Part Two: What’s an online-first newsroom

As promised, here’s my second post in a series on what’s an online -first newsroom. The first post in the series focused on the philosophical ideas that should form a foundation in this newsroom.

Today, I’ll talk about the nitty gritty of an online-first newsroom. This example assumes that a newsroom has both a Web site, and a print publication.

Think about the Web first: This seems obvious. If you’re online first, you think about the Web first. That doesn’t mean throw the leftovers to the print. It means conceive of the Web product first. As a blog post at says, “If you’re still automatically (or semi-automatically) shoveling content from the “print product” to the “web product” you’re doing it wrong. “ Not everything in print should be on the Web. Content must be tailored for the particular medium. And the best of the Web should come back to the print. It’s a circle: The Web flows to print, which flows to the Web, which flows to print in one seamless sphere that connects with readers.

Ask different questions: To focus on Web first, I’d suggest a series of informal meetings throughout the day (my newspaper calls them “stand-up” meetings because they are quick enough to stand through.) And ask: “What’s hot on your blog today?” “What’s buzzing in your community?”  “What are people talking about in your world?” NOT “Do we still have that centerpiece we saved from last week sitting around?” Sure, there will still be enterprise and projects (at least I hope so), but for the news, it should be reported immediately and updated constantly. These stand-up meeting will illustrate ideas for aggregating content, teaming two bloggers up, setting up a Twitter hashtag and creating ways to crowdsource and draw on reader comments.

24-hour news: The Internet is up 24/7, and for newspapers to be online-first, they need to be as well. This means staggered shifts, so some workers are starting very early; others are staying very late. Reporters and editors are updating constantly, so readers have the freshest information when they turn to the Web over their morning coffee and again at lunch and before they leave work. Journalists will have to work together to cover the news day, and everyone will have to pitch in. Follow each other on Twitter, so the health reporter can retweet the court reporter’s tweets and vice versa.

Break down the walls: To me, for an online-first newsroom to work well or at all, the traditional walls between departments will have to come down. No features department. No city desk. No business desk. Perhaps editors who oversee these departments will still oversee those coverage area, but for newspapers to truly be online-first, they need everyone working together.  There’s no time for being territorial. The story should play where it makes sense for readers, even if that’s not in the section that originated the story.

More writers: In an online-first newsroom, I envision more people writing than in a traditional newsroom. Editors and copy editors as well as reporters can blog or Twitter or create communities in a niche. The smaller the print publication gets, the fewer production folks you need. Put them to work connecting with readers and producing meaningful, crowdsourced content. Steve Outing at Editor & Publisher describe well what online-first journalists will do: produce longer pieces in a variety of formats, from text stories to multimedia; blog regularly; update constantly.

A different look on the Web: The Web site shouldn’t look like an online newspaper; it should be organized along topics and give readers context about each topic. (News stories on that topic from a variety of sources, not just the newspaper; blogs and forums on related topics; resources such as links to state and federal Web sites or a program that tells readers where to get the cheapest gas that day.) Steve Yelvington says these topic pages are part of the media’s town crier , town expert and town square functions.

A different look in print: To be online-first, the print product must look different. For one thing, readers won’t notice a different unless the change is striking.  I don’t believe a newspaper can truly be online-first if  they  still thinking like a newspaper-first publications. So what would it look like? I envision a front page with a main enterprise piece or two, meaty updates with the latest (not yesterday’s news) on the biggest stories and a series of prominent refers to the best of the Web. The features cover might become a main enterprise story and a bunch of well-written refers to blogs.  Any section can publish crowdsourced stories culled from the Web. TwiTip, a blog about Twitter, has a great example. The blogger asked Twitter followers a questions and reported their answers verbatim on the blog. Reporters could do that on a variety of topics. Inside pages will feature enterprise, aggregation, refers to what’s on the Web both on the newspaper site and on the wires. Multimedia applications such as video, audio, podcasts will be used when it makes sense to help readers understand an issue or to give them an option of how they find out the news.

Link, link, link: A foundation of an online-first newsroom is every part of the Web product makes it easy for readers to find what they need. If a blog post or story is an update on a developing story, link back to the earlier pieces. Link to what other blogs and news operations are saying about the topic. Link to definitions of technical or complicated words and documents or studies cited in the blog post or story. Embed related videos and audio. If you mention a Web site or blog, make it a link. If you mention a local park or attraction, link to its Web site. Our job is to help readers make sense of their world, so there’s no excuse not to find the time to link. (Plus, this linking can help you index higher in Google.)

Search-engine optimization: Newspapers need to be thinking about this all the time as they become online first. Are the Web headlines SEO friendly, meaning do they contain the keywords people might type into a Google search to reach this story? Are headlines clear, so a computer can understand them and contain the full name of people, not just a last name? Do stories and blog posts have keywords in the first graph. Are stories and blog posts tagged with keywords to help them get found?

Next up: A typical day in an online-first newsroom.


13 thoughts on “Part Two: What’s an online-first newsroom

  1. I love the idea of ‘stand-up’ meetings. It forces writers and editors to constantly be aware of what’s going on with their beats if they know they have to have something to say at the next ‘stand-up’ meeting in 20 minutes.

    I also agree with moving away from the print-look of newspapers. It seems many newspaper designs on the Web resemble the print product of three columns, and a headline story. It -barely- works for the New York Times (whose site design is in desperate need of a makeover) and it really doesn’t work for midsize and small locals. It’s the ‘easy way out’ because it’s comfortable.

    I don’t know where I read this, but someone, somewhere, put forward the idea that in the near future print will be where long, no-breaking, in-depth stories are put. People don’t like reading lots of text on screens; it causes them to skim. However people are more comfortable reading longer stories in print. I think using the print product as a mixture of this, and as you said, refers to additional, Web-centric commentary, would do a publication good.

    In sum: I agree with basically everything you’ve said.

  2. Ben,

    I think the stand-ups are a great way to keep everyone updated quickly. I’m not a fan of more meetings, though. I’m talking quick updates.

    I agree that reading a longer, more indepth story is more satisfing in print. I love “The New Yorker,” but I hate reading it online. It has great pieces that deserved to be read, while I’m curled up in bed drinking tea.

    That may be the future for newspapers. Or maybe some long pieces and some short updates.

    Thanks for sharing.


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  4. Very good summations here, especially the stand-up meetings part. I’ve been a part of those in varied forms in an online newsroom for the past four years.

    Just about everybody should be writing and creating conversations and interaction with readers. But before that begins there needs to be a clear explanation about why, as you provided.

    A glossary would help, too: I think most newsroom personnel need to know what “crowdsourcing” is before they can do it.

    One of the things that overwhelmed me when I started seeking out new media blogs were so many Web 2.0 words and phrases that we just don’t hear that much in newsrooms.

    For online journalism and social marketing insiders they’re old hat; for journalists trying to grapple with all this for the first time it’s a very gradual immersion. The learning curve is steep — I speak from my own experience and I really get into this stuff!

  5. I also meant to add to my above comment about the growing importance of SEO. My former newsroom has made the switch from Movable Type to WordPress because of its superior SEO capabilities.

    Staffers are getting serious SEO training on a regular basis, and linking is finally becoming the thing. We had an SEO person on staff and that made such a tremendous difference.

    There has been plenty of of good progress in the last year or so but plenty more remains. I hope this series of posts serves as a push in the right direction.

  6. Wendy,

    I think you make an important point about the glossary. I’ve learned everything sort of on the fly — from the Web and techie sites, which journalists don’t typically read. (Although I think they should.)

    But I agree that the language of the Web is a whole different language for journalists and a whole different set of routines from what they are used to.

    I think I’ll do a glossary as an upcoming post. Thanks for the idea.

    As far as SEO, that’s great that newspapers are training staffers in that. We’ve had some training at our newspaper, and it really opened my eyes and help me blog better.

    Thanks for your input.

    – Gina

  7. Tom,

    Checked out your post. I do think mainstream journalism in general tends to focus on the negative because that’s deemed more newsworthy. And I’m not sure anyone is truly capable of being unbiased, journalist or not, because we all have opinions.

    I agree with you on Obama. From what I have read from people I trust (Paul Krugman, an economist who writes for The New York Times is one of my favorites), it makes sense to stimulate the economy by giving all Americans a little more money in small doses because they are more likely to spend small amounts than a lump-sum check, which researchers have found people think of as wealth, not income, so they save it.

    While increasing the deficit is troubling, it seems right now we have no choice if we want to jump-start the economy.

    I think the increased voices in the blogosphere, such as your own, serve Democracy because readers don’t just get the mainstream media view, they get a plethora of ideas.

    Thanks for sharing yours.

    – Gina

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