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JPI Media to trial 'digital first' newsroom restructure at north east titles

JPI Media is preparing to pilot a newsroom restructure which will see its journalists move away from the traditional print production process to focus on writing online content.

The “digital acceleration programme” will be tested in the publisher’s north east region for three months starting in June and see staff split into three main teams: “digital first”, “print optimisation”, and “smaller brands”.

An email sent to staff from JPI Media editor-in-chief Jeremy Clifford today, seen by Press Gazette, said the three teams would be “working in close collaboration yet focused on specific objectives”.

Clifford (pictured) told Press Gazette: “What we want to do is free our journalists from thinking about the platform they’re writing for just so that they can concentrate on writing the right content which is going to give us the greatest audience.”

He said content will be published online first by the digital staff and then curated and put into the print production system by a specialist print team.

This team will also create print-only content as needed as “clearly there may well be gaps within the printed products as a result of that workflow”, Clifford added.

JPI Media rival Reach, which publishes more than 200 local titles, has already experimented with splitting its print and digital teams in its nationwide Live restructure.

Clifford told Press Gazette JPI Media’s new strategy has “similarities” with what Reach has done, adding: “We know what Reach are doing and we’ve obviously been looking for quite some time at the optimum structure that we want and the way we want to set things up.

“So we’ve listened and learned but we’ve also innovated as well, so some of it is based on what Reach are already doing, some of it is new, and we’ll learn from the pilot as we go through.”

The titles which will see their structure split as part of the pilot are dailies Sunderland Echo, Hartlepool Mail and Shields Gazette, and weekly the Northumberland Gazette.

JPI Media’s smaller titles in the north east, weeklies News Post Leader, News Guardian, Berwick Advertiser and Morpeth Herald, will come under the third strand of “smaller brands” which means they will continue largely as they are now with a dual focus across print and digital.

“Our smaller titles still have an importance in delivering a digital audience and page views to match that but frankly they won’t have the same potential for growth as our larger titles so effectively we are looking after our smaller titles in a different way,” Clifford said.

The programme will also see the roll-out of a new content management system, website redesigns, and new training for journalists, including through the Google Academy scheme.

If the pilot goes well, it will be expanded to JPI’s 150-odd titles “as quickly as is efficient”, likely starting later this year and going into 2020 as equipment, training and new website designs are rolled out.

However it has not yet been decided which newsroom would be restructured next if the pilot is a success.

“This is very much a learning process,” Clifford said. “A lot of thought has gone into it.

“We’ve had very senior people working on what this pilot would actually look like. We’ve spent a lot of time talking to our journalists about the digital transformation journey which we’re going to be taking them on so this is really the first concrete, tangible step you can see along that path.”

However a JPI Media insider who has seen the email to staff described it as “indecipherable nonsense”, adding that “what can be deciphered doesn’t make for happy reading”.

“JPI Media are ‘securing the future of the business’,” they said.

“That’s laudable but optimistic; only last month Jeremy Clifford told staff that titles could be closing a year from now because of falling sales and revenue, and no plan is likely to succeed if it’s written in management-talk gibberish.”

Read Jeremy Clifford’s message to staff in full:

Dear colleagues,

For the past two months senior editors and leaders from across the business have been exploring new ways to build our digital operations and develop new sustainable revenue streams that are critical to the future of JPIMedia, its titles and employees.

We are delighted to announce that the North East titles will be piloting our Digital Acceleration programme for the editorial teams across JPIMedia. This represents a vote of confidence in the digital editorial strategy and will free our journalists from a production process so that they can concentrate on creating the best digital content.

The Digital Acceleration programme is the transformational strategy we need in our newsrooms to secure the future for our business.

The North East has been chosen because it combines daily titles and weeklies, so we can test structures, workflows, and operating systems in newsrooms that can be replicated across our portfolio.

The pilot will launch in June and will run for three months. During that time, we will introduce a number of different ways of working and test and learn as the pilot progresses.

A new newsroom structure will be introduced. We will organise ourselves around three main teams, working in close collaboration yet focused on specific objectives – digital first, print optimisation and smaller brands.

Digital content plans informed by expert analytics will help to guide journalists in creating the right amount and type of news, sport and lifestyle content required by our audiences.

A new content management system will be rolled out – Desk and Editor – which is web-based and will allow reporters to focus on digital storytelling rather than a production process. This enables a division between creating the right content for our digital needs and the means to take that content from the web into print.

The new websites that are currently being tested will be deployed as part of the pilot, as well as new laptops and mobiles to support the journalists, accompanied by new Google Academy training.

I look forward to your support and will keep you updated during the pilot.

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