A working guide for marketers looking to adopt a traditional newsroom approach when organising their content operations.
The first time I worked in a newspaper newsroom was in winter 1992. Till then, I’d been a magazine writer and editor but needed extra cash to help pay the mortgage. Through a mate, I got a Saturday afternoon shift working with the sub-editing team at The Sun-Herald’s sports department in Sydney.
On deadline, newspaper subbing is brutal work. It’s akin to “meatball surgery” – how Hawkeye Pierce described the “patch ’em, stitch ’em, dispatch ’em” method of operating on soldiers on the front lines in M*A*S*H. Get the copy in order, cut it to fit. Slam on a headline, make it a good one. Push it out. Stat!
One of the toughest jobs on a Saturday afternoon was getting the club rugby results into the country edition. The match reports were just four or five paragraphs long, but the margins were tight. The eight matches played across metropolitan Sydney ended at 4.15pm or 4.20pm. Sometimes they finished a couple of minutes later. The first-edition deadline was 4.30pm.
Back then, reporters would telephone their reports from the ground to copytakers, who typed their copy into the primitive computer system. The sports editor would then assign a sub to look after each of the stories.
The sub’s job was to tidy up and fact check the words, whack on a headline, copy and paste detailed results from the wire service, make the whole thing fit in the space allocated and send it downstairs to be converted into a bromide. From here, a compositor took the bromide from a plastic container, applied wax to its reverse side and used a scalpel to fit it in a predetermined spot on a page-sized board. After a quick check from another subeditor – the “stone sub” – the page was formed up with its corresponding page and sent to a room to be made into film and stuck in its correct spot on the printing drum.
Soon, the whole building shook as the printing machines started up. This happened every week during winter, and the entire process always took less than 10 minutes.
This is how real newsrooms work. Even in today’s digital environment, newsrooms are organised so everything (and everyone) is in place in the right proportions to get things done quickly and effectively.
Marketers looking to organise their content operations can learn a lot from how news organisations have done it for decades – even before the days I worked alongside those colourful compositors and gnarly subeditors. But brands can’t simply take a classic newsroom approach and apply it to fit their needs precisely. The business and marketing goals, the content intentions and often the audiences are very different.
This doesn’t mean marketing leaders can’t look to apply similar principles to organise their creators, managers, freelancers, social media curators and content team members. They must have disciplines and goals to attain consistent results, sometimes under time and performance pressures.
That’s why it’s instructive to see how brand newsrooms and regular newsrooms differ. Brands can learn a lot from businesses set up centuries ago to produce content exclusively.
Traditional newsrooms v brand newsrooms
Matt Bergman is a strategic marketer and corporate attorney based in New York. His topics of interest cover a wide span – law, finance, analytics, communications and crisis management. But he recently turned his attention to branded content, writing an article for PR News exploring the “hype surrounding brand newsrooms”.
Bergman’s main point is that traditional and brand newsrooms are fundamentally different, and any similarity reflects a “mentality” rather than what happens in a physical space. He makes several excellent points, each of which is worth looking at in greater detail.
- The traditional newsroom is dedicated to journalistic principles.
Brands across the world hire journalists to create content. But both the former journalists and their new employers know what they are doing is not engaging in independent, newsworthy, fearless, rigorous investigations. Ultimately, what they publish is in line with achieving corporate goals.
- Traditional newsrooms uphold venerated journalistic standards.
For better or worse, brand journalists are not burdened with traditional newsroom standards concerning transparency and objectivity. As Bergman writes: “News organisations report on their own conflicts of interest and on their own failings. Consistent transparency is also essential for a brand to build trust. But one doesn’t expect to see a brand publishing negative or controversial stories about itself.”
- Traditional newsrooms bring together key contributors to the reporting and distribution of news.
As mentioned earlier, big newsrooms are designed to allow critical editorial decision-makers to sit together to make rapid choices at all times of the day. Brands don’t tend to require such rigour or speed, though clear lines of communication between managers and content creators are important in any environment.
- Reporting is an ongoing activity in a traditional newsroom.
“Brand newsrooms … aren’t necessarily reporting hubs,” Bergman writes. “There is also continuity in traditional reporting that is not a requirement of brand newsrooms.” News writers tend to follow stories as they develop; brand journalists usually follow a structured and planned content calendar reflecting an overall marketing strategy.
- Brand and traditional newsrooms have different priorities.
“Traditional newsrooms aspire to cover the stories that audiences find most valuable and there’s no emphasis on coaxing prospects through stages of a buyer journey, which is central to branded content,” Bergman writes.
- News organisations thrive on controversy.
This is perhaps where news and branded content efforts differ the most. Not many brands choose to court controversy, even if the promise is greater attention. I think this represents an opportunity for bold not-for-profits and charitable organisations to “go deep” – research issues and publish stories not covered by mainstream media outlets.
- Traditional newsrooms try to separate news from opinion.
“Brand newsrooms struggle to erect and maintain this wall and that’s not necessarily fatal,” Bergman writes. “To their credit, many brands work to maintain a degree of editorial independence. But a significant percentage of branded content is op-ed, or stories told from non-objective perspectives.”
- Traditional newsrooms have a clear hierarchy.
Despite dwindling resources, news organisations rely on top-down structures that start with publishers and trickle down to editors, department heads and reporters, videographers and artists. Brand newsrooms typically don’t have such a complex hierarchy – often one person performs at least two or three of these roles.
- Daily story meetings are newsroom staples.
Endless meetings are a fact of life in traditional newsrooms. Every day, reporters feed (and are being fed) story ideas. Their managers attend multiple news conferences involving senior editors across the country and the world. The goal is to create a seamless content machine, with minimal repetition and wastage. Daily news meetings aren’t always feasible in brand newsrooms – most contact happens remotely via cloud-based productivity platforms. The goal, however, should remain the same – maximised communication to deliver content efficiency.
I’d like to add a couple more to Bergman’s list …
- Traditional newsrooms are full of independently-minded characters, not team members
For journalists, a newsroom is where work gets done. There are exceptions to this, of course, but the newsroom is not the place to meet, mingle or encourage. Team-building exercises do not happen in traditional newsrooms, although there may be the occasional “agile-style” scrum or stand-up meeting to get stories moving along. Marketers who employ former journalists often say how independently minded their new hires can be. That’s because journalists act more like independent contractors than squad members. Many wouldn’t know what a colleague sitting alongside them is even working on.
- Traditional newsrooms don’t plan very well
In my experience, there are two types of stories in a newsroom – what we’re working on now and what we’re working on next. When something newsworthy happens, that becomes the “now” job. The jobs that were priorities are shunted into the future. Editors in traditional newsrooms are expected to keep an eye on what’s coming in the medium and longer term, but they are far more concerned with what’s happening now and next. The nature of news demands it. Brands, however, can’t afford to think like this. They need to set their own agendas and plan well ahead to ensure work is done effectively and consistently.
The case for brand newsrooms
So, why should brands consider using traditional newsroom (or “newsdesk”) principles for their in-house content programs? Because they offer a scalable and tested method of producing consistent, strategic content.
As I’ve written before, brands can supercharge their content marketing by adopting a newsroom-style approach. In conjunction with a regularly updated content calendar, a team that is structured and disciplined is more focused, accountable and creative.
- Brand newsrooms become a central point for editorial-style activities and keep teams focused on providing content that best serves the brand’s ideal audiences.
- Brand newsrooms reinforce disciplines: team members understand the importance of issues such as SEO, data harvesting and social media optimisation.
- Brand newsrooms help the creative process by concentrating minds on the tasks at hand, and what needs to come next.
I believe that there are seven essential elements for brand newsroom success:
- Don’t expect perfection – Good newsrooms try things, measure their impact and learn from the experience. If things don’t work, try something else.
- It’s not just a physical thing – At its heart, a brand newsroom is a virtual structure that controls and monitors content.
- Everyone is accountable – Any newsroom structure requires everyone to deliver or publish content when expected, and in the way it was planned. But a brand newsroom works best when one person has ultimate responsibility.
- Prepare for the unexpected – You need an agreed content plan but have to be flexible to make changes. Good brand newsrooms allow for a quick and timely response to any developing story or situation likely to impact on your target audience. It has to be about your audience – not you.
- Apply rigorous standards – Always expect to produce content that is not only useful and relevant but high quality. A style guide that takes in standardised wording, lengths and formats with clear examples is a must.
- Publishing is just the start – Good brand newsrooms don’t segregate content, PR and social media into separate divisions. They need each other to thrive.
- Seek expert advice – Setting up any newsroom from scratch is likely to entail trial and error, and perhaps a few failures on the way. You may need to engage the services of a consultant or experienced editor who has the knowledge in building and running news operations to set you on the right path.
Just don’t ask me to sub your club rugby copy on Saturdays at 4.29pm.
Links and references