Forget subs, say hello to ‘content curators’

As part of a much longer Q&A, Sunderland Uni student Josh Halliday (editor of http://www.injournalism.co.uk) asked for my thoughts on the newsroom of the future. Here are my note-form musings on changing roles and job titles. 

You’ve said before you want to move to a fully-integrated newsroom. How will job roles change here then? (Content curator) And how might this affect the requirements of new recruits? Might they need to have knowledge of publishing and consuming in all media, for example?

In terms of roles there are two things going on, and those companies yet to shake up their job titles/roles  will almost all do so soon…

1) Digital influence

There’s (sort of) a political analogy here. If you look at the political spectrum as a continuum from the far left to the far right you fit political parties into a position as say centre left, or centre right, depending on their views. The Liberal Democrats used to claim that they didn’t sit on this spectrum because they wanted to change the whole political system (move to proportional representation, introduce bill of rights etc). They said they were a progressive Party as part of their raison d’etre was to change politics, not policies.

At the minute many companies are trying to fit digital onto a continuum alongside news, sport etc. which is crazy. Digital is not a bolt-on, it should be a mechanism for delivering content alongside the print edition. We need to reform our entire approach to the newsroom in my opinion and that would affect almost all roles from the bottom up.

In a digitally-engaged utopia reporters would take ownership of their personal brand online, maintain blogs, actively market their stories and going back to work with updates and to continue conversations with commenting users. They’d use video and audio almost as frequently as words to tell stories in the most effective way possible.

Subs would have the most to lose (and gain) in this future. I believe content curators are the way forward, people who assemble groups of content on page for the print edition as well as online. It would be a role roughly analogous to the subs’ now, but with more emphasis on making editorial judgements.

Companies will have to move (and are moving) to a more integrated editorial workflow system in which copy is inputted once and can be branched to the web and to paper editions at the word go. At the moment many news organisations publish papers and then cut and paste their contents for the web. It’s deeply unsatisfactory for users and very frustrating for journalists who want to do something bespoke for the web.

There should also be a greater distinction between content creation and curation going forward, so the majority of staff are filing content alongside material from users, third party sources etc for curators to mould together.

2) The changes above should be seen in the context of another force for change – cost-cutting.

The immediate pressure for changing job roles is achieving efficiencies during a recession against a backdrop of a steady decline in sales of print products and a relative failure to monetise the web. Across every regional newspaper group centralisation is an ongoing theme as newsrooms restructure. Increasingly we see editors of smaller titles made redundant while others take on group briefs, managing multiple titles as a Group Editor. Sub-editors are being clustered into a single subbing hub, a trend that could theoretically continue for some time to come.

Newsrooms are being merged so where once their was fierce competition between a daily and evening newspaper in some cities, there is increasingly a single Head of Content or News Editor working across multiple titles.

The fewer roles there are at a title the more multi-skilled employees need to become. It’s been happening for years so that – say – 20 years ago it would have been unthinkable to have a reporter specialising in crime who also had the entertainment brief. But at the Echo we have that situation because it’s unrealistic to employ a vast staff of reporters.

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In terms of people coming in, they must absolutely be aware of how consumer behaviour differs online compared to the paper. The user experience on almost all newspaper sites is appalling as it stands, with visitors facing walls of print-style copy (like this!) when there are usually far better ways to tell a tale.

Some people simply don’t understand that users sometimes arrive at an article online through key search terms rather than browsing. They should think about how they themselves use the web and try to get inside the heads of users armed with that knowledge.

There are a few practical issues such as SEO meaning key phrases are repeated in copy for the web, or given greater prominence. Reporters must be aware of the role meta data will play going forward in helping us to automatically cluster content for users, plot maps etc. Certain rules and conventions which apply to print (such as using place names in headlines, or banning repetition in an abstract/ first par) are not relevant online…

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