/ 6 June 2007

How to create an integrated newsroom: ‘Just do it’

While well-resourced newspapers in the developed world are embarking on ambitious projects to merge their print and online operations into a single, sleek news machine, their colleagues in African and other developing countries are nowhere near such convergence, battling a lack of resources and tough media laws.

On day two of the World Association of Newspapers’ World Newspaper Congress and World Editors Forum in Cape Town, a panel discussion looked at such integrated newsrooms: how they can be created and how they function best.

Jonathan Landman, deputy managing editor of the New York Times; William Lewis, editor-in-chief of the Daily Telegraph in the United Kingdom; and Mike van Niekerk, a South African journalist now editor-in-chief of online at Fairfax Media in Australia (which publishes the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age) shared their experiences in integrating their print and web operations.

“The Times has changed,” said Landman, telling of new buildings, open-plan newsrooms, reporters equipped with multimedia devices, and carefully structured newsdesks incorporating web producers. “It’s less about the architecture and more about who occupies spaces and what they do,” he said, referring to new, web-oriented roles for many of the Times‘s editors and journalists.

Lewis’s presentation pictured an even more radical transformation of the Telegraph‘s operations into a single newsroom situated in London’s largest open-plan office space. It took a long planning and training phase using carefully selected staff members to launch a pilot project that eventually grew into a converged newsroom and a much-improved website offering interactive content.

Van Niekerk’s told a similar tale. “You don’t want to be a one-trick pony in a multimedia world,” he said, detailing a 24-hour newsroom, “story managers” working across print and the web, and multiskilled journalists filing reports to any format.

A fourth panellist, Jennifer Carroll, vice-president of new media content at United States publishing group Gannett’s information centre, spoke less of convergence and more of how the group’s many local papers have started using databases to attract and interact with readers.

Whether it’s event listings, restaurant guides or a section for complaints about public servants, these databases complement each paper’s local news offerings and give readers a voice while helping a paper learn more about its audience.

However, it was clear from questions posed by African members of the media that they are far from able to embark on long, costly experimental drives to test out new newsroom configurations and operations. In some cases, strict labour laws make redefining journalists’ responsibilities hard. Also, Africa still has an extremely low internet penetration rate, making mobile news coverage rather than website development an attractive proposition.

Still, it was an optimistic presentation giving a glimpse of the media of the future. Landman’s advice to his colleagues was to “make the rules up as you go”; “Just do it,” said Lewis.