New York Times newsroom

Are print executives still running the show when it comes to integrating with the digital side? The New York Times newsroom, 1942

Last October, I was at the Online News Association conference in Washington speaking to an online managing editor from a big city metro newspaper in the US. The subject turned to integration.

"I told the editor if he mentions the 'i' word, I'm out of here," he said. 

For some digital journalists, integration has come to represent a takeover of digital divisions by print management. They see it as the past taking over the future. 

Integration: A clash of cultures  

Arthur Sulzberger Jr., publisher of the New York Times, told a Nieman Foundation conference in 1995:

"Internet people are frontiers people. [Behind them] are the barbarians like me -- the shopkeeper. We're their worst nightmare, but we're coming."

To be fair, The New York Times started its newsroom integration early, and digital editors are now taking over key roles in the integrated newsroom. But Sulzberger's comment speaks to the challenges of bringing together the cultures of digital and legacy newsrooms. 

In 2007, I was leading a training event with US digital pioneer Steve Yelvington, who said: "The people in news organisations with the most digital experience have the least political capital."

Bringing together the dominant culture of the legacy media with a younger, less politically powerful culture of digital media has had a predictable effect. There are few examples of digital leaders taking over integrated print or broadcast operations, and there are several high profile examples of almost wholesale takeovers of digital divisions by legacy management. 

Often this leads to a digital brain drain, with the classic example being the Washington Post. In short order after integration, several senior digital executives and editors left. Staci D Kramer of wrote at the time that Jim Brady, executive editor of "left after a successful four-year run, his role increasingly marginalised following a series of executive moves and the decision to integrate the print and digital newsrooms".

Months after his departure, Brady was asked at a conference whether integration was working. He quoted Washington Post executive editor Len Downie, who once said: "The website pushed us to do things we wouldn’t have done, and they were the right things."

Asking whether merging the newsrooms was the right or wrong thing to do was too broad a question, Brady said.

"It's, do you allow the website to maintain enough autonomy that it can push?"

'Turning the Titantic' 

Apart from the cultural and political conflict, the remaining digital leaders often find that digital newsrooms lose some of their flexibility after integration. At an event late last year, Mike Coleman, the vice president for digital media for, said that since digital has become more tightly integrated into the organisation: "Everybody in the organisation has to be involved in every decision, and I am afraid we are a lot less nimble."

From my experience in broadcast media, integration issues there are often less pronounced. Many organisations already had 24-hour news operations before the internet, and the transition to the rolling deadlines of online news was much easier to make than for newspapers, where schedules are built around press time rather than real time. However, issues still remain. 

One experienced BBC broadcast journalist says that BBC network news still follows the rhythms of the One, Six and Ten o'clock news bulletins.

"Having such an entrenched and inflexible system of news gathering inevitably means journalism in the 21st century takes something of a backseat.

"While many across the BBC are being taught new skills there are so many issues around editorial compliance, comprehension of social media, and generally how to engage audience that we do face a 'turning around the Titanic' scenario."

Different models for integration

Of course, there are different models of integration, and it's rarely as simple as the print or broadcast management taking over the digital division, and some news organisations have modified their original plans, often pulling back from a pure integration model to allow specialists to focus on a particular platform. 

Francois Nel, director of the Journalism Leaders Programme at the University of Central Lancashire, said he has identified five major digital and print newsroom models ranging from completely separate news operations to integration of activities and operations across platforms.

Sometimes different models even co-exist within larger organisations such as Trinity Mirror, which has "seen divergence in operations at their national Mirror titles, while the approach at the regional hubs, such as Liverpool and Birmingham, is at the other end of the spectrum".

Successful integration is ultimately about efficiency and effectiveness, Nel reckons, but not everyone gets it.

"Unfortunately, many advocates and critics of integration don't take a hard look at both, and often companies don't pay close enough attention to the integration of commercial and editorial activities, or technological and human processes." 

As for successful models, the jury is still out, he says.

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