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Behind bars?

Is the digital newsroom a journalists’ prison? Will it help or hinder content delivery in the multi-media world? Ray Snoddy looks at newsroom design and what it tells us about newspapers’ state of preparedness for the future.

By Ray Snoddy

What does the Panoptikon, Jeremy Bentham’s revolutionary design for a new prison, have to do with newspapers?

The aim of the 18th century concept, with its radiating spokes, was to control each individual prisoner by giving the impression that the authorities knew what every prisoner was up to at all times. It was a system of centralised control.

According to Bertrand Pecquerie, director of the World Editors Forum, yesterday’s prisoners are becoming today’s journalists and the modern-day equivalent of Bentham’s Panoptikon is the new Daily Telegraph newsroom.

Pecquerie believes that the Daily Telegraph has created, with radiating desks and centralised control, a model prison for journalists where creativity and investigative journalism will die.

Instead, the aim should be to focus on small independent units and decentralised departments rather than a sort of "spider monster" design.

The Frenchman has set out his views in the Editors Weblog, the blog of the World Editors Forum. Newsroom design, he argues, is much too important to leave to the consultants.

"What is the basic requirement of tomorrow’s newsrooms? It is to give more freedom, more capacity of expression to journalists and writers. You cannot tell them you must become backpack journalists and provide texts, images and videos while at the same time asking them to work in a rigid newsroom organisation," says the provocative Frenchman.

"The conclusion is that the smooth and flexible newsroom must be re-invented," added Pecquerie who took his campaign to the Society of Editors conference in Glasgow in November.

Ironically, as he denounced the Telegraph design as a prison that will ultimately fail, senior Telegraph executives, such as editor Will Lewis who was due to take part in the conference, were forced to remain in London to deal with a threatened strike by their journalists.

One senior Telegraph executive who was there muttered privately afterwards that the image that entered his head when he saw the designs for the first time had more to do with battery hens than prisons.

For the record, Pecquerie says he favours a "fractal" approach to newsroom design, essentially pods touching each other, not unlike the visual effect of a honeycomb.

Evolution or revolution

The arguments about newsroom design may seem rather academic and obscure. In fact, they are a metaphor for a much larger question – how national newspapers, indeed all newspapers, respond to the unprecedented technological threats they now face.

Do you tear everything up within six months and move, as the Daily Telegraph has done, not just to a new newsroom but a whole new way of working - the end of the once every 24 hours newspaper. Under this scheme, almost overnight, in addition to the paper there are texts, blogs, podcasts, indeed any way of reaching an audience with timely news and information.

The method of delivery is chosen to best reflect what the audience is doing at any particular time of day.

The alternative is to go for a more modest, organic approach that grows out of existing working practices, a form of gradual permanent revolution. Here, instead of adopting full convergence theory within a single newspaper group you could, for instance, form partnerships with other forms of media such as radio stations. In this model the move into new media is firmly linked to both public demand for the new services and the ability to earn revenues from them.

Owning the story

So far, at least the output from the dramatic Daily Telegraph "prison" has been impressive.

Jeff Randall’s exclusive on Michael Grade’s defection from the BBC to ITV is an interesting case study on how to maximise the impact of a story using all available means at your disposal.

The first step was to put the story on the web at 9.45pm "knowing the opposition would get it" thereby resisting the temptation of producing the traditional spoof first edition lead, something that shows little respect for your readers in Cornwall and Northern Ireland who are as entitled as anyone to get the big exclusives.

At the same time Randall released podcasts and videocasts. There was therefore a simultaneous landing of the Grade story, Randall explained, via vodcast, podcast, online and newspaper. Then of course there were non-stop radio and TV interviews throughout the day.

"We owned that story all day," said Randall having produced what amounts to a textbook example of how newspapers can fight back in a difficult world. It’s early days yet for the great Daily Telegraph experiment, but it is notable that in the gloomy November ABCs, in which only the FT was ahead year-on-year – up 0.3 per cent – at least the Daily Telegraph was the next best performer with a drop of only 0.2 per cent. There was even a modest gain of 1195 copies compared with October keeping the total noticeably above the 900,000 mark, albeit it with an increased number of bulks.

The future is here

Last year (2006) was the year when the argument about the future of newspapers moved on. It can now at last be declared that no one in the industry - well hardly anyone - believes that the old status quo can long survive. Do nothing and that way lies only one destination, the tricky business of managing decline where cost-cutting chases falling revenues down a negative spiral.

The argument now ought to be only about pace of change and what level of investment is needed to secure the future of newspapers as multi-media businesses.

As speaker after speaker emphasised at the Glasgow conference - the future is here already. Gordon Mack from the Herald put it thus: "We must totally embrace the digital revolution, not next week, not next year, but right now."

Anyone who still thinks there is any room for complacency only has to look at the November ABC’s.

The slide continues

The 21.4 per cent drop in the circulation of the Evening Standard is, of course, a special case because of the great battle of the "frees". But the 7.3 per cent drop for the Daily Mirror, fresh from winning the newspaper of the year accolade at the 5Oth What The Papers Say awards, must be particularly disappointing. Its Sunday stable-mate, the People is down no less than 11.29 per cent year-on-year and by now is probably already selling less than 750,000 copies a week.

Owners Trinity Mirror has at least decided to stick with its national titles and now promises to invest to increase the online presence of its national titles.

There will be new look websites concentrating on the key areas of news, sport and show business.

Sly Bailey, Trinity Mirror chief executive, promised that the sites will in future be easier to navigate and will feature "a substantial increase in audio-visual and user-generated content. Our objective is to substantially increase unique users and online revenues during 2007." In the case of Trinity Mirror there clearly isn’t a moment to be lost.

The Guardian will not be happy about a 4.7 per cent sales fall, but at least it has its considerable web presence and online revenues to bridge the gap. The 5.4 per cent fall at the Times may merely be part of the general malaise afflicting most newspaper circulations, but the fact that editorially the paper is firing on all cylinders at the moment merely underlines the scale of the challenge all the national newspapers face. Even the mighty Sun could, on present trends, fall below the magic 3 million mark before Spring is over.

NRS fillip

By the end of 2006 you had to look very carefully to find any reason for good cheer for the nationals.

At least the Independent managed to buck the market trends in the National Readership Survey with a 10.3 per cent rise in readership to 741,000 – its largest total for nine years. It was a small gleam of hope in a mainly bleak outlook.

Elsewhere in the readership returns, minuses were in the majority but papers increasing their readership included the FT and Guardian, the Observer, Independent on Sunday and the Sunday Times.

But, if you want a summary of the current state of both fear, and guarded optimism in the national newspaper industry, two voices summed everything up to perfection at the conference of editors in Glasgow.

One came from John Naughton, long-time Observer columnist, academic and author of a distinguished history of the internet. Naughton produced the bleakest of warnings, severe enough to make any newspaper executive want to pull the duvet over his ears.

If it was true that the future was already here, then the only inference to be drawn was that the newspaper industry had not paid much attention to it. The young were not reading papers, and as a result the average age of a newspaper reader had already reached 54 and was rising inexorably.

"In any other industry, the discovery that your potential future customers weren’t interested in buying your product would prompt an investigation into whether there was something wrong with the product," said Naughton.

"But what one hears still from the newspaper industry is that there is something wrong with the customers," he added.

The Naughton challenge included asking how many hacks have a Flickr account or a MySpace profile. How many editors have used BitTorrent or indeed even know what it is. The age of teenage "digital natives" was already with us and they were not terribly interested in the traditional media.

"The best we can hope for is that one day they may keep us as pets," warned John Naughton.

Some small hope came in the surprising shape of Andrew Neil.

All technological change brought upheaval but the internet was not a threat to the traditional media but an ally capable of extending the reach of its brands.

Television did not kill radio. Radio simply had to adapt.

"It’s not journalism that has to change but the platform it’s on," said Neil.

It would be nice, however, if the new platforms did not resemble 18th century prisons too closely.