Packet, Gazette website overhaul began with newsroom reorganization

jkidd@beaufortgazette.comMarch 11, 2013 

The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette unleashed some striking changes to their websites March 7. At least, we hope you are struck by them, and in a good way.

You seem to be. Several people here and with our company are monitoring feedback, which you can still submit to us, and it has been largely positive. Frankly, that's a bit of a surprise, given that many readers find redesigns - whether of the print or online variety -- quite jarring. It stands to reason, since they force readers to change habits that the newspaper has worked long and hard to help them establish in the first place. And if you're like me, the makers of a product I use often better have a pretty darn good reason for disrupting my routine. We think a faster, better-organized site is such a reason.

Explaining what you see on your browser really isn't what this post is about, however.

Suffice it to say, these changes have been months in the planning, but the transformation began months before we introduced our new templates, navigation and organization. In fact, if you're particularly attuned to when news is updated and presented here, you noticed something different before we changed the look of that presentation.

You see, we've also overhauled the organization of our newsroom. The Packet and Gazette are attempting to meet the demands of online journalism and a continuous news cycle. That doesn't mean we're staffed 24/7, but it does mean we're reorienting beats and job descriptions so that our site is updated more often, particularly before your lunch break.

Here is an example of how we might handle breaking news differently today than we did just a few months ago.

Let's say one our sports writers finds out at mid-morning that a popular high school coach has been fired. In the old days, we would do its level best to file a comprehensive story five or six hours after this discovery. It would get a once-over from an editor or two, then get posted to the website -- by 7 or 8 p.m. if time allowed, later in the evening if production of the print edition made this too difficult. We might have moved more expeditiously if we thought other news outlets might post the news first, of course, but on the other hand, if we thought we had an exclusive, we were actually hesitant to post too soon and thereby tip a competitor to a story we might own for a day or more.

How different our reaction today.

It's possible we might still guard exclusivity on certain stories, but it's far more likely that we would hustle to be first and follow up with yet more information later in the cycle. We'd start with short bursts of confirmed news on Twitter and Facebook, follow it with an early version of the story for immediate posting on our website, then provide updates throughout the rest of the day.

The long and short of it is that as online revenue and readership grows, being first and most complete is considered a "win" now - not merely an afterthought or nebulous "investment" in a practice that will pay off sometime in the future. We're finding the future is now.

Obviously, this approach requires that we work at a quicker pace and put out information more often over more platforms. Just as obviously, this gets more difficult to do in an economy in which newsrooms, ours included, have shed considerable manpower.

That's where we've had to re-prioritize our duties - and in some cases, redefine them.

For example, just a few months ago, we really didn't have a morning news meeting. (We dropped it a few years ago because it involved too many people with tasks vital to producing the next day's newspaper.) And no one person was in charge of early-morning updates to the website. It's not that we didn't want to post earlier in the day; we just didn't have a specific editor assigned to that specific task.

No more.

In January, we created a morning web-producer position - filled by former education reporter Rachel Heaton - whose job it is to help plan and make mid-morning and mid-day updates to our website. Rachel also keeps an eye on relevant social media, so that we're aware of potential stories, and with helping create online complements like video. We're also meeting in the mornings again , but now the focus is on our online products and the pow-wow involves fewer people and a faster pace.

Incidentally, we're finding these changes improve our print product, too. Because we're mapping most stories in the morning, the reporters' work is more directed; because we're posting story updates throughout the day, the final "print" versions are hitting the desk cleaner and earlier, saving us man hours.

Although there is nothing jarring on the horizon now that we've launched our redesign, I'm certain the transformation of our workflow is not over. With mobile and tablet readership of news on the rise, we'll soon be giving close scrutiny to those areas, as well. Because each platform is a little different in nature and attracts a little different audience, we'll need to further refine our work flow.

Recent years have involved frustration and challenges for our business. That is no secret.

But it also has been a good environment for those who like figuring out problems and building better mouse traps. I'm sure we'll never quite finish the task of remaking our newsroom, and I'm sure we'll never get it quite perfect. But as I tell reporters often, perfect is for the next life; take satisfaction in making things better and work hard to make it happen.

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