The Next Newsroom Proposal is Complete

    by Chris O'Brien
    November 20, 2008

    It is with great pleasure that I’d like to announce that we have completed work on our newsroom proposal for The Chronicle, the independent, student-run newspaper at Duke University. The Chronicle’s board has adopted our proposal for a new home. That document will now serve as the basis for negotiations with officials at Duke University.

    The plan is available here: http://nextnewsroom.wikispaces.com. But first, I want to establish a little context for that document. The plan was written in collaboration with The Chronicle’s board, officially known as the Duke Student Publishing Company. The proposal conforms to explicit guidelines created by the Office of the University Architect at Duke University. So you won’t find a grandiose, philosophical document. Instead, you’ll find a straightforward, nuts-and-bolts proposal whose intention is to give an architect the information needed to begin performing a feasibility study for an actual building.


    With that disclaimer out of the way, I’d like to lay out a few highlights of the plan, explain how and why we got there, and outline what happens next.

    The concept approved by the Chronicle’s board calls for:


    • A newsroom for a fully-integrated, multimedia news organization.
    • Adjacent space for a student media incubator.
    • The newsroom would be set in a larger media center, presumably shared by
      other student and academic groups.
    • A central location so the new building will be at the crossroads of campus

    The background

    The plan is the culmination of 18 months of work that began back in Spring 2007, when we learned that we would receive a News Challenge grant from the Knight Foundation. The idea for the project originated back in October 2006 when I was visiting Duke for a Chronicle alumni event. Duke is considering a massive expansion of its campus, and part of that new construction originally included space for a "media center" of some kind. This required The Chronicle, which is independent of the university, to confront some big questions about its future.

    But I also felt this was an incredible opportunity: To imagine the ideal newsroom that would be built from scratch. And that’s what we proposed to do. The grant we received from Knight officially required us to do four things:

    Since receiving the Knight grant, we recruited about 50 volunteers, including Chronicle alumni, to help conduct interviews, visit newsrooms, and generate ideas. We examined traditional newsrooms that were evolving in exciting ways, and new newsrooms that were taking radically different approaches to their organizations. We talked with reporters, publishers, digital media experts, innovators, and architects. And we tried to look for ideas and inspiration outside the journalism industry.

    As we tried to unpack all this information and understand it, we realized that one of the exciting things about the era we’re entering is that there
    would not be a single Next Newsroom, but rather, there will be many Next Newsrooms. We’re moving away from a past that has given us a fairly homogeneous set of newsrooms, and into an era where there will be far more diversity in size, organization, and mission. This, I believe, will be a healthy thing for our communities and our civic life, even if it’s causing short-term pain during this transitional moment.

    Five principles for the ideal newsroom

    So rather than start by trying to create a single "ideal," we decided to identify the big themes. This led to the establishment of five principles we think any newsroom of the future should embrace:

    • Community: The community should be at the center of a newsroom. That can mean physical spaces for training, spaces for public events, and social spaces. But it also means making the community an integral part of the news and information gathering, discussions and production.
    • Multi-platform: The ideal newsroom should embrace all platforms —- online, print, broadcast, mobile —- on an equal footing. Any newsroom that organizes around a single platform, and considers the others to be secondary, risks becoming stagnant as those platforms change and new ones emerge.
    • Innovation: We’re entering an era of increasingly rapid change. The ideal newsroom today won’t be the ideal newsroom of 2012. So any newsroom needs
      to make innovation a priority and find ways to create the capacity for constant experimentation.
    • Collaboration: Because any newsroom will be one among many in its community, it’s critical that it figure out how to work with others in the news and information ecosystem, whether that’s linking, teaming up on strategic stories, or finding other ways to cooperate when its strategic.
    • Transparency: The explosion of information and news creates an enormous challenge for people to figure out which sources they can trust. The best
      way for a news organization to approach this problem is to become as transparent as possible. In the case of some new newsrooms we examined, that meant a transparent structure that allowed the public to see inside and invited them in. But in terms of content, that also means being as open as possible about
      your processes, sources, decisions and content.

    That’s the ideal newsroom. The next challenge was to adapt that to the realities of The Chronicle and Duke University. Let me discuss how we applied each of those principals to our proposal.

    Community: The proposal we wrote calls for The Chronicle’s newsroom to be set inside a larger "media center." We suggested that larger center have public spaces such as an auditorium for discussion media issues, and social spaces such as a cafe that would make it a place where the Duke community would want to visit, linger, and hopefully interact with organizations that are based in the larger building. And the proposal also suggests Duke include digital media training facilities for the broader university community.

    Multi-platform: In thinking about how this looks at The Chronicle, we wanted to make sure that as the paper evolved, it would have the flexibility it needed to grow into a true multi-platform news organization. For the main newsroom, this means creating a space that is as open as possible, with no cubicles and sight lines across the entire space. Everything should be on casters to be moved around to accommodate evolving workflow patterns. There should be as few wires as possible on things like phones, computers, etc., to allow for ease of adaptation. We wanted to allow each new staff the chance to reinvent the newsroom as they see fit.

    This main newsroom would have equipment for programmers and developers to be working alongside journalists. Given The Chronicle’s size, we knew it couldn’t operate a 20,000 square foot broadcast center. However, we proposed a small studio spaces for creating Web video broadcasts or IPTV programming. There would also be a small audio studio for producing podcasts or Internet radio programming.

    Innovation: This is a particular challenge for all college media organizations. At The Chronicle, which relies on an all-volunteer staff, most students are already at full capacity just getting the daily paper out. So to encourage innovation, The Chronicle’s board is going to create a student media incubator that would have its own space adjacent to the newsroom and its business offices. The board isn’t going to wait for a new space to launch this program and is already researching guidelines to hopefully begin the incubator in Fall 2009. I’ll be writing more on this as it progresses.

    Collaboration: This, among all five principles, is the trickiest. The Chronicle is fiercely independent and rightfully proud of its traditions, which have produced a number of respected journalists from a school that does not offer a journalism degree. So for now, we proposed that any larger media center have collaborative space where The Chronicle’s future staffs could pursue collaborations as they choose. It also remains to be seen what other groups or academic departments might be based in such a media center, or choose to offer some programming there. Although Duke doesn’t have a formal journalism program, it does have the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy, which offers a journalism certificate, and the Information Science + Information Studies group, which produced our Second Life newsroom and is focused on digital media and communities, among other things.

    Transparency: The proposal calls for some parts of the newsroom to be "visible externally to create a sense of transparency with the community." Right now, The Chronicle is located on the third floor of a prominent building on Duke’s main campus. While it’s centrally located, it’s also virtually invisible to the Duke community and hard to find and access. As for The Chronicle making its journalism more transparent, that will be an issue left to future staffs.

    Next steps:

    The Chronicle officially adopted our proposal in early October. That document will now form the basis for negotiations with Duke for a new home. I expect this to be a tremendously complicated process. And much has changed since the idea first germinated almost two years ago (the economy in particular). But we are excited about the plan and the opportunity to create a dynamic new home for The Chronicle, and a facility that I believe will have a positive impact on student life at Duke.

    As for the Next Newsroom Project, we’re continuing our research and plan to expand the Next Newsroom site. Our hope is that it will continue to be a resource for people grappling with transforming a news organization, or launching a new one. We think there’s an opportunity to expand the conversation about what the newsroom of the future looks like. And from feedback we’ve gotten in recent months, there are a couple of big questions on everyone’s minds.

    First, they want to know, “How?” How can they actually create or reorient a newsroom that allows them to do the things they want to do in terms of multimedia, innovation, and the community.

    And, of course, there’s the other big question: “How are we going to sustain the newsroom of the future?” Business models seem to be on everyone’s mind and we’ll expand our conversation to include that subject as well.

    Finally: Thanks!

    A tremendous number of people contributed to our work, in ways big and small. But I’d like to especially thank some of the people who played key roles:

    Kathleen Sullivan, deputy project manager, co-wrote the original grant proposal, helped conduct research, and provided most of the polish on the final proposal.

    Erin Ehsani came aboard in Fall ’07 when I was in over my head and helped manage volunteers, conduct interviews, and post research.

    Jonathan Angier, The Chronicle’s business manager, has been a steady hand guiding the paper’s professional staff for more than a decade and provided invaluable support, along with financial record keeping, throughout our work.

    The DSPC. The Chronicle is fortunate to have a strong and diverse board providing thoughtful leadership as it begins to rethink its mission and role on campus.

    And finally, this project would have never happened without the generosity of the Knight Foundation, and
    in particular, Gary Kebbel, Knight’s journalism program director who oversees the News Challenge grant program. We’ve been extraordinarily fortunate to be part of the incredible community of News Challenge grantees, and the larger Knight family, whose work provides some of the best evidence that this is one of the most exciting moments in the history of journalism.

    Tagged: chronicle duke university innovation knight foundation nextnewsroom

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