7 pitfalls of digital transformation

SUMMARY: Digital is all well and good. But news media organisations must steer clear of known risks — from fixating on one problem to under-staffing to not providing necessary technology and structure.

You’ve agreed on the need for newsroom transformation. Money has been earmarked, fears calmed, hopes raised, and the voyage to the promised land has started. 

But for some reason, the whole brave endeavour seems to be stalled or in danger of running onto the rocks. Why? It all looked so good on (e)paper.

Chances are your efforts are being sabotaged from the inside by a number of all-too-familiar culprits acting alone or together to trip up your transformation.

The good news is that in 10 years of working with media companies on digitalisation and newsroom transformation, we have been able to identify those responsible and can present you a detailed rogues gallery.

The bad news is that they aren’t individuals, technologies, or cultures. They are tendencies and temptations, and they can be hiding anywhere. Look closely, because you may find some of those tendencies are lurking deep in yourself. 

Every news organisation is unique. Every one has its own special quirks, needs, and challenges, depending on where they are, who they are, and the make up of their audiences. But when it comes to restructuring the newsroom, there are certain universal pitfalls.

1. Missing the big picture: The first is fixating on single problems. Confront people with a complex task and they naturally try to filter out the complexity so as not to be overwhelmed. In publishing, that usually means deciding that “we need a new newsroom/building/CMS/shift policy/more money.”

By fixating on a single element, they lose the over-arching view of what needs to be achieved. Standing back and not getting dragged into those fixations is a key to success.

2. Blurred vision: The second problem looks like the opposite but is really very closely related. Rather than picking out clear goals and then working towards them, a lot of organisations try to avoid the sticky problems by coming up with a vision.

As the old joke goes, “If you have visions then go see a doctor.” Far too many “visions” are actually marketing slogans unrelated to attainable goals.

I remember working with a U.K. regional that wanted to create a powerful statement about being the “central point” in the community. An admirable goal, but what does that mean exactly for the newsroom? How much guidance does that give, for example, to the sports desk on how to live that through every piece of content and through every action? 

Most publishers are aware of the need to transform, but the pressure to do so often pushes them into making first moves without enough thought as to where exactly it all leads. Unfortunately, this often results in alienating precisely those people tasked with turning the visions into daily reality.

3. Under-estimating the task: Then you get the problems that pop up as the process becomes real. The most common cry in any organisation is for more money and the most common answer is that there isn’t any. So we make do as best we can, and the first problems we see cropping up come with assigning human resources. 

When talking transformation, we often hear the phrase, “Ah, but we have someone who could manage this project.” And so they do, except that this individual already has a full-time job. A similar temptation is to think that hiring a project manager is the answer.

In the U.K., starting in 2005, the Daily Telegraph began integrating digital. The company found it took more than a year for a 100%-dedicated staff of seven people to implement the media company’s transformed newsroom. 

In other organisations, we frequently see how one part-time project manager is not a solution, and the results are frustration and staff burn-out. 

4. Bolting existing things together: The making-do approach also has the problem that too many habits, existing ways of working, and structures are kept without being questioned. 

We see plenty of examples where the editorial conference is kept at 10:30 a.m. simply because that’s how it was always done when it was a print-only process. Except that doesn’t make sense anymore in a digital environment where the first usage peak is at 8 a.m.

5. Using inadequate tools and technologies: Technology, tools, and any other infrastructure do not solve organisational problems per se, but are integral parts of the overall solution. By using inadequate tools, systems, etc., that do not keep up with the new demands, transformation efforts are sabotaged. 

Asking journalists to create rich media content without providing adequate smartphones and suitable data contracts only causes frustration. Talking about keeping an eye on real-time digital behaviour without investing in professional analytics tools beyond freeware dwarfs good intentions and concepts.

Using separate (legacy) editorial systems for each platform with poor or no integration only makes the multiplatform journalistic work complicated and time consuming, which can turn it into one of the major causes of resistance in any transformation project. 

6. Having the wrong people in the wrong positions: There is the temptation to create a multi-media newsroom and then hand the keys to a newsroom management who are silently worrying that the new media will eat away their beloved print business. The role of decision-makers changes profoundly during transformation. And these roles need the most support, care, and attention if grand ideas are to succeed.

If a journalist was an excellent journalist before multi-media, then they probably still are now. But it doesn’t mean they can simply carry on without effective re-skilling and personal development support. Not only do they get confused, they can perpetuate a confused culture intentionally or not.

We often see sad cases of young digital editors being hired for transformation and leaving within months, having given up on an dated organisational culture and structure with the veneer of digital and “innovation” thrown over the top.

7. Not investing heavily in people: Training, education, coaching, job shadowing and, yes, even counseling are as much a part of the process and rolling out new digital products. Training costs money, but it costs a lot less than the wastage and losses that result from not stressed and confused staff trying to work out what the top brass have ordered. Get people on board, and they will want to make it happen. But any of these enemies within can silently sabotage the whole process.

So take the time to think about whether you recognise any of these rogues in your projects, in your newsroom, in your organisation, or in yourself, and start weeding them out.