Webcasting editorial meetings: the method behind the madness
On Monday, one of the big stories of the day at the New York Times revealed a possible link between head injuries in NFL football players and early onset dementia. The article may have not even hit newsstands yet, but those tuned into the paper’s new TimesCast were privy to details.
TimesCast is the Times’ newest effort to expand in digital media and create greater transparency, as well as provide new opportunities for advertisers. Available for viewing on the Times’ Web site at approximately 1 p.m. on weekdays, the video newscast offers a peek into the newsroom process, focusing on the paper’s Page 1 editorial meeting. “I think it’s a good fit for the New York Times, said Rick Edmonds, a media business analyst with the Poynter Institute. He noted that as one of the top news sources in the country, people are generally curious about the Times. “So it kind of opens the process – the buzz word is transparency – and gives people a better sense of how their reporting comes together.”
Although the Times may be the biggest paper to provide readers a glimpse into the inner workings of the newsroom, it is not the first. The Spokesman-Review is considered a pioneer in webcasting editorial meetings. The Washington-based daily launched its webcast back in 2005 in an attempt at transparency, noted editor Gary Graham in an e-mail. “Openness is always a good thing in our business. We expect it of those we cover, so it seems only fair and responsible to open ourselves up to new forms of exposure and observation,” he said. The paper continued the webcasts until last year when they ceased the practice due to low viewership.
The Texas-based Victoria Advocate decided to try its hand at webcasting meetings in August 2008 as an easy and inexpensive way to connect to readers. Although the audience is small, noted editor in chief Chris Cobler in an e-mail, he sees no reason to discontinue the practice. He receives regular story ideas from viewers, who can send story suggestions via chat room while the meeting is in progress.
Breaking the next big story has historically been one of the fundamentals of any news organization’s existence, especially among competing newspapers. Although newspaper wars don’t dominate the landscape like they once did, present day rivalries between papers such as the New York Times and Wall Street Journal often make headlines. Opening an editorial meeting to the public would seem to go against the very notion of exclusivity. But times have changed.
Some, like Cobler, aren’t concerned. “Our only competition is a small-market TV station. We don’t worry about them scooping us because we have a much larger news operation and because we can publish in real time to the Web,” he said. “The Internet gives us the same immediacy as broadcast.”
At The Spokesman-Review, Graham said his editorial staff waited until the camera was turned off before discussing any exclusive content. “On most days, that involved only one or two stories that we thought our television competitors might be able to duplicate if we had previewed them during the webcast,” he said. “Besides, sometimes we felt it was to our advantage to have TV develop its own version of one of our stories, it had the potential of bringing more attention to our content.”
Edmonds contends that the Times probably does much the same thing, except the TimesCast isn’t aired in real time and so edits can be made to adjust any exclusive stories they wouldn’t want competitors stealing.
Knowing the editorial details of coming issues is valuable to PR professionals, said Megan Smith, founder and president of Brownstone PR. But building close ties with editors and reporters is the way she keeps abreast of upcoming content. She believes journalists have moved away from interacting face-to-face with their audience and should occasionally open editorial meetings to the public. “And by open I mean actually inviting members of the community into the meetings – not just doing a podcast that allows people to see how an editorial meeting is run,” she said in an e-mail. “If you’re discussing the top headlines of today, doesn’t it make sense every once in awhile to ask a reader, ‘Do you even want to read about this?’ I get pleasing advertisers, but where is the accountability to the reader?”
Instead of webcasting editorial meetings, The Spokesman-Review practices what Smith advocates by opening their meetings to the public on a regular basis. Meanwhile, Cobler doesn’t mind that viewers don’t top the charts and noted that if nothing else, recording the meetings live encourages the editorial staff to start the meeting on time. Whether the daily TimesCast will be as interesting as it seems right now, remains to be seen.
“The Times has legions of loyal readers and a significant number of critics, so I think the Times webcasts will be very popular among many segments of society. Now, whether that interest will be sustained over time is a different issue,” Graham said. “My guess is that webcasts will prompt more e-mail and blogging comments from readers, which can be invaluable feedback.”
— Katrina M. Mendolera
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