As I was working on Wednesday’s post about the Four Platform Newsroom program of Journal Media Group newsrooms, I emailed some of the editors asking for more details.
Below are the answers from three editors, Mizell Stewart III, Managing Director/Content of Journal Media; Mark Tomasik, editor of TCPalm.com and Treasure Coast Newspapers; and Jack McElroy, editor of the Knoxville News Sentinel.
Here are my questions (in bold) and their answers (with some links added by me):
You seem to have managed the right balance between a corporate imperative to change and local initiative in how to change. Too strong a corporate imperative results in one-size-fits-all solutions that don’t work and too much local initiative allows people to decide they don’t need to change (or that a little tinkering will suffice). What do you think were the most effective things you did to achieve and maintain this balance?
Mizell Stewart III: From my own perspective, corporate’s role is in creating a sense of urgency within each newsroom around digital transformation, setting priorities and making targeted investments. In the 4P project, we invested in consumer research and created a structure, with the help of the Knight Digital Media Center, to engage front-line and mid-level journalists in driving the change.
My observation is the typical corporate approach to newsroom change is to hammer on the top editor to make things happen or take away so much control that the editor feels powerless. We tried to strike a balance between those two extremes. By enabling the staff committees and putting the editor in the role of facilitator, we tried to create a process in which everyone is learning and growing at the same time. Investing in tools and training showed folks that we were serious. That opportunity for local initiative created the sense of ownership that helped us make great progress.
Mark Tomasik: The most effective things done to achieve and maintain this balance were:
- Corporate promised and then provided the unwavering training, the framework and the support (including financial support for market research and ongoing training). The local property had the freedom to choose the topics and the timing as well as how to utilize staff. The ability to customize to fit our market and our staff was a difference maker.
- Local decision-making was done largely by a Four Platform property-level newsroom committee (with support from other functions) that was comprised primarily of non-managers. Senior newsroom leaders, such as myself, attended all the meetings, but the role of senior newsroom leaders was to guide and support. The committee itself was empowered to make key recommendations and/or decisions and choices. So, for our staff, the changes felt like they came from them, from within, and not mandated by corporate.
- Because audience engagement and feedback was encouraged and baked into the equation from the start, the overwhelmingly positive responses we got from the audience, especially the personas, excited and inspired all of our staff, serving as a motivation to continue with the changes, and the early successes created an atmosphere of positive, progressive change rather than change for change sake.
Jack McElroy: Thanks for continuing the conversation on our 4P initiative. Regarding your question, I think the key was that Mizell (corporate) imposed a process but left it to local properties to execute the process and find the solutions that fit locally. The process was very deliberate, and it moved with its own inexorable logic. First came the research, followed by creation of local teams charged with dissecting the data and developing plans focused on the research. Training then followed based on the plan. Then came execution. We are now in a reiteration phase, examining results and making adjustments.
At each step, corporate resources were provided. Magid did the research. Knight Digital facilitated the examination of the data, the development of the plans and the training. Corporate webinars shared successes and best practices. We soon will be launching the use of the American Press Institute’s Metrics for News to study results. But throughout, the ownership of the initiatives was local.
In the past, we’ve sometimes seen solutions imposed from on high, or we’ve seen local properties seek solutions autonomously, without much corporate guidance or resources. This change process provided structure and momentum at the corporate level but gave local newsrooms ownership of what that change ultimately would be.
I’m interested in exploring the development of franchise topics and what they mean. Some of the topics are fairly general areas that a single media outlet can’t “own” (the language the report uses in defining the franchise topics) exclusively, such as local entertainment or Tennessee sports. Even if your local newsroom is the best in the community at that topic, alt weeklies (in the metro areas at least) cover entertainment, too, and everyone in Knoxville covers the Vols. Other topics were important local topics that others probably don’t cover much or well (water in Wichita Falls being the best example). So I want to understand franchise topics a little better: Does this just reflect how different newsrooms interpreted the franchises and the needs of their communities? Or did you start out saying the franchises should be a mix of those must-have topics that everyone covers, but we’re committing to be the best and those undercovered topics that are important to the community? Can a newsroom really “own” a big community topic in a competitive market? Or did each newsroom come up with different definitions of franchises that might not have revolved around ownership?
Stewart: I describe franchise topics as public-facing news brands that ground digital transformation in the pursuit of quality journalism. Sure, everyone can cover entertainment – but only Treasure Coast binds entertainment and things to do to social media and crowdsourcing through their pursuit of the #TCPalmSocial franchise. It does reflect how different newsrooms interpreted the franchises and the needs of their communities, and we fully expect those topics to change over time.
We talked more about franchise topics as not being a rehash or a relabel of existing work. They could incorporate existing beats and topics in a fresh, multiplatform way. There is no question that a lot of news organizations cover local government and politics, but I believe franchise is all about the approach rather than the specific topic. InforMemphis is a unique framework, in my opinion, for coverage of local government. That team didn’t restructure the newsroom to add a reporter about craft beer – but it did hold a forum for mayoral candidates that featured craft beer and barbecue for more than 100 participants from the community. Our news organization can own a specific approach to government and politics or college sports, for example, that sets it apart from other local news sources.
Tomasik: We made the choices based on two factors:
- Using market research that showed what topics potential readers would be willing to pay for.
- Matching any of those potential topics to staff skills. We focused on the topics in which we were certain we had the staff expertise and skills to produce consistently good content with the potential to grow it.
How did you choose and develop the personas to guide reporting of interest to target demographic groups?
Tomasik: We used a combination of the market research and staff on-the-street interviews with potential customers to develop personas. Using the personas was critical to making content decisions. For example, for our #TCPalmSocial franchise, the persona is a married woman with a child. So, if we had our choice of covering a family-oriented air show or an upscale art show in the same community on the same day, we followed the persona and chose the air show, knowing our use of resources had a greater chance of reaching the target audience.
What was the role of live coverage in your transformation?
Tomasik: Live coverage transformed into, first and foremost, a social media/audience engagement opportunity rather than a traditional text narrative opportunity. So, when President Obama visited the Treasure Coast in March, all our journalists used multiple social media platforms as their most effective storytelling device. The engagement with audience was constant and informative. The community used our social media posts for everything on how to avoid traffic snarls caused by the presidential visit (we had interactive maps of his route on mobile) to sharing celebrity sightings (Jay Leno, Ahmad Rashad) related to the visit. The audience demanded and expected information (including visuals) in that format and on those digital platforms; not waiting for narratives on dot.com or print.
This was a lot to undertake in normal times (if those even exist any more). But the corporate restructuring had to present a huge distraction during this process (and probably some skepticism about whether the initiative would survive the merger). How did you manage that external (to the newsroom) upheaval that you couldn’t control at the same time that you’re trying to cause upheaval to reach important goals?
Stewart: Fortunately, the initiative was well underway before the transition to Journal Media Group began. We worked to manage the upheaval by incorporating the transition into our in-house learning and development programs, such as conducting sessions for top newsroom leaders on what it takes to lead through change. It also validated our focus on baking the initiative into the newsroom.
During the rollout of the initiative, we had top editor changes in several newsrooms. In nearly every case, the newsroom committee continued their work on the rollout of local franchise topics while the search for a new editor was underway. This demonstrated to me that engaging leaders at every level is critical to achieving sustainable change.