'It's been a very steep learning curve… we have had to invent a new type of journalism'

One of the most treasured items belonging to a journalist is traditionally their contacts book. But in the fast-paced multimedia news room at MEN Media there is an open-book policy. The practice of journalists having their own patch and developing their own contacts is being eroded as staff adapt to a way of working that requires them to regularly cover their colleagues’ patches.

Assistant editor Ian Wood – who has special responsibility for convergence within MEN Media, the parent company of the Manchester Evening News, MEN Online, Channel M, 23 weekly newspapers, and a string of websites and radio stations – says sharing contacts and patches has been one of the hardest lessons his staff have had to learn in recent years.

“There is a collaborative side to working in a converged newsroom, which is counter-intuitive for journalists,” explains Wood. “They need to make their contacts books more open, which goes right against the grain for most of them, myself included. But we have to accept that we work now as part of a wider group and your contacts book is a resource for the group.

“The days of the lone maverick reporter are numbered in most cases. It’s not about having cloned reporters all running around doing the same thing. Reporters need to redefine what they do, because they can’t just get the story, write it and dump it onto the newsdesk. That’s no longer good enough.

“In our group, journalists are going to have to provide an expert interview on TV, provide more information for the web and help a colleague on one of the papers. It’s a more complicated place for journalists, but it’s also a more satisfying place because it means we can tell a better story.”

In November 2006, MEN Media introduced a central editorial hub to enable journalists to work across its print, digital and broadcast operations.

Journalists and editors have to constantly ask which stories are best-suited to which medium, how to break a story and how to keep them exclusive.

Wood talks of the “9/11 scenario” where there would be a web-first policy for such a large-scale story, with more labour-intensive, visual stories going on Channel M and analysis in print.

“We have had to challenge lots of received wisdom within our industry about the primacy of print and the nature of exclusives,” says Wood. “One of our reporters got some excellent exclusive mobile footage a few months ago of a fireman who, during a bored moment, climbed into an industrial tumble drier. One of the fireman’s friends filmed him going round in this thing, and it made quite a big national story in the end.

“The traditional way to approach the story is to slap each other on the back and think: ‘that will be tomorrow’s front page’, maybe put the video on the website with a cross-reference in the paper, but what we did was a lot more convergent.

“We broke the story through Channel M at around 9pm that night and in parallel on the website. By that time, most of the nationals have lost interest outside of London as they’ve pretty much got their paper sorted.

“We were trying to make sure we broke the story but also started a discussion and a buzz around it, which would then lead people to want to read more in the MEN. We were trying to make people who watched the TV become print readers. The key to that is good, clear cross-referencing between all the platforms.”

Wood admits that the transition from newspaper to a fully converged multimedia operation was far from smooth. Old print-first traditions were unwittingly kept, or stories broken on one platform undermined another publication, but Wood is far from ashamed of mistakes that have been made.

“For the reporters, it means they have to be a bit more savvy about all the possibilities of telling stories – they need to be asking further questions for the web, in the same way as they have always asked for names, ages, addresses and jobs for the newspaper. They need to ask themselves whether a story will make good television, and rather than asking for that one brilliant picture, get the whole family album because we can use them all now.

“When we first moved offices it soon became apparent that we weren’t using the new hub in the best way possible. Essentially it’s been a very steep learning curve and we have had to invent a new type of journalism.”

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