporters isn’t working to fill a few allotted slots.
Some weeks, Cline doesn’t know what will make the cover of the Friday tab until he sees it Friday morning.
“It’s different,” he said. “It involved a little bit of letting go, but I’m good with it now.”
For some reporters, not seeing their stories make it to print was tough in the beginning, said Dana Banker, metro editor for news.
Before last year’s changes, everyone was wired to work, think and plan a certain way, said Anne Vasquez, the Sun Sentinel’s managing editor, and that way orbited around print.
“To undo that wiring and to think of it in a different way I think is what’s taken some time,” she said. “But we saw a difference immediately.”
The desk dedicated to gathering stories and getting them in the paper also had to get accustomed to planning those sections, which were previously planned by section heads. What’s available? When should it run? Where should it go?
“All of that planning which used to reside on the content side now resides on the production side for the print paper,” she said.
And every now and then, staffers think about a piece in terms of where it will run in the paper, “and I tell them, it’s gonna go on the website,” Cline said, “and the [print] desk is going to find a home for it.”
2. Fewer meetings means more time to work
Yep, fewer meetings.
“I think that one was an immediate plus for everyone in the newsroom,” Vasquez said.
Staffers now attend two meetings instead of three.
“The rest of the conversation and the rest of the decision making, it’s a beautiful thing, people have face-to-face conversations,” Vasquez said.
Without worrying about print, people have more time now, she said, and they’re doing more with that time. Reporters are working with multimedia designers for interactive features, such as the “How Well Do You Know Marco Rubio?” quiz.
“I think we didn’t realize how much production stuff we had absorbed over the years,” Banker said.
Being freed from that has been liberating, she said, and everyone can think about how a story should be told instead of how to make it fit print.
“I think we’re moving much faster on the Web,” she said. “I think we’re probably doing more stories, and I think we’re probably doing more shorter stories.”
You could argue whether that’s good or bad, she said, “but I think it’s probably a good thing.”
The opposite is true for Cline’s team, which used to have to produce short daily pieces.
“Now our mantra around here is write the story until it’s done,” he said. “It has been liberating, in a way, to really focus on what we’re supposed to be doing — and that’s telling stories.”
He now has more time to write and conduct interviews, and he produces a Monday morning newsletter featuring highlights from the weekend.
Staff are breaking news as it happens, building as they learn more. They’re working on more interactive projects, they’re posting stories earlier, and they’re posting more videos, including a series with its own Hulu channel called “Sun Sentinel Originals.”
Those features aren’t anomalies now, Vasquez said, they’re a regular part of what the Sun Sentinel offers, and “The New Digital” workflow has made that possible.
3. Readers are getting more
Because the paper and the site were redesigned at the same time the new workflow was implemented, Vasquez isn’t sure if readers have noticed the changes.
But they’re getting more content, she said.
One day earlier this year, Cline wondered how much production had increased from his desk, so he started counting stories. That day, he edited 11 short and long stories, “whereas before, a big day would have been four or five,” he said.
They usually only hear from readers when there’s a problem, Banker said, but what they have offered is a more lively and timely presence on the Web and stories in print have fewer jumps.
“It has been a long time since I’ve gotten an email that said ‘What are you? The Pony Express?'”
Vasquez said circulation has remained steady for the newspaper.
“If at any point in this new digital initiative, if the print product was sacrificed in any way, that would be a very big problem that would make the new digital not a success,” she said.
The print desk has the ability to zone stories more depending on where they’re running, choosing different photos or content to target audiences geographically. They also know the print audience is generally older than the Web audience, so staffers add a bit of context when needed. For example, a story about banned selfie sticks might include a short explanation about what the devices are, Vasquez said.
So what’s next?
“First, we need to continue to refine The New Digital workflow until it feels like second nature,” Vasquez said. “We’re getting there. What we have done and continue to do is rewire how we think, speak and work. That’s not an easy thing to do.”
But it has already kicked things off, she said.
Banker would like to see staff grow even more with stories told in different ways.
“I think we’re experimenting with that and doing some, but I think we could do more,” she said.
“There’s more we can do with video, with social media, with interactive projects. We need to conceive of something no one has thought of yet and execute it a way never before imagined. And have fun doing it.”