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A couple of weeks ago, Washington Post Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli sent out a 1,700-word memo—-“Memo No. 1″—-that launched the re-organization of the paper’s newsroom. As management memos go, it was a beaut—-precise and elegant in its language and determined in its tone, all with the goal of creating a structure that would better position the paper to compete. An inspiring piece of media statecraft.
Now comes Memo No. 2 (included after the jump in its entirety), which doesn’t quite meet the standards of its predecessor. OK, it’s a turd.
As Memo No. 1 made clear, the Post is moving to a newsroom anchored by three top desks: a local desk, a national desk, and a universal desk, which will copy-edit and lay out stories and blogs and the like and then place them neatly on various platforms. The unidesk, as laid out in the memo, promises to be a grand power broker in the new Post: “It will handle editing tasks large and small, and make decisions about space allocation and story play, deciding what appears where on the paper’s news pages and online,” said Memo No. 1.
As far as workflow goes, that was about as detailed as it got. After the plan was announced, staffers piled into a huge meeting with their top bosses to learn more. They didn’t: Details on how everything would work in game situations were simply not available.
Until now, somewhat. Memo No. 2 drills into the “coverage groups” that’ll be reporting to the paper’s new editing superstructure. And the problems start in the documents first couple of sentences:
As we push forward with our newsroom restructuring, we’ve identified the central reporting groups we plan to create. These will drive coverage across our print, online and mobile editions. All of the groups will serve all Washington Post venues, although some clearly will focus more on national and others more on local issues, while others may specialize more in features than in breaking news. (Emphasis mine.)
Just what on earth are Washington Post venues? I sure hope that some staff meeting explained this mumbo-jumbo, because it doesn’t quite translate into rest-of-the-world English.
Opacity, though a problem here, is not the main problem with this second memo and the emerging re-organization. Bureaucracy—-that’s the issue.
The first line of Memo No. 1 promised to “streamline editing desks” at the paper. And that’s how it appeared at first glance. After all, moving from a structure of numerous assistant managing editors to just a few central editing desks looked like what Wall Street calls “rationalization.”
Yet Memo No. 2 appears to rebuild with new titles an old org chart. Take a look at how many “coverage groups” are contemplated in the new-look Post. Under the local and national desks, there are thirteen. Foreign and sports are coverage groups, almost untouched by the re-org. And the paper’s entire fourth floor, featuring the Style section and the various lifestyle sections, remain their own coverage groups, too. So we’re well over 20 at this point.
But this massive layer cake has a special compartment within. “Topic Editors”! There are six of these, and they orchestrate coverage on everything from national politics to health. Just how the topic editors work with the coverage groups and the unidesk is something I can’t figure out. But hold on. Let me go back to the memo and see if I can tease this mystery from Brauchli’s corporatese.
OK, so let’s take a look at the document: Here it says that coverage group editors will “make story assignments, and direct reporters. But they will do only limited line editing on these stories.” That doesn’t appear to make a lot of sense, but again, where do the Topic Editors come in?
A clue hides in this passage: “The [universal] desk will coordinate closely with Kevin, Emilio and the reporting groups but have ultimate responsibility for editing and play decisions. Those judgments will be made by the topic editor counterparts to the reporting groups, to ensure consistency and knowledge in editing. The Topic Editors for now will be organized into six groups, with a senior editor leading each team of editors.”
A clue is all you’re going to get from that. An answer will require some reporting, which I’ve already started, though I haven’t reached anyone yet. But before I keep snooping around for a layman’s version of Memo No. 2, I’ll just throw out some questions about this whole plan:
1) I thought the the original impetus for all of this was to think out the Post‘s population of assignment editors. Yet this plan seems to contemplate editors flying everywhere, in constant circulation around the newsroom—-senior editors, topic editors, coverage group editors, universal editors, Universalist editors.
2) How much of a re-org is it, really, if sports, foreign, Style, and all those lifestyle sections aren’t dealt in on this cool new workflow?
3) Can anyone at the paper explain this arrangement in fewer than 45 seconds?
4) What do reporters do in this new world?
5) Who ever thought it would be a good idea to, like, have one editor assign something, and then a different editor edit it? Isn’t that always a disaster?
As we push forward with our newsroom restructuring, we’ve identified the central reporting groups we plan to create. These will drive coverage across our print, online and mobile editions. All of the
groups will serve all Washington Post venues, although some clearly will focus more on national and others more on local issues, while others may specialize more in features than in breaking news.
National Editor Kevin Merida will oversee these groups:
> National Politics and Government
> National Security
> Economy and Business
> Health, Science and Environment
> National Enterprise
Local Editor Emilio Garcia-Ruiz will oversee these groups:
> Local Politics and Government
> Police and Courts
> Local Business and Development (including transportation)
> Social Issues (including immigration, religion, poverty)
> Police and Courts
> Local Enterprise
In addition to an integrated print/online focus in each group, National and Local also each intend to create a digital-oriented content group to help drive innovation, jump quickly on web and mobile opportunities and, in conjunction with other editors, help to organize and lead breaking news efforts. An existing example of such a group is the web innovations team created as part of our sports-department experiment in integration.
Because these groups are built primarily around subjects, not geography, we expect a lot of interaction among reporters and sections. Health, Science and the Environment, for example, will report in to Kevin but be responsible for this subject area in Washington and around the country. The same will be true for Social Issues and Education under Emilio. A political story that emanates from Virginia very well may end up being a joint-venture with the national politics team.
Foreign News, like Sports, will remain a separate coverage group. The 4th floor groups aren’t affected by these changes.
As we mentioned in the previous memo outlining the new structure, the editors who lead these groups will oversee coverage, in print and online, make story assignments, and direct reporters. But they will do only limited line editing on these stories. This will allow the coverage editors and their reporters to begin their days earlier, and to focus their attention on driving the news and enterprise to keep us competitive on all platforms, working closely with Scott Vance, who will run our minute-to-minute news coverage, and Sandy Sugawara and Ju-Don Roberts on the Universal Desk.
The desk will coordinate closely with Kevin, Emilio and the reporting groups but have ultimate responsibility for editing and play decisions. Those judgments will be made by the topic editor
counterparts to the reporting groups, to ensure consistency and knowledge in editing. The Topic Editors for now will be organized into six groups, with a senior editor leading each team of editors.
> National politics and government
> Local politics and government, police and courts, obits
> Social issues including education, religion, immigration
> Business and Economics
> Foreign and National Security issues
> Health, Science and the Environment and some general assignment
As a result of this new system, we will need some editors to oversee reporting groups, and we will need topic editors. The two editors leading these groups on each desk will be close partners, with the leader of each reporting group driving our coverage agenda and developing stories and the senior topic editor working to ensure our stories are as smart, readable and competitive as we need to be on every platform.
Although a few of these subjects have editors who would be natural candidates to take them over, emerging from their current roles, many other subject areas are wide open. Those interested in leading one of these groups, or expressing an interest in a particular kind of job or area, should see Kevin, Emilio or Sandy or Peter Perl in the next 10 days. Many of these groups are also likely to have deputies, details about which will be announced in coming weeks.
Marcus Liz Raju