Tuesday, January 13, 2009

How ContentOne threatens local editorial control

The new web-based news service is more than just another way to save bucks by consolidating. ContentOne could further concentrate editorial control over all the company's 85 U.S. newspaper websites.

That would be a big shift in a century-old policy laid down by co-founder Frank Gannett (left). He mandated local autonomy over news coverage, from school boards to presidential inaugurations, the company's history says: "It was his belief that a newspaper best serves its city if its publisher, editor and all its employees are locally oriented and understand the city and its people."

Today, Gannett's newspapers and websites are still produced by people who live and work in the communities they serve: from Rochester, N.Y., to Louisville, Ky., to Salinas, Calif. Importantly, this has meant local folks choose the stories, photos and other content appearing in print and online.

But that is now changing under ContentOne -- a fact CEO Craig Dubow revealed early last month to a high-profile conference of influential Wall Street stock analysts. The service, Dubow said, creates a "national head" to the "local content-gathering bodies,'' and is the logical next step from the Information Center model adopted two years ago.

Which editors choose news?
Consider ContentOne's debut as news central across all 85 sites for President-elect Barack Obama's inauguration. A week ago, Corporate gave each paper a "turnkey'' microsite -- like The Courier-Journal's, in Louisville, Ky.; here's a partial screenshot:

Readers get to the Obama page via an illustrated link (inset, left) embedded on the Courier's homepage; all the Gannett sites adopted these in the past week. Kentucky readers are encouraged to think the page was created by editors in Louisville -- the same ones who pick stories for the rest of the site, and for the daily print paper.

For example, readers are greeted by the paper's logo in the upper-left corner, and a little bit of local news right below -- just like on all the other sites. All the other stories and features were selected by Corporate, as promised in its planning memo: "It will be delivered to you and your readers under your local branding."

(Broadcasting division employees might compare this to the establishment, now under way, of centralized graphics and master control engineering functions at regional centers.)

Finally, check out the list of stories in the middle of the page, near the bottom in that screenshot -- under the heading that says in red type, "inauguration headlines." This identical list of stories appears on all the Gannett Obama sites I spot-checked. That leads to my:

Pesky questions!
  • Which editors choose those national Obama stories on behalf of all 85 websites -- and where do those editors work?
  • Many if not all these stories are soft, and lack hard news. Is that a policy? If so, who set the policy -- and why?
  • Does Corporate plan to extend this consolidation of editing decision-making to other national news pages on community paper sites -- such as business, sports and popular culture?
  • How many copy-editing and webpage-building jobs does Corporate expect to eliminate during 2009 under ContentOne?
  • As ContentOne evolves, what steps has the board of directors taken to safeguard the community papers' traditional editorial autonomy?
Please post your replies in the comments section, below. To e-mail confidentially, write gannettblog[at]gmail[dot-com]; see Tipsters Anonymous Policy in the green sidebar, upper right.


  1. Gannett hasn't belong to the Frank Gannett business/news model for decades.

    Al Neuharth made sure of that with his top down control.

    The Gannett family loved the money Al made for them more than Frank's news philosophy.

    ContentOne looks like a desperate act as the new top management flounders with no clue how to manage real content. Forget about them knowing how to make real content.

  2. Jim,
    I think Content One is a great idea. At least Gannett is trying to adapt in a difficult economy. Could you imagine what a waste of time and mony it would be for all 85 dailies to create their own inauguration. I am optimistic for this new digital approach.

  3. This company is desperate and lacking the kind of innovative minds that it will take to successfully move in new directions. The smart people are leaving -- those who know the most about content. And those left behind are nothing more than empty suits and tech geeks. They talk a lot and say nothing. They continually grasp for straws and can't sell an idea to the masses because the masses see that the ideas are little more than acts of desperation. There is no inspiration, let alone integrity, left in this company. The newspapers lost their soul, and the horrid acts against so many of those who worked here have created such a bad karma that this company may never turn around. Gannett laid off too many of the wrong people and protected those who simply put on a good show but have no substance. The can-do people are out looking for work and the phonies, who never accomplished anything, are running the show now. Good luck, GCI!

  4. The only national/world news at our web site is from the Associated Press, which is automated. Local employees control/post only the local content. So I guess I don't understand your concern.
    The print edition is controlled locally.

  5. Well, they did pick a good topic to start on -- one that you have to cover because it's important, yet very few community papers would have anything distinctive to say about it. It's the perfect "wire story."
    The question is -- will ContentOne itself have something worth reading or worth looking at? Or will it just fill a space that needs filling?

  6. Oh, this inaugural package is horrible and stupid (and seems to have been put together by clueless freelancers whose only knowledge about DC is from guidebooks, the future of Gannnett). Just what you would expect. But Jim, you will love this section in advice under how to watch the parade:

    "If you want to forgo freezing and standing for hours on the National Mall watching everything happen on a jumbo screen, consider buying tickets to the Newseum and watching the parade pass right by you in a prime, warm spot. They will be open, and they're selling tickets online now! Of course, since they are a museum about media and news, you can watch all of the events as they're happening throughout the museum as well."

  7. Content One may have some value and utility in terms of national advertising and readership that might otherwise head to the bigger metro sites, but it is hardly the solution to the problem of declining revenues and readership. It is just one small piece of a much larger puzzle. If Content One is "the plan," then Gannett might as well start liquidating (or selling out to Google) now.

    As so many of the Web sites have proven, local news, governed by local control, is what works in the local marketplaces. Not even the Obama inauguration could possibly compete with the level of response triggered by a story about a well-known stripper who works as a teacher's aide in a local school district, or an accused child abuser who mysteriously dies in jail. Local news sells!!! If Gannett forgets that, it is truly over except for the shouting.

    At the local level, the key is to maintain a hard-on for local news, and I mean real, hard, local news, in depth. Readers want depth, but despite all the endless 1st Amendment talk, most Gannett papers are going to have an increasingly difficult time generating it because of their continually decimated staffs. It's a cryin' shame. The cure, doctors, is only compounding the illness.

    Of course, Gannett has to have a justification for beefing up their Digital division while cutting everywhere else. But I predict the results will show it to be a major miscalculation.

  8. Regarding the comment by 10:31, the print edition is controlled locally.... You hope. Just wait until Gannett figures out how to outsource local news reporting to India. This is actually being done by a few "newspapers" out there, God save us all!

  9. 10:38 pm: Excellent find! It's an embedded profit center in the form of product placement. Kewl!

  10. 10:38, a shameless plug for the Snoozeum masquerading as inauguration news? That's pathetic.
    Anyway, our website also has automated content from AP for state and national news. We have no control over what shows up there. We can't even fix a headline error, like the one we had a few days ago.

  11. 84 daily newspapers... and Detroit.

  12. Q: "How many copy-editing and webpage-building jobs does Corporate expect to eliminate..."

    A: All of 'em.

  13. My biggest concern with this is that not every site uses the same CMS. C1 will probably be implemented on Saxotech/Publicus, which is used by all newspapers except USAT. Usually when that happens, the ONE web developer who works for Broadcast is stuck trying to figure out how to make it work in Newsmaker (the broadcast CMS). I guarantee he spends two months figuring out a way to do it while the rest of us peons manually dupe content from C1 into Newsmaker, and then the higher-ups say "well, the hell with this, you're all going to Saxotech".

    Which I'm fine with. I just think this is the time to make the change. Before we all get stuck with even MORE manual workflow.

    Actually, the likelier scenario is that Broadcast (which, as you probably can tell, is where I work) gets left alone to figure things out for themselves with no help from anyone. Just like with Highschoolsports.net, Metromix, and Moms.

  14. This is scary -- news in the hands of too few people means some stories get told and others don't. Or some things get investigated and others don't.

    Local-local is what we should be after. CNN is not going to cover the local school board or even much state-level news. Local is our niche.

    If local-local is being abandoned, then my days are numbered.

  15. ContentOne is being put together to replace the IC at the local level. The Goal of this project is to start a shared network the all papers can feed from. Each paper will be able to keep thier primary content editors and staff but all others will be eliminated. Examples of this, in florida you might have 1 paper that covers space and feeds all articles into ContentOne for other papers to pull and print. The long term plan is to reduce the IC down to only a hand full of reporters to cover space and some freelancers who feed ContentOne. The editing will be in ContentOne's hands. All newspapers will have a "dashboard" where they can pick and choose stories for print. With those hand full of reporters to fill in gaps with "Local" responses.

  16. This looks horrible. I see The Des Moines Register has fallen victim. It's pretty funny that last year during the Caucuses they won awards on their web content and now they are just another bottom feeder.

    When editors don't have the choices to edit other news content, and writers don't get the choices to write news content, what do you get?

    Thriving alternate news sources.

    Look at CityView. Des Moines Register kicks Brian Duffy cartoonist to the curb, and CityView picks up his loyal fans because they showcase his cartoons in a full page! Every week!

    I just saw a Juice DM Reg product article one week, and the next it was featured on the front page of Iowa Life section in the Dm Reg. Now that's pretty stupid to put the same article in the paper. Exactly the same. No new news.

    Anyone interested in other points of view will have no choice but to go to the alternate news and read.

  17. 9:33 in broadcast: Don't feel so left out and don't think the smaller sites get any/much help with the "local" on our Web sites. We fumble through and figure it out ourselves. The online department is at the mothership site and they help when they feel like it, if they feel like it. Otherwise we're screwed and left hanging.

  18. "The print edition is controlled locally."

    10:31, you can't be serious. If that were true, why do all the changes that you see each paper rolling out (gutting features, moving business, etc, etc) look EXACTLY THE SAME? Corporate had a phone conference with all the editors and basically told them what to cut, not cut and where else to look for savings. Where I am, we had a plan for changes until the big whigs blew into town and overruled most of it. Even on this supposed "new" venture, local control just doesn't exist.

  19. To 8:46 a.m.:

    Q. How many executive editors and MEs does corporate expect to eliminate with Content One?

    A. The cynic in me says none.

  20. 5:03: I've got an ME I'd like to volunteer for layoff. Lol!

  21. IMHO, this soft, celebratory-like reporting just might leave a very bad taste in the mouth's of the readers who still want to read real news. Gannett just might lose them forever.


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