3 reasons newsrooms fail at digital transformation

SUMMARY: The digital transformation process can be particularly difficult when new propositions are written off too quickly, naysayers are ignored, and discipline is not practiced.

We often say newsrooms are a culture unto themselves. A newsroom in Asia would feel familiar to an editor from Europe, even if the language, processes, and content are different.

This commonality extends to the process of digital transformation, where many companies — no matter where they are located — struggle to change newsroom culture and implement digital integration, content reconfiguration, paid-for models, new technology, and more.

Poor communication is a major reason for the failure of digital transformation, and we discussed these issues in a previous post.

But beyond communications, there are other obstacles that can derail any change process. Editorial leaders should be able to identify them and react.

Here are three major reasons why, in our experience, leaders find implementing change so tricky:

1. Disproving the proposition (before it has a chance to hatch): Editorial people are fiercely skeptical of everything not based on evidence. So why do leaders routinely try to implement ideas that have not faced sufficient newsroom scrutiny before they “go live?” Usually because there is not enough time, resources, patience, or interest. After all, change is something “that just needs to get done.”

This often occurs with the most complex transformation projects. For example, when newsrooms try to implement new ways of planning across media and when section heads who have spent entire careers in print are given “ownership” of multiple platforms.

Naturally, it takes a lot of convincing (and training) to get someone to take this responsibility. When you’re asking people to change their practices and mindset, you need to present a lot of proof about value before they will even attempt it. Otherwise, they will reject the concept before they even begin.

Having one big successful pilot process, and presuming it will work out everywhere, is not necessarily a good solution. What happens in one title or in one department or desk is unlikely to easily be transferred to another.

Media houses, in their rush to implement change, often think it is acceptable to copy-paste one form of strategy or structure directly onto another without testing it first. Working out how to tailor the change activities to the relevant areas, and testing them first, will give people enough time to accept or improve the theory.

2. Ignoring the saboteurs: During the review phase of transformation, we routinely ask leaders about the things they regretted not doing. More than 90% say they wished they had dealt with negative staff members much sooner.

Dealing with the naysayers can be difficult, particularly if they are members of the small yet influential faction of those resolutely and irrationally set against change. Often these staff members fear losing influence and territory, are terrified their incompetence will be unmasked in the new world, and are determined to maintain the status quo at all costs.

Classic saboteur behaviour includes lobbying against those who want to make change happen; sabotaging new activities, workflows, and technology; maneuvering others to work against the leadership; humiliating colleagues in meetings; and displaying acts of passive aggression toward the change leaders and those willing to try new things.

Usually the same characters pop up again and again to try new ways to wreak havoc during implementation. They believe they can get away with it because no one is brave enough to confront them. Often, they hide behind a mirage of talent and/or charisma and feel they have become untouchable.

A newsroom is always very curious about how its leaders deal with these characters, and action and confrontation are crucial. By doing nothing and allowing such behaviour to continue, the leader can inadvertently destroy the faith that anything new can work.

Editorial staff can turn away from change when they see their leaders paralysed by the saboteur. The hard work of change grinds to halt and the old ways slip back in. The leader gets labeled weak and ineffective.

Leaders should deal swiftly and fairly with these antagonists by holding face-to face meetings, confronting their behaviour, bringing in reinforcement from human resources, and following through with consequences if behaviour doesn’t change.

Even the most skillful writers, editors, photographers, and designers must be dealt with if they willfully derail the change process for no reason other than their own power grab. The response should be dignified, strong, and thorough.

3. Discipline: The most distressing thing we often witness is the speed by which people will declare something a failure, even if they have only tried it a handful of times.

The terror of implementation can only be countered by repetition, reviewing, and course-correcting as the process goes forward. It takes work to arrive at that wonderful state where change just happens and starts to feel natural and normal.

It is crucial to allow enough time to allow things to unfold at their own pace. You cannot, for example, expect new storytelling techniques to be perfect from the start. The first few podcasts or videos will probably be pretty poor, even with good training. But with proper review, coaching, and feedback, the staff becomes more confident and skilled and the work will improve.

It simply will not work if you dump new tools on the newsroom and expect great audience-focused storytelling strategies and perfect digital storytelling experiences to emerge. Very few organisations put in place a proper system of monitoring, reviewing, reinforcing, and practicing new tasks to ensure the process can become embedded.

Change is always uncomfortable and complicated. Avoiding the pitfalls of digital transformation requires effective and dignified leaders. Successful implementation will also result in better content, more efficiency, and more skillful staff. Best of all, you will have created a work environment where people truly believe the best way to do their job is to be empowered, secure, and happy in their work.

And this is the true work of leadership.