Digital-first editors are caught in transition.
Many are longtime print editors. However much they have been embracing and resisting the digital transformation the past couple decades (and most of us have been doing some of both), they understand now that the future is digital and they want to help lead that newsroom of the future. Even the editors who are digital natives who’ve worked more online than in print are caught in this transition because they are leading staffs through the transition.
Don’t look at the suggestions here as an exact checklist for the digital-first editor. We want editors who don’t need checklists, who find creative solutions for their newsrooms. The staff dynamic, size and abilities, the community’s needs and the editor’s own strengths, weaknesses and creativity will determine the right leadership approach for each newsroom. And the challenges and opportunities for each newsroom are unique, at least in their details, and leadership must respond to them with solutions that are unique, at least in their details.
Don’t look at this checklist as a yardstick by which to measure the success or failings of a particular editor. Perhaps some editor excels in all of these areas (I wouldn’t, if I were still leading a newsroom), but that would be a rare editor.
View these as my suggestions for digital-first editors trying to meet the challenges and opportunities this transition:
Meetings are boring but important. They take up too much newsroom time, but they set priorities and direction for the newsroom. Focus your meetings on digital platforms. Ask what you’re covering live, who’s shooting video, what the social chatter is, what stories are getting good traffic.
I’ve sat in too many meetings the past year that focus on what’s going to be in tomorrow’s paper (sometimes starting with that very question). Put tomorrow’s print Page One it its proper place: as an afterthought at the end of the meeting. If you spend time discussing a headline in a meeting, make it a discussion of a head that was a good or bad example of SEO, not a page-one print headline.
The top editor or editors need to take the lead in changing the meetings yourself. I won’t go into details, but I didn’t take strong enough control of meetings when I was editor of the Cedar Rapids Gazette. I didn’t run the meetings (or attend all of them), just urged a stronger digital focus in them and asked some digital questions myself. But the print default setting was too powerful. I should have taken over the meetings and made the digital focus unrelenting.
Digital-first editors need to be learning and practicing digital tools and techniques along with the rest of the staff. We need to ask more experienced users of these tools for their help and be willing to appear like the rookies we are as we make mistakes and take our baby steps. The editor’s actions speak louder than her words, so our actions must say that these tools and techniques are important and that we’re willing to look vulnerable as we learn them.
I was more successful here than I was with meetings in Cedar Rapids. I said Twitter was a priority, but I also showed that it was a priority by tweeting a lot about our work and about journalism in general and about what was happening in the community. I showed how to take a conversational tone on Twitter. I showed that it was OK to be a person on Twitter, tweeting humor and sports loyalty and daily life, even bantering with my wife. I wasn’t there long enough to win the whole newsroom over, but Twitter use increased heavily, and contributed to our journalism, because of my example.
And I was fairly new to Twitter when I got to Cedar Rapids. I’m sure I made some mistakes that amused or bothered my staff. But they saw that it was valuable and important and that we had to learn.
Digital-first newsrooms are constantly learning new tools and techniques. The digital-first editor must make training a part of the culture of the newsroom and a high priority. As staff members learn new skills, you ask them to teach colleagues through coaching, workshops, webinars and how-to blog posts.
You designate someone to coordinate newsroom training (this won’t be a full-time responsibility in most newsrooms, but should be designated to someone). As you can, you budget money for external seminars and conferences. You take advantage of free and low-cost training.
Even more important, you budget time for training. When your company is providing online training, you make sure staff members have time to participate (and that they understand that they should). You lead some workshops as you learn new skills or blog about what you’ve learned or both. You ask your best staff members at various digital skills to train their colleagues.
You want a culture of continuous learning in your newsroom.
The digital-first editor has to uphold standards for quality and ethical journalism, which is a demanding job in any time and doubly demanding in a time of such rapid and dramatic change.
I like John Paton’s employee rules for social media, which are no rules. Journalism is changing too swiftly to inhibit experimentation and creativity with rigid sets of thou-shalt-nots. Editors must guide their staffs in conversations, welcoming and considering all suggestions and accepting many that will make us feel uncomfortable.
Seek wide input before making decisions and explain your decisions to your staff in conversations and staff meetings and messages to the full staff. But be careful of making statements that will be interpreted broadly. When you don’t like how something worked out, discuss how you’d rather handle similar situations in the future, instead of pointing fingers or saying you never want to do something again.
Be firm and emphatic about points that are important. You must stand for quality journalism and for ethical journalism. But understand that those definitions are changing, and lead your newsroom in thoughtful discussions that keep you ahead of the change, rather than always catching up.
Listening is one of a digital-first editor’s most important jobs. You need to listen a lot, and not always to the same people. You need to talk, too, but in almost every case, you must listen first.
Listen to the fears of journalists worried about their jobs and our profession. Listen to the aspirations of journalists who think your newsroom can lead our profession in change. Listen to diverse voices in the newsroom and in the community, seeking out voices from groups that are underrepresented in your staff or in your newsroom leadership. Listen to ideas, even (and especially) those that sound outlandish. Listen to colleagues in other newsrooms who are trying new approaches. Listen to people in the community who want to collaborate. Listen to people in the community whose lives and concerns are not being reflected in your coverage. Listen to contrarians and skeptics, not to let them derail your progress, but to make sure your plans and ideas are fully tested.
Listen with a wide range of tools: Skype and Google+ Hangout, Facebook groups, Google groups, email, gchat, text messages, phone calls, DMs. And as much as possible, listen face to face, making eye contact and not interrupting.
If Friday rolls around and you haven’t listened this week to someone you haven’t heard from in a while, seek out a face in the newsroom that you haven’t looked in the eye recently and spend some time. Or open Skype or Google+ Hangout and chat electronically with someone in a bureau. And sometimes make time to get out to the bureaus.
Praise is another critical job of the digital-first editor. I used to lead a workshop on leading a newsroom in difficult times (what we thought was difficult then is what we’d call easy today). Two thing stick out from that experience:
- I used to ask a few survey questions of the editors and of their staffs in advance of the workshop. One of the questions was to rate, on a scale of 1 to 5, how often your editor gives you specific praise (or how often you praise staff members). Without fail, editors ranked themselves about a point higher than staff did. No one was lying; that’s just the difference in how we perceive praise. So praise more than you are and more than you feel like praising.
- I remember hearing more than once from editors that they don’t praise people for just doing their jobs. Bullshit. You praise people because you want them to keep doing a good job. Throughout newsrooms today, our jobs are changing and expectations are changing. Uncertainty is rampant in your staff. Praise is how you add some certainty: Today on this challenge, you certainly did well and I appreciated your performance. Praise is how you underscore your priorities. Praise in failure is how you tell your boldest staff members that experimentation is important and they must try again.
Make your praise specific. Make it sincere. Don’t always praise the same people. Deliver your praise in a variety of ways: email, phone call, Facebook message, DM, text, 30-second face-to-face chat, over lunch, handwritten note (in this day of electronic communication, hard copy and penmanship — keep it readable — have amazing power).
Praise is free; you don’t have to budget it. It takes just a few seconds; you can deliver it on your busiest day. But it’s one of a digital-first editor’s most important jobs and you should do it every day. Stop reading this now and go praise someone who has served your newsroom or your community well today.
Not everyone on your staff deserves praise. Every newsroom has curmudgeons resisting change and making editors’ lives more difficult.
Digital-first editors must deal creatively and firmly with curmudgeons. They require some assessment. If someone is simply refusing to accept change and is not contributing significantly, you may need to deliver an ultimatum and eventually may need to part ways. But few curmudgeons are that simple. If someone is just asking valid, skeptical questions, keep in mind that skepticism is in the journalist’s nature. These questions will help you test and improve your digital journalism and your explanation of the change you are leading. A good editor can lead these skeptical journalists to digital-first success, and their progress will provide key milestones in your newsroom transformation.
Sometimes curmudgeons are acting out of fear or ignorance (usually both, because they are related). Teach, train and coach through the ignorance and the fear will ease. If the fears are not based on ignorance, understand and address them. Most journalists are courageous and can overcome their fears with patience, understanding and strong leadership.
Perhaps the toughest decisions are about the curmudgeons who are refusing to change, despite your persuasion, training, etc. but who have extraordinary value that you need. This is not a one-size-fits-all situation. Some might be so valuable that you tolerate their resistance (no newsroom should be marching in lockstep). Some might be so disruptive that you cannot tolerate. I’m available to consult in individual cases, and won’t suggest a single approach to use in these situations. But don’t put off dealing with them.
Don’t tell your staff they have to “do more with less” unless you are providing tools for them to work more efficiently (in my career, a few things that have actually helped us do more with less are portable computers, spreadsheets, databases, cellphones and pagination). Usually, “do more with less” is a management cliché that means we have failed to make tough decisions about priorities.
As you focus more attention on digital platforms, you have to focus less on print. Consult with your staff and colleagues and make tough decisions about priorities. How are you going to change the newshole, design, editing process, content, staffing, etc. of the print product so you can focus more attention on digital? If you don’t set priorities, you can’t succeed as a digital-first editor.
I received an email this week from a digital-first reporter who’s covering four beats, any of which could be a full-time beat. I’m not saying we don’t have to have some people cover four beats sometimes. Every editor wishes (and I do, too) that staffs were bigger. But staff members with multiple responsibilities like that need some guidance from the top editors about what is most important.
Of course, you just don’t have full control of your budget, or newsrooms wouldn’t have endured the staff cuts we have the past few years. You make your pitch and the company decides how much you have to spend. Make sure your budget reflects your digital-first priorities, asking for the training, equipment and staffing you need to pursue them. In the budget process, choose your fights well, reflecting those priorities. As the budget year unfolds and you have to make adjustments, make sure your priorities are guiding those adjustments.
Where you don’t get what you want (and who ever does?), consider whether you can find low-cost alternatives, partner with other media or community bloggers to achieve results at no or low cost or find solutions that will generate revenue, rather than costing money.
One of the ways a digital-first editor has the most impact is in the jobs you have your staff do and the people you choose for those jobs. Consider whether each job fits your current priorities and how it should change and whether you have the right person in that job. You may want to create an entirely new job, such as Chris March’s new gig as assistant managing editor for disruption at the New Haven Register. Connecticut Group Editor Matt DeRienzo‘s job description for Chris (toned down a bit from the original draft I saw) includes the duty of “blowing stuff up.” You might want to form new teams, as Matt did for engagement and breaking news (I will be blogging soon about those teams) or new positions, as Matt did in focusing staff members on investigative reporting and fact-checking and explanatory stories. My first staff move in Cedar Rapids was to make the editor of a print section our social media guide.
Whether hiring from outside or reassigning or promoting from within, evaluate people on their digital skills and their willingness and ability to learn new skills (though you need to be providing strong training, you want to hire and cultivate self-teachers). You don’t hire based solely on digital skills. You’re still interested in basic journalism skills, a diverse staff, work ethic and other important matters. But it’s essential to upgrade your digital skills as much as possible with each staffing move.
In shaping your organization, understand that what people do is way more important than your org chart. I have endured too many reorganizations that accomplished little. Focus on changing what people do and change the org chart to reflect that.
Failure and risk
I wish you amazing and frequent success. But the experimentation required for success in a digital-first newsroom requires that you risk and celebrate failure.
I have a t-shirt from Cape Canaveral with the great line from Apollo 13: “Failure is not an option.” Newsrooms are not often in the life-and-death situation that the Apollo 13 crew and mission control faced, so we usually need the opposite mission. You need to take bold enough risks that failure is usually a possibility, and not one your staff fears.
As you undertake changes and as staff members approach you with suggestions, ask yourself about the risks. You want to take prudent steps to minimize the risk (perhaps run a low-cost test before investing heavily in a full-scale project) and you have to be willing to shut down a project that isn’t working. But also ask yourself and your staff if you’re being bold enough. Ask staff if they toned down a suggestion because they didn’t think you would approve something bolder.
You want a newsroom that embraces risk and celebrates failure. You don’t celebrate the fact that you failed (success is always the goal). But you celebrate the risk and the lessons learned. And you ask what they will be trying next.
The digital-first editor needs to foster collaboration at multiple levels:
- You need a collaborative newsroom, where people with varying skills work to make stories and your content better stronger than they could working alone.
- Collaborate with your staff in making decisions for the newsroom. Of course, the top editor must make the final decisions, but make those decisions with input from people who live different lives and have different concerns, experiences and outlooks.
- Collaborate with other editors and newsrooms in your company. We all are facing similar challenges and opportunities, and we need to learn from the successes and failures of our colleagues. Through email, phone, conferences, social media, Facebook groups and Google groups, let’s share our lessons, so we can spread the successes around and avoid repeating failures. (While we need to be willing to risk failure, we want our failures to be new ones, the result of taking new risks, not the result of failing to learn from previous failures.)
- Collaborate with your community. Network with bloggers in our Community Media Labs. Use social media, Google Voice, story comments and other tools to invite the community to add to our stories or to curate the stories they are telling themselves.
- Collaborate with competitors. You can compete fiercely on most matters and still find opportunities for collaboration that help both organizations and your community.
Traditional journalism skills
Your digital-first newsroom needs many of the skills of traditional journalism — good writing and editing, interviewing skills, cultivation of sources, investigative skills. Some skills transfer well to digital applications: Reporters who write good leads should be good at writing tweets; copy editors who write good print headlines should write good digital headlines after learning search-engine optimization.
Do not let your emphasis on developing digital skills lead to undervaluing traditional skills. An outstanding traditional journalist who’s developing digital skills has great value. And you may need to provide some training and coaching in traditional skills for some digital stars to help them maximize their contributions.
The digital-first editor should consider blogging to the community about what your newsroom is doing. You explain new processes and projects. You invite community engagement. You highlight your staff’s good work.
Some outstanding editors’ blogs are Matt DeRienzo’s Connecticut Newsroom blog and the YDR Insider blog by Jim McClure and other editors of the York Daily Record. Tom Skoch of the Morning Journal in Lorain, Ohio, has been explaining some tough editing calls and aggressive breaking news coverage recently in his blog. (What are some of your favorite blogs by editors?)
Digital-first newsrooms should honor our print roots. But we cannot let nostalgia for print’s heyday distract us from the important challenges and opportunities of today.
Newspaper companies have seen their advertising revenues drop by 58 percent from the third quarter of 2005 to the third quarter of this year (64 percent after adjusting for inflation). Any profits are achieved only by severe cuts in staff and other costs. That path is simply unsustainable.
The Digital First Media approach is growing digital revenues much faster than the industry average, in most cases this year offsetting the decline in print ad revenues and producing more revenue than the costs of our newsrooms. Whatever ups and downs this course has, and whatever adjustments we have to make along the way, this is the undeniable course of the future.
A digital-first editor cannot let nostalgia for what is passing interfere with the digital focus that success demands. Enjoy your print-heyday stories over a beer. Sympathize with colleagues feeling print withdrawal. But your job is to build digital success worthy of nostalgia someday.
Your newsroom’s transition is difficult for your staff. Experienced journalists who are used to being confident feel vulnerable as they learn new skills or lack the skills needed for excellence.
You need to be firm and persistent in pushing staff to update their skills and change their workflows. But you also should understand how the transition disrupts the lives and emotions of your staff. Be compassionate and appreciative with staff members making genuine effort to change, even if you wish they could change faster. Watch for signs of stress that you should address and look for opportunities to bring some fun into the newsroom.
Obstacles and excuses
The obstacles you face in digital journalism are plentiful and daunting. But you know how to overcome obstacles. Think back on your favorite war stories of nailing the big breaking story in the face of huge obstacles (for me, it was the 2008 Iowa floods when I was editor in Cedar Rapids). You overcame those obstacles with a combination of resourcefulness, teamwork and persistence. Apply the same combination in new ways to the challenges of becoming truly a digital-first newsroom. Make the obstacles part of your war story. Obstacles are not excuses.
Focus on the future
As the top editor, you are more responsible for ensuring that your staff does a better job next week and next year than for handling every detail of today’s news coverage. Sure, you run the show and you need to be involved in the day-to-day coverage. But you also need to trust your staff to cover the news without you micromanaging (and stealing some of the fulfillment they feel in their jobs). The top editor’s primary focus should be on helping your newsroom achieve long-term digital-first success.
When you hear a staff member say, “I’m not comfortable with …” or when you start thinking you’re uncomfortable with a new development, examine and understand the discomfort. You may need to embrace and work through the discomfort, rather than avoiding or relieving it. We’re not going to achieve digital-first success in our comfort zones.
What are your leadership lessons?
I encourage digital-first editors, other newsroom leaders and other journalists to share examples here of ways that you or your editors are leading your staffs in meeting these challenges.
This is the fourth post in a series this week on digital-first journalism. Earlier posts addressed the workflow, values and thinking of digital-first journalists. Tomorrow I will write on why digital-first succeeds as a business approach.
September 2014 update: This post originally referred to my work for Digital First Media and thus capitalized Digital First throughout. I have left DFM and thought I should update this. I am still a huge believer in digital-first journalism, and still plan to lead workshops based on the points here, but I thought I should update this post to reflect that I’m talking now about an approach to journalism, not a specific company. I expanded on the points made here in a series of 2013 posts with advice for new editors (I haven’t, and probably won’t, update the DFM references in those posts).