I am cheering on the Four Platform Newsroom transformation efforts of the Journal Media Group newsrooms. And I encourage you to read a new report, published today, about the project in newsrooms of the former E.W. Scripps Co.: Digital Leads: 10 keys to newsroom transformation.
I have some experience with newsroom transformation efforts. As editor of the Cedar Rapids Gazette in 2008-9, I led a local effort to change how a newsroom worked. As digital transformation editor at Digital First Media, I led a companywide transformation effort, first an informal effort involving visits to 84 newsrooms, then helping hire and mentor new editors and finally Project Unbolt, focused on four pilot newsrooms shortly before I left the company last year.
I wouldn’t describe any of those efforts as a complete success, and I know none of them was a complete failure. However much we succeeded, I learned a lot and blogged a lot about what we did.
Michele McLellan, one of the Scripps consultants on the project, knew of my transformation efforts and gave me an advance copy of the report, so I’m going to share some observations here.
During the Scripps project, a corporate restructuring resulted in a merger of the Scripps newspapers with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel to create Journal Media Group. Since the Journal Sentinel wasn’t involved in the Four Platform Newsroom project, I will refer to the group here as Scripps. The company consulted with the Knight Digital Media Center at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California. Today’s Digital Leads report was produced and released by KDMC.
I have visited only one of the eight Scripps newsrooms where the transformation is considered to be working, and that was just briefly years ago. So my knowledge of the changes at Scripps is based solely on reading the report. As a result, I’m not going to praise or criticize specifics of what Scripps newsrooms have achieved or attempted. Instead, I’m going to summarize the 10 keys of the report, with some highlights from the report and advice for other newsrooms undertaking their own transformations:
Scripps’ Four Platform Newsroom goal was similar to DFM’s general strategy during my time there and the specific goals of Project Unbolt:
Create content and engagement on three digital platforms – Smartphones, tablets and web – and then publish on the fourth platform, print.
The strategy in each newsroom was to emphasize local journalism, digital storytelling and community engagement. Priority would be given to four “pillars” of journalism:
- Real-time reporting.
- Grassroots journalism.
I won’t belabor the strategy here. Regular readers of this blog know how long I’ve been pushing mobile strategies.
A point that has been important in my newsroom transformation experience, but gets less attention in Digital Leads, is live coverage of news. As noted above, the report mentions that “real-time reporting” is a priority, and that includes live coverage or might even by synonymous with it. The report also identifies ScribbleLive as a tool the newsrooms have used. So clearly live coverage is an important part of this effort. I welcome any editors or staff members of the Scripps newsrooms to elaborate on how live coverage has played a role in their transformation.
2. Research: Creating a consumer connection
Scripps commissioned Frank N. Magid & Associates to survey its seven largest markets about news consumption and topics of interest.
I think market research is valuable. Whether you use a formal survey or not, I encourage jobs-to-be-done research, as we learned and taught at the American Press Institute in Newspaper Next. Clayton Christensen‘s research on disruptive innovation has shown that businesses create value by doing important jobs for consumers and businesses.
3. Staff ownership: Pushing decision-making into the ranks
Though the general strategy came from the corporate level, execution in each newsroom was planned and guided by a newsroom committee. In Project Unbolt, the Berkshire Eagle created staff committees to plan and drive each of the five primary areas of the project. (I’ll be inviting editors of the Project Unbolt pilot newsrooms to share updates here if they want.)
If you’re going to rely on staff committees, I encourage two measures to increase your chances for success:
- Make sure that the committee includes strong voices for change. Most workplace cultures — and human nature — resist change. You can’t transform a newsroom with a group seeking to protect the status quo.
- Provide clear goals and deadlines. Committees can work inefficiently and accept timid compromises where they need to lead boldly. Strong leadership is needed to use committees well.
4. Process: From digital strategy to action
Perhaps the most distinctive aspects of the Scripps approach are explained in this section: designation of “franchise topics” a newsroom can “own” in its community and development of “personas” representing target audiences.
I will elaborate on the franchise topics in a subsequent post. I have emailed questions about them to Mizell Stewart III, Managing Director/Digital Content for Journal Media, and some editors of the newsrooms.
Selection of franchise topics could help your newsroom focus, prioritize and serve your community. But I also see potential in the franchise topics for self-deception and protection of the status quo. I could see a newsroom declaring a longtime priority as its franchise and declaring ownership of the topic, even though every TV station in town commits heavy resources to cover the same topic.
The Scripps process calls for the franchise topics to emerge from the market research, which identified target demographic groups of potential digital subscribers and “topics of high interest to the target groups where they were not satisfied with available news and information.” Newsroom staffers conducted interviews with more than three dozen members of the target groups, developing fictional “personas” who “serve to make real the information needs and news consumption habits of potential users or subscribers.”
The franchise topics are “designed to satisfy the news needs of the personas.”
In some communities that process is going to lead to some topics you can’t possibly own — topics other media (and you) are already covering extensively, even if not to the satisfaction of your target demographic. You can and should change your approach to cover the topic in ways that will better serve this audience. But you need to guard against the tendency to stall transformation by declaring ownership of the topic, because you already cover it a lot.
Scripps franchise topics that show the most transformation potential to me are the Wichita Falls Times Record News’ selection of “Lifeline” water issues, the Redding Record Searchlight’s “Shaping Our Future” franchise (focused on change in the community) and the Treasure Coast newsroom’s focus on Indian River Lagoon. Editor & Publisher magazine cited “Shaping Our Future” in naming Redding one of 10 Newspapers That Do It Right.
This quote from the report illustrates the impact a newsroom can have by choosing and pursuing franchise topics effectively:
“Prior to the drought crisis, water consumption from Wichita Falls reservoirs reached 35 million gallons per day. By the end of 2014, consumption averaged 10-12 million gallons per day,’’ Editor Deanna Watson said. “City leaders have credited the newspaper’s Lifeline project with that considerable reduction.”
Another caution I would give to newsrooms considering the Scripps approach would be that you need to guard against using the personas too narrowly to focus on dominant groups in the community and fail to reflect your community’s diversity. I raised this issue by email with Mizell and he responded:
Personas are more about targeting demographic groups that had the potential to be digital subscribers. Our approach reflected the racial and ethnic diversity of our communities, but tended not to reflect the economic diversity of the communities we serve, as our focus was on growing audience on mobile and digital platforms. That said, we did not abandon wholesale areas of coverage or abdicate our responsibility to cover underserved segments of our communities. If anything, our overall coverage is becoming more diverse because our newsroom teams are engaged in a process of more closely connecting with readers and potential readers.
The use of franchise topics and personas has great potential, I think, to guide transformation of a newsroom. Digital Leads provides detail that should be helpful in avoiding the possible pitfalls of either tool.
5. Leadership and culture
These are two of the key factors in any transformation. A newsroom can’t change without strong leadership from the top editors, and the newspaper-factory culture of a print-rooted newsroom is a huge obstacle to full pursuit of digital opportunities.
Scripps is not claiming victory in the Four Platform Newsroom process. The report declares eight of the 13 Scripps newsrooms as “fully on a ‘digital leads’ footing.” The others are on track to fully adopt the digital-leads approach later this year. This quote from the report underscores the challenge of cultural change:
“In newsrooms with a healthy culture, the process unleashed leadership at multiple levels,” Stewart said. However, “this process did not work in a broken newsroom culture. It revealed newsrooms that didn’t have a healthy culture. That was one of the most valuable parts of the process.”
Michele elaborates on leadership and culture in a separate post.
6. Organization-wide buy-in
In my own experience and in my work with Newspaper Next, I have seen newsroom transformations thwarted by failure to win full support from the business side of a news company.
I am not going to revisit here my skepticism about the value of paywalls for most digital news organizations. A key point of the Scripps strategy is to grow digital subscriptions. Too many companies slapping up paywalls have not given their communities sufficient value behind the paywall to give that strategy any chance of success. If you’re going to pursue subscriptions as a strategy, you need to provide value, and Scripps is seeking to do that.
I also like that the newsroom efforts are getting strong marketing support from the company. Too many news organizations have slashed their marketing efforts to save money. Marketing works, and news organizations need to market effectively.
Early indications show that the Scripps effort is supporting business goals:
Newsrooms also reported evidence that franchise coverage was driving subscriptions. For example, (Editor) John Moore in Ventura said each of the three franchise pages – School Watch, Price of Paradise and Outdoors – last year ranked in the top 10 pages that people looked at and then clicked over to buy a subscription.
“That tells us that we have been able to convert casual readers of franchise content to subscribers, which validates these topics. We also have strong time on site numbers for School Watch and Price of Paradise in particular,” Moore said.
7. Training and tools
Newsroom training has been a longtime passion of mine, and I am pleased to see the Scripps project using a variety of training approaches:
- On-site training by the Knight Digital Media Center consultants.
- External training through low-cost options such as Poynter’s News University.
- Peer training within the newsroom, as journalists mastering new skills teach their colleagues.
You can’t achieve meaningful change without training your staff in the new skills and tools.
8. Organizational change
As I’ve noted before, changes in organization and structure are an important part of any newsroom transformation. But don’t make the mistake of thinking that a new org chart will drive change. You change a newsroom by changing how you work. Structural change must support and follow the changes in how the newsroom works.
The name of Project Unbolt came from a remark by DFM CEO John Paton, who described our newsrooms as essentially print newsrooms with digital operations bolted on. Both Project Unbolt and the Four Platform Newsroom were efforts to develop newsroom processes and cultures that were focused on digital platforms, with print production following rather than leading.
Scripps found that the organization’s digital focus still served the print product and audience:
“The newsrooms found that vigorous production of digital content more than filled the next day’s print newspaper.”
I’m pleased to see that Scripps newsrooms didn’t try to sell the old management lie that we’re going to do more with less. The newsrooms have both permission and an imperative to decide what to do less of or stop doing.
The newsrooms developed “filters” to decide which priorities are highest. For instance, Redding narrowed a list of 26 priorities to these top five priorities:
- It’s urgent/breaking or affects public safety.
- Franchise topic coverage.
- Matters with high interest and high impact in the community.
- Investigative journalism.
- It supports business goals.
You’re not going to succeed in transformation without deciding what to stop doing.
10. Feedback loops
The Scripps newsrooms are measuring their progress and fine-tuning their work by using metrics and by reconnecting with community members who helped in their development of the franchise topics and personas.
Tell about your transformation
I’d like to share more stories of newsroom transformation here. As noted, I have invited some Scripps and DFM editors to share their stories, and I will post them if they do. If you’re taking a similar (or different) approach to transformation at another company, I’d be happy to share your story, too.
Three leaders of this project are longtime friends of mine. I probably met consultant Michele McLellan and Vikki Porter, director of the Knight Digital Media Center, in the early 2000s at a newsroom trainers conference, and we have collaborated on various projects and/or crossed paths at more conferences and seminars than I can count.
Mizell Stewart and I met in 2006 at a National Writers’ Workshop in Wichita, Kan. I blogged about his presentation there (alas, it is no longer available online) and we stayed in touch. When he was editor of the Akron Beacon Journal, he paid me to lead training in his newsroom, and we also reconnect as our paths cross at conferences.
Mizell answered more questions in an email last night than the diversity response that I’ve used here. I’ll use more from him in a subsequent post.