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Time for a reorganization? 5 steps for a successful newsroom reset

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Reprinted from GateHouse Newsroom

Here at GateHouse Media, we've focused a lot of energy this year on serving our mobile audience. We've talked about blowing up traditional storytelling for some types of stories in favor of alternative story forms that work well on mobile.

So, I decided to do a little survey to see how some traditional news websites (websites that grew out of print) handle stories as part of the mobile web experience. Here's my methodology:

  1. Evaluated six sites that would be considered large by GateHouse standards. GateHouse owns quite a few small to mid-sized community newspapers and their websites.
  2. Didn't include GateHouse websites because I wanted to take the pulse of the industry in general, but we're still feeling our way through this ourselves.
  3. Didn't include apps, just mobile websites.
  4. Evaluated the first three stories on each of the websites, for a total of 18 stories.

Results: All but one were told traditionally.

That's disastrous. Really.

The one alternative format was in the Austin American-Statesman. The story reported opening statements in court, and the bold lead-ins were update times. This wasn't fancy, but it was a very simple timeline of sorts that guided readers through the facts as the court coverage continued.

The Statesman also had a cool video on hot temperatures, a by-the-numbers in video format. At the time I looked, it wasn't one of the first three stories on the site, but it was worth a mention.

Meanwhile, my research also included non-legacy newspaper websites: Vox.com, fivethirtyeight.com and billypenn.com. I used the same methodology: top three stories on the three sites.

Results: Four out of nine stories used alternative story forms.

FiveThirtyEight did best, with two out of three stories told differently. Since so much of its coverage is data and analysis, this makes sense. One story was a chat format the site uses at least weekly. A few staffers sound off on a topic, in this case: How many of Trump's supporters really are deplorable?

I won't belabor the point that the legacy print websites had about 5 percent of stories told in alternative way, compared with 44 percent of the websites not connected with a newspaper. My findings are hardly scientific, but I read a lot of news, and I'm not surprised at the outcome.

What qualifies as an alternative story?

Anything that breaks up straight text. For example, a story might be reading like a straight narrative, but then there's a big subhed, and another big subhed. This is clearly a strategy the writer employs at the outset.

For example, one of the Vox.com stories, Brutal Batch of Polls, has a number of bullets in the first third of the story. Then, the story is divided into "The case against Democratic panic" and "The case for Democratic panic."

Here's an outline of the story:

  1. What are the new polls? Bulleted info on the polls, organized by state.
  2. The case against panic
  3. The case for panic

Vox.com's desktop (left) and mobile (right) sites

An alternative story is especially suited for the mobile reader because of the guidance those bullets and headers offer to someone reading on a small screen. In "How to reinvent alternative story forms for mobile readers," you'll find more examples.

If you're a reporter who has gathered your information on this story about the new polls, you can choose to write it the way reporters have been writing forever: paragraph after paragraph of text, broken up by a few quotes that look just like every other paragraph. Or you can give the structure of the story some thought to determine the best way to present that story to the reader.

Should every story use an alternative format?

No. Some of the stories I saw were short crime stories. Those are fine in a traditional format. Some stories have gorgeous writing, transitions that move readers effortlessly through the prose, and quotes that sing. Let's leave those stories alone because who doesn't want to immerse themselves into a story that is a work of art?

But for all of the information we crank out, let's give the format of the story some thought. Could this be a Q&A explainer on a complicated topic? Could we do a fun list?

Alternative stories are often quicker to write and easier to absorb. Why don't we write them more often? Because we're creatures of habit, so we crank out another 20-inch story, spewing our information at overwhelmed readers.

Next time, let's try something different.

As senior director of content, Jean Hodges develops strategy and works with newsroom leaders on digital transformation, from newsroom structure to using analytics to inform news decisions. As journalists face myriad challenges, the best are experimenting with new ways to draw readers in, while fearlessly tackling watchdog reporting and sticking up for the underdog. Hey, there's hope for us yet. 

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