An important event in my career was the 2006 release of API’s report Newspaper Next: A Blueprint for Transformation, followed by my efforts to promote and teach the principles of the report to executives and organizations in the newspaper industry. As I noted five years later, and as API’s report today acknowledges, N2 fall far short of transforming the newspaper industry. (We’ll never know if the approach outlined in the report would have helped transform a newspaper company or the whole organization. The industry treated it as a buffet, tasting a few dishes it offered, when it was really offering a new diet. I know of no news organization that came close to attempting the transformation that N2 advocated.)
API’s latest effort to guide innovation in the news industry is a pair of reports released this morning, A culture-based strategy for creating innovation in news organizations by Jeff Sonderman and Tom Rosenstiel, and The best practices for innovation within news organizations by Craig Silverman.
I recommend both reports as important reading for leaders in news operations seeking to be more successful at innovation, especially if organizational culture is an issue for you. But I guess I’m jaded enough that I won’t predict a lot of cultural change as a result of the reports. N2 offered broader, deeper and more specific advice for changing a company. But maybe almost a decade later, some companies will be better able to use the advice API is offering today on workplace culture.
Adding to the N2 echoes of these reports are four mentions of Clayton Christensen in the Silverman report. The Sonderman/Rosenstiel report mentions API’s partnership with Christensen for Newspaper Next, which made heavy use of his principles of disruptive innovation. Between them, today’s reports make 10 mentions of some form of the word disrupt. I’m not sure what to make of this. Christensen’s theories apply to the news business as strongly now as they did in 2006, but I’ll be surprised if newspaper companies ever start operating by them. (The API reports do not share N2’s newspaper focus, studying digital startups as well as legacy media companies.)
I suspect the advice in the API reports might be more effective with news startups, building innovative structures and processes from scratch, rather than in established companies trying to overcome existing cultural problems without screwing up declining products that produce their revenue.
Speaking of revenue, one thing the reports don’t do in any detail is suggest new ways to produce revenue. The cultural advice applies companywide, and would be helpful in getting news, sales and technology departments to collaborate in new products that would generate revenue. But actually generating revenue is not a focus of either report. That’s not a criticism, just a clear statement about expectations for executives who might be focused more on revenue than culture. (Other API reports in the past year have addressed generating revenue from digital video, events and mobile.)
I’m not sure why the two reports were released separately today. They clearly are related and refer to each other and both cite the cliché about culture eating strategy for breakfast. I presume that their length (16 and 49 pages) played a factor in breaking them into separate reports. (The first Newspaper Next report was 98 pages; I’m not sure how much that means it offered more substance and how much it hindered reading.) The reports also might attract more search traffic over time separately than together. I recommend reading both and will deal with them together in one long post here.
Best practices report
Silverman’s report offers best practices based on his interviews with a range of leaders of a variety of media organizations as well as his review of other studies of news-organization culture, including “The Lean Newsroom: A Manifesto for Risk” by Carrie Brown and Jonathan Groves and Act Like an Entrepreneur Inside Your Organization, a Harvard Business Review article by Len Schlesinger and Charlie Kiefer.
Silverman quotes people by name and cites specific examples of problems and solutions for news organizations.
Sonderman and Rosenstiel’s report relies on separate research, but doesn’t cite the organizations or individuals involved. Sonderman explained in an email: “They visited a handful of different news organizations of very different types, big and small, local and national, mainstream and alternative. But the identities of the publications are not disclosed. We offered that because we wanted better access and complete honesty from people sharing insider perspectives about their companies and colleagues.”
Silverman’s report may be more helpful at a nuts-and-bolts level because of its identification and detail. I think people in the news business are pretty candid about cultural issues, and I would encourage on-the-record research in the future.
The strategy report provides a clear direction for news organizations, though.
The report acknowledges the buzzword nature of innovation, but states well its importance and urgency:
We do not see ‘innovation’ as a goal in itself. It is more of a byproduct: innovation is what happens while you’re busy creating your future by solving problems.
Those problems are important and effective solutions can change your company, just as failure to find the right solutions is damaging or potentially fatal to your company.
Sonderman and Rosenstiel identify three key factors in culture (and culture change):
An organization’s culture is a product of its leadership, its structure, and its internal processes.
They address each of the three factors in some detail, and Silverman’s report provides more good suggestions in each area. I’ll address all three here:
I am pleased that Sonderman and Rosenstiel stressed the role of leadership in successful innovation:
It is also important, the research reinforced, that people not just hear the mission from the organization’s leaders but also see the mission being lived out by those leaders in daily actions.
I have seen too many leaders who preach change but fail to lead by example or fail to communicate their vision to the staff. Regular readers of this blog will recall that I have on multiple occasions discussed the importance of leaders setting an example in innovation. I’ve used the example of editors who don’t tweet as an illustration. Twitter’s an old enough product that I’m not sure it’s as good an indicator as it used to be and it’s no longer that big a step. But I have noticed that, for the most part, editors who are active on Twitter tend to lead more innovative newsrooms.
Silverman addressed leadership as well in his report (I added the link):
Sherry Chisenhall, the editor and senior vice president of news of the Wichita Eagle, said it’s important for her to learn new skills as a way of demonstrating that it matters. ‘I think it would be really bad if I didn’t know how to go in and fix a typo on the website,’ she said. ‘If you don’t have a Twitter account it sends the message [to staff] that it is important for you to do it, but not to me.’
Silverman also quoted Mark Tomasik, editor of Treasure Coast Newspapers and TCPalm.com, on the importance of communication (and repetition) by leaders:
The keys to any change environment is to have a clear philosophy and then communicate that philosophy over and over again to the point where you’ve said it so much that you can’t even stand to hear it again,’ he said. ‘It takes that kind of repetition to sink in.’
The Sonderman/Rosenstiel report talks about the importance of structure in culture. They don’t necessarily suggest reorganization of the company or parts of it, and I acknowledge that structure affects culture. But I also caution that a new org chart won’t fix your culture problems. Action has more impact than organization when it comes to changing culture. And a big reorg can suck up a lot of energy in a company without changing the culture one whit. Change what you do or how you work and you will change the culture. Make the organizational changes to support the changes in how you work, rather than hoping that they will drive culture change.
For instance, in a print-focused newsroom, covering most events live is a huge change in how you work. Among other things, live coverage will change your deadline culture, your print focus, the depth of your content, the quality of some reporters’ work (if they are lazy, often letting editors fix their errors; if they’re just bad writers or spellers, it will expose their weaknesses). You may need to make some structural change to support live coverage: perhaps appointing a live editor and/or a rewrite editor (who turns liveblogs into stories, though reporters might still do that).
Sometimes changes in how you work and in your organization can come simultaneously, such as creation of a breaking news team. The change in how some editors, reporters and visual journalists work is more important than the creation of a new team, but the structural change (which might include some changes in work shifts as well as the org chart change) supports the change in how those journalists work.
This quote from the API strategy report best summarizes the impact you can make by changing how you work:
News organizations can change what they are by changing what they repeatedly do.
A good example of changing structure and action at the same time is changing the compensation structure for ad sales staffs. Most newspaper companies told their sales reps to sell more digital and provided training, but the pay structures still rewarded pushing print ads, which bring higher rates and higher commissions. A company had success in increasing digital sales when it changed the structure to decrease the flat commission and tie more of the pay to meeting goals. But you had to meet your digital goal to qualify for the print goal. So the structure helped the sales reps change how they worked.
Much of the report’s focus is on “tribes” within organizations: not just the units on the org chart, but people who share similar jobs or affinities and develop a subculture within the organization. The authors note that tribes can be good or bad factors within a culture and that culture change has to address the tribes:
One challenge is to allow tribes to flourish while not letting tribalism become an impediment to change.
The two reports don’t quite agree on an important question in organizations I’ve seen: how developers should work with newsrooms. The Sonderman/Rosenstiel report says:
Managers may try to integrate tribes by completely embedding the individual members of one tribe (like developers) in another (like newsroom reporters) — which can have a harmful effect. Developers cut off from other developers may lose some of the strength and knowledge they would draw from their own tribe.
Silverman’s study mentions the same problem, but also repeatedly talks about the importance of collaboration across specialties, specifically mentioning developers and situations where lack of developers in newsrooms was harmful. He quotes Tom Meagher (a former Digital First colleague of mine):
Until this spring, I worked for a major U.S. newspaper chain that operated 75 papers in 17 states. The company had zero developers in its newsrooms working on editorial projects. At my paper before that, we had zero developers in our newsroom, and no one in the company overtly doing news development. The status quo in both of those companies was that my team had to wage a guerrilla war on the IT departments and the product and CMS divisions to do the kind of journalism we know is important and to get our jobs done.
The Sonderman/Rosenstiel report also recommends an “embed program,” in which people would physically move to join another part of the company for a time. Of course, placing a developer in a newsroom tribe would be an example of such an embed (as they mentioned in the quote above).
I’m not saying that I know what to do with developers organizationally, or that API should have resolved the question with a best-practice declaration of where developers belong on the org chart. But wherever you put them, you need to change the culture that allows an IT department to harm a company by placing too many walls between developers and their colleagues or that cuts them off from their tech colleagues if they’re working in another “tribe.”
Speaking of walls, the Sonderman/Rosenstiel report addresses office space and its impact on culture. It offers helpful suggestions about ways to configure an office physically to encourage collaboration and just daily interaction.
But I’d caution about expecting the arrangement of desks or walls to fix cultural problems. I’ve collaborated effectively with colleagues who were across the building or even on different floors. And I’ve seen invisible but still impenetrable walls dividing supposedly open newsrooms. If you’re changing how you work and changing your structure to support those changes, a well-thought physical layout could certainly add to the momentum of culture change.
This is the shortest, weakest part of the “culture-based strategy” report. As I’ve noted, in my experience, changing how you work brings more meaningful change than structure. But much of the process discussion deals more with structure than how you work. I like the definition:
Processes are the daily or regular occurrences that unite the structure and create the culture. They are the acts that make up daily work life and subtly yet powerfully express who we are as an organization and what we value.
But the first example given is the daily planning meeting, which I view as at least as much a structural or organizational matter as a process. Several of the detailed suggestions are also structural, dealing with tribes and space more than how people work. Still, the suggestions are helpful and I recommend considering and trying some of them, especially the embed program, creating multi-disciplinary teams, “demo days” and “hack days.”
I also recommend more focus on changing how we do our jobs: Live coverage, use of social media, more use of data analysis and video, identifying and pitching new sales customers, use of mobile devices, etc. Pursuing those changes along with the API suggestions might yield the best results.
Here are some other passages from “A culture-based strategy …” that stood out to me, with some comments from me:
Making reporters compete to get the most pageviews, for instance, can undermine the organization by making people secretive hoarders of story ideas and unwilling to help colleagues. While some competition for success is inevitable, and even desired, a shared sense of mission and shared reward can make that competition more successful. …
When management sets broad, general goals (say about website traffic) without showing some of the tribes (say newsroom reporters) how those goals make them better at what they do or serve a larger shared mission, bad things can happen. The reporters often resist and disregard the goals, in part because the rationale was not understood or embraced. A mandate does not equal motivation. …
In such uncertain environments, it is essential to unite tribes around the larger shared goals of organizational change while allowing them to function creatively in order to make the change happen. In fact, we find this question of managing unity and separation one of the key elements of cultural change. …
An important step in identifying this shared mission is creating a shared vocabulary, some language that helps different tribes describe that shared purpose. A shared vocabulary, particularly across the business and news sides of a media organization, can go a long way to developing a sense that people in different tribes are unified. …
I agree that vocabulary is a part of innovation, but journalists in particular have a strong aversion to buzzwords. New structures and processes require new terms sometimes, and language is important to understanding. But don’t make the mistake of thinking that slogans and buzzwords will change your culture.
News organizations that fail to innovate often do so because tribes from the newsroom, business department, or technology team do not work with one another, do not share any mission, do not share any language. They operate in a state of adjacency, not connection. …
We saw that putting such tribes on different floors, or even different buildings, was a crushing burden on their creativity and ability to accomplish major innovations together. …
I suspect that in the cases where physical separation created a “crushing burden,” that’s a real problem, but also an excuse. I guarantee you the real problem is deeper. As an editor years ago in Kansas City, I used to work with reporters scattered in bureaus across Kansas and Missouri and in Washington. We worked well as a team, and didn’t have nearly as effective communication tools as we would have today.
More recently, much of the Thunderdome newsroom was based in New York, and those people had a marvelous organizational culture that benefited from an open newsroom and their physical closeness. But several of us worked remotely, scattered around the country and visiting only occasionally. I won’t claim we felt as strong a bond as those in New York, but we felt and enjoyed the positive culture of Thunderdome and remain close a year after Digital First Media shut us down.
Physical separation creates challenges, but if you think it’s a crushing burden, I’ll bet you have barriers stronger than walls and floors.
Best practices quotes
Some quotes that stood out to me from the Silverman report:
One of the most difficult but important elements of change, (Michael) Maness (former vice president of journalism and media innovation for the Knight Foundation) emphasized, is deciding what things to stop doing. Transformational leaders often set the tone by deciding what not to do, and then enforcing that.
I blogged in 2012 about the importance of deciding what to stop doing.
One key aspect of a culture that nurtures innovation is collaboration: across departments and teams, and up and down the organization. It was mentioned by everyone interviewed for this study. Vox’s (Trei) Brundrett said a culture of collaboration flows from mutual trust. …
Brundrett said one sign of whether groups are integrated is the language used to refer to different parts of the organization. When people talk about the “editorial side” or the “product side,” it’s a giveaway that they are not one unit. …
It’s essential to create new processes for meetings and information-sharing as a way to spark collaboration and reinforce new roles and practices, according to nearly everyone interviewed for this study.
Schlesinger and Kiefer define a “smart step” as an “action you take based on the resources you have at hand and never involves more than you can afford to lose.”
On a point unrelated to the topic of the report, I’d be interested to see how effective API is at suggesting tweets for readers of the reports. A few times in each report, the body type is broken up with a tweet-length summary of a key point, with a little Twitter bird there to suggest you tweet it. Click on it and a window opens for you to tweet it, with the text already filled in and a link to the report. I’ve posted a couple screenshots here to illustrate (though mine don’t open windows to tweet).
I’m not sure whether this will generate many actual tweets. I would have tweeted about it anyway, and I’ll write my own tweets, so I’m not a good judge of whether it works. I presume API will be measuring the Twitter response, and I hope they let us know how effective this was in stimulating and guiding tweets about the report. How many people use their tweets verbatim? How many edit their tweets to create their own tweets making some of API’s points? If it is effective, the Silverman report probably needed a few more tweets peppered through it.
Relationships and personal experiences may affect my thinking about the API reports, so I will disclose them in a little detail here (probably more than you care about, but I think that’s how transparency should work):
I worked for the American Press Institute from 2005 to 2008, and Newspaper Next was the primary thrust of my work for most of that time. The first draft of my Blueprint for the Complete Community Connection was written at API and offered for the second N2 report, which was released in 2008. I also wrote a third N2 report, on using interactive databases, also published in 2008.
API merged with the Newspaper Association of America Foundation in 2012 and NAA shut API down, eliminating the jobs of my friends there. NAA relaunched API late in 2012, under the leadership of Tom Rosenstiel. I wouldn’t call Tom a close friend, but we usually have a friendly chat when our paths cross at conferences, which was fairly often before chemotherapy halted my travel. We also argued on this blog back in 2010 when he was on his previous job.
Jeff Sonderman, API’s deputy director, is a closer friend. I hired Jeff for TBD, encouraged Poynter to hire him when TBD was winding down and advised him as he was considering the API job. We’ve stayed in touch and had lunch together occasionally when I was still living in Washington. Jeff and Tom co-authored today’s report, “A culture-based strategy for creating innovation in news organizations.”
Jeff provided me with advance copies of both API reports released today.
Craig Silverman, author of the other API report released today, “The best practices for innovation within news organizations,” also has been a friend for several years. He offered some accuracy training for TBD and we collaborated on an accuracy workshop for Georgetown University and have worked together as well on projects on plagiarism and verification. I have praised his work frequently on this blog and we also stay in touch by email and social media, and frequently dine together when our paths cross.
Jeff and Tom’s report was based on research by a team led by Laura Cochran and Reggie Murphy. Laura was a colleague at Digital First. Craig’s report also quotes friends of mine, including Sherry Chisenhall and Tom Meagher (a former Digital First colleague who’s been cited in my blog before).
The API research is supported by a grant from the Knight Foundation. My interactions with Knight-funded programs are too numerous for me to recall them all or detail them here, but most recently I have coordinated work on a grant to LSU’s Manship School of Mass Communication for student social media projects.
I also have blogged considerably about culture change in news organizations, primarily in my series on Project Unbolt last year when I was at Digital First Media and also last year when I was a contributor to the INMA Culture Change blog.
Health update: Since announcing my lymphoma diagnosis on the blog last year, I have kept the focus here primarily on journalism and media topics, doing updates on my treatment on CaringBridge and social media. But, if you made it this far and haven’t followed those updates, maybe you care about my personal situation, so I’ll share last week’s big news: A PET scan showed “no evidence of active disease” after five rounds of chemotherapy. I still have more tests and treatment to go, but it appears I will be cancer-free and finished with treatment this summer.