6 key training points for a digital, data-savvy newsroom

SUMMARY: Today’s media staff need training in market knowledge, workflow mechanics, and content development. Here are six ways to make it happen.

The generation now retiring from newsrooms can remember the days when a university degree was not required to become a reporter and thrive in journalism.

They remember typewriters and telecopiers and page composition that relied on X-Acto knives and tubs of wax.

In the old days, newcomers to newsrooms learned by doing. It usually meant having a gruff old-timer show you the ropes. If there was any formal training, it revolved around shorthand techniques, text improvement, or photography.

Today, that won’t do. New jobs and new responsibilities have emerged as people consume news in new ways. With the explosion of digital and data, editorial staff are often overwhelmed by the changes to how stories need to be told.

Many journalists are eager to use new digital tools and platforms in everyday storytelling. However, they need new technical skills and should know how to incorporate audience data into their thinking. They need a new language to talk to a digital audience. And they have to learn how to manage an increasing workload and deal with the huge shifts digital brings to newsroom culture.

That takes training and coaching, and the requirements are daunting but essential. Here are six critical areas worth thinking about when developing a training programme for a transforming newsroom:

1. Audience and market knowledge

The news media audience has transformed from predictable, single-platform readers into empowered, digitally savvy players who expect to have a dialogue with their news sources. Demographic habits are changing, yet traditional media house demographic data is out of date and inconsistent with the modern picture.

If they had access to data, newsrooms have typically relied on simple demographic data — figures defining audience by age or socio-economic background. These things, though important, don’t say anything about the human beings behind the data: their values, interests, what kind of content interests them, how they use media, what drives them, what do they aspire to, and more.

With digital, relevant demographic data is now more easily available, but it is useful only if staff understand how to access and interpret the information. Audience training should provide them with the ability to build profiles of audience types based on a combination of qualitative and quantitative data, and to apply that knowledge in daily decision making, particularly when working out how stories need to be told across multiple platforms for diverse audiences.

2. Brand identity

In many newsrooms, the question of “why” things are done often takes a backseat to “how” they’re done. But understanding “why” a newsroom does what it does — its mission, what is truly stands for — should inform and underpin everything produced by editorial, which needs to understand the role of the news organisation in the society it serves.

It seems obvious, but many newsrooms are not clear on the essence of their mission and how it needs to be communicated via storytelling, particularly when using new technology and platforms. If your mission is as simple as “to make a difference” in the life of your town or region, a training programme could instruct the staff on how to do so.

For example, defining what this exactly means for different areas of the newsroom, creating the agenda with input from citizens, driving questions to help them make better decisions, encouraging curiosity about life in the area, and increasing citizens involvement and ownership of the story. Mission drives content.

3. Content development/differentiation

Traditional media houses tend to think primarily in terms of print. Training is an essential component to changing the mindset by getting staff thinking about collecting information beyond text and with an audience focus. It should also provide a basic understanding of news skills: writing for the digital screen; the purpose and identity of different social platforms; how to make a simple video; how to make simple graphics, maps, and charts; etc.

4. Mechanics

Multi-media workflows are complex, and a training programme can help the newsroom improve them, along with coordination, communication, and infrastructure.

Typical areas of workflow to explore in training programmes include planning (finding stories, creative discussion, early planning), assignment (within the section and between sections), content creation (building stories across platforms), editing (enough time to make visual decisions, rewriting), and production (sufficient time to make page and image decisions, production of digital copy).

5. Leading others and leading yourself

Training in leadership skills can focus on how to best handle teams and how to manage yourself. But traditional leadership training programmes transplanted from other industries often fail in the creative environments of newsrooms. In addition to the usual suspects of appraisal training, disciplinary strategies, and talent management, topics might include defining what a quality content strategy is and being able to communicate and embed it into editorial teams’ daily business, helping content creators learn how to use audience data, understanding your own strengths and weaknesses, how to handle difficult meetings and discussions professionally, and other topics.

6. Implementation

Knowing how to map out, pace, pilot, and develop cultural change is something that can be learned from those who have already gone through the transformation process. Yet many newsrooms set out like pioneers, as if the project is unique and there are no guideposts to follow.

The lessons learned from others can help inform staff about what to expect at each stage of the transformation process. Coaching and mentoring the various departments and levels of staff throughout the change process is also crucial. Often this is neglected, leaving editorial having to work through the issues of implementation alone. The result is that training programmes that start off with great fanfare dwindle away when there are no measures to ensure the new skills are developed and embedded into the newsroom.

Training, coaching, and mentoring can help prepare both newsroom leaders and their teams to measure progress at each stage of transformation. This way they know when they are on track to success or when they have fallen victim to the challenges that can derail any project along the way. ♦︎