The Texas Tribune shows why non-profit online journalism matters

Evan Smith screen shot
The Texas Tribune showed late Tuesday night and very early Wednesday morning how an online non-profit news organization can drive coverage of a story and leave legacy media to talk, literally, about muffins.

During one of the most climatic moments in Texas political history, The Texas Tribune owned the story, buoyed by its live YouTube stream of the Texas Senate in a tense countdown to the midnight end of a special session that included a 10-hour filibuster by new social media darling Sen. Wendy Davis and the debate about a controversial abortion bill.

More than 180,000 people were watching the live stream, taken from the Senate feed, when raucous pro-choice supporters verbally overcame senators as the session came to a close and Tuesday turned to Wednesday.

It wasn’t immediately clear if the measure passed. What was clear, and made apparent in many congratulatory tweets, was that The Texas Tribune won by producing compelling public-interest journalism.

The coverage was riveting and a lot of people were watching. [Read more…]

How’d it go? Evaluating the move to digital first student media

It’s been one semester since we implemented a digital first approach with student media at TCU’s Schieffer School of Journalism, where I am a professor and a student media advisor.

I detailed our approach here in May. Now it’s time to assess our efforts (and no, I’m not going to assign a letter grade).

“I feel that we are just on top of everything on campus,” said Lexy Cruz, who served as the first executive editor for student media, overseeing all content across platforms. “It’s almost like we’re just watching the TCU ‘trending topics’ and reporting for students that like up-to-the-minute information and details. I like giving the audience everything we have when we have it.”

Before the move to digital first, Cruz was the editor of the converged website, TCU 360, which hosted content from the TCU Daily Skiff newspaper, “TCU News Now” television broadcast and Image magazine. The site also produced some original content. Each outlet had its own staff and was focused on its own goals.

“The transition to digital first was somewhat difficult at first, regarding the separation from the traditional print style of the Skiff and the habit we’d all been in within student media,” said Taylor Prater, the visuals editor, which was one of four senior leadership positions that oversaw operations under Cruz’s direction. “I believe it was a vital transition.”

Now, aside from Image and our program’s community news website,, all of the content is produced through what has been dubbed “one big news team” with about 70 student journalists and is focused on content and delivering news digitally – and not based on legacy media needs.

Each content area was organized into a team with a team leader who worked as both an editor and senior reporter.

As part of the evolution the senior leadership positions of news director, sports director, visuals editor and operations manager positions have been consolidated. Prater will be one of three managing editors in the spring, reporting to a new executive editor, Olivia Caridi, who was a team leader in the fall.

“We still have some way to go and some things to smooth out, but we are no longer in our old ways,” Prater said.

The transition to digital first was rapid, organic, surprising and exciting, according to News Director Emily Atteberry.

“In May, hearing that our news organization was considering switching to digital first seemed like an absurd joke – there was no way we could make the switch by August, it was too confusing, too risky, too bizarre,” she said. “It was a lot like the Wild West – there are not quite rules, best practices and standards enacted. The first time we had a big breaking news story or two reporters accidentally assigned the same story, it was a bit of a snag. But we found ways to work through things. Flexibility was key.”

Notably, the University of Oregon’s Daily Emerald and The Red & Black, the University of Georgia’s independent newspaper, have gone digital first the past couple years, among others.

At TCU, the consistently best work, according to the students, has come in coverage of breaking news.

“The biggest success is getting breaking news out quickly, while the story still remains factual and well rounded,” Prater said. “Digital first has given the campus an easier means of getting news quickly, which is essential in the growing digital age.”

Just since August, the students have covered the arrest of the football team’s starting quarterback for driving while intoxicated (student reporters previously used open records to reveal he had failed a drug test and admitted to using cocaine) and impeachment proceedings for the student government president.

“We were able to break stories faster and more comprehensively than we had ever been able to before,” Atteberry said, “and we followed stories for days, updating content over and over and adding elements as they became available.”

Cruz said the same standards for accuracy and the other best traditions of journalism still apply, but that they simply have to work faster, comparing what her team has done to a hot meal.

“We have a very hungry beast that doesn’t understand why the food has to sit on the counter ready and become cold when he can eat it fresh out of the oven,” Cruz said.

Digital first allows for more up-to-date, more engaging news coverage, but the move did require a change in mindset.

“We were now being given deadlines within a few hours after an event or news break,” said Luis Ortiz, the “New Now” news director. “It took some getting used to, but I feel like it was worth it and we acquired some new skills.”

Maybe the biggest challenge was figuring out how to impose those deadlines in a digital first environment. The traditional broadcast and print, in particular, deadlines were no longer a focus, but that meant some stories either got lost in the shuffle or were not pushed through because there was no hard deadline like before.

“It was hard figuring out deadlines,” Cruz said. “I always questioned how long it would take to write and copy edit a story and even then I would consider how late the event ended.”

Advisors and professors have discussed what the deadline for event-based stories should be. Thirty minutes? An hour? Two hours? Longer? Shorter? When it’s ready? What about if there’s a live blog?

“I would like to see changes in the turnaround of event stories,” Prater said. “They should be posted within a few hours after the end of the events.”

It’s likely students will be encouraged (perhaps as part of the grade for stories done as part of classes) to file within an hour or two at the latest. Sports game stories already have the expectation of an initial story when the game ends with updates after post-game player and coach interviews.

Prater said she’d like to see more accountability for reporters on deadline and more reporters taking their own photos.

There was also the challenge of putting out a paper four days a week, as well as a weekly broadcast.

“Because we were dependent on 360’s editors to approve content, we had to be very flexible with our budget and had to always have a back-up plan,” said Skiff editor Sarah Greufe.

The Skiff editor and “News Now” news director positions changed dramatically this semester. In the past, both led newsgathering efforts for their respective outlets and had the autonomy to cover what they wished and assign stories based on their production schedules.

“The things that were reported through (the paper and broadcast) were ‘old,’” Ortiz said. “It was very hard to do the newspaper and even the broadcast aspects because much of the content that would come through there was ‘old’ news because it had already been online for a day or two.”

Greufe said the digital first transition had a big impact on how she had to produce the paper.

“We went in with the expectation that stories would be published in a more timely means than they had formerly been in the paper,” Greufe said. “What ended up happening was content would get stuck at some part of the editing process or back at the reporters making it too old for even the paper to publish.”

For Atteberry, who was originally hired as the Skiff editor before taking the news director job and who has written about the transition for USA Today, student media will not truly be digital first until the print scheduled is reduced form four days a week to bi-weekly or weekly.

“Because our paper is still a daily publication, there are still pressures to fill the pages, avoid wire and meet their 9 p.m. print deadline,” Atteberry said. “When we’re breaking a story or covering late events, we still feel traditional print pressure to get it into the paper, which is not necessarily digital-first.”

The efforts of these students are similar to the transition occurring in many professional newsrooms.

“I don’t think we have as many challenges as professionals because students are generally at the edge of technology and social media,” Ortiz said. “The only challenge I feel student news organizations could encounter would be the same as that of professionals, and that’s getting used to producing work quickly and accurately.”

Atteberry, counterintuitively, said there is a disconnect between what she has been taught in school and what has been her experience as an intern.

“I had been taught that I needed to take my laptop to event coverage, live-tweet it, write the story during the event, and have it ready to go 15 minutes after it commenced,” Atteberry said. “When I worked at a daily community paper this past summer, they actually worried that I wrote too quickly even if I took 2 hours to write something up. Digital-first is not yet a strongly developed concept or priority at most community papers.

“If student journalists are passionate about digital first, they will be faced with the challenge of coaxing their employers into the shift or finding a news organization that has embraced the new model.”

Of course, for now, students also have to juggle another challenge: classes that can get in the way of producing journalism.

“Being truly ‘digital-first’ is a struggle for student media because our reporters and editors are also taking a full load of classes and are still learning their positions,” Greufe said.

“Our only issue is that students can’t devote 100 percent of their time to their stories, because of things like classes and grades, which is understandable as a student,” Prater said. “Sometimes that means the turnaround takes a little longer, whereas I’m sure professionals are able to get it all done at once.”

There is, after all, a lot to do – and do quickly.

Refocusing student media to align with digital first approach

We all know the way people get their news has been upended in the past two decades. If you wanted to get the day’s news a few years ago you had to get it when the news organizations said you could have it. That usually meant a few times a day on television and radio or when the newspaper was published.

By the time what we now call legacy media was able to present the news it was inherently old.

Times, of course, have changed. News organizations have to change, too.

That’s the basic idea behind why at TCU’s Schieffer School of Journalism, where I work, we’re going digital first with our student media and realigning our structure to allow us to make that happen. We’ve been converging our student media operations over the past few years and this is the next logical — and perhaps most important — step.

We have a four-day-a-week newspaper, the TCU Daily Skiff, a weekly television newscast, “TCU News Now” (which also produces daily updates), Image magazine and our one-year-old converged website, TCU 360.

Since 2009, our student media have moved into a new converged newsroom, began holding joint budget meetings, moved to a single website and switched the copy desk from the newspaper copy desk to copy editing for all of student media. That was just the start.

Now, the separate news organizations are being reorganized into a single news gathering force that will focus on digital and then use the content that is produced to serve the legacy outlets. There is a caveat. Because of its much different cycle, Image will remain largely independent initially. As will, a community news website that our program also runs.

Rather than centering the newsgathering on a particular media platform, the goal will be to have reporters produce content in real time and digitally. It’s not a revolutionary idea, but it’s one that has to be embraced and sooner, not later.

In our setup, a student general manager will oversee all of student media. Working with that top leader will be a group of journalists focused mostly on content – news, sports and visuals, plus an operations manager to make sure the content gets where it needs to go.

The news group, in particular, will be broken into several teams, or small groups of reporters and a team leader/senior reporter who will focus on beats to come up with and produce stories. Teams could include administration, campus life, Greek life and academics.

Under the operations group will be an engagement person working with social media and a copy desk that will edit stories and post them online, in addition to production specialists who will make sure the paper and broadcast are prepared.

One manifestation of this digital focus could be live coverage of a campus event that takes tweets and relies on an editor – like the rewrite desk of old – to produce that content for print publication.

Steve Buttry, who works for the aptly named Digital First Media and is an alumnus of TCU, helped consult with us – cementing the ideas many of us have had for some time.

The biggest difference from Buttry’s recommendations and what we are doing is that, for now, we’re not reducing the publication or broadcast schedule. Many of us agreed with Buttry. We’d like to go further, but the decision was there simply wasn’t enough time to make such a drastic change on such relative short notice. A university committee governs our student media and the committee hires leaders for each traditional media outlet, according to the student media by-laws. There are also concerns of how advertisers would react.

Digital first is something you’ve likely heard quite a bit about in the past few days. The New Orleans Times-Picayune announced last week that it’s moving to a digital focus and reducing its daily print schedule to three days a week.

The University of Oregon’s Daily Emerald also announced last week that it’s reducing its print schedule to focus on digital, among many ambitious and exciting initiatives.

The Red & Black, the University of Georgia’s independent newspaper, reduced its print schedule to weekly to refocus on digital last year.

In some cases, but not all, a reduction in the print schedule is fueled by a desire to save money.

At a university, particularly one where student media is partly subsidized through an operating budget, we have the luxury that that is not the case.

We get to do this for the right reasons — that it’s the best way to prepare our students for the jobs they will have and because it is how people get their news now.

Simply put, digital first provides more up-to-date news in a more engaging way to better serve the public.

No one that I know in this business is anti-newspaper. However, those in touch with reality know changes like this are a necessity. We can’t cling to daily printed sheets of paper forever.

If there are skeptics, and I’m sure there are some, take comfort in the fact that if you are focused digitally the content will inherently be able to still meet the needs of the print or broadcast products. In fact, when done right, more news content should be produced and available for legacy outlets.

What we’ve found in our discussions about moving to digital first is that reducing the production time associated with traditional media allows for more time to be spent on producing journalism – and isn’t that what we’re all about, anyways?

Universities can take the lead. Some are doing that and we should. There is less pressure and fewer risks for us. If we want our students to enter an industry with a future we have to do our part to figure out new ways to provide great journalism.

I’ve shared a lot here. Now for the most important part: What are your suggestions and advice for going digital first?

Thanks in advance.