December 29, 2016

This year, I visited six newsrooms. Some had low-ceilinged cubicle mazes with coffee-stained carpets and newsprint towers. Some had quote-covered glass meeting spaces and slick, quiet rooms.

At all of them, I found local legacy newsrooms, or “old media” as they’re often called, doing the work of digital journalism. In one case, the print product was an afterthought. In another, it had been rethought. At all of them, I found newsrooms that were both significantly smaller than they’d once been and significantly more digital.

When media reporters talk about “old media” and “new media,” what they really mean is print and digital. Yes, it’s taken newspapers a long time to catch up to their digitally native counterparts. There’s no longer a single business model, as there once was. And it’s still a brutal, unpredictable industry.

But this year, one of the biggest lessons I learned by stepping inside those newsrooms was that having a paper product doesn’t equal being or thinking old.

Here are a few of the things I learned from a year of newsroom tourism.

It’s possible to start over.

The Dallas Morning News produced a 159-page, cross-departmental report calling for revolution in place of evolution last year. It read, in part:

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.

What followed were some massive shifts. The Morning News rethought how it publishes, when it publishes, what it publishes and where it publishes. It also put a small team in charge of curating what was published that day for the next day’s newspaper.

Denise Beeber’s biggest concern, in the beginning, was how a much smaller print team could get the same sized paper out each day.

“People will surprise you,” said Beeber, editor of the print edition, in December. “They pick up new skills.”

Now, her team is more efficient than it ever was. People have learned to multi-task. There’s less friction in production because, frankly, there are less people. The data team built an in-house budgeting app so the print team can see what’s planned but not yet online.

There’s still the issue of communicating well between teams, but that’s always been a problem, she said. And Beeber expects the print desk to become more digital in 2017. The team is getting access to, a data analytics tool, so they’ll see what does well online and have a better sense of what might resonate in print.

While the majority of the newsroom went through a revolution, rethinking how and why they did everything, the people still in charge of print have really spent their time evolving, Beeber said. The toughest work hasn’t been learning something new, but learning how to do something old in a new way.

“Maybe we’re changing our approach to how we do the work, but the work itself, that’s not new,” she said. “The new thing is how you do it.”

But you don’t have to start over.

Other newspapers I visited, including the Minneapolis Star Tribune and the Miami Herald, told me they didn’t quite have the luxury, or the staff, to put print in a corner.

But they are untethering themselves from print workflows and thinking carefully about how print can still be valuable. And they’re using their veterans to help them do it. At both newspapers, I spoke with experienced journalists working on digital breaking news teams.

Tim Harlow, for instance, has been at the Star Tribune for 29 years. Now, he’s on the quick-strike team that reports news as it happens. The job he’s doing now, he told me in October, is pretty similar to what he’s done his whole career: look for news that has wide interest and go after it.

David Neal, a reporter at the Miami Herald, also went into the breaking-news-as-it-happens role. He likes tools like Chartbeat, but his instincts still work pretty well, too.

There’s been a sense for a while now that either you have digital chops or you don’t, Star Tribune Managing Editor Suki Dardarian said in October. But the Star Tribune, and many other organizations, have been able to move past the question of who can get it into a new one: who wants to get it?

Dardarian’s answer – pretty much everyone.

Newsroom size might not matter, but the choices you make do.

At one point, the Orlando Sentinel had more than 350 journalists in the newsroom. On the day of the Pulse nightclub shooting, it had about 100. And from the first early hours of their coverage, they made a choice: They were going to report the story of what had happened to Orlando as the community’s paper of record.

Looking back, it was a defining decision, said Avido Khahaifa, editor and publisher, in December.

That meant, on the day of the shooting, the Sentinel didn’t rush to Port St. Lucie to report on the killer. It relied on reporting from a sister paper. A Sentinel reporter headed up the following day. It meant that, on the day after the shooting, the Sentinel used its front page to run an editorial calling for unity in the city. And it meant that they stepped back and waited until the national and international news had left town to start asking tough questions once the initial tragedy was over.

“How we used our resources ended up being driven by that very first decision that it’s our community, it’s literally right down the street from us,” Khahaifa said. “We’re best-positioned as a news organization to look at what’s happening through the eyes of this community.”

The Sentinel, like most local newspapers, is used to being a lightning rod for the community. Overwhelmingly after Pulse, however, journalists there heard that the sensitivity they showed was appreciated.

In June, in the last minutes of the day that 49 people were killed at Pulse, I stood with Khahaifa and other staffers to watch the first run of the press. The machines looked like something from an old sci-fi movie, spitting out newspapers that spilled onto the floor.

The front page they printed declared “Our community will heal.”

But the newspaper wasn’t the product of all their work that day. It was one product. That day, the Sentinel also published 30 videos and 40 stories online.

If that’s how “old media” acts, maybe it’s time to stop calling them old.

Correction: An earlier version of this story said that the Orlando Sentinel didn’t send any reporters to Port St. Lucie in the early days of their coverage. That’s incorrect. A reporter went up the day after the shooting. Also, the Sentinel is a lightning rod, not a lightening rod, for the community. The story has been corrected. We apologize for the errors.

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Kristen Hare teaches local journalists the critical skills they need to serve and cover their communities as Poynter's local news faculty member. Before joining faculty…
Kristen Hare

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