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March 18, 2009, 9:22 a.m.

Conducting journalists: The Cedar Rapids Gazette in startup mode

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Back in December, at my old blog, I posted a set of media predictions for 2009, including:  “Some innovative new approaches to journalism will emanate from Cedar Rapids, Iowa.”

Around that time came the unveiling of Newsmixer, a project by Medill School of Journalism students working in collaboration with the Cedar Rapids Gazette.  Newsmixer, which has not progressed beyond a demonstration stage, is a concept for social networking around news, something the industry urgently needs to develop.

But Newsmixer came out in 2008, so it doesn’t count to fulfill my 2009 prediction. This does:

The Gazette’s Steve Buttry last week announced bold changes in the organization of the Gazette newsroom.  Buttry was editor of the paper, but that role has passed to Lyle Muller, and Buttry has assumed a newly coined title: Information Content Conductor.  I’m sure he’s the only guy in the country with that title right now.

The change is part of a broad and ongoing functional reorganization being led by Gazette Communications CEO Chuck Peters.  Chuck, you may recall, achieved some blogospheric fame last fall by liveblogging the American Press Institute’s Summit for an Industry in Crisis.  Unlike most news executives, his previous experience includes leadership of a completely different business — he was president and COO of Amana Refrigeration, the kitchen appliance firm.  He also has a law degree.  His background is a key reason Gazette Communications (which includes TV broadcasting and commercial printing divisions) is coming up with innovative new strategies for dealing with the challenges printed newspapers face.

In announcing his own new role, Buttry summarizes the Gazette’s new approach as follows (italics added):

We have decided that we can best meet the challenges of the future by changing our company completely. We will have an independent organization which I lead focused exclusively on developing content from our professional journalists as well as from the community. We will publish this content digitally without editing and without the limitations of products. Another organization will plan and edit products, such as The Gazette and GazetteOnline, using content from my organization as well as others. As editor, Lyle has one of the key leadership positions in that organization.

In explaining the conductor title, Buttry refers to its connotations in several other environments:

As a musical conductor does, I will be orchestrating the work of creative people. As a railroad conductor does, I will interact with the public to provide an orderly, satisfying experience. As an electrical conductor does, I need to carry energy in the staff and the community.

The reorganization (which has not come without some critics) doesn’t stop there.  Reporting to Buttry will be former reporters and photographers, now carrying business cards that say “Journalist.”  And it goes further: there is, for example, a “content ninja.

But it’s not about titles, it’s about how the enterprise is organized.  Most newspaper companies have still not committed themselves to becoming fully digital enterprises.  At most newspapers, the work in most departments is organized around one daily event: at a specific point in time the start button on the press is pushed, and all reporting, editing, selling, production and distribution tasks are orchestrated to make that happen.  Everything else, including the publication of online content, is secondary.  The conductor of that orchestra is the publisher, and the editor as the leader of the content creators is bogged down with print-specific production concerns.  Many papers profess to be in an online-first mode, but when you ask the employees who they work for and what they do, they talk about the print product, because it not only brings in 90 percent of the revenue, but it demands 90 percent of the work effort.

The Gazette has blown up that model as a step toward disaggregating the entire business into a set of collaborating entities.  In theory, some of those entities could be spun off as separate businesses without changing the dynamics — arguably, a fully-digital news and information entity wouldn’t want to be encumbered with the iron and steel of printing, packaging and distribution.

Flip through Peters’ presentation (and follow his blog) to the recent NAA MediaXChange to get an understanding of the company-wide reorganization.  (For a clearer view of the “superblog” slide, click here.)  The changes envisioned in Cedar Rapids include:

  • Moving from being communications media to becoming social media
  • Interacting strongly with, and strengthening, the communities that form around the content
  • Abandoning a control model and creating a collaboration model
  • Changing the company culture from “franchise” mode to “startup” mode, and from “authority” to “transparency”
  • Focus on connecting people, not on the technology

In effect, Buttry’s content unit will be an online-only news entity just like the new Seattle P-I, MinnPost, Voice of San Diego, and others, but with this difference: it will be part of a forward-thinking organization in which content can be remixed and republished in multiple ways to reach audiences through traditional print products, niche publications, multiple web sites and social networks.  This is a news startup to add to your watch list.

One final thought: The notion of a news enterprise consisting of a set of collaborating units operating in startup mode also suggest the potential for other online-only news startups to fashion a Cedar Rapids model by entering collaborations with printers and others to find additional distribution channels and revenue streams.

POSTED     March 18, 2009, 9:22 a.m.
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