On Media: The future comes to the present at The C-J

Dec 5, 2006 at 8:23 pm
The future of newspapering was made clear to Courier-Journal staffers this week in the form of company-wide meetings focused on a new reality — C-J parent company Gannett is implementing its “Information Center” concept in Louisville, standing traditional newsroom realities on their collective heads.

What has seemed a gradual shift to delivering news in new ways will, in a month or so, affect how every C-J employee works. Uncertainty is the dominant theme in The C-J newsroom, er, information center, where editors and reporters are trying to understand specifically what they’ll be expected to do.

Rumors of the impending changes have circulated for a while, but reality hit hard here in the form of a PowerPoint presentation detailing how the paper will change.

Gannett is shifting focus to the Web, and content there is more local, more frequent and more important. Now the copy desk won’t close when the last print edition goes out the door, but will be staffed around the clock, ready to update changing stories or report in real time on 3 a.m. crimes and overnight storms. Forget the 9-5 newspaper job, as reporters may be expected to file stories when they happen, where they happen.

In a Dec. 4 story about Gannett’s changes, The Washington Post described these newfangled reporters as “mojos” — mobile journalists — who use laptops and digital cameras to report and post from anywhere at any time. They don’t have an office at the newspaper, but more frequently write in their cars. The question “Got your mojo working?” may become legitimate inquiry at Sixth and Broadway.

Reporters covering breaking news won’t have the luxury of returning to the office and contemplating a story. Now they’re expected to report immediately, then update frequently. Some of this is already in place. If you sign up for it, The C-J will send an e-mail at the end of each quarter of U of L football games.

Last month, Gannett CEO Craig A. Dubow sent a memo to workers at the company’s 90 papers introducing the “information center” concept. It said, in part, that “implementing the Center across Gannett quickly is essential. Our industry is changing in ways that create great opportunity for Gannett. Innovations such as the Information Center are one way we are meeting the challenge and implementing our strategic plan.”

Locally, VP of News Bennie Ivory seems to be taking the implementation order to heart. According to staffers who attended the Dec. 4 presentation, there will be wholesale changes in terminology and titles right away. For example, the news desk will be replaced by a “First Amendment Desk” enveloping the Metro, Neighborhoods and Business operations. A “Lifestyle Desk” will include Features, Sports and Velocity. An “I-Team” will work on ideas and innovations for the newspaper, which, really, can’t be called simply a newspaper anymore. If “I-Team” sounds more like a TV station promo, it should. The paper’s experiment with video and online photo galleries will become an integral part of the operation.

A “Data Desk” will compile information so readers can look up, for example, salaries of public officials. Online, a series of “micro-sites” will contain news relevant to specific areas. For example, a St. Matthews micro-site might include items not previously considered worthy of coverage in print. On the Web, there are few space limitations, so you might someday see video of Little League baseball submitted by a reader.

The Post story introduced other radical concepts for traditional newspapering, including an idea that breaks down the wall between reporters and advertising staff. At The News-Press in Fort Myers, Fla., reporters are asked to go on sales calls as potential advertisers are pitched on sponsoring specific stories.

The Gannett directive seems to allow local papers leeway in deciding which innovations to embrace, but marching orders are that radical change is necessary and required. Innovation is encouraged, as long as it brings more readers to the paper or its Web site.

Gannett’s goals are simple. It must adapt its products to remain relevant in a world where individuals can get information elsewhere. Its bread-and-butter, the print edition, is so 20th century. Circulation and revenue have been declining for a decade, and Gannett’s stock price is down 25 percent over the last two years, according to the Post.

In the local meeting, the big picture was made clear, but left some staffers wondering about their new roles. That will surely make for a lively workplace over the next few weeks.

Rick Redding’s blog, the ’Ville Voice (www.thevillevoice.wordpress.com), covers local media and politics, among other things. Contact him at
[email protected]