Digital journalists and the battle over newsroom integration

I’ve been meaning to write about newsroom integration for quite a while and so I’ve written about it for The article is based on conversations that I’ve had with journalists in newsrooms around the world and also from some of the well known examples in the industry, including the experience at the Washington Post. A lot of the quotes are unattributed, but I can say that there is a remarkable consistency to the comments I’ve heard.

Last summer, I was speaking to an award-winning digital journalist, and in terms of the fight for integration at his organisation, he asked: “Was there a battle that we lost?”

I want to say up front that I’m not opposed to newsroom integration. In many ways, I am a big booster of bringing digital newsrooms and traditional print or broadcast newsrooms together. I have worked at organisations where the newsrooms have been physically and organisationally separate, and it’s never been productive. I started working in an integrated newsroom in 1998 when I joined the BBC working in their Washington bureau. Not only did I work closely with radio and television correspondents and producers, but I also covered stories for radio and television. Working together was really positive for me and the broadcast staff. My esteemed former colleague Paul Reynolds used to tell me on a regular basis that I was the future of journalism, and I had all the support that I needed and more from bureau chiefs Andrew Roy and Martin Turner. It was a collaboration of mutual respect.

I think that Jim Brady has it spot on when he said that digital editors still need the autonomy to push news organisations in directions that they might not naturally head. Digital innovations are still often counter-intuitive to leaders in legacy media. We still need people who think different at the table.

However, based on conversations with fellow digital journalists and editors, newsroom integration has been very difficult for them, especially for those organisations that have tried to integrate organisationally as well as at the platform level. Many digital editors and sadly far too many digital journalists have been pushed aside or in some cases completely pushed out. From a business standpoint, especially for those news groups suffering financially, the motivation has been efficiency. As Francois Nel said in the piece, integration has to be about efficiency and effectiveness. Francois is the director of the Journalism Leaders Programme at the University of Central Lancashire, and he’s worked with WAN-IFRA to help newspapers groups including the Johnston Press in the UK with their integration efforts.

I’m surprised that news groups continue to pursue the ‘pure’ integration model because for those organisations that moved early in that direction, such as the FT, many have since pulled back. There is a realisation that print and digital often serve difference audiences, and I think this is especially true as digital has continued to develop. Editors now understand (what I’ve known for years) digital journalism is a practice with its own skills and proficiencies just as print reporting or broadcasting. The dream of the super journalist equally proficient at everything was always more myth rather than reality. Few journalists excel at all roles, and even if they did, the demands of any one role, especially in the age of shrinking staffs, would cause sacrifices to be made, corners to be cut.

One area I only touched on briefly in the piece for was the role of middle managers. Francois said, in a quote that didn’t make it in the final piece:

The most critical person in the any individual’s daily work life is his or her line manager. And, as such, the best examples of change management are those where courageous and visionary leaders empower and equip middle management to handle the fallout.

Right now, middle management is one of the key issues in terms of integration. The subject comes up again and again in the conversations that I have with digital staffs. Even at organisations with strong digital leaders at the top and willing staff, middle management can still stop change dead in tracks, and often this where the energy comes in terms of marginalising digital leaders. They have the most invested in the status quo and least motivation to change. Middle management can and should lead the charge ahead and create a constructive environment for collaboration. However, in a lot of organisations, this is where change lives or too often dies.