Disrupting the workflow: Changes in newsroom layout at the BBC and technology at the New York Daily News

During a session on designing a digital newsroom at the recent ONA conference, Anjali Mullany of Fast Company (previously of New York Daily News) raised some interesting points about technology and its impact on workflow.

Mullany followed Gabriel Sama of Rest of the World Media, and Steve Hermann of BBC News online.

Sama talked about the physical newsroom – and said that it must be designed with the audience in mind, and must answer these questions:

  • Who does the news organization want to reach?
  • How does it want to reach its audience?
  • What does it want to do and where does it want to publish it?

Newsroom production is project-driven, Sama said, and Newsroom design has been forced to move from the conceptual to pragmatic.

The BBC’s Hermann echoed this when he outlined a major shift in thinking at Britain’s biggest newsroom.

In 2008, the Beeb went from many different newsrooms that didn’t communicate with each other (BBC World, BBC Bulletins, BBC Online, and News 24) into a bigger, merged newsroom.

Hermann showed the floorplan that was at the centre of the shift, and the goal of moving all the journalists from these separate departments onto one level.

At the centre of the new-and-improved BBC newsroom was a newsgathering hub, and radiating out from that was the various production channels.

As well as a physical shift, the BBC’s leadership underwent changes, as did demands on staff:

Traditionally, when we had breaking news, the anchor would just go live on air, talk to the story and was out. Now we also tell them that they have to file a line of copy. This doesn’t sound like a big deal for those of you in a print newsroom, but in a broadcast newsroom it was a major shift.

As the BBC worked on its transitioning newsroom, it kept certain key principles in mind: the organization’s leadership has to have a multi-platform view of stories and reporters have to have multi-platform capabilities, able to file to TV, radio and online, Hermann said.

While Hermann and Sama focused on the physical workflow of the newsroom, Mullany said that there are two crucial elements that will make or break a news organization: people and technology.

The technology has to understand and improve the workflow, Mullany said. The tools can’t dictate the workflow – that fights productivity.

While she was at the New York Daily News, the organization merged its print and online content management systems. Before the transition, reporters would file to the print CMS, and then shout over or email the web team that the story was ready for the web.

It was imperfect, slow and loud… but at least it was some form of communication, Mullany said.

With the new system, the print CMS pushed directly to the web – without the ability to add links out, or alert a web editor that the story was up and online.

While this seemed like a better system and was in terms of efficiencies, it actually created a complete lack of communication within the newsroom.

It was here that Mullany detailed how the Daily News used Scribblelive and made this provocative comment, Tweeted by Mindy McAdams of the University of Florida:

When Mullany said this, she was referring to how Scribblelive affected the newsroom’s workflow. Instead of a story going from reporter to editor to web, it was posted immediately online.

“ Editors were editing live as reporters filed in via scribble during Hurricane Irene – which is backwards,” she said. “They were editing after the stories were public in the interest of publishing quickly.”

And during a breaking news story like a possible hurricane bearing down on New York City, getting information out to its audience out as quickly as possible matter most.

This disruption to the workflow had a positive result, she added.

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