Monday, April 18, 2011

Newsroom integration at El Pais: change the systems to change the culture

Borja Echevarria with El Pais digital desk in the background. (Photo by James Breiner)

Versión en español aquí. 

El Pais is perhaps Spain’s most prestigious newspaper, but its parent company has been suffering financial problems, the print edition has lost readers and it trails its chief competitor in web traffic.

All of these factors have set the stage for the radical changes under way in the newsroom.

This graphic from The Economist shows Spain’s leading general interest dailies losing readers over a four-year period, while sports dailies saw increases. However, El Pais reported 3.8% growth in readership in the first quarter of 2011. Graphic from, March 17, 2011. 
Borja Echevarria, 42, deputy editor, explained that the biggest change is thinking first in the digital product rather than the print. El Pais, like other major dailies, had all of its processes, work schedules, meetings and command structure designed around producing a print edition once a day.

Physical and organizational changes

Now, the newsroom is organized around the digital edition. One concrete change is that an editorial crew now arrives at 7 a.m. to update the website by 8:30 for the first traffic peak of the day.

Another is that the first meeting of editors takes place two hours earlier, at 9 a.m., reflecting the prominence of web planning in the news production process.

The digital operation has been moved from a corner of the newsroom and now is the central news desk for the operation. This is a practical and symbolic change, Echevarria said. Editors here focus on breaking news and continually update the web product.

The goal is for the newspaper’s various sections to generate the content and for the central desk to prepare it for the multimedia platforms. However, if a big story breaks on the wire, and the section can’t handle it, the central desk produces the story for the web.

Soitu team brought to El Pais

All of these changes required a major change of mentality, Echevarria said, and it has not been easy. Many prestigious journalists have regarded the Web as of secondary importance. It has taken work to convince them that their prestige translates to the Web and that they have to come down off their pulpit and engage people in conversations in social networks.

Echevarria is a recent arrival at El Pais. Previously he was second in command at the digital news site, launched in 2006. That site attracted a loyal following and was widely hailed as an innovator in digital journalism but its financial results were not good enough to sustain the operation. Late in 2009, the bank that was financing shut it down.

However, El Pais came calling and hired the core of the digital daily’s team, including its boss, Gumersindo Lafuente, Echevarria and others to lead a digital transformation of El Pais.

Lafuente: averages are misleading

Fifteen months later, Lafuente says, the process has gone well. In the first year, their traffic grew almost 40%. He says they are not just seeking numbers such as total users and average time on site. "I believe it´s a mistake to focus on averages on the Web," he said. "They can mislead and deceive you. Averages don´t interest me because the Internet brings you many users via search who visit your site only once a month. That´s the majority of users. Those that come via Google only interest me if they see something interesting and return again and again."

The users that interest Lafuente are those who visit 15 or 20 times a month. (By comparison, the Newspaper Association of America reports that the average newspaper site visitor in the U.S. visits eight times a month and spends an average of 4 minutes, or about 32 minutes a month.)

What is the best way to change the print mentality of journalists? Lafuente believes that it is by putting the new digital tools in front of the journalists and letting them play with them, try them out.

He gave an example of a journalist in her 50s who went to cover the Goya Awards, Spain’s Oscars, and for the first time used her iPhone to send short news items and photos back to the newsroom. The ease of using the iPhone impressed her. The next day, she commented, "This thing is really a journalistic tool." Lafuente adds, "From that point on, everything is easy. This method is better than going to a conference or a month of training or workshops."

Universities are lagging

Echevarria thinks that the universities in Spain should start changing the mentality as well. "Universities have to change this idea of offering journalism and within that a specialty in digital journalism. Today all journalism should be digital journalism," he said. "If you know how to build a story for digital, you´re going to know how to do it for print, for radio, for television. This is basic, and in Spain it´s not happening. They´re still thinking first of newspapers.

"Newspapers like El Pais have stopped being just print although the print edition is the basis for websites like El País and the New York Times," Echevarria said. "It´s important to change this culture. It will work better when they´re thinking first of building the digital edition and then once a day a print edition."

To read Lafuente´s thoughts on small digital media, click here.

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