Wednesday, April 21, 2010

In shift to digital, all hands on deck

Take a look at this laundry list of duties included in a small-city daily newspaper's help-wanted ad for a managing editor:

"The successful candidate will be an innovator, someone capable of integrating new media dissemination avenues into traditional processes. There are also significant pagination responsibilities (using InDesign). Other responsibilities will include but not be limited to: headline writing and front page design; Web updates; staff management; content management; line and copy editing" (emphasis added).

Whew! I'm tired already.

And, says the ad, the new M.E. will "have no fear of hard work" (duh!), particularly in a newsroom described as "lean" and "accustomed to multitasking."

Hey, I'm no slouch when it comes to working hard. And I'm all for flattening the newsroom hierarchy. But I thought the M.E., the No. 2 executive behind the paper's editor, was more a big-picture planner than someone who got their hands dirty -- right up to their elbows.

But that, apparently, was then and this is now:
  • Then (from a 1980s college journalism textbook): "Primary responsibility for news-gathering operations is in the hands of the managing editor ... [who] makes decisions about placement of major stories in the newspaper ... does the hiring, prepares the newsroom budget and makes most of the editorial department policy decisions (in consultation with the editor on major decisions)."
  • Now (from the blog of Journal Register Co. CEO John Paton): "Less management, more feet on the street."
The M.E. ad was posted Monday by a Journal Register paper, one of 19 dailies in a company that also has weeklies, niche publications and a commercial printing arm. JRC calls itself a former newspaper publisher working to become a "modern multimedia news company focusing on local journalism," and in January picked John Paton to make that happen.

The company, once described as practicing "cheapskate journalism,"

got caught up in the rash of bankruptcy filings that since late 2008 snared more than a dozen U.S. newspapers, all weighed down by debt and battered by the recession.

So Paton has been blogging about his vision for the company to an understandably cautious audience. He's been a change agent before, though; in fact, he was named 2009 Publisher of the Year by the trade magazine Editor & Publisher for helping to grow impreMedia into the country's premier print and online publishing company targeting Hispanics.

For JRC, the motto is digital first, print last, and Paton is looking to combine professional assets (staff reporters, for instance) and amateur resources (community bloggers and "citizen" journalists) to do it.

He admits JRC had been nearly sucked dry. But Paton is willing to invest in new staff, training and equipment in the shift to a multimedia future. And one bold initiative, The Ben Franklin Project, aims to test how involved readers want to be in the news process by creating an online vehicle through which they can suggest stories, "vote" for what is assigned to reporters, and contribute information, sourcing and data.

Under Ben Franklin, "Stories ... not judged worthy by the audience could be dismissed while those that may have been dismissed under a legacy model could find new life" -- a radical departure from traditional newsroom operations.

Maybe that explains in part why the M.E. being sought at one JRC paper will be so busy: anything and everything will be tried as the company goes digital.

Still, I have to admit a fondness for the M.E. post I remember, as it was advertised this week by another small-city daily: "We're seeking a leader of people, one who will set expectations and manage performance of the editorial staff, as well as a demonstrated ability to hire and train quality people" (emphasis also added).

After all, somebody has to have a steady hand on the rudder rather than both hands in everything.