News businesses must think about content, not just products, to ensure their survival

I work for a 126-year-old start-up company.

Since our founding in 1883, Gazette Communications has revolved around the newspaper that gave the company its name. As time went on, the company added a television station and various other products, but our focus was always on the products, especially that venerable core print product.

We developed a pretty good staff to provide content for the products, but their work always revolved around the products. Editors would meet daily in a conference room and talk about the stories that would be in the next day’s paper, writing slugs and story lengths on a whiteboard. The story lengths were not based on the amount of relevant content a reporter might develop. They were based on the interests and attention span of a mythical average newspaper reader and on the price of newsprint.

After two newspapers that were older than ours, the Rocky Mountain News and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, folded within the past month, it’s clearer than ever that a proud past doesn’t ensure a prosperous future. We are feeling the same pressures as all newspaper companies. In fact, beyond the national economic problems and the industry turmoil, our community is reeling from a historic disaster. Our company is cutting its staff from about 600 before the flood to about 500. I had to tell 14 journalists last month that their jobs were eliminated. But whatever turmoil our products face, the demand for content is stronger than ever.

So Gazette Communications is unhitching our content generation from product management.

If you just thought, “Huh?” you’re not alone. Our staff and some of our leaders are still working on understanding this concept. Content and product are so closely entwined in newsroom organizations and in the minds and hearts of journalists that “untangling” would probably be a more accurate verb for the paragraph above than “unhitching.”

A Mark Briggs blog entry in January quoted Tom Peters, summarizing the mental and cultural challenge we face: “Visa founder Dee Hock said it best: ‘The problem is never how to get new, innovative thoughts into your mind, but how to get the old ones out.’ … Every enterprise (and every individual) needs a formal … Forgetting Strategy. We must be as forceful and systematic about identifying and then dumping yesterday’s baggage as we are about acquiring new baggage.”

So I spelled out the forgetting strategy for our staff, listing some time-honored terms and concepts in any newsroom (starting with the word “newsroom”): reporters, editors, photographers, columnists, deadlines, story lengths, space, gatekeeper, story selection …
This had to start with me forgetting and forgoing my title of editor, which, of course, I had been thrilled to accept last May. Gazette CEO Chuck Peters had suggested Information Content Creator or Moderator in his blog, but I didn’t like either of those. I countered by suggesting conductor. I liked three different meanings of the word: musical (orchestrating creative people), railroad (helping people get where they want to go) and electrical (carrying energy). Most important, it says we’re doing something different, forgetting something precious.

As conductor, I lead a start-up organization, which we are calling Content Creation & Collaboration. We will have about 30 entrepreneurial journalists whose sole job is creating content, some in topical areas, some providing enterprise or covering breaking news. Other staff members will lead the group or provide training and support. We will publish unedited content digitally in a multitude of forms: stories, yes, but also bulletins, updates, tweets, liveblogs, photographs, videos, multimedia, graphics, source documents, databases, links and whatever other form is appropriate.

We will sell our content to The Gazette and other products our company owns and they will edit the content to meet the needs of the packaged products. We also will sell content to external customers such as other media outlets and will seek ways to sell enhanced content (such as photo reprints or customized products) directly to the public.

Our start-up will collect revenue for advertising sold to accompany these streams of unedited content, though the journalists producing the content won’t handle the advertising sales ourselves. Gazette Communications’ sales staff will sell advertising, but we also can use Google or other third-party ad sales. We also hope to develop some direct-sales opportunities for business customers, though that responsibility will rest with our colleagues responsible for transforming our approach to commercial content.

We’re in the transition right now, making staff assignments, working out the details of workflow and communication and deciding which functions rest with the content staff and which are product-focused. We answer many questions by saying, “We don’t know yet.”

But here’s an example of how it will work: In the print-only days, a reporter covering a trial spent all day in the courtroom, then wrote a story for the morning newspaper that summarized the day’s action and presented a few highlights. That story might be 12-15 inches, more than many readers cared about but not nearly enough for people with strong interest in the case. Now that reporter will liveblog from the courtroom, writing perhaps 4,000 to 5,000 words and interacting with the audience. In a throwback to the days of “Sweetheart, get me rewrite,” a product editor will cut, paste and edit a story for the morning Gazette from the liveblog (probably not the 12-15 inches of days gone by, because our newshole is tighter). If the judge makes a key ruling, the reporter would file a bulletin to our breaking news blog, informing people who aren’t watching the case as closely and linking to the liveblog.

Because building audience will be part of our journalists’ responsibility, the journalist would also tweet news developments in a Twitter feed, linking to the liveblog. And the journalist would link to relevant external contact as well as to archived stories about the case that would provide context.

The basics of journalism remain unchanged, even strengthened: We’ll answer who, what, when, where, why and how in greater depth, free from the limits of products.

About Steve Buttry

Mr. Buttry is information content conductor for Gazette Communications. This is a new position, overseeing the creation of a content organization that will be separate from the production and management of packaged products. He has spent 38 years in the news business. He was a reporter, editor and writing coach for the Omaha (Neb.) World-Herald, Des Moines (Iowa) Register, Minot (N.D.) Daily News, Kansas City (Mo.) Star and Times and the Evening Sentinel in Shenandoah, Iowa. He spent three years working with the American Press Institute and its Newspaper Next project.


  1. Thanks Steve,

    This is very refreshing. Innovation has always been the key to success even in normal times.

  2. says:

    “We will publish unedited content digitally in a multitude of forms: stories, yes, but also bulletins, updates, tweets, liveblogs, photographs, videos, multimedia, graphics, source documents, databases, links and whatever other form is appropriate.”

    This approach, frankly, worries me. Who ensures the accuracy of the information before it is published? Particularly when the reporter will be required to send out so much information, in so many different forms, so quickly? Where are the fresh set of eyes to catch the unanswered question? Or the jargon or convoluted sentence structure?

    And by taking a reporter out of the story writing process in at least one of these scenarios (the rewrite), who ensures that the information is “packaged”/written with the appropriate context? Sound bites can be notoriously misleading.

    Don’t get me wrong. I am all for online news and innovation, and think it’s great that folks are taking risks. But I’ve worked at a lot of small publications where editing barely existed — it’s not a good strategy. Trust earned by our (as in traditional print journalism) readers because of the diligence before publication is one of the intangible assets of our business. If transferred online, it should also give us a competitive advantage.


  3. says:

    Living in Seoul, South Korea, audiences are exposed to WMD and WMP(Weapons of Mass Propaganda). How can people control the information overload? Personally, I’ve been soaked with North Korean missile coverage lately? I want to know the facts, rather than opinions. By the way, excellent article. From Chulwoo Kim, Korea Institute for Defense Analyses.

  4. says:

    good start.

    forget everything. think for yourselves.

    meet up with other bands of journalists along the way.