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Rose: Three digital challenges face newspapers; first two will enable third

February 20, 2012

By Becca Clemons
University of Kentucky (Kentucky Kernel)

While many newspapers may be instructing their reporters to take on more tasks as the industry takes on the Web, one editor is rejecting a common adage heard around newsrooms.

Bob Rose first engaged guests at the Mid-America Press Institute’s “Managing Change” workshop with an exercise inspired by legendary designer Tim Harrower, who had used it at another conference.

“Do more with less,” he instructed the journalists on his left to repeat.

“That’s just BS,” he told the ones on the right to chant.

Dealing with digital changes doesn’t necessarily mean doing more, but rather having reporters focus on things that interest them.

Rose, the deputy managing editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, centered his talk on “digital challenges” around three objectives: making money, building an audience and making the community better.

“All three of those are legit goals for newsrooms to have,” he said. If they do the first two — especially using the sports and features desks — newspapers could have the money to do the third thing through meaningful journalism, he said.

“When you realize that, then you have a lot easier time doing the things that make money and build audience,” he said. That in turn makes the community better, which he said is most important.

Rose cited a partnership with CineSport, a national company that  syndicates video on the Web, and blogs about personal topics of interest as ways to get reporters used to sharing what they are thinking, rather than just what they know.

One reporter at the Post-Dispatch had an interest in beer and launched an app about it, and St. Louis Cardinals reporter Joe Strauss hosts live chats to engage his readers with what Rose said is usually more compelling content than a straight game story.

“Find two or three things you can own in your market, and dive in on those,” Rose said.

Rose also encouraged reporters to jump in on the comments section of their news website and respond to readers.

Newspapers should focus more on what readers want — the “user experience,” as it was frequently called throughout the conference — Rose said.

“ESPN had it right,” he said. “What’s the ‘E’ stand for? … Entertainment. They recognize what sports is. They still do their meaningful stuff … but they put entertainment first.”

Margaret Holt, the standards editor at the Chicago Tribune, agreed that some traditional priorities for print must be reconsidered.

“Our long stories are too short and our short stories are too long,” she said.

A cookie cutter design template for certain sections can save time and put more energy toward story elements, Rose said.

Digital changes affect editors, especially copy editors, who must take into account tags and keywords when moving a story online.

Where the copy editors’ big jobs used to be to write compelling headlines, Rose said, they now are often responsible for pushing content to the Web, and in a way that readers can easily find what they search for — in addition to writing compelling headlines.

Reporters and editors must also learn how to write differently for individual platforms, Rose said. Writing a text alert or a tweet requires a different language than traditional stories do.

Rose also suggested that reporters and editors focus less on AP Style and catching small errors, and more on getting information out across multiple platforms.

When others in the session asked if spelling errors could compromise credibility, Rose said resulting corrections could be used as conversations between journalists and readers.

However, those like Holt and Jim Robertson, of the Columbia (Mo.) Daily Tribune, were worried about errors slipping through.

“Print lives,” Holt said.

Photographers, too, must do some things differently in order to meet Rose’s first two objectives, such as photographing posed shots of people at events that aren’t typically considered journalism.

Designers at his paper have also created special merchandise to make papers extra money.

“We made a ton of money off the World Series, and there’s nothing wrong with that,” Rose said.

Also, Rose said, everyone in the newsroom must know the outlet’s content management system in order to save time and reduce the need for a support staff.

Making an analogy to poker, Rose said that currently newspapers “have chosen not to dominate the table.”

“Find out the stuff we want to do and get passionate about it,” he suggested, “and eliminate the other stuff.”

Doing so will allow newspapers to work toward Rose’s third objective — improving the community.

“That is the most important thing,” he said. “That’s why we’re not grocery stores. That’s why we’re not phone companies. That’s why we’re in the business that we’re in.”

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