7 lessons from a “lifetime” of digital transformation
When we talk about digital transformation in our newsrooms and our society, we know the next change is just around the corner. Change is embedded in our lives: Every time we download a new operating system, talk to our digital assistant or turn on our smartphone, we marvel at how fast things change.
So, when we talk about a “lifetime” of digital transformation, we are not talking about an actual human lifetime. We are talking about the fact that rapid and constant change makes even a few years – or even months – seem like a lifetime.
For those working in newsrooms, change can seem chaotic. But for those who have been involved in transformation projects in many newsrooms, some common practices have emerged to bring order to the chaos.
As 2019 begins, it is a good time to reflect on some elements common to successful projects, things that can mean the difference between a successful transformation process, or a return to old habits.
1. Take a holistic approach
In any transformation project, there are multiple areas to be addressed; content, audience, workflows, technology, people, architecture and more. Too often, newsroom managers focus on one area at a time – they’ll upgrade the mobile platform, or reorganize the furniture, or buy a new CMS. Projects have failed because only single aspects were addressed, without looking at the system as a whole.
Everything is connected. You cannot address the content strategy without understanding the audience you’re trying to reach, or without determining how you will use your platforms. You can’t change any of that without addressing workflows. If you introduce new practices, your people will need new skills. And so on.
When you focus on only one area, it is like putting a Porsche engine in a Volkswagen Beetle – the brakes can’t handle it, the clutch burns out, and the chassis just isn’t built for it. Likewise, your newsroom won’t function efficiently if you install a new system without changing the workflow or upgrading skills. Or if you change the workflow but not the incentive system. Or, even worse, you change the content structure without actually knowing who your audience is.
Having this holistic view is very important. It is more complicated than changing just one thing at a time, but the chances of success are much higher.
2. Dedicate sufficient (and the right) people to the project.
The future of a media company depends on the success of its transformation into a digital and mobile entity. Yet, when it comes to appointing the team to lead the project, the discussion often begins with: “who can we spare?”
One of the biggest stumbling blocks to any transformation project is a lack of commitment to dedicating the best leaders to the work. Often the people chosen are the ones whose absence will cause the least disruption on the daily newsroom activities. Or, they are asked to juggle both their current newsroom role and the transformation project. Projects of this magnitude can’t be managed after 5pm.
Much depends on appointing managers with the right spirit and with time, those who fully embrace the change and the new concepts, are good and respected leaders and good communicators.
3. Encourage close cooperation across the entire company
Just as newsroom transformation has an impact on all elements of editorial operations, it also concerns other departments.
A change project should be interdisciplinary – it involves technology, marketing, human resources, advertising, everything.
You will know if your project is on track if you find that everyone is working much more closely together, across departments – editorial, marketing, the customer crew, technology, the team that does the paywall, advertising. If any of the departments are isolated, the project has less chance of success. This does not mean the wall separating editorial and advertising should come down. But all the departments have to talk, and a transformation project helps to start the discussion.
4. 150% commitment from the top management (CEO, editor-in-chief)
100% isn’t good enough. Above all, the CEO and the editor-in-chief must be completely committed; if either one of them resists, success would be difficult indeed.
You also need strong commitment from middle managers. You may find some of your decision makers will not be the right people to lead the change. Experience has shown that, in general, a considerable number of section heads want to leave because they don’t believe in the project or lack the leadership skills to contribute adequately.
There is hidden wealth buried in your organizational structure that can be uncovered. An open application and evaluation process puts the best people in the project team. This approach is likely to uncover brilliant people, lower down in the hierarchy, who have potential but would not have come forward. They may be too timid, too unsure, or didn’t think their opinion was welcome.
5. Invest in people, their skills and technology
A digital transformation project is not a cost cutting exercise. If you assume you are going to succeed with the same people just doing different things, you are setting yourself up for disappointment. You are going to need new people and new skills, and that takes investment in time, training and recruitment.
This approach may require a cultural change in the newsroom. Twenty years ago, when a writer got tired of Sports, they could switch to Culture, and then maybe to Business. The attitude was, “they will learn it”. This attitude persists in many news operations.
But the tasks are more specific today. You cannot learn to be a data genius if you haven’t been educated in it. You can develop some competency, even to a fairly good level, but you will never be a specialist, a “native”. There are, of course, exceptions, but those who grew up with today’s tools and skills – data, new storytelling techniques, video, social media, etc. – are generally better at them.
This isn’t easy to accept. There are many cases where life-long print people are put in charge of the digital desk. They can and will try it, but they aren’t likely to succeed in a way that is required. Ten years ago it may have been enough, but today you can’t make a real push with the same people, just in different positions.
6. Make hard decisions quickly
It isn’t easy to change under any circumstances, but especially when your livelihood is at stake and you worry you may not have the skills to do the newly required tasks. There is a psychological element to change that cannot be overlooked.
Newsrooms undergoing change generally lose a lot of people – a rule of thumb would be that 60% of section heads won’t make the journey – either because they don’t want to, or they weren’t the right people. It’s a shocking number, and it has an impact on newsroom morale, especially when some of the most respected and longest serving newsroom staff opt out.
These situations require hard decisions, and it’s best to get them out of the way quickly. In one recent project, the organization offered a voluntary buyout at the start, and many staff jumped at it. For the staff, it was tough to see many colleagues go, but over time the newsroom became stronger and morale improved. The people who stayed really wanted to be part of it, and were offered more opportunities to take on bigger roles. The leadership team became younger and more diverse.
7. Never assume you are over communicating
Transparent communication is an essential part of any strategy.
Even the best change projects can fail if a clear message about the goals and expectations isn’t there.
People are scared and worried, and it becomes even worse if they don’t know what’s happening.
Right from the start, staff will need regular updates and a wide range of information – particularly for changes to workflows, shifts, routine structures, and job roles. People tend to pick up only what they want to hear, so you need to repeat the message again and again.
The style of communication is just as important. Mind-numbing, multi-slide PowerPoint presentations are not the way to go. It might be better to go with short videos showing progress, social media get-togethers, and newsletters. Newsroom leaders have had success when they organize talks with small groups after certain complex or difficult change processes were launched. Good communication is a two-way process designed to produce feedback, check understanding and clarity, and reduce the risk of people spreading rumors.
These are just a few of the elements that can be found in successful, newsroom transformation projects. None of them is a “silver bullet”, but employing them certainly will improve the chances of success.