The Invisible 21st-Century Newsroom

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What does the 21st-century newsroom look like? It’s an empty space. How did it get like that? The publisher either bankrupted the paper or began to access thousands of freelance journalists from across the globe.

After 47 years, the alternative weekly where I worked for nearly a decade closed its doors without notice to any of its staffers. It was the realization of what we all knew was coming. We were working in a stagnant place that refused to change with the times. Ultimately, we sank with the ship — not due to a lack of talent, readership, or effort by the staffers but, rather, to a lack of online ad revenue.

What has brought down the once mighty has lead to the rise of new news outlets like The Huffington Post and Patch, based on freelancers, citizen journalists, and news aggregated from other sources. A few weeks ago we saw the Chicago Sun-Times lay off their entire photo staff. I first viewed this as an affront to their loyal employees, but, as someone who has worked on the business opps side, I could ultimately see this as being beneficial. The newspaper was in an unsustainable position. For the Sun-Times to keep operating in its current form, no one would have a job. However, the now-unemployed photographers would still have opportunities to earn paychecks, albeit as freelancers. They had lost the consistency of a full-time job, but they hadn’t lost everything. And they still know how to create engaging visual content.

Many publishers fear losing control over their product if they lose their staff. However, the reality is that they’ve probably already been transitioning to using more freelancers due to the incredible demand for fresh content that even fully staffed daily newspapers can’t keep up with. Through a partnership with Skyword, a publisher can connect with thousands of journalists eager to write. The publisher can seek out subject matter experts (SMEs) for individual articles, which is impossible to do with a limited salaried staff. Skyword can supply editors to edit and proof the pieces, and handle the training needed to get the writers up to speed producing articles in the publication’s voice.

The other mistake publishers are making in the 21st-century newsroom is failing to broaden their view of how news is written. Their traditional view of headlines moving papers off the newsstands doesn’t work anymore. Modern journalism is about gaining clicks and converting them into revenue for you and your advertisers. Readership is no longer about the pull from the front page but, rather, depends on its readers inputting what they want to know about and the paper’s ability to push out the content that fits their queries. Journalism is now as much about SEO as it is about telling a story. News content is now generated instantly and globally. Optimizing that content is the new way to generate sales. If you can prove that your content is being engaged with, something never before available in the print world, you can begin to name your own cost per thousand clicks/views (CPM).

Freelance journalists can give instant credibility to smaller publications. Through tools like Google Authorship, freelance writers’ résumés are available with a single click. This will show your readers that writers are writing not only for you, but possibly also for national publications that are household names. In new journalism, the writers are helping push your content through social channels. Just like you’re proving your site’s value to your advertisers, writers need to show that their work generates clicks so they can gain repeat business or command a higher price per word (PPW). It’s an ecosystem unimaginable to the newspaper barons of the 20th century.

As we see staples like The Boston Globe being put on the market with an expected sales price 1/10th of what The New York Times Company purchased it for in 1993, we understand that the traditional system is broken. To avoid falling victim to a similar fate, the 21st-century newsroom must cut costs, think like a startup, and ask how to get the most with the least amount of capital. The easiest answer is to use the changing field of journalism to your advantage, change your newsroom, change your style, and change the way you’re producing content. The traditional newsroom is getting emptier by the day, but the virtual newsroom is bigger than ever.

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