Research Proposal: The Future of the Newsroom

September 6, 2009

Using Interactivity to Improve News Gathering and Delivery

The technological surge that has followed the commercialization of the Internet has added some weight to the journalist’s toolbelt.

Ask a reporter as late as 1992 to file a Web story, and she would probably start thumbing her Rolodex for spider experts. Ask a reporter as late as 1996 to blog about the day’s political scuttlebutt or a reporter as late as 2005 to tweet a link to tomorrow’s big enterprise piece, and she would ask why you were talking so funny.

Today’s reporter, of course, would recognize what you were talking about, but might pretend not to in order to buy some time to close out her print story, lay down the voiceover for the accompanying video or follow-up on an online news tip.

Applied properly, interactivity can help journalists better communicate with their audience, their sources and each other, leading to higher quality, more useful content. But, reshaping traditional newsrooms to accommodate it has confounded many a manager. New tools are emerging at a dizzying pace, usually do not fit neatly into any single position and ask shrinking newsrooms to do more with less.

Take Twitter, for example. Even though the microblogging service has been around since 2006, it exploded in popularity over the past year, forcing newsrooms, who seemed to be just finding their footing with blogs, to pay attention to it. They had to decide whether they should tweet, who should tweet, how often they should tweet, what they should tweet about and to what extent tweets should be edited. Meanwhile, they were experiencing some of the heaviest attrition the industry’s ever seen. Tell a reporter newly juggling five beats because his deskmate just got canned that he is now also expected to bang out semi-daily tweets and he just might, well, chirp at you.

It is little surprise, then, that only 5 percent of U.S. newspaper editors surveyed by the Project for Excellence in Journalism last year said they could confidently predict their newsroom’s organizational structure five years hence. My research aims to give these editors some clarity by offering them a flexible organizational model they can adjust according to their company’s size and mission as well as to future business and technological developments. The model will be informed by three source types:

  • Others’ research such as cases studies of two regional Spanish multimedia companies and a northwestern U.S. newspaper’s reorganization task force report.
  • Interviews with leaders of innovative newsrooms such as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where a recent reorganization required half the newsroom to apply for new or different jobs, and The Washington Post, which is in the process of streamlining its award-winning print and Web operations.
  • My own case studies of two distinct newsrooms comprising face-to-face interviews with managers and front-line workers, executive questionnaires and in-person observation.

My research will consider interactivity not only as an instrument to enhance news delivery and presentation, but also as an instrument to enhance news gathering and intra-newsroom communication. I will identify best practices for organizational structure, physical newsroom layout, information technology, workflow and corporate culture and outline them in an interactive Flash, Prezi or other presentation.

A particular focus will be whether specialization or generalization should be favored for a given task. I will also explore whether the reorganization experiences of other industries hold any lessons for journalists.

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