Changing newsrooms: changing working practices

In his review of this summer’s blockbuster, The Bourne Ultimatum, film critic Peter Bradshaw describes the actions of fictional Guardian journalist Simon Ross during a shoot out in Waterloo station.

‘The Guardian style book clearly states that if you are under a hail of bullets in a public place from an assassin run by a deniable intelligence unit, you have to duck into the nearest internet cafe and start blogging about it to keep the readers informed.”

Written in jest, but some journalists believe they are under a metaphorical hail of bullets from the demands of multi-platform journalism, and that the reality may well have found the editor screaming at Ross to upload the video, pictures and podcast at the same time as live blogging and filing for the print edition. With digital convergence, is there enough time in the day?

‘Without fail, the overriding concern of people engaging with digital stuff is time,’says Andy Dickinson, senior lecturer in digital and online journalism at the University of Central Lancashire. ‘But a lot of that concern comes less from the realities of the job and more from badly managed expectations.

‘There seems to be a general feeling in the industry that anything new equates to ‘just one more thing’. It’s piled on top of the existing stuff. Part of the problem here is that there often isn’t that expectation. Managers don’t really know what it is that they want and are simply tooling the journalists up with the skills to be able to tell them.”

The Sun Online eschews tailored training courses, but in the newsroom it’s back to school. ‘It’s a learning exercise for everybody,’says Graham Dudman, managing editor of The Sun. ‘We have journalists who have previously only written for newspapers. Now they’ve done blogs, video diaries, they’re getting involved in all kinds of multimedia activities. The relentless march to integration will continue. At our Bizarre desk, we’ve already integrated what was our traditional Bizarre paper with the online Bizarre desk – it’s just now one desk. There’s no: ‘I only write for online’, or ‘I only write for the paper’.”

Journalists have very real concerns over the amount of work they are being asked to do and the effect upon the quality of their journalism. At a fringe meeting of the April 2007 NUJ Annual Delegates’ Meeting, journalist Hélène Mulholland described her experience of multi-platform reporting at a political conference.

‘What I found is I did a lot of different platforms, but in terms of content it was really, really shallow,’she said. ‘I didn’t get an exclusive. I didn’t get any interesting quotes. It was very superficial and that’s a real concern.’Change, she argued, was all well and good, but it needs investment and ongoing support, far more than is being given at present.

When The Daily Telegraph unveiled its multimedia newsroom at new premises in Victoria in September 2006, all staff undertook a week-long convergence training course. The Sun favours a gradual approach,

‘What we haven’t done at The Sun is one big bang where on the Friday everybody wrote for the paper and then on the Monday morning everybody was integrated – it’s a hugely complicated process,’says Dudman. ‘And as for the problems Sun journalists are finding, they’re ones you would expect. They need to learn how to do it, how to put content onto the system. We need to make sure we protect the quality of the product. The content is king and you must maintain that.”

As Peter Bradshaw alluded to in his film review, journalists are now expected to deliver content wherever they are, whenever there is a story. If you’re relying on technology to deliver that story, you need to be prepared.

‘I was writing a blog post live from inside a press conference, and suddenly I couldn’t get my internet connection to work,’says Bobbie Johnson, technology correspondent at The Guardian. ‘It was a nightmare. But you have to have a plan B, and perhaps a plan C as well. It’s about being realistic about what you can do, and being ready to improvise where necessary. The internet is just a tool to do your job – not a death sentence.”

One tool that most journalists are already familiar with is the mobile phone. ‘Our deputy managing director filmed the Hell’s Angels tribute going through South London on his mobile phone and we put it on the website,’says Dudman. ‘There are clearly cost constraints with what you can do. It’s a whole new ball game for us, and you’ve got to be careful that you are getting people to do things that are going to be useful – that are going to drive traffic.

‘Some of the blogs that we’ve done get huge reader reaction, which is great, but some of the stuff doesn’t get such a big response. Everybody now realises that it’s all about The Sun – whether it’s The Sun in the paper, online or on mobile. It’s about increasing the audience.”

Dickinson believes journalists will have to get to grips with the idea of ‘play time’if they are to be successful across several platforms. ‘On a practical note, I would suggest play time. Everyone in the office gets a few hours – even if that’s once every month – to experiment.

‘Say to them: ‘Here is a list of how-to’s and self-paced stuff on starting a blog, using RSS or creating a slideshow. Go and have a go’. We’ve seen that work at an editor level. We take groups of editors and over the week look at the impact of digital across the range of what they do – marketing, editorial, multimedia, the works. After that week they go back enthused. They have tasted what’s possible. And often that’s all it takes.”

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