2 reasons editorial leaders struggle to transform newsrooms

SUMMARY: For newsrooms to successfully navigate digital transformation, editorial leaders need to communicate sufficient information in a way that makes sense for employees.

Digital transformation brings about new approaches to the business of publishing news. Nonetheless, many companies still struggle to implement digital integration, content reconfiguration, paid-for models, and new technology. They also struggle to change newsroom culture.

A large part of this struggle results from the simple fact that the work of implementation is tiring, repetitive, and fraught with obstacles. There simply is no glamour in it.

The initial phases of transformation — setting a vision and strategy, creating a new blueprint for how the newsroom will work — are certainly more attractive and exciting than the grunt work of implementation. New workflows, technology, infrastructure, roles, and training are introduced into the newsroom to much fanfare. And then the real work begins.

Once the plan is in place, editorial leaders are given the difficult job of navigating between the old world and the new order, often establishing a new way of doing things in a hybrid fashion, while trying to keep the daily business of multiple digital and print editions running smoothly.

Miscommunication, misunderstanding, and, of course, political problems soon join the party. Before you know it, “land grabbing,” lobbying, and old resentments creep through the gaps between the new and the old.

Editorial leaders can lose the passion and the momentum; they struggle to garner the discipline that change requires to stick. The tendency is then to declare the “change project” quietly closed, allowing people to quickly turn back to old comfort zones, never really giving the transformation process a chance.

Some new changes might linger. New desks and tech create the illusion of success, but staff soon find ways to graft old methods of working onto shiny new screens.

At the Institute for Media Strategies, our work puts us right in the middle of the fray. Every day, we walk alongside editorial leaders through planning, implementation, and sustaining change programmes. We are often brought in to reset key editorial transformation processes because previous attempts have failed.

In our experience, here are two major reasons leaders find implementing change so tricky:

1. Insufficiency of information: No matter what the newsroom wants to implement — even the most straightforward and achievable activity — the success of implementation is directly related to how well it is communicated.

Right from the start, there needs to be a wide range and depth of information available, particularly for changes to workflows, shifts, routine structures, and job roles.

We often see leaders nervous about providing vital pieces of proprietary information to the newsroom, because they fear the information could leak to the competition. As a result, often less than half of necessary information is communicated to the wider newsroom.

In one newsroom, for example, changes that benefitted staff were derailed because leaders did not provide sufficient details about something as simple as a new schedule and procedures for news meetings. Even though the plan for much shorter and tighter news meetings was beneficial, the entire newsroom criticised the idea because they were only given a rough outline. Mass misunderstanding led to rejection of a perfectly good idea, one that was well thought out and drafted.

Editorial staff, honed in the fine art of critique, will immediately realise that a lot of information is missing and declare the idea as flawed because “it’s not been thought through.” Even excellent plans, if not documented or communicated properly, may as well not exist. That sets the process off to a tricky start.

2. Hideous style of communication: The style of communication is just as critical. Make everything more complicated than necessary (think of those mind-numbing, multi-slide PowerPoint presentations and “hit and run” Gantt charts) and no one will ask questions because they don’t want to look foolish in front of their peers.

Leaders declare the announcement phase a success, but everyone scuttles back to the desks to whisper about their confusion and misunderstanding of the material. For change to work, complex messages need simple delivery.

This means breaking the process down into manageable pieces, providing clear descriptions of how each section and department — and even individuals — will be involved and will benefit from change. Focusing on a clear pace of implementation, removing all jargon and fancy “corporate” ways of communication, is essential to ensure the information is accepted and understood in the newsroom.

We have seen great success with leaders holding rounds of talks with small groups or pairs of people — or even holding one-on-one discussions — after certain complex or difficult change processes were launched. The aim is to produce feedback, check understanding and clarity, and reduce the risk of people spreading rumours, unintentional or not. Bringing it down to the personal level ensures the changes and their rationale are absorbed into the newsroom’s “nervous system.”

This takes a good deal of time, but listening and engagement, and offering opportunity for clarification, is worth the effort.

Change in all its forms is a pretty ghastly business. It is a rare person that thrives in limbo. But good communication is a litmus test for leadership ability. If you can deal with these challenges, you will emerge as an effective and dignified leader. ♦︎