15 Steps For Changing Newsroom Culture

Change is hard. We all know that. But something about being in a newsroom makes it harder — the legacy systems, old habits, the necessity of providing content for old and dying mediums. But I think now more so than ever, newsrooms are ripe for change. They’ve been resistant for so long, but now I’m witnessing them coming around. The turnout to NICAR this year was the largest ever, Pulitzers are being awarded more often for digital storytelling, breaking news events keep teaching us more and more about social and mobile consumption. So in a very anecdotal way, I think the news industry might finally be at a place where it’s stopped denying that it’s moving too slow. Now, how to make that jump? This is my list of mechanisms, published here as a more thought-out version of an Ignite Talk I gave at West Virginia University last week. Not everything on this list will work for you, but it’s based on lessons I’ve learned first-hand and observed elsewhere. 

1. Show don’t tell

For a long time, I really misunderstood what the now-cliched motto of “Demos not memos” meant. For those of you unfamiliar with the etymology, the phrase originated from Politifact’s Matt Waite in describing about a guiding principle that helped them win a Pulitzer Prize. Until recently, I had used the “Demos not memos” mantra in how I approached new project acquisition — rather than writing about all the reasons why we should be doing a project, I instead showed a demo in the form of prototypes or mockups to help convince the right parties and bring ideas to life.

But that was my problem. I was using “show don’t tell” as a means of example, rather than execution. The approach I’m trying to take now? Show by launching. Show by doing. Show by pushing products to market and tracking their success, then show those results to people to get buy-in for continuing to do them.

2. Start with the low-hanging fruit

Inspiring complete cultural transformation takes time. A lot of time. It’s not something that can magically happen with one instigator infiltrating from within. Sometimes it can be hard to get that momentum going. A trick mentioned in Harvard Business Review’s collection about Change Management is to show quick results early, start with the low-hanging fruit. Find quick problems that you can solve using technology. Nothing particularly glamorous, but something practical that will make people’s lives easier. For me, this was getting all the blogs from an old version of Moveable Type to WordPress. The inclination might be to start off with a big, flashy project to start with a high bar, but that’s not how you get quick payoff and set the tone for what’s possible. This way, you show people why the work you’re doing is important in small, tangible ways that they can understand — then keep working toward the big picture with their support.

3. Find your allies early

Co-consiprators often pop up in unsuspecting places. Any progress I’ve been able to achieve at The Seattle Times has come from finding people who have unutilized skills, unchanneled passion and enough initiative to take on projects on the side as we build those side projects into the norm. I’ve also found allies in people who didn’t even know they were good at web stuff. We have a news art director who, despite a technical lack of web skills, has an incredible knack for UX. She’s now my go-to for all questions, brainstorming or advice around interaction design. You probably have similar allies all around you that you didn’t even know about.

4. Fight against the assembly-line style of project management

This whole concept is hands down stolen from Trent Walton. Go read his post on reorganization then come back and continue reading this. It’s very common in a newsroom to have a process that works like so: People at the top — probably strategists, people in charge of revenue, etc. — devise a plan for a product completely independent of any conversations with the actual creators. Those thinkers pass the concept on to a design crew who will complete pixel-perfect mockups to match the vision, then from there, the coders get their hands on it and build it out exactly as told.

The people in the newsroom who can code are not vendors who cater to clients. They and other journalists should be  a part of that process at each step. So should the designers and the business people. Rather than handing projects off to each other and weaving together ideas with different missions, the core group of decision makers should consist of a group from all the stakeholders.

5. Done is better than perfect

This one is stolen from a sign that hangs in the Facebook office and concepts in the Agile Manifesto. Once you get your allies in line and a good workflow and some projects on the docket, it’s easy to fall off the bandwagon of agility. You can easily get sucked into the world of project management and roadmaps where your ability to innovate is stagnated. You might hold off project launches in order to work toward a false ideal of perfection. Don’t fall into that rut. Respond to changing technology and the changing expectations of your users with such agility that they don’t even notice you’ve ever fallen behind. Define the absolute minimum for what you need to launch, meet it, then iterate from there.

6. Rock the boat without tipping it over.

This little nugget of wisdom is also stolen from the Harvard Business Review (yes, I steal a lot of ideas from a lot of different people and places — shoulders of giants, you know). I’ve easily fallen victim to the idea that I can single-handedly change it all by being the rebel without a cause. That’s not true. We have to learn how to communicate with people in a way that introduces them to change and gets them comfy without scaring or overstepping boundaries. I still haven’t figured this one out. Working on it.

7. Ask forgiveness, not permission — but carefully!

Sometimes, when you really believe in something. You have to play a little dirty and risky. If you have something you really believe in, sometimes it’s OK to get things done, push them live, then ask later for forgiveness (which you’ll usually always get if you’ve made the right call). Only do it if it’s worth it. And do it very rarely. Which leads me to my next point…

8. Choose your battles

You’re going to lose some battles. That’s ok. Make sure that the battles you do fight are the ones that are going to help you move the needle. You can sacrifice the pieces you don’t care about. Before every fight, ask yourself if it’s worth it.

9. Seek first to understand, then be understood

This is one of my favorite takeaways from 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Colleagues often feel threatened and get defensive when their ideas are dismissed or ignored. Resist the urge to be a know it all (even if you really think you know much more than the people around you). Listen to what people need and they will have an easier time understanding what you need. The more you give, the more you get. And you might learn that you weren’t right after all.

10. Develop a common language

It’s hard to be a person who jumps between the traditional newsroom and the tech-savvier side of the newsroom and IT  and sales and marketing. You can’t the be the only person who speaks all the languages. To inspire true cultural change, you need to be able to spread that knowledge to everyone. For example, we started a worksheet at The Seattle Times that people can use to initiate new projects. The language included in it hits the whole range — from words like “key performance indicators” to “nut graf.” This gets people comfortable in each other’s worlds.

11. Resist the urge to be the cool kids in the corner

It’s hard to not be. Even when you’re situated in the middle of the newsroom, anyone who is trying to do new, innovative stuff fights the  perception of being the “cool kids in the corner.” Don’t let them see you that way. You want to be part of the team that empowers the entire newsroom to be innovators, and you want to put the tools in their hands to help them get there. You cannot hold the monopoly on innovation. Give people the opportunity to contribute.  Help other departments — like IT and marketing — learn from you so they can innovate in their worlds, too. You don’t want anyone to feel like your team is the only team who is allowed to be cool.

12. Remember that experiments are serious business

Sometimes people in news companies can misunderstand what “experimentation” truly means. It’s not about frivolous, pie-in-the sky ideas. It’s about rapidly testing new ideas to start building toward new standards. You are building the future through experiments. Experimentation is just as important as those mission-critical roadmap projects.

13. Measure your success

So how do you build those new standards? This comes back to show-not-tell. A trick I learned from John Keefe is to track numbers on everything you touch. I’ve been really good about tracking all the news apps I launch, but I didn’t track projects embedded into article pages (which are just tracked like normal stories) or track the projects that reporters were creating (timelines, word clouds) based on the development I’ve done. Do that so you can more accurately measure your true impact. People respond well to numbers when it comes time to make decisions.

14. Keep your users at the heart of everything you do.

At the end of the day, you’re not fighting these fights for yourself. You’re fighting for your readers — your users — who are taking the information you give them to make decisions about their lives. If you’re ever wondering why you’re fighting or whether it’s worth it, go back to your mission to best serve the user and look at the problem through that lens. You will likely find some clarity.

15. Remember that you’re not in this alone

If it ever gets hard, you have a whole community of people who are fighting the same fight as you. Reach out. We’re in this together.