As we seek to unbolt Digital First Media newsrooms from the culture and processes of print, I suggest starting with a detailed assessment of your current processes and culture.
To start work with the four pilot newsrooms for Project Unbolt, I developed a questionnaire in Google Forms for each of the editors to complete. I said they could fill in the answers themselves or consult with other editors or the whole staff as long as they used the same process in answering the questions later to assess their progress.
The questions largely reflect the characteristics of an unbolted newsroom that I blogged in February. The assessment asks six to nine questions in each of the six primary areas where unbolting newsrooms need to transform:
- News coverage and storytelling.
- Processes and workflow.
- Planning and management.
For each question, the editor (or whoever is assessing) rates the newsroom on a scale of 1 to 5. I describe the 1 and the 5, and they decide where their newsroom is performing on the scale. For instance, one of the news coverage and storytelling questions asked:
How does your newsroom use live event coverage?
If you provide no live coverage, that’s a 1. For a 5, your newsroom would fit this description:
All breaking news and events are covered live in multiple formats (livetweeting, liveblogs, live chats and/or video livestreams), barring strong reasons not to cover live (funeral, judge won’t allow, no connectivity, etc.).
The assessment asks a total of more than 40 questions. I compiled the composite responses for each of the pilot newsrooms. The average scores ranged from 2.7 to 3.7. As I told the editors, a high score could be the result of a more lenient editor and a low score could indicate a demanding editor, as much as they indicate the relative progress shown by the newsrooms. The importance of the scores is not comparing newsrooms. Instead, we use the assessment scores two different ways:
- We identify priorities for unbolting work.
- We establish a baseline we can use later for measuring progress.
I suggested that the editors identify the topics where their scores were 3 or lower and ask these questions in each case:
Is it important? I think all of the questions identified important matters, but some are more important than others. And the importance will vary according to the newsroom and the editor’s priorities. You need to choose which are the most important areas you need to work on.
Is it urgent? Important and urgent aren’t the same thing. Something can be an important area for you to improve, but it’s OK to address it as a long-term project. Others need to be improved now. For instance, if two different areas of improvement will both improve your digital journalism performance, but one has potential to generate revenue, that one may be more urgent because your company needs revenue now. Or an upcoming event might dictate urgency: Your community’s biggest annual event is coming up, so improving your live coverage is urgent.
Can we just do it? Many of the changes you make will take significant planning, communication, etc. (questions we’ll address below). But some might be changes the editor can make immediately by saying here’s how we’re going to do this, starting today. You probably could change how you run your daily meetings right away. If you identify some changes you can make quickly, that will give some momentum to your transformation.
Do we need training? Some priorities will require your staff to use new skills. You need to identify those skills and decide how you will develop them. In New Haven, we scheduled some visits from Thunderdome staffers to provide training that would help in some of the Project Unbolt improvements. With the Thunderdome staff scattering, you can provide training in a lot of ways: national organizations such as the Poynter Institute or the National Institute for Computer Assisted Reporting; local and regional training by press associations and journalism groups; local universities; online training from News University or other organizations; a vendor who provides training (ScribbleLive provides excellent online courses in live coverage); someone on staff who has the skill can train colleagues. Another way to learn new skills is just to dig in learn how to use a tool yourself (editors need to help make that happen by making it a priority and giving staffers time to learn).
Do we need technology? Do you have the hardware, software, web services or other tools you need to do this job? For instance, DFM uses ScribbleLive, so our newsrooms already had the technology we needed for live coverage. If you need to acquire technology to improve, that creates issues of cost and time that you need to address.
Do we need to change staff responsibilities? The New Haven Register’s creation of a breaking news team is an example of changing staff responsibilities to change how you operate. The Berkshire Eagle gave staff members responsibility for early-morning coverage. Some newsrooms have designated editors in charge of social media or engagement.
Do we need to change (or notify) depending parts of the operation? Change doesn’t happen in a vacuum. You need to make sure that improving part of the operation doesn’t cause problems elsewhere (or that you deal with the problems). For instance, at the New Haven Register, we needed to relieve some editors of responsibilities for planning where stories go in the print edition and other print duties. But the print edition needs those jobs done, so we worked out plans for a “middle” person who coordinated the handoff between the digitally focused editors and the print production staff.
Who’s in charge of driving the change? Many changes need to be the responsibility of the whole staff, a particular team or several different staffers. But change works most effectively with one person who is primarily responsible. So identify the person who’s driving each important change.
How do we measure change? As I blogged early in this project, metrics are important in assessing success in unbolting. Some areas might lend themselves to easy measurement with existing analytics. In other areas, you may need to identify new metrics. In some cases, you might need to rely on qualitative assessment.
What’s the goal? Timetable? In the assessment, the description I give for a 5 gives you a possible goal. But editors might want a more specific goal, including metrics. Or an editor might want to describe the goal differently. Set an aggressive but reasonable timetable for reaching that goal.
Assessing your progress
I encourage newsrooms to repeat the assessment after working a while on unbolting. Six months and a year would be good intervals. However you conducted the first assessment (editor assigning grades, a group of editors or the full staff), you should use the same way to assess in follow-ups (as much as possible, given staff turnover).
We haven’t been working on Project Unbolt even six months yet, so I can’t report how the newsrooms are doing (I wouldn’t report specific results anyway; those are for internal use). One newsroom has done an updated assessment. It showed a gain of half a point, which is a good start, but the newsroom still has much work to do.
Part of the second (and subsequent) assessments should be a repeat consideration of the questions above, identifying new priorities and how you will address them.
How your newsroom can get started
If you’d like to use the form to assess your newsroom, use the assessment form. If multiple people in your newsroom are completing the assessment, ask each to fill the form out separately. If you want your results, you can email me — stephenbuttry (at) gmail (dot) come — and I’ll send you the results from your newsroom. I’ll also give some DFM colleagues access to the spreadsheet of results.