Mobile journalism and workflow subversion

Newsrooms live and die on certain routines. Even when breaking news happens, some things are pretty well written in concrete. Chief among them is workflow. Timely production requires a consistent, regular process. Copy or video needs to be in the same place every time, so it can be found, modified and published.

Mobile journalism — or at least pure-mobile journalism which happens entirely from the field and publishes straight to wherever — beats the hell out of that model. In fact, it subverts it.

Traditional workflow has four activity stages: gathering, assembling, submission and publishing. The third stage, submission, is critical. Within submission includes editor review, copy editing and lawyering (if needed). It’s a critical check in the process. But it all but neutralizes the first advantage of mobile: Content out fast. That’s epitomized by a single conversation I had with a newspaper editor who wanted to integrate pure-mobile coverage into her paper.

Me: Your reporters can report from the scene and go straight to their Twitter feeds and then you can pick it up and RT out of your main account.

Her: Who will make sure their content is correct? Can they email it to their editor and the editor sign off and then Tweet it out?

Me: [blinking]

Pure-mobile coverage works best when it’s a straight line — reporter to publish. It takes advantage of cell or wi-fi network and it’s designed to beat the competition. Turning that straight line into a “Z” causes needless delays in the news process. But it also focuses the curse and blessing of mobile: Can our staff be fast, accurate and appropriate in a hurry.

Here’s how the rest of the conversation with the editor went:

Me: I guess that depends on what’s your tolerance for pain?

So here we are at the crossroads: Do you trust your reporters to get it right AND get it fast?

The workflow that news outlets have created over the years is designed to make sure that there are balances to a story, even if it comes out fast. But the second-to-second newscycle that social media has pushed us into outpaces our check systems. And mobile just makes it harder. How do we balance that? Especially when awareness of what’s happening socially on a story may be hard to achieve by an overworked web team.

I’m thinking of two structures that could help with that. Both structures integrate the outside-the-traditional-workflow that is mobile with the traditional newsroom workflow.


Structure 1: The story wrangler

We have to stop thinking of  “story” not as discrete pieces, as single products or articles, but as an event, or if you’re a West Wing fan, a “thing.”   Stories are ongoing. We might create eight or nine pieces of content that go to social from a single story, as well as our piece for the legacy product, the newscast or the paper’s website/printed edition. Who keeps track of all that? I propose it’s a story wrangler: Someone whose role is to manage the story holistically — guiding the reporter on content needs and keeping an eye on both mobile and legacy products. The person serves as the sole point-of-contact between the newsroom and the reporter.

This is sometimes the role of the line editor in newspapers, but not always. And TV tends to assign a reporter a story for a newscast, throwing operational control either to a managing editor/executive producer/supervising producer-type who is tracking 10 or 12 stories or to a newscast producer who has no incentive to monitor or ask for mobile production, and, quite frankly, is rightfully focused on getting the 5 p.m., cast ready. The web/digital team often gets involved here, but just like the newscast producer or the line editor getting it ready for publication there is no incentive to direct effort towards the legacy product.

Yes, I’m cynical. But I know that self-interest moves markets.

By assigning someone to serve as a combination point-of-contact and coordinator over multiple production, we can manage a story as a single piece. And we can come a step closer to reconciling our outside-the-established-workflow mobile productions with the workflows we have in place.

Does this take restructuring, either in position or in duties of existing staff? Probably. But what if we don’t want to shift people around? This leads us to a second structure…

Structure 2: Paired producers

The advantage of this structure is that it doesn’t create a new position. It’s a simple proposition: Stories are run by the newscast producer and digital producer. They each have the authority to ask for content. The advantage here is that they each have their own incentives to ask for products. The downside is that we’re into parallel command structures that can often conflict. But at least someone is watching the mobile side and is able to integrate it into process.