You need hard facts to change newsrooms

 

REUTERS/Toby Melville

By Dietmar Schantin | Jun 5, 2019

Many newsroom change projects cause wariness and resentment when top management announces the plans.

Staff have a right to be wary: it is hard to understand and accept that the routines and the ways of working (which are established in the daily life of the newsroom for years) are about to change.

The perceived well-oiled news machine operates, in many cases, on years of experience and on beliefs, assumptions and gut feelings that are often not questioned and taken as truth.

Question beliefs and assumptions

One of the first steps in a newsroom transformation project is to question these beliefs and assumptions and try to replace gut feelings with hard facts. This is important because either they are incorrect or don’t work in the digital world. Every newsroom respects facts. It is core to any journalistic work.

in many national or regional newspaper newsrooms, only a small portion of the work they publish is generated originally by staff – sometimes less than a quarter.”

It is a fact, for example, that in many national or regional newspaper newsrooms, only a small portion of the work they publish is generated originally by staff – sometimes less than a quarter.

But, most people in those newsrooms don’t believe it.

In newsroom after newsroom, journalists believe they produce more original content of the daily content than they actually do.

If you take the time to do a content analysis – for example, examining the source of every article and every photo in one paper a week over the course of the year (you can do a similar exercise for digital products) – you will have irrefutable proof that often a big part of content is produced by news agencies or largely based on news agency content and other sources outside of the newsroom.

Audit workflows

Likewise, many may scoff when you tell them there are too many editors on each story, and their contributions are not enhancing quality, just slowing things down.

But, if you conduct a workflow audit, following the path of a story from conception to publication, you may find that the story goes through 10 or 15 steps before it goes public – and nobody can really tell you why.

you may find that the story goes through 10 or 15 steps before it goes public, and nobody can really tell you why.”

Are you really digital-first?

News staff may believe they already have a digital-first operation. That may be true, up to a point.

But, if you look at the schedule of daily news meetings, and the times when each story is published, the results may be a surprise. Even if the newsroom thinks it is fully digital, this simple exercise might very well show that publishing is still largely based around print deadlines, with most stories still published in the evening, and not based on when people want and expect them.

My point? Step back and look deeply into processes and practices

These are just a few examples, but these exercises can be used to audit different aspects of a news operation:

  • How much time do senior editors spend on routine office matters?
  • Do publishing priorities match those of your audiences?
  • Are visual journalists and platform editors brought into the story process early, or are they seen as a service department brought into the publishing process near the end, almost as an afterthought?

The first step to develop an audience-driven, digital and mobile-first newsroom is look deeply into the processes and practices you already have.  There may be some resistance – it is time consuming and looks backwards, not forwards. But, it is worth the time and effort.

What does it take to review every process?

The process can be very low-tech. A lot can be accomplished with nothing more than packing paper on a conference room wall and a lot of post-it notes.

For example, you might spend some time using the notes to illustrate every step in your story publishing workflow, pasting them on the wall in the order they occur.

This might meet with some resistance – staff may say, “we know what we do, this is a waste of time.” But as the project grows, and the colorful squares mount, you are likely to hear, “we knew part of it, but nobody knew all of it.” The workflow processes might be so extensive that you run out of wall before you can illustrate it all.

until you put it all in one place…it is hard to visualize the scale of the current weaknesses.”

Even in newsrooms where the need for change is recognized, and people have good ideas on their own, the process can show the current structure is lacking and needs to be changed before their ideas can be implemented. Reviewing processes and practices can illustrate where the priorities need to be placed. It can show the wider staff how processes and practices are intertwined: until you put it all in one place – like on a brown-papered wall – it is hard to visual the scale of the current weaknesses.

Reviewing processes and practices can illustrate where the priorities need to be placed.  It can show the wider staff how processes and practices are intertwined: until you put it all in one place – like on a brown-papered wall – it is hard to visual the scale of the current weaknesses.

But most importantly, it will also show you where there are opportunities to fix things and transform, which is the whole point of the exercise.

Digital analytics are of great help but also quite simple analysis work.

 

Contact the author: d.schantin@ifms-ltd.com | @dschantin

The Institute designs digital transformation strategies for newsrooms of all sizes and cultures.

Cases in digital reorganization and cultural change from Wall Street Journal and New Zealand Herald among others can be found here 

This article does not express the views of Reuters. The views and opinions expressed are those of the author.