Seeking a competitive edge, publishers rethink integrated print-digital staffs

As print revenue continues to shrink, legacy publishers are facing the question (again) of how to deploy their (also shrinking) staffs.

In the early days of the web, print publishers had digital operations that were separate from their print teams, and often considered second-class; understandable, considering most of their money was and is still being made on print. Over time, most newsrooms integrated their print and digital operations. They’re not abandoning the mantra of integration; that’s a luxury few can afford anyway. But recent moves reflect a growing recognition that each channel has its distinct needs.

The moves take different forms. Time Inc. has a growing number of people who work just on digital. Last week, the magazine giant created digital desks to improve sharing of stories across 10 content areas. “It’s recognizing that audiences move around the web in ways that aren’t always brand-centric, and it’s different from picking up a copy of a magazine,” said Edward Felsenthal, group digital director at Time Inc.

New York magazine, which is noted for its high-quality design, has an editor who just looks after print and one who just looks after digital, while it also appointed an editor to make sure features get widely distributed across all New York’s digital channels, from The Cut to Vulture to Grub Street. “Ultimately, print has certain dynamics that are different from digital. It’s a much more visual medium, and stories are meant to be received in a physical form, whereas digital is about being fast,” said Adam Moss, editor of New York magazine. In yet another example, the New York Times last year carved out a special desk to work on inside print pages.

Kevin Anderson, who does digital media management consulting through his company, Ship’s Wheel Media, said since the 2008 recession, there’s been a loosening of the integration knot as publishers realize its limitations.

“It’s really a sense that you’re serving different audiences and they’re operating on different tent posts,” he said. “Pure integration said, everybody serves everything. It led to really ‘meh’ products. The dis-integration is a realization that you’re not going to have great execution if you have people trying to serve two or three masters.”

Jeff Sonderman, deputy director of the American Press Institute, said there are times when it makes sense to have a separate operation, like when you’re going into a completely new business, such as events. Legacy and digital publishers alike have dedicated staffs for specialized areas, like video and Snapchat.

With print publications, however, he said, a lot of the work involved in producing stories doesn’t completely change from one platform to the next, so the challenge is to figure out what parts of that job to separate out. The Dallas Morning News’ answer to this was to create content groups, freeing reporters to think about the best way to tell a story and leave the repackaging and reformatting to others.

Will these process changes work? It’s hard to imagine tweaking the org chart reversing or stemming the giant shift to digital, where the revenue hasn’t made up for losses in publishers’ print dollars. And realities like that can make it hard to spend on new products that attract readers, regardless of the platform. While some publishers are taking a specialization approach, there are still plenty of others out there looking for unicorns who can do it all, unrealistic as that may be.

These organizational changes, if done right, should increase engagement, and in turn increase revenue, media analyst Ken Doctor said. “But they’re all incremental changes,” he said. “They’re not changes in the business model.”

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