Tips For Leading Your Online Newsroom

Newsroom leaders in community and suburban media companies today are challenged to do more with less, to multi-task with multimedia, to overcome technical obstacles which often include arcane front end systems & out of date equipment, and to deal with seemingly endless hurdles be they competitive pressures, fiscal restraints, or warp speed changes in consumer expectations relative to new media. The business these days is definitely not for the faint of heart.

But, for those who have got the tenacity and willingness to position their companies to take full advantage of the audience-attracting new and emerging methods of content delivery and the inevitable economic rebound, there’s probably never been a more seminal time for true leaders to guide the way in local newsrooms.

Jim Santori
Jim Santori

Jim Santori, for one, is exhilarated by the current dynamics and he’s not alone. Recent Dean Lesher 2009 Award winner Rick O’Connor of Black Press says he’s invigorated by the challenges of the day and is deeply committed to passing that passion along in his organization. It’s noteworthy that both of these professionals have been in newspaper leadership roles long enough to have weathered prior economic recessions and know that recession 2009 will also end.

Get Yourself Motivated

Santori is publisher of the Mankato Free Press (MN), a 21,000 paid daily within the CNHI group. He recently took center stage at the SNA Foundation sponsored webinar (Leading An Online Newsroom How To Get Staff Motivated & In-Sync With Online Publishing Cycles) to discuss how editors and publishers can more effectively rethink the evolution of their newsrooms to multimedia organizations and to share some of the leadership lessons that he’s learned along the road so far. Santori came up on the news side of the business and was quick to point out that local journalism today is no different than before ‘new media’ entered the lexicon.

The times are changing but not the basics. Good storytelling, sound news judgment, fairness, accuracy, timeliness and connection to community remain the underpinning of local journalism. The methods of content delivery beyond core product, of gathering news, and of interacting with community are the elements that are changing rapidly. Facebook and Twitter today and who knows what’s around the bend. With these enormous shifts comes the need for a new breed of staff and new manner of leadership to guide them.

Today’s effective leader is leaning forward to experiment with the latest technology and delivery tools, and to instill a curious, ‘hate to fail’ attitude in staff.

Santori says that commitment must be exemplified from the top down. You cannot designate someone as your new media leader. Instead, he suggests you form an online team from volunteers in your newsroom. Reward them and lavish them with as much attention as possible. For those who just don’t or won’t get with the new program, leave them behind. “I’m not saying you abandon them,” says Santori, “just spend all your time with those who do get it.”

He encourages fellow editors and publishers to view the demands of the day as a wake- up call. “Times are changing and audience is everywhere. We’re using new tools to tell stories, the demand for news is now, not tomorrow morning, and we have to do more with less which means making hard choices,” says Santori.

With that said, Santori is quick to point out that if you’re sitting in an editor’s chair, then you are taking part in one of the most exciting and seismic changes ever faced by the newspaper industry. Relish in it! Have fun with it. Move forward with gusto and heads up thinking.

Tools for Newsroom Leaders

Journalists are coming on the scene these days that have far greater tech skills than those who came before. They know how to do things that the veterans haven’t a clue about. Don’t worry about that.

Jim pointed to this photo of Kevin Sites as an example of a ready for action 'backpack journalist.'
Jim pointed to this photo of Kevin Sites as an example of a ready for action ‘backpack journalist.’

Santori says that to be a successful leader today, you have to change your style. Forget the general commanding his troops model; rather, think of yourself as a participant in the process. Likening today’s leadership to ‘cat herding’, Santori says to relax and trust that your Gen Y staffers will follow you if you explain where you’re going, what’s happening, what your goals are and how you’re trying to achieve them. And, doing it in a humble way doesn’t hurt either.

As a newsroom leader, you have to constantly reeducate yourself. He pointed to a list of ten things every journalist should know that includes things like how to write search engine friendly journalism and how to use Facebook and Twitter to engage your audience. He encouraged the editors on the July 30th webinar to take a hard look at the list as it applies to them.

Why such attention to new media? Editors need a multi-purpose and multi-skilled newsroom and they should be expressing that goal to staff on an ongoing basis. Readers/users want multiple story platforms. Plus, there are things newsrooms can do online — i.e., maps, video, archives, historic links, conversations — that just can’t be done in the paper. Shrinking news holes also are forcing newsrooms to do more online.

A motivational tool to help your staff want to further develop their multimedia skills is to remind them that, ultimately, you are helping them become more marketable.

Another is a reward system. Santori suggested devising a merit system and assigning points for things like # of web updates, # of blogs, # of tweets, etc and then giving small spiffs monthly (like gift cards for gas or meals) with a big annual prize. He used a laptop as the annual contest big prize and commented that it worked well for him.

He says you can also motivate by attaching tags to all online stories and use Google Analytics or the like to track stats like page views, uniques, average time on page, etc and post that report for all to see. Santori says that reporters take great pride in seeing their story at the top of the list and the converse effect can be equally motivational. (For more on analytics tools check out another archived SNA Foundation webinar: How to Use No Cost/Low Cost Research and Analytics to Understand Your Online Audience — And What to Do With The Info Once You Have it.)

Training & Promoting

Yes, habits are hard to change but Santori says editors must keep evolving and guide their staff to do the same. Train and re-train your staff on new topics like writing for the web, search engine optimization, video editing, how to use slide shows, etc.

Tap your local college or university for trainers and hold brown baggers on related topics. Send team members to regional seminars.

Search for and e-mail links to your staff with helpful tips. Here are several Santori offered to get you started:

Take advantage of the many free or low cost training tools available to the industry. Two free e-learning courses, sponsored by the SNA Foundation with a grant from the Knight Foundation, are available to help newsroom make an effective transition into multimedia. Build & Engage Local Audiences Online and Leading an Online Newsroom: What You Need to Know are free, interactive and self paced learning modules professionally produced by the Poynter Institute’s NewsU division. Over 2,000 local newspaper journalists have already undergone these courses and many editors report that they are using them as training tools in their newsrooms.

An effective newsroom leader today should also be thinking about promoting his talent and his offerings. Santori says that his brethren in the broadcast media do a great job of promoting their reporters/on-air talent. Take a page out of their book and showcase your writers and the talent they have in helping the community stay informed and entertained.

Tout your web offerings to your print readers and your print content to your web audience. Santori runs a large space ROP ad periodically that points to the plethora of content that his website offers.

A full page ROP house ad Jim uses to demonstrate the useful elements of their website.
A full page ROP house ad Jim uses to demonstrate the useful elements of their website.

Have online chats with staff and newsmakers using

Make sure your position descriptions reflect your new direction. New concepts and new expectations redefine jobs in today’s newsrooms. Santori praised this piece from Howard Owens’s Job Description ideas

More to Come

There was much more discussed in the webinar featuring Jim Santori — stay tuned for more on his views of Twitter, Facebook and other social media tools. Meanwhile, check out this and other archived webinars on SNA’s website as another means of gaining knowledge for your newsrooms benefit. Also, don’t forget about peer to peer discussion on SNA Forums as an excellent tool for communicating with others who face the same issues as you.