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Blow up the beats: Tampa paper copes with deep cuts

Staff cuts (50) and a newsroom re-organization at The Tampa Tribune made a big splash in the online journalism and blog worlds last week, but not because of the blood-letting — that’s far too common in US newsroom these days to excite much interest. No, the buzz was mostly because of a blog post written by reporting intern Jessica DaSilva, a post which (perhaps injudiciously) cheered the money-losing paper’s efforts to reinvent itself. DaSilva’s post, written with the certitude (and copy bloopers) only the very young can manage, brought forth a predictable fusilade of vituperative comments and counter comments; these are nervous times in American newsroom.
Too bad.
Because lost in the back and forth about just who’s the naive greenhorn and who’s the pig-headed old dinosaur is the re-organization itself – and that’s something worth debating and watching.
While not truly radical, the changes being hammered out in Tampa are part of an increasing trend in North American newsrooms to cut the connection between reporters and institutions (beats) and more importantly between reporters and the medium their reporting will appear in. (Note: the Trib is part of a chain that has three properties in Tampa: the Trib, online news website, and TV station WFLA Channel 8.)
In an email to journalism prof and blogger Mindy McAdams, one anonymous Tampa Tribune staffer described the new newsroom hierarchy this way:

  • Managing editors
  • 5-6 audience editors — keep in touch with what the print, TV, online audiences want/need
  • 5 sections of reporting (all the reporters for print, TV and Web are mashed up together in these groups):
    1. Deadline — for breaking/daily news
    2. Data — specifically for database stuff
    3. Watchdog — for investigative reporting
    4. Personal journalism — stuff for people’s every day lives like weather, health, entertainment
    5. Grassroots — citizen journalism
  • Outside of these groups are three “finishing” groups (production people – ed) for print, TV and
    online to determine what stories should be covered and with what medium.

It’s a strange structure, but an interesting one. Instead of organizing content (and newsroom staff) around the content niches that newspapers have historically bundled together (crime news, city hall, education etc), they follow an inconsistent ontology: an organizational scheme that groups news by where it comes from (Grassroots); when it comes (Deadline); what form it comes in (Data); how people will use it (Personal Journalism) and what they hope it will do (Watchdog).
I’m not sure if that’s evidence of  sloppy thinking or innovation. And I wonder if they can really overcome the traditional beat structure with this scheme — or beat specialists going to continue to patrol their turf, coughing up content into each of the different categories.
At least they’re trying.

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