From walls to canals

“The ‘Chinese wall’ cannot be the only concept governing relations between newsrooms and business.”

Competition is the merciless propelling force of this new era of journalism — and in the year ahead that will only intensify. It’s a beautiful thing, though of course not everyone will win. To spot future winners and losers, watch the following issues:

almar-latourThe “Chinese wall” cannot be the only concept governing relations between newsrooms and business. Yes, there should be clear principles and rules in place that prevent advertising or other special interests from influencing news coverage. Unassailable credibility of news reporting and analysis is a must for serious news organizations.

Yet that cannot mean that newsrooms shut out commerce, or that journalists disengage when it comes to building or rebuilding the successful media companies of tomorrow. The relation between news and business should, on many fronts, be one of shared goals, shared ambitions, and a shared roadmap. An ongoing structured dialogue can accomplish that. The relation should work less like a wall and more like a canal, purpose-built and with a clear narrow focus, transforming the areas it connects. Those news organizations that align with business colleagues on relevant issues will be better positioned to respond to competitive threats.

The spectrum of journalists’ salaries will widen. The sheer number of new initiatives has made competition for talent more intense. And greater visibility of journalists’ individual audiences, impact, and output has made it easier than ever before to help determine the value of a journalist to an organization.

Together, those two factors will force news organizations to manage both talent and costs more wisely: News organizations really are talent agencies, and talent comes in different forms and levels — reward structures should reflect that better. Top reporters who are outperforming competitors should see their salaries go up. For many others, this will not be so. News organizations that get this balance right will be leaner and able to focus on where to pack a punch.

News organizations that dilute or lose their unique identity will flounder. To legacy brands that seek to capitalize on short-term audience gains by mimicking newcomers, the coming year may bring a rude awakening when suddenly they’re left with a whole bunch of clicks — and a gaping hole in lieu of a meaningful brand.

Tools and methods to build digital audiences, from sophisticated analytics to headline styles and story formats, are now available to and embraced by (almost) all newsrooms, not just by those of pioneers and startups. But what may work for some does not work for all. With the same toolkits widely available to all, the battle for audience is pivoting back to the core, the unique identity of content — the quality of journalism. Those newsrooms that have a firm grasp of their audience and their own mission are more likely to thrive; those with less self-awareness may meet a lesser fate.

Collaborative newsrooms will produce more remarkable journalism. Collaboration between coders, designers, and reporters is already more common than it ever was (and an increasing number of reporters and editors carry all those skills in one). We’ll of course see much more of that in time to come. Successful large newsrooms will no longer just operate in the outdated department structure that stems from the print age, but increasingly around projects and required skill sets. Coders, graphics workers, and multimedia specialists should be spread throughout large newsrooms and not be confined to centralized “service centers.” Newsrooms that accommodate this shift will attract and retain better talent, and will produce the best journalism.

All in all, stiffer competition will force tough choices in the coming year. We should welcome that.

Almar Latour is executive editor of The Wall Street Journal.