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.