Byzantine: intricately involved.
I don’t consider our print and online newspaper areas here at the Bowling Green Daily News to be Byzantine. But to an outsider it might appear that way.
On paper, the hierarchy is pretty simple. Our newspaper’s website is under the control of the online director. The online director reports to two different people: the managing editor and the general manager (which is me). The managing editor is responsible for online content that was first published in the newspaper’s print edition, while the general manager is responsible for all other online content and the website’s business functions. Each of these people, in turn, reports to the publisher.
It’s definitely no tangled bureaucracy, but even within this simple system you find conflicts holding the website back. The problem is that the different people in that system just have different priorities. As general manager, I want to see both a strong online presence and continued healthy print circulation. In contrast, the managing editor doesn’t want to “hurt” the print edition by making the online edition too strong, fearing that it could tempt subscribers to abandon print.
Ultimately, this conflict is what’s holding our online edition back. Without a full commitment from the managing editor, the website will never reach its full potential.
Complicating the situation, the managing editor and general manager can’t simply each work in their own private spheres. Just as it is with the print edition, there are online newspaper projects that require cooperation between both the news and the business silos.
It’s not a great way to structure things. And sometimes it’s a downright crappy way to structure things.
When Is It Great?
This system works great when things are trucking along nicely and nothing out of the ordinary is required of the staff, the print or the online editions — that’s pretty much every day. Advertising sells an ad in a designated space, the news content is routine, and the back end handles the data without a glitch.
On a normal day, we put all our local news online — no disagreement there. It’s a typical move for a newspaper our size. We simply shovel all the local news online and add AP and a few widgets for the state, national and weather sections. The system is good enough to keep going as is but it makes innovation difficult.
BGDailyNews.com is a one person department. One person who works 40 hours per week, Monday through Friday. On the weekends, the online edition is published by a copy editor.
When Is It Crappy?
It’s crappy when: 1) I want some new feature implemented on the site, or 2) I want to get more news content on the site. If I want a new feature, we have to hope that the feature is already available through our content management system, Townnews.com. Sometimes it’s there, sometimes it isn’t, and sometimes they say it’s there but we find out it doesn’t really work.
We don’t spend much money on our website outside of Townnews.com because it doesn’t make economic sense. However, if there is a feature that I consider to be vital to our growth, I could go outside of Townnews.com.
The second problem is a bit trickier. If I want more news content on the website, then I find I am on the outside of the silo looking up. For example, the managing editor and I agreed a long time ago (18 months) that we wanted to put local video on our site. The newsroom contributes video to the site three to four times per month.
We also agreed that we wanted to put engagement, wedding, anniversary photos and stories on the site. But because the wedding section is published in our Sunday print edition, the weekend copy editor often forgets to upload it to the website.
Blogs from our newsroom have been an utter failure. We have one staffer blogging on a regular basis about sports, mainly Western Kentucky football. I want more photo galleries, but because the photographers don’t report to me, this doesn’t get done. However, we still get web traffic at our reader gallery where readers regularly submit photos.
We need more maps and more database-generated content. But because that would require reporters to gather or parse information in a different way, it just doesn’t get done.
The staff is reluctant to make changes to support the online edition without the full commitment of the managing editor. These are problems that could be solved if the managing editor could communicate the need to work together to improve the website.
Is Our Structure Byzantine?
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how complicated the structure is.
What matters is that our website traffic has plateaued. What matters is that our print circulation increased by 2.25% daily and was flat for Sunday editions in our last ABC audit. What matters is that the managing editor is trying to build paid print circulation, while the general manager wants to increase both paid circulation and web traffic.
Like other newspapers, disagreement exists on whether those two desires are mutually exclusive. This is the difference that we must solve before our website can move forward.
Mark Van Patten isn’t as smart as he thinks he is. He has compensated by surrounding himself with smart people. As a result, he in his 38th year of working at small newspapers, starting on the street as an ad sales rep and working his way up to publisher. Currently, Van Patten is general manager of the Daily News in Bowling Green, Kentucky. He blogs, Twitters, Flickrs, Diggs, Stumbles, Tumblrs, and Woopras his way through the web and is Linked-in. He blogs at MarkVanPatten.com for business and GoingLikeSixty.com for fun.