The Transition Part Two – The Print Desk survives, and thrives

By RJI on January 5, 2011 4 Comments Ideas Experiments

by Jake Sherlock

Jake Sherlock is an assistant professor at the Missouri School of Journalism and the print editor for the Columbia Missourian.

The idea behind The Transition was to isolate our print operations into one small team that would handle the five-day-a-week community newspaper, which is managed by professionals and produced by students.

That team would consist of one faculty editor, the students in the Advanced News Design class, a few paid students working as designers and editors, and a pair of media assistants handling the less glamorous side of print production like putting ads on pages and filling in lottery numbers.

No managing editor. No photo editor. No graphics editor. No reporters. They were all left to focus on our digital offerings.

Oh, and about that isolation thing? We’re tucked back into the far corner of the newsroom. It’s not a basement boiler room, but we’re clearly not the focus of the newsroom. That honor goes to the interactive copy desk now, and its close companion, The Hub, where all of the content-producing editors gather to coordinate our digital offerings.

We print folk do our own thing.

They have ColumbiaMissourian.com, and we have the Columbia Missourian. For a long time, the two publications mirrored each other. That ended under The Transition. Among the changes:

  • We no longer discuss the print product at our afternoon budget meeting. The focus is all about what’s already online, what’s still to come and how it’s going to be handled digitally. Print team members sit in on these meetings, take notes, and then decide which content is best for print.
  • We no longer wait for content to come to us. We work the newsroom to get what we want. (This is where The Hub comes in handy.) We have a limited news hole and a ton of online offerings.
  • We only “order” print content from departments as part of our presentation. Example: Previously, our graphics staff would conceive graphics for print and shovel them online. Now, all graphics are made for an online presentation; print graphics are only made if the print team asks for them.
  • We follow our own publication schedule. If the piece of journalism has a yesterday, today or tomorrow attached to it, it runs right away. But we will hold a centerpiece package to run when we can give it the best presentation possible. The same goes for a long narrative or a photo essay. Or we might hold something to produce print-only companion content.
  • We produce content. My favorite example came with our Thanksgiving food page, in which the designers each contributed a Thanksgiving recipe to a doubletruck page. Everyone prepared their own dish, then brought them to the photo studio for a shoot. It was a fun team-building exercise (anything with food and journalists usually is), and a great way to share recipes with our readers that they too could make for the holidays.

Working the room certainly changed some dynamics. With all of the “official” meetings focused on digital, other editors would come to our corner of the newsroom to make recommendations or lobby for front-page play.

The managing editor would stop by at 6 p.m. for a quick check-in and to get a rundown of what was happening on the front page.

But overall, their focus was still where we wanted it to be: How to deliver news digitally.

No longer is the entire newsroom dictated by print deadlines.

Just us.

Overall, I’m proud of the work our students did. Even with fewer resources and fewer copy editors, we maintained our quality while giving the Missourian a much different identity than its online sister publications. The print team learned to be resourceful, nimble and proactive journalists, which are essential skills for any platform.

But most importantly, we didn’t just think about the reader – we thought about today’s PRINT reader.

Find out more about the work the Missourian’s print team is doing at blog.jakesherlock.com or read about other issues affecting The Transition at transition.columbiamissourian.com.

Look on the RJI blog for Part one: “The Transition – creating a new copy editor from the ashes of the old production desk”.

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Comments

I'm happy to hear newspaper

I'm happy to hear newspaper reporters have been freed from print deadlines, but I worry that the print product could suffer from the isolation.

If the problem before was that the website was a recycled version of the print edition -- doesn't this create the opposite problem? How does the print team choose the content? It seems very disconnected from the content producers -- reporters, photographers and graphics designers.

How does the story change once it's posted online? Does it evolve before it's printed on paper later that night? How does the print team make things fresh, innovative?

What's the purpose of the print edition? If the print edition is a "best of" what was online the day before, print readers are paying for packaging of content they can get for free online.

Hi Jackie. Great to hear from

Hi Jackie. Great to hear from you.

When it comes to choosing content, we raid the online budget each day after the budget meeting, then talk about what aspects of that budget needs to go in the next edition (obits, timely news, etc.), what's fully developed and ready for publication in print, and what we may want to hold a day or two for either better presentation space or for further development.

In short, we've tried to give the Missourian an identity separate from the online edition.

As for disconnection concerns, we're really not. As a print team, we're aggressive in working the room to gather our content, and in doing so we have conversations about how it should be presented in print. And the ACEs and interactive desk are mindful of keeping us informed when a story drops from the budget or if something gets added late. There's still lots of back-and-forth -- we're just no longer the focus of the newsroom.

As far as fresh and innovative goes, we hold weekly staff meetings to brainstorm ideas designed to accomplish just that. This is where we discuss upcoming coverage, brainstorm our own story ideas, and talk about presentation techniques that will help us better organize and share information with print readers.

I like to think of us as "spun off" from the rest of the newsroom into our own little guerrilla unit. Designers were given more responsibility than ever before, and they responded very well. We didn't see a drop in quality, even with fewer people working on print, and we better focused the paper on print readers rather than as a reflection of the website (or vice-versa). They're two different publications with two different audiences, and we do a much better job of playing to those audiences now. There's still room for improvement and growth, and that's what I'm working toward this next semester with our new crew (which, fortunately, includes several members of the old crew).

Also, one last side note I'm very proud of: Our single-copy rack sales were stronger than they have been in the last several years in the month of October. Homecoming was good for us (as is a winning football team), but it also speaks to how well the print team did in giving readers what they wanted/needed that week going into the festivities.

Jake, this all sounds so

Jake, this all sounds so exciting. I'd love to stop by during T/F this year and see what it's all about.

We're in the process of trying to reconfigure our processes at the BND. One question from our editors is: How many people do you have working on these shifts? I'd imagine the scenerio at the Missourian is a bit different than in our newsroom, simply because there's more available manpower. Do you think something like this would work with a team of 6 or 7 copy eds?

Sallie, I hope you will stop

Sallie,

I hope you will stop by during T/F. I always love to see you when you're in town. :)

Our nightly print breakdown looks like this:

3 designers, i.e. students in Advanced News Design (1A, inside pages, sports) -- we only had inside designers a few times a week; otherwise, the work got picked up by one of the paid students.

3 paid students (TA's) per night. They came in at staggered times. The lead TA came in at 5, the sports TA at 6:30 and the third TA at 7 p.m.

1 copy editor, starting at 7 p.m. (that person spent the first part of his/her shift at the interactive desk, then moves to print for the rest of the night)

And, of course, good ol' Ron.

For interactive, you have the news editor, 2-4 copy editors (depending on class schedules and such), and a TA. That's pretty consistent from 8 a.m. until the last story comes over for the night (interactive tends to slip out before print most nights).

With 6 or 7 experienced copy eds, I think it can be done. The editing on the print desk isn't as "heavy" since most everything has already been through the interactive desk. It still needs a re-edit for print, but the interactive desk generally handles all of the heavy lifting (spot checking names, fact checking, style points). If you went to more of a templating system on your inside pages, you could slam those out pretty fast, which would give your print designers a better chance to concentrate on the stuff you really want to concentrate on (1A, special projects, et al).

It will be different for every shop, of course. But hey, why not try it? You can always go back to your old processes.

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