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Brand matters in integrated newsrooms

The announcements keep coming: News publishers around the world are integrating their newsrooms. But on closer inspection, the “integrated newsroom” means a different thing to each title.

In some cases, it is about pooling workforces, with others it refers to a single content creation team, and, sadly, in many cases, it is mostly an exercise in cost-cutting.

Whether it is the Hindustan Times, the new DNA in Delhi, or the venerable Berliner Zeitung, the truth is there is no single model for an integrated newsroom. There is, however, one simple driving force behind successful integration, and it is not about workflow, technology, or digital-first.

It’s about the brand.

Different flavours of integration

When considering whether to integrate or keep operations separate, there are generally five stages in a publication process:

  1. Content planning.
  2. Assignments for journalists, photographers, videographers, and other staff.
  3. Creating the content.
  4. Editing the content.
  5. Publishing the content.

It’s possible to go for total integration, or total separation of news desks, but there is a middle way: different combinations can provide multiple possibilities.

You might have an integrated assignment process to ensure a cohesive publishing strategy, but entirely separate content creation units. The Kleine Zeitung in Austria, for example, has integrated planning, assignment, and content generation, so there is no separate digital department. At Die Welt in Germany, there is a print unit but it does not, for the most part, deal with assignments.

Job titles are a pretty good indication of where any given newsroom stands. If there are separate print and digital editors, it usually means separate planning and assignments. But others prefer to have a single integrated content and planning model.

So how do you choose what to integrate and what to separate? The answer is through a close analysis of the title’s brand values and brand perception. Integrated or separate processes at each stage combine to form a different recipe and ultimately a very different offering to the audience.

This is not a simple choice between integrated or separate; it’s a discussion over a wealth of choices with different impacts on the brand.

Impact on the brand

Different departments and responsibilities often mean different decision makers with different understandings of the content and brand values. The brand in its print form can be very different from the brand on digital platforms. A title might offer a conservative print product but opts for picture-led stories online with less traditional values that succeed with a different, mainly younger, audience.

That might be great for the traffic numbers, but having the same logo on both means potential brand confusion, as audiences often consume both print and digital products. It’s a big question as it can result is a weakening of the brand. It’s easier for tabloids to maintain the same values across digital and print, but for quality press, the values are more delicate and the potential to undermine the brand is always there.

The days of simply serving up print content online are behind us, and most publishers recognise the need to build skills to select, write, and tell a story differently on the Web, on mobile, in print, and through other platforms. The process isn’t simply about word count or adding animated gifs.

But selecting and weighing stories differently for online inevitably involves the issue of “stretching” a brand for a younger audience, and that raises the question of how far the brand can stretch before we need to build a new brand. Can the brand be adapted to be attractive to a younger audience, or is it better to build a new brand with a different position and target?

These questions can best be addressed if we have the same decision makers for the different platforms.

The seduction of separation

The problem is separation is much easier to implement. There is no need to bring staff up to speed on new thinking — you just hire new faces. Integration means the legacy weaknesses of organisations and individuals become all too apparent. If you have a section head who can’t think beyond the printed word, then integration becomes a complex issue of change management (and one that all too few companies decide to take on).

As for cost-cutting, integration might appear to offer the benefit of reducing headcount and doubling up on tasks. But that can be illusory. In reality, integration should be about broadening reach, and that is done by increasing quality and depth of coverage.

A successful integration process is about keeping up with the digital lifespan of a story. A team responsible for both print and digital knows just where they left off, and how the print product can complement the digital offering.

Traditionalists opting for a totally separate print unit may also be signing its death warrant. If you accept that the traditional print model is declining yet keep the business unit and its staff separate from new developments in digital, then you simply end up whittling away at it as it declines in a self-fulfilling prophecy.

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