A look back: NewsTrain transforms newsrooms, drives staff enthusiasm

By Rachel Podnar
Ball State University

Alan_Miller_3A question and answer with Alan Miller, outgoing APME president.

Q: What are some things you are proud of that APME focused on or accomplished this past year?

A: NewsTrain is constantly evolving with the industry, the needs of the industry and the needs of that particular community. It’s absolutely wonderful and it’s also very low-cost. It’s the least expensive program you’ll find anywhere. The bang for your buck is phenomenal. We do things like all sorts of digital training, video shooting, editing and production on iPhone, watchdog reporting techniques new and old, to data work on the fly for daily reporting. It runs the gamut and it’s all current because we get people who are doing it right now in the field to teach others who are right now, in the field.

Q: Did you see changes in your newsroom after The Dispatch hosted NewsTrain?

A: Absolutely. It’s the sort of training that people leave and immediately adopt. Not only that, but they go back to their newsrooms – and I saw this in my own – share their enthusiasm at the very least. It’s infectious. Other’s in the newsroom ask their colleagues how to do it, or they ask to go to the next workshop, or both, and it just spreads through the newsroom in a really positive way. We’re trying to get people ahead of the curve, not falling behind it.

Q: Any other things from this year?

A: For a number of years we have worked with the Associated Press to launch and produce a national reporting project. This year we came up with this project that’s now headed toward its fourth part. We call it “Fractured Framework.” It’s about the United States’ crumbling infrastructure and it has been the most fabulous collaborative effort that I have ever seen in one of these national reporting projects.

[AP] went out and got data sets specific to the project. They cleaned them up and then they shared them weeks in advance with all AP members. We all got the data a couple weeks in advance of the story and [there was] a national conference call to talk through the points of the topic and anything specific you want to ask about the data. And that was so well-received it was phenomenal. We all felt like true partners with AP on this project.

Q: Switching gears, what’s something newsrooms are adapting to well, like the reporting project you just mentioned?

A: Newsrooms are more nimble and more quick to adopt change than ever before because you have to. It’s a little ironic. Newsrooms by nature deal with constant change because that is the nature of news. On the other hand, it seems like the culture of newsrooms is that we have been resistant to change. I see in my newsroom and in talking with editors via APME that that culture has changed dramatically. We’re always looking for the ways to adopt new technology and new techniques and adapt to the changing environment. We’re more entrepreneurial, more inclusive of the people we write for, the whole audience engagement mantra we have been talking about for the past five or ten years and not just talk. We can’t just stand on a mountaintop and preach to people, we have to talk with them. Social media has been a big part of that but we are also doing things like holding community forums, inviting readers into our editorial board. It’s not just Facebook and Twitter engagement, it’s face to face engagement.

Q: What’s something that concerns you, or that media companies could do better?

A: I’m a little worried that the youngest readers don’t know where the news comes from. If they don’t know where it’s coming from, they don’t have a reason to care whether traditional newsrooms exist or not. Newspaper newsrooms produce large quantities of news that appears on the web. But there’s also news that comes from places that might be reliable and they might not be. And I want to make sure as both an editor in the newsroom and a leader in APME that the industry is doing what it can to make sure that people are aware of the source, and to make sure people are finding the news from reliable sources.

Q: How do you make people aware of that?

A: I had this conversation with people at AP years ago and when they would pick up our stories, they wouldn’t always include credit. It would be Columbus Ohio, AP. If they don’t know it came from The Columbus Dispatch, they don’t have a reason to care whether we exist or not. But if we don’t exist, you don’t have that story or the hundreds of others you picked up from my newsroom. I want the readers to know where it came from so they can judge whether it’s a reliable source or not and so they know we are a reliable provider of news in this state and in this country. As an industry, we need to do more to make sure people are discerning.

Q: What are you excited to learn about at the conference?

A: The conference is so packed with stuff, I’m actually disappointed I can’t be in two or three places at once. I always look forward to the opening session about the current state of the industry and the latest trends and issues, but that’s kind of a high level view.

Alan Miller is Editor of the Columbus Dispatch and is concluding his service as president of APME.

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