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Wichita Eagle: Testing a new organizational model for a digital-first newsroom

by: Michele McLellan |

August 09, 2011

Wichita Eagle: Testing a new organizational model for a digital-first newsroom

I’ve advocated that print organizations make their vows of digital-first news real with a fundamental restructuring of the newsroom - one that has most or all of the news-gathering staff reporting to an online editor instead of to an editor or a section primarily tied to print.

That’s proven a tough sell. A few traditional newsrooms have edged toward that type of structure but too many still keep their digital folks away from the power center.

So I was delighted to learn that Sherry Chisenhall, editor and vice president/news of The Wichita Eagle, was working on a similar idea - one that she developed into a plan at the Knight-McCormick Leadership Institute at Knight Digital Media Center.

A month ago, the Eagle newsroom put the new structure into effect, changing the jobs of at least 50 of a total of 60 staff members.

“The world didn’t stop. We kept publishing,” Chisenhall said about two weeks into the new set up. “We clearly place print at the end of the process.”

The key change:  Reporters used to report for the most part to editors of print sections of the newspaper. No more. Now most report to a Deputy Editor/Digital, John Boogert, who also participated in the KDMC leadership program.

Three other senior editors also report to Chisenhall:

- A deputy editor for print, charged with making sure that stories filed online earlier are tweaked, augmented or reshaped for the next day’s newspaper. His direct reports are the visuals editor and staff; the night city editor; and wire news editor.

- A third deputy editor focuses on the news desk and production of both online and print. Another key change is that copy editors who used to edit only print newspaper content now are news editors who work on online as well.  The old newspaper night shift on the copy desk has given way to a staggered schedule that has news editors coming to work starting at 6 a.m.

- A senior editor for investigations works with reporters on daily and weekly watchdog reporting as well as longer projects. She’s responsible for overseeing watchdog reporting on all levels, and working with people on her team as well as across the newsroom.

Chisenhall said the staff has responded to the changes positively, with excitement about learning new jobs.

Training has been a key part of the change - news editors, for example, received training in SEO and headline writing for the Web and how to use social media.

One important lesson for Chisenhall was that you can only plan for so long. She was ready to implement the changes last spring. But the newsroom weathered two rounds of layoffs and her publisher left.

For the past few months, Chisenhall has been acting publisher, doing extra duty with personnel matters in the absence of an acting HR director and editor, which seemed like another reason to delay. But she decided to go ahead. (Clarification added: Original incorrectly said Chisenhall was “acting HR director.)

“You just do it on the fly,” she said. “Then you identify gaps and work together to solve them.”

While many newsrooms have been reorganized to adapt to smaller staffs, the Eagle’s stands out as one prompted by a forward-looking goal: To create a better online and mobile news report.

The News Leadership 3.0 blog is made possible by a grant to USC Annenberg from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

By Michele McLellan, 08/09/11 at 6:02 am


Great stuff!

It’s amazing how many newsrooms still have a structure that revolved around print sections, and that haven’t changed despite drastically reduced newsroom staffing.

Kudos to Sherry for making a serious commitment to transforming the organization itself. I love that training was a big part of the plan, and of special note is the key role of an investigations editor. Put the focus back on hard-hitting journalism. Love it!

By Matt DeRienzo, 08/09/11 at 12:40 pm

So exciting to hear! This sounds a lot like what we’ve been doing for a year at the Columbia Missourian. Nick Jungman (who used to be at the Eagle, coincidentally) created an Interactive Copy Desk. The newsroom delegated print duties to a team of designers, and we managed to, as Nick writes, reset the rhythm of the newsroom. More: http://rjionline.org/blog/transition-–-creating-new-copy-editor-ashes-old-production-desk

By mayerjoy, 08/14/11 at 10:30 am

Michele McLellan

Michele McLellan is a writer, editor and consultant who works on projects that help strengthen the emerging local news ecosystem,
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