Working to Transform
Local News in North Florida
For more than three years I worked very closely with UF's media properties and the professionally managed student powered news operations to migrate from distinct traditional terrestrial broadcast operations to a single integrated multiplatform news operation serving 19 counties in North Florida.
'co-located, not converged'
Until the Innovation News Center opened in 2012, the UF College of Journalism and Communications operated a number of separate newsrooms, each dedicated to a specific media property. There was a public television newsroom, a public radio newsroom, a commercial radio newsroom and a sports newsroom, most of which were staffed exclusively by students from the telecommunication department. In 2010, then-Dean John Wright and newly appointed Division of Multimedia Properties Executive Director Randy Wright commissioned a committee of faculty and staff to begin making plans for a converged newsroom and construction began in fall 2011.
At that time, and under that plan, the “Convergence Newsroom” would bring these disparate newsrooms into one space. Each of the existing newsrooms would have an area in the new newsroom and one space was reserved for “the Web.” The existing newsrooms’ professional staff would also move into the space with radio and TV news directors and their assistants maintaining the existing staff structure. In essence, the news operations would be co-located, but were not working together as one operation.
In July 2011, I joined the journalism faculty as the director of the College’s 21st Century News Laboratory, a 1,200 square foot production studio in the basement of Weimer Hall (part of the Center for Media Innovation and Research) that had opened two years prior. The News Lab was separate from the newly planned Convergence Newsroom and launched distinct projects. However, the lab’s mission and the potential of the new newsroom were more alike than different. Therefore I spent a great deal of time working with the nascent WUFT.org platform, which at that time was largely a poster site for public media programming. I tried to foster a closer sense of collaboration, hosting meetings of the entire news management team once a month and conspired with Prof. Norm Lewis to prototype a lab section of the JOU editing class to meet in the INC in fall 2012, the first time JOU students were systematically included in the College’s news operations.
Dean Diane McFarlin launched a search for a director for the Innovation News Center in 2013. We brought in a number of candidates with strengths in various media areas, but were not successful in finding one that the committee or faculty felt could lead the integrated news efforts. At this point, the other members of the search committee approached the dean and DMP management to say that they felt the best person to lead the efforts was me. The position was reclassified as a faculty line and a new internal search was put in the field. I assumed the role of director of the now renamed Innovation News Center in July 2013.
Phase 1: ROPE
Having worked in a collaborative fashion with the news managers the previous two years I was able to hit the ground running. My vision: we were stronger together than apart, and we began working toward a ROPE model (report once, publish everywhere). Until that time, each medium worked independently and, if they had time or remembered, they might possibly share content with another platform.
One of our first courses of action under my directorship was creating systems and habits that breaking/developing and news tips would be shared with other platforms and not held to be shared after it went to air (and caught only if the other platform management happened to be listening/watching). We hacked systems to try to tie together editorial planning as each platform is on a separate content management system. We tried to dispatch teams of reporters to stories rather than assign them in isolation with multiple reporters dispatched to cover the same stories. For advanced students, we tried to have them report and gather content on multiple media, rather than just for whatever platform they happened to be working for or class enrolled in that day.
Digital also became a critical path for content, and we evangelized and built out a robust digital ecosystem to supplement the public TV and public/commercial radio operations with no additional investment from the media properties. We grew digital traffic to WUFT.org seven times from 2011 to 2015; Twitter blossomed to nearly 5,000 followers; I spent a lot of time negotiating integration of station social properties (historically each “signal” had its own identity and litany of social profiles); and we added features to and redesigned the WUFT.org and WRUF.com sites a couple times in short sprints.
We launched short-form video updates for news and sports that were published online and were broadcast on air; experimented with the JOU editing class, culminating in all JOU students now going through the INC; we ended a long-running public radio features program that aired in the afternoon to refocus on increased afternoon drive-time coverage and less show-specific features; we launched (and later ended) a flagship 6 p.m. half-hour evening TV newscast to supplement (and drive change) in our 5 p.m. “opportunity show.”
Working with my colleagues in the JOU department, we also modified a number of different courses, including advanced editing and social media, for JOU majors that utilized the INC as lab.
We took advantage of external partnerships, launching experimental efforts with Yik Yak, incorporated tools like Parse.ly and Chartbeat, Banjo and others. We launched a daily push email product called “The Point,” and experimented with engagement tools like Hearken, which we used to create the “Find Out Florida” product.
We experimented with new techniques in newsgathering, such as using a cell phone in place of a live truck, and integrated new tech like Google Glass, 360 video, GoPros, shooting for TV with dSLRs and other salvos that caused much hand-wringing among the traditionalists. We launched WUFTNews beachheads on Instagram and Snapchat.
Phase 2: Project Allotrope
Following the first phase of my directorship, and once we changed the culture to one of working together rather than next to each other, we publicly launched a second phase in late spring 2015. This phase was dubbed Project Allotrope. I thought the allusion of the allotrope was apt, being the property of some chemical elements to exist in two or more different forms. Like the base element carbon can form both diamonds and graphite, I believe that our attempts at high quality journalism could live on multiple platforms where and when the people of North Central Florida wanted and needed them.
To kick off this phase, I published an explanation on Medium called “Breaking News.” We also launched a collection on Medium of dispatches from the INC called “Innovation News,” where we periodically chronicled projects and events.
Phase 3: 'Point.One. For Florida’s Story.'
One of the largest undertakings of Project Allotrope was an initiative to examine the identity of the content operations coming out of the INC. We had always struggled with identity of this integrated newsroom, with an alphabet soup of call letters and monikers on the seven differently branded media properties. Dean McFarlin felt this was a vulnerability, particularly in the digital realms. I believe her hypothesis was that the call-letter orientation, particularly online, was limiting our potential.
We launched a project to research feasibility and make proposals for an integrated identity. We worked with Erin Hart, managing director of Spitfire Strategies, a member of the public relations advisory council, and is now an alumnus of distinction for the College. She and I led an effort that utilized primary and secondary research, internal committees, stakeholder interviews, market research completed by Sylvia Chan-Olmsted’s team and other inputs to propose a new identity for the College’s local news, weather and sports content.
The identity that resonated was “Point.One,” with the tagline “For Florida’s Story.” Point.One was designed to double down on the efforts of “smart news” for North Central Florida. Building on the success and brand extension of public radio, we want to tell the stories that are going uncovered and focus on the “how” and the “why” of the stories that shape our lives. With a professed downplaying of “commodity news” (e.g. the latest arrest report or amplification/repetition of a press release and the “who” “where” what” of news) we wanted to focus more on spotting trends, using data and sharing the unheralded stories of everyday citizens in our coverage areas.
The conceptual phase of this project has been completed, and we are awaiting a clear go-ahead to begin launch of the execution phase.
In May 2016, I stepped down as inaugural director of the INC to launch a product + content incubator for the College called Hatch and to serve as the College's director of stories and emerging platforms. Forrest Smith succeeded me as interim director and Mira Lowe became the second INC director in January 2017.