October 25, 2017

I should have expected, bringing together a Millennial journalist with fellow Gen X’er, that for at least one of them, adjusting to the demands of the digital day wouldn’t actually involve any adjusting.

Like a lot of you, I suspect, both Mississippi Today’s news editor Ryan Nave and I have worked in newsrooms anchored around print deadlines and newsrooms that (say they) are not. But Tyler Fleming, a senior at UNC Chapel Hill and editor of The Daily Tar Heel, hasn’t had to make that adjustment.

“… To me, this whole 24/7 thing is just the way it’s always been,” he said.

So Tyler isn’t tangled up in old news rhythms and the decision-making that comes with them. But he has another problem that a lot of us face – figuring out how to be always on when that’s not humanly possible.

We’re starting a new conversation this week aimed at digging in to one of seven Table Stakes. As a reminder, these are absolute must-dos that the American Press Institute and the Knight-Lenfest Newsroom Initiative have identified for legacy newsrooms transforming into digital newsrooms. Knight also funds my coverage of that transformation.

Over the next several months, we’re going to explore many of those Table Stakes in depth. I’ve seen them play out in the newsrooms I’ve visited that are participating in that program. And frankly, a lot of it just makes good sense. But it also goes against a lot of instincts we’ve built up, institutionally, at least.

This week I spoke with Tyler, whose 125-year-old newsroom refashioned itself to think like a startup, and Ryan, who has a background in alt-weeklies. While we spoke, one was headed to class and the other was driving to work. I was immobile at the time.

Also, it’s your turn to be part of the conversation. What’s the biggest way the shift to digital has changed how you work? Share your thoughts with me for next week’s newsletter via Twitter or email.

Our conversation was edited for length and clarity.  

Kristen: What was your work day like at alt-weeklies, and what is it like now, Ryan?

Ryan: In my last job at the JFP, we had a five-day-a-week newsletter that we sent out at 1 o’clock every day. So even though we were a weekly newspaper, I had a noon deadline every day. Because I was also the editor, a lot of times, not only was I writing a lot of stories, but I was editing the stories. In a lot of ways, we were quicker than the daily.

Then the afternoons were spent catching things that were happening and simultaneously trying to figure out what can we turn into a news feature for the paper, or if there was something deeper to be done in two or three weeks.

Kristen: And what is your daily experience like now?

Ryan: Day to day, I report less and I write less. We have a staff of about 12 reporters. As news editor I’m seeing what’s going on on Twitter first thing in the morning, sending it to different reporters on their beats … just figuring out what we should write and the timeline for when we can publish stuff.

I’m also doing a little bit of my own reporting, mostly deep features and projects. And when my co-editors are not in the office, I’m keeping an eye on the site.

Kristen: Tyler, what about you? You’re serving an audience that has a pretty unique schedule, and they were also born in a world that’s always on. What is your day like?

Tyler: We start every day at 3:30, that’s when editors get to the office, and we generally work until about midnight  or 1.

So when things break at night, we’re there. I mean, we’re college students. We always have someone awake. When things break in the day is when we have a lot of challenges.

Meeting with professors, trying to study for tests, that all puts a strain on our reporters. Essentially what we’ve had to do is we generally rely on our editors. Whenever something breaks, we can’t just send the beat reporter. The odds of that one person being free are slim. So we’ve been telling people, y’all are good reporters, you know what you’re doing. Find out the basic things, we’ll get the story up, and we’ll try to follow up.

Breaking coverage is something I know we and almost every college newspaper in America has problems with.

Kristen: Do either of you have a sense of the rhythms of your audience, when they’re reading you?

Tyler: Yeah, we do. For the print, we just assume it’s professors and townspeople. As far as the student population goes, we know in between classes and definitely during lunch time. Then we see another spike around 7:30 when classes are done. So ours is strongly linked to the class schedule.

Kristen: How about you Ryan?

Ryan: A lot of people who read us work in state government, so most of the traffic that we see between normal working hours, most people are reading us on desktop between 8 and 5. Beyond that it’s almost 100 percent mobile. We also know that if we send out a story on social with a compelling enough headline, people are going to read us no matter what. It feels like people tend to read or click onto stories less on Facebook. They’re more likely to click in from Twitter.

Kristen: Have you found any ways to get your audience what they need without having an around-the-clock staff?

Tyler: Generally we just think, what pieces can we share in the morning that need to be known, and what pieces can we hang on to until later? Even for us, unless it’s breaking, it doesn’t really matter when we share it. It will do well regardless.

Ryan: I think what a lot of us have had to train ourselves out of is the idea that publishing a story on a website is the end-all and be-all of what we do. We’ll schedule stories to publish first thing in the morning, we’ll schedule tweets, but we’re also trying to acculturate the reporters (that) being on Twitter in the morning and retweeting stuff from other media and having conversations with our audiences is also an important part of our mission. I tell reporters, I’m not taking attendance every day. If you’re up reporting at 7 o’clock in the morning and I don’t see you in the office, that’s fine. I’d rather you be out in the world reporting than sitting at your desk.

Kristen: It sounds like it’s not just “write-a-story-turn-it-in-hit-publish.” Is that true for you, too, Tyler?

Tyler: We're engaging with our sources in a non-reporting way, like actually trying to get to know about them and have some kind of connection beyond just our various jobs. We’ve been trying to institute monthly volunteering. We’re trying to show that journalists are real people, that we’re a part of this community, we’re not just here to report on it from a distance.

Kristen: I’m asking Local Edition readers to share their thoughts on this question this week, and I wanted to ask you both, too: What is the biggest way that digital journalism has changed your work day?

Tyler: I can’t answer that.

Kristen: Yeah, you were sort of born into it. What about for you, Ryan?

Ryan: It used to be that I would get the daily newspaper in the morning or read it online to figure out what the big conversations were. Now it’s just my Mississippi media Tweetdeck channel that’s driving a lot of that.

Also, the story’s not necessarily complete when it’s written and published to the web site. Especially when it’s something fun and lends itself to visuals, I’m like, where’s the Instagram Story? You know, feel free to Snap it. Go crazy. We know that we’re also reaching different audiences with those kinds of tools.

That’s been a big part of my own education. It’s part of how I’m educating my bosses and also my reporters.

Kristen: Okay, last question. This is something new that I’m adding in and hope to try it every week for awhile. What do you need to learn about how to work in digital journalism if you’re a student, a working journalist and a professor? Sorry, it’s the dreaded three-in-one.

Tyler: I think for students, learning the balance is most important. Some nights you just skip sleep. You have too much to do. We are overshooting the landing. We stay up late, we’re always there to cover breaking news. But we’re always tired.

Ryan: I’ll start with professors, because I think they have a lot of the same challenges as editors like me. Those challenges come from the fact that they did one thing for a long time, and what I always say is our industry is always changing, and you don’t know everything.

Students and young reporters actually have a lot to teach you.

Thank you, Ryan and Tyler! Now it's your turn. How has digital changed your day? What's working for you now? What's not? I'll share your answers next week.

In the meantime, you've surely seen this great piece about lessons learned from 13 years at The Guardian, but just in case, here it is. The resources from ONA17 are online. I'll be in Chicago later this week for LION's annual conference. Let me know if you're going! And you still have time to sign up for Joy Mayer's webinar on how to build trust with your audience. It's free!

Finally, thanks to everyone who responded to the "Hey, is this valuable?" subject line from last week's newsletter. 🙂

See you next week!


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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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