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Groupthink 

Two weeks ago, we published a story on how the Spokesman-Review is weathering what some are calling the worst-ever year for newspapers. In an industry in which ad revenues are drying up and the cost of newsprint is skyrocketing -- resulting in shrinking papers and widespread layoffs -- we reported that the Spokesman is banking on new platforms to keep the company afloat. They've sunk money into radio programming, a soon-to-be-unveiled revamped Website and mobile phone applications. "We're waiting for something that's going to stick," Spokesman videographer Colin Mulvany told us.

In the search for the magic solution, the Spokesman-Review is also looking to overhaul its organization. Last week, editor-in-chief Steve Smith published to his News is a Conversation blog a report from what he calls the "Gang of Eight" -- eight young staff members whom he "locked away" for more than a week and told to re-envision how the company does its business. "Their future is ahead of them, they weren't rooted to the past," Smith says of the eight. "The original charge was to take a blank sheet of paper and ... reinvent our organization."

The report's findings are largely "inside baseball" -- more germane to those inside the paper. They urge open communication and smoother workflow and recommend creating a central workstation for editors, as well as a "strong" city editor. The report also aims to enhance and integrate print and online functions.

Perhaps the weightiest suggestion, however, is changing the company's deadline structure closer to that of an afternoon newspaper. "The deadline model for a traditional morning newspaper must be abandoned," the report asserts, "though the Spokesman-Review will remain a morning newspaper." That shift could mean reporters would be expected to come in at 4 or 5 am, instead of around 10 am (according to Smith).

More interesting than the report's major recommendations are a number of "consensus" and "majority" suggestions, which were prefaced as being "outside the main focus of this task force but worthy of consideration." Among these:

Dumping the Monday paper (this week it was a flimsy 26 pages) and replacing it with their "Voices" coverage;

"Less coverage of car crashes and mundane crimes" (the minority suggestions offer that the paper should "send visitors from our Website to KHQ videos for ambulance-chasing stories");

Removal of the paper's online subscription wall;

A shift-change in which all union employees work four 10-hour days -- "to improve productivity and morale."

The report also has a grim outlook on 7, the Spokesman's stand-alone weekly entertainment publication. "7 has lost its edge," the report's authors write. They suggest opening the doors to a weekly brainstorming meeting and "if 7 cannot be improved, eliminate it as a weekly pull-out and have it replace the Friday Today section."

Rajah Bose, a Spokesman photographer and one of the eight "gang" members, says the group met for between two and six hours each day over six to seven days. Though they were still expected to perform their usual work, he says it was made known throughout the newsroom that this was to be their No. 1 priority. Inside a fourth-floor conference room, the eight developed a loose meeting structure and started to talk. "It would be a very casual conversation most of the time. A lot of the stuff we were talking about we had already talked about in small groups [outside of work]," says Bose. "In the beginning, we thought we might have three different plans, but as we talked about it, we came to a consensus on things."

"In the newsroom, it was kind of a mixed reception. I think it's fair to say that there were some folks that were upset that we asked only our younger journalists to participate in this," Smith says, adding that the Gang of Eight report was only the first step in a larger re-shuffling. This week has seen a series of meetings on the newspaper's content, with a report due by 5 pm tomorrow. Smith says the paper is also re-assessing its management structure and its Web content.

joels@inlander.com

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