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Lasting cultural change in the newsroom requires strategic action

Changing newsroom culture doesn’t happen overnight or by accident. Today, many news media executives are wondering how to introduce culture change and how to make it last says, Paula Felps. Here is her article

During a recent webinar, Amalie Nash, lead of INMA’s Newsroom Transformation Initiative, said that newsroom culture change has continually resurfaced in her conversations with leaders. “Culture change is really at the top of the list of what [leaders] want to talk about,” she said, noting different companies face many of the same questions, such as how to instill lasting change, how to create a culture in which change is expected, and how to get newsrooms accustomed to a constantly evolving environment. ‘How to change newsroom culture’ took steps toward answering some of those questions.

Louise Story, a media and consumer technology executive consultant and former chief news strategist and chief product and technology officer at The Wall Street Journal, used her experiences at The New York Times and WSJ to highlight the importance of cultural change in driving digital transformation and shared some of the lessons she has learned. She said leaders looking to create lasting cultural change should be heartened by the reminder that people who go into journalism have two qualities that make them adaptive to transformation: “People who go into journalism love to learn new things. That’s why they go into journalism. You go out every day, you learn something new and you’re reporting. So this is an industry full of people who love to learn.” It’s also an industry of people who make mistakes — as evidenced by the corrections page — and that becomes a plus when it comes to transformation. “Those two qualities are things to remind people of as you’re going about cultural change,” she said.

Story drew on insights gained while working on The New York Times Innovation Report.

The power of collaboration
Story was part of the team that worked on The New York Times’ 2013 Innovation Report, which offered insight into the culture changes needed in the digital shift. More than a decade later, her lessons from that experience still ring true. “One of the top things that I was really impressed with working on this committee… was how much you could get done when you work with people across disciplines,” she said. The team working on the report came from different departments and backgrounds — video, editing, writing, computer programming, etc —  and from both the business and creative sides. She said those diverse insights helped blaze the digital trail forward for the company.

“That’s something I would suggest you think about as you’re trying to make cultural change,” Story said, suggesting bringing people with not only different skill sets but from different departmental cultures. “There is a different tech culture than news culture, and everyone can learn from each other’s cultures,” she said. During that experience, she also learned the value of transparency: “If you’re going to work on a report or something in your organisation to lay out a new strategy, think about how you can be transparent,” she said. Telling people what you’re doing will help build trust because they’ll understand it.

“The other lesson I would say is do the homework,” Story said. That means doing thorough research before implementing changes. Even if the path forward seems clear, she urged leaders to “look at the data afresh, interview people, and show people you’re doing the homework because that will be more persuasive.” That becomes important to ensure new and accurate information and get buy-in from the newsroom. “Remember, even if you know what you need to do in the transformation, you need to bring people along — and bringing people along involves including people being transparent, doing the homework, and showing them that you’re doing the homework.”

Strategies for change
Story shared some key findings of the 2013 report that remain central to culture change within the newsroom today. While they may sound simple, they may often be overlooked. And it all begins, she said, with strategy. “Strategy and long-term thinking are essential in a newsroom. And sometimes people don’t do these things,” she said. Greater collaboration with product design and technology is important, as is a greater focus on the audience. These points resurfaced time and again throughout the report, she said. Another common obstacle is fear.

Change is often frightening, and when companies face widespread culture change, fear is virtually inevitable. The best way to manage this is for leaders to identify the biggest fears people have and address them, Story said. One-on-one meetings may be more effective settings for learning people’s individual concerns. “And really listen. Then don’t just dismiss the concerns; dig in and examine them and show people that you’re examining them.”

Taking a closer look at what people are afraid of is imperative because some of those concerns might have merit and bring to light issues that leadership hadn’t considered. Other concerns, Story said, should be looked at “even if you think they’re not that relevant” just because they are creating roadblocks to progress within the organisation. Being able to come back with an answer to those concerns will help ensure greater buy-in. “It’s really important to spend the time on whatever it is people are afraid of and address it the best you can,” she said.  

Key findings on how to make cultural changes in the newsroom are relevant to companies of all sizes.

The value of metrics
Metrics also play a key role in successful cultural change, Story said. “There’s so many metrics and a really important thing for cultural change is explaining the metrics, finding the right metric for your goals — which is different for every place — and then sticking to the same metrics,” she explained. This will help avoid disagreements within the newsroom that can be a roadblock to change. So Story suggested having teams work together to define what metrics will be used. “So whatever it is for your organisation, you want to identify and tell the story of ‘Why are we using these metrics, and what will they achieve for us?’ And that can really help with buy-in and cultural change.”

(Courtesy: INMA/ International News Media Association. The writer is Ideas blog editor for INMA. She lives in Nashville, Tennessee, US.)