Integrated newsrooms must remember print and digital are different products

I’ve seen integration happen as several newsrooms, and I was at The Guardian as it began integration.* Much of the integration since 2007 has been driven by economic concerns with little focus on products or even efficient newsroom workflow to serve those products. Alan Mutter, who writes the excellent blog Reflections of a Newsosaur, says that as Jill Abramson takes the reins at the New York Times she will have to choose between two irreconcilable paths.

She either will have to cannibalize the flagship print product to build the strongest possible digital franchise for the Times – OR – she will have to concentrate on sustaining the commercial strength of the print edition at the risk of channeling insufficient resources into assuring the strongest possible digital future for America’s newspaper of record. …

The problem for Abramson is that the print and digital media demand significantly differentiated products, which the Times has not been able to produce to date with even its enviable strength.

I think the New York Times has stepped up its game in this respect over the last two years. Andrew de Vigal has done an excellent job honing the multimedia work at the Times, bringing a coherence that has escaped many other newspapers. Aron Pilhofer, interactive news editor at the Times, has done some excellent work in terms of building great projects and doing great journalism with data.

However, I think that Alan hits the nail on the head. Integration makes sense, but it has to be seen in the context of serving different and differentiated journalism products across print and digital media. Torry Pedersen of Norway’s VG has one of the best ways of understanding this. At a conference in 2009, he put it this way:

He then compared newspapers and the web to a bottle of water and a waterfall.  The waterfall represented the web–continues flowing, raw, unlimited and in real time.  The bottled water represented newspapers–limited space, distilled, refined and bottled.

I think this is why The Atlantic and The Christian Science Monitor are navigating the changes in media successfully. They aren’t pitting print versus digital, but strengthening both print and digital products. In 2010, that allowed The Atlantic to turn a profit for the first time in a decade, and it built on that in 2011 even as many other publishers struggled. Yes, The Atlantic beefed up its web presence, but it also put a focus on writing talent. In 2011, it’s profits doubled in print, digital and events. It improved all of its businesses and even built new revenue streams.

More broadly though, one of the things that I see in terms of news organisations is that those who develop not only great journalism projects but also marketable journalism and information products are the ones best navigating the wrenching changes in the journalism business. This is a mix of transaction businesses, such as those at Fairfax in Australia or Schibsted’s digital classified business, Finn. Some of those transaction businesses might be built around data, especially business data. The products also usually include events such as conferences or dinners, cruises or talks with key journalists. As Suw and I build our little consultancy, the real gap in journalism businesses we see is not necessarily of editorial innovation but of product and revenue innovation.

* I get a sense that The Guardian is only now moving through the first process of integration as it unifies its ‘digital first’ strategy largely under the management of print editors.

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