Lessons from a Newsroom's Digital Frontline: In Roanoke, Virginia, a Midsized Newspaper Has Had 'The Freedom to Run Some Experiments, Fail, Try Again, and along the Way Discover Some Meaningful Success.'

By Riley, Michael | Nieman Reports, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

Lessons from a Newsroom's Digital Frontline: In Roanoke, Virginia, a Midsized Newspaper Has Had 'The Freedom to Run Some Experiments, Fail, Try Again, and along the Way Discover Some Meaningful Success.'


Riley, Michael, Nieman Reports


What wakes you up in the middle of the night? With me, it's sometimes the dog barking or a growling stomach or perhaps a daughter with the flu, but most times it's a nagging question with no clear answer: Can the daily newspaper be saved? The theoretical angst behind this question gains a stark and frighteningly personal focus when I think about The Roanoke Times, the daily newspaper (circ: 97,000) I oversee in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains. And it's a question we've been wrestling with for a number of years.

The depressing news about newspapers seems overwhelming. A stack of studies sits on my desk, all of them lamenting circulation declines, the absence of young readers, the aging of loyal readers, the corporate squeeze for ever-higher profits, and the intense competition for readers' time as the Internet rapidly reshapes our world. The story is all too familiar--it's the end of the world as we know it, and that's enough to make any ink-stained curmudgeon cry.

Yet I'd argue that digital technology and the Internet might offer the best reason to put the cap back on the Prozac. It's counterintuitive, but the future of what we do is not as scary as it seems. Newspapers--or, more precisely, newsgathering operations--are in a position of strength: In most markets, they are the last remaining mass-medium; they are prime creators of original journalism and, in many cases, they are deeply committed to a community's civic life and welfare. Finally, they are blessed with a profitable business model that can, if allowed, underwrite a range of digital experiments and online forays to move us successfully into the future.

Simply put, we need to reinvent newspapers. That's what we've been trying to do in Roanoke during the past few years as we've merged our print and online content operations. Recently, we launched a funky and fun online video newscast each weekday, (1) which is our way of embracing today the multimedia world of tomorrow.

Granted, this former railroad town is not at the hub of the digital universe. We're not the first place most people would look to see how the Internet is revolutionizing our business. But that's the beauty of the digital revolution--a news organization doesn't have to be in Silicon Valley to make things happen. In fact, not being in a big city is helpful; we have the freedom to run some experiments, fail, try again, and along the way discover some meaningful success.

Crossing the Digital Divide

What follows are some lessons we've learned on the digital front. Consider this an up-close look at what's happened at our midsized newspaper to enable us to join the digital dance. This is designed to be part case study, part practical advice, part big picture, and then, a look at some pitfalls to avoid.

Educate, educate, educate: About two years ago, our newsroom undertook a strategic review dubbed "Looking Ahead." Amid the tumult of change, we asked some basic questions: How is the world changing? What's happening to newspaper readers? What's the impact of shifting demographics? What does national research, such as reports from the Readership Institute, tell us, and how do these findings fit with our local experience? Where are our gaps in coverage? What do readers expect from us? And how is the Internet changing everything?

As answers emerged, we began to glimpse ways to transform the newsroom culture, first by recognizing that we need to split the word "newspaper" apart and realize that it's the "news" that's most important and not the "paper." Once that happens, other changes follow more easily.

Take the long view: The newspaper's senior leadership team, led by our publisher, Wendy Zomparelli, played a key role in helping the newsroom think hard about the future. Once we identified where the rest of the world is headed, it was easier to decide where we wanted the news operation to go. We decided not to stick our head in the ink tank, but chose to become well-schooled in digital technology so we could find new ways to reach different audiences. …

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