During transformation, newsroom leaders must practice what they preach

Entrenched, obsolete ideas often challenge legacy news organisations that are implementing new, digital-first strategies. Sometimes the obstacles come from staff who are resistant to change. But sometimes the problems lie with the very people most interested in having the changes succeed.

That’s partly because old habits die hard, and partly because of the pressure that comes with the need for rapid change. Those in charge of implementing digital transformation know the future of the organisation depends on their success, and there is no time to waste.

Sometimes that leads to shortcuts that can derail even the best digital strategies. You put a great plan in place, but then you ignore it in the heat of the moment. Impatience can lead to short-sighted decisions that have big repercussions.

The truth is, changing a legacy newsroom is more difficult than starting with a blank slate because of the ingrained culture — not only among long-time staffers but among management as well. The hardest part of any digital transformation is getting people accustomed to the new ways of working.

Let’s say you’ve reorganised your newsroom to make it digital first, with most of the staff focused on the digital and mobile platforms as well as a small group of editors dedicated to putting together the print newspaper. But when the chief editor wants a headline changed on deadline, she may very well grab the first person she sees to make the change.

“Hey,” the staffer reminds her, “I don’t work on the print newspaper. You should ask one of the editors on the team.”

It is a small thing and is easily rectified, but if the chief editor doesn’t respect the new organisation, why should anyone else? One day the new processes will seem like second nature. But until that occurs, it is important for newsroom leaders to stay the course.

Likewise, say a reporter is sent to cover a news conference at 10:00 a.m., with instructions to produce a short recap for digital and mobile platforms by 11:00 a.m. and a longer piece finished by 3:00 p.m. for the newspaper. But 11:00 a.m. passes without a story, and nobody follows up. The full story is turned in at 3:00 p.m., and it is a good story … but not what the organisation needed earlier.

One can blame the reporters for not following the plan, but if nobody insists on a faster story, why should they comply? It’s the big story that interests them, not the short piece they may see as limited in importance. They may even view it as unneeded extra work.

When this occurs, the onus is on the section heads to ensure the new, digital-first processes are being followed. But they too are struggling with the new responsibilities. They are often promoted from the ranks, based on their skills as reporters, and not particularly skilled or trained to manage others. Perhaps the impatient chief editor steps in and begins micro-managing their roles. They are somewhat relieved and somewhat annoyed; if the boss doesn’t think they can handle the new responsibilities and wants to do their jobs, fine by them. Micro-managing pulls the chief editor away from her own duties.

These shortcuts can then bleed over into internal discussions, cause dissension, demoralise staff, and slow the adaption necessary for success. Meetings that should be dedicated to improving the product end up being about process, which wastes even more time.

These are just a few common scenarios, but they illustrate the difficulties that can occur when workflows, processes, jobs, and staff responsibilities are significantly altered. When things don’t go smoothly or move quickly enough, newsroom leaders sometimes feel compelled to step in just to get things moving faster.

That might work in the short term, but it will ultimately delay full implementation of the programme. It takes diligence and patience to avoid backsliding, even among those most dedicated to the transformation.

Stick to the plan. Be flexible and change the plan when necessary, but don’t fall back into old habits. Newsroom leadership needs to set the example, and discounting your own plan encourages others to follow suit.

This article was also published on the INMA Media Leaders blog.