It wasn’t so long ago that ‘brand newsrooms’ – in-house publishing operations that companies staffed with armies of keen journalists, editors and producers to crank content out around the clock – were all the rage. And indeed some of the model’s early adopters, from Marriott to Alibaba, still maintain the kind of publishing resources that would turn most newspapers green with envy. But no one seems to want to use the term anymore; it’s a lot more fun to dismiss it as a “myth” or one of the “most lampooned marketing buzzwords.”
That might be for the best. Having come up in real newsrooms we’re wary of any attempts to equate what brands do with actual news operations, or to obscure the lines between marketing and journalism. Newsrooms also aren’t a realistic goal for most companies: they’re massive, complex and hideously expensive to maintain, populated with a rotating cast of prematurely world-weary cynics migrating bleary-eyed between hangovers, the coffee pot and the next big scoop… okay, maybe that was just my last job.
For all that, it would be a shame to throw the idea out completely, because there’s so much newsrooms can teach other industries about effective publishing. There’s a reason virtually every publication adopts an editorial ‘chain of command’ that since the dawn of mass media has remained largely unchanged.
In newsrooms, while journalists may collaborate on stories, they’re rarely produced ‘by committee’, and the number of people with a say on any given piece is strictly limited. Content also moves through a strictly defined process, from production to quality control through to signoff, simply because there’s rarely time to do things any other way. Companies may not be dealing with breaking news-variety deadlines, but there’s a lot to be said for newsroom-style structure in enabling anyone to produce articles (or graphics, or videos) in an efficient, consistent way. Let’s look at some typical newsroom roles, how content progresses from one to the next, and how this structure might apply to other environments.
Journalist/reporter: The content writer/designer/creator; in many companies this will be someone on the marketing team. Bigger publications (and firms) may have dozens. They occasionally tackle pieces together, but in general have designated ‘beats’ (areas of specialisation) that they cover in-depth and independently to cultivate sources and develop expertise on a topic. It’s their job to build relationships with sources in their areas of specialisation (in the case of companies, these will be internal subject matter experts), checking in with them regularly with an eye to their next story. Reporters may have to consult with editors on what they have planned, but are given a high degree of autonomy on the assumption they have an ear to the ground and knowledge of their topic. In the words of one of my former editors, “nothing kills the creative impulse, or more good stories, than meetings and micromanagement.”
Subeditors: Once the reporter produces a story (or graphic, or video), it will be reviewed by a ‘second pair of eyes’ — the subeditor, who’s responsible for fact-checking and poring over the piece for spelling, grammatical and/or design errors, as well as general sense and flow. In most firms this would be a senior member of the marketing team. Again, several subeditors may get involved in a larger story, but most newsrooms will control this, conscious of the old adage about too many cooks. The subeditor may have the authority to publish the piece then and there, or it may go to the managing editor for a final review.
Managing editor/editor in chief: While they will sometimes get involved in day-to-day publishing matters, the managing editor’s real responsibility is to set the overall direction and drive the editorial agenda. The managing editor may want to see everything prior to publication, or review only the most high-profile content — either way, they have the final say. In the corporate context, this could be the role of the CMO or head of branding/communications. The complexities of contemporary business can make a single point of sign-off difficult — at many companies legal or compliance may need to get involved — but if the editorial process is working well this should be largely a formality.
Even if a firm doesn’t formally establish editorial roles or titles, there are some valuable takeaways from the newsroom blueprint:
*Content is born from on-the-ground research and relationships — someone has to be thinking about it regularly
*It helps to give people areas of specialisation — it creates a sense of ownership and builds their expertise, meaning what they produce just gets better
*Content should flow through a formal process overseen by people with defined roles. Be open to cooperation and other views, but don’t attempt to involve everyone or collaborate your way to production; very likely nothing will get done
*Everything, no matter who produces it, should be reviewed by someone else
*The buck has to stop somewhere; some decisions can’t be made by committee
Call this if you will, ‘newsroom lite’, or perhaps newsroom discipline — just don’t use the dreaded ‘brand’ word.