Record managing editor Randy Parker wants journalists to see their work in thirds: aggregation of competitors’ work, curation of users’ content, and original reporting. When applicants say their passion is to write stories, “I say, ‘We don’t have that job available,’” Parker says. “We try to get away from confining words like ‘reporter’ or ‘editor.’ “
One day each week, known as Mojo Wednesdays, Record reporters are instructed not to come into the newsroom, but to station themselves out among the people they cover. Lauren Boyer, 25, sets up at a different McDonald’s every week and calls out on social media to let readers know she’s available. Some weeks no one comes, some weeks she gets a story or meets a source.
This wasn’t what she’d envisioned coming out of college. “I just wanted to tell stories and see my name in print,” she recalls. Now, though, she’s fascinated by the challenge of blending traditional reporting with the dose of personality she adds when live-tweeting a heated public hearing.
She tries to keep the same standards on all platforms—if people make defamatory comments at a hearing, she won’t tweet them, just as she wouldn’t put them in print. But she’s more friendly on social media than in the Record, more herself, and she likes that. It’s not lowering standards, just using a different voice, she says. But she adds: “Working like we do, you have to be so much more careful because you can make a mistake so easily on the internet.”
In the Record newsroom, veterans and newcomers alike care a great deal about truth and standards. But the Record’s ambition is diminished, its daily coverage less comprehensive. The editors proudly showed me the stellar project work they’ve done of late—a series on diabetes; an admirable, long-term commitment to chronicling the travails of returning war veterans—but any notion of full, regular coverage of the region’s towns, once the Record’s core function, has fallen away.
Journalists scurrying to file on several platforms on multiple stories each day don’t have the time to aim as high. The increased demands inevitably grind away at standards, says Paul Kuehnel, a Record photographer since 1984. On this day, he’s posted video on a murder-suicide, the weather, and a local dog sled. He’ll produce stills on those stories too. “We say our top priority is accuracy, but you’re a human being and everyone’s doing 20 jobs now,” he says.
Proud of his work, Kuehnel knows exactly how many people have watched his video about the murder—1,684 in the first six hours. Plus 793 views on the video of a spinout in the snow. And 106 of the dog mushing video, in the first 25 minutes alone. “That’s a lot,” he says, “and that’s satisfying, especially for crappy videos.”
One reason the record can devote itself entirely to local news is because its parent company operates something called Thunderdome. In 2012, Digital First opened a newsroom on the 25th floor of a Wall Street office building where about 50 journalists produce most of the non-local content for each of its newspapers. They create national and foreign reports; package videos that populate each paper’s site; write food, health, and tech features; and jump on big breaking stories.
Unlike a traditional chain’s national bureau, Thunderdome doesn’t have beat reporters out covering major news events. Thunderdome is an artifact of the digital definition of journalism. It mainly aggregates and repackages material from wires, other content partners, and local papers. “If we get a story from The Washington Post, we’re not reediting it,” says Mike Topel, the news editor. “We’re looking for what digital enhancements we can do.” Thunderdome producers also jump on breaking stories and memes so all of Digital First’s sites around the country can reflect what’s happening in the moment.
Digital First’s editor in chief, Jim Brady, says he built Thunderdome in part to help his newsrooms remake themselves as places where the face-off between print and digital could become irrelevant. The room is populated largely with veterans of print newsrooms and Brady’s plan is for them to marry print traditions of completeness, verification, and authority with the digital imperatives for speed and connection with the audience’s interests. “The battles are still there,” he says, “but they’ve receded, as digital people have moved into leadership roles, and as everyone learned that aggregation can only take you so far, and as people from both backgrounds learn that it’s better to be second than wrong.”
Thunderdome provides national news for all the local newsrooms of Digital First Media, not by deploying a large staff of reporters but by packaging content from other sources. (Sean Hemmerle)