News Leadership 3.0

January 14, 2010

10 lessons from NPR’s digital transformation

Ellen Weiss, VP News at National Public Radio describes what she and her organization have learned about change in the past two years

(USC journalism graduate student Nikki Usher sat in on the Knight Digital Media Center’s Strategic Leadership Summit for Public Radio Stations, held last month in conjunction with National Public Radio and funded by Knight Foundation. I asked her to write about key takeaways.)

By Nikki Usher

National Public Radio is clearly an organization looking to make radical transformations as it moves from being a radio network to a multiplatform news provider.

What has NPR learned from trying to rethink its digital strategy? Ellen Weiss, Senior Vice President for News offered ten lessons from two years in the change trenches that may be useful to other news organizations:

1. There is no end state. The transition will take a long time and no one anywhere has figured this all out. For the transition to happen, managers have to be part of the conversation.

2. Be realistic about how much multimedia you can handle
and train for. Writing is multimedia when you are a broadcast organization.  NPR brought its training back to reality - away from video and to things people could take back to their jobs: how to take a good picture, what’s the mix of writing, blog writing, writing for the web vs. writing for print.

3. Communicate.Weiss held three Q&A sessions a month to help explain to staffers the plans and the process and to give staff a chance to ask questions.

4. Test and learn. Repeat.  Stop things that aren’t working. Realize that lots of people through the organization are going to do things differently and try new things in different ways. Don’t be afraid to reorganize the newsroom (NPR has done this - twice). Be strategic about every hire you have.

5. Do not play into Web versus radio competition.
(Or, to extend on Ellen’s thoughts, for other newsrooms, Web v. print, or web v. broadcast). Geography matters.  Seat people together. Bring digital and editorial staff together. Remind people they are delivering the audience, not one audience versus another audience.

6. Demonstrate your affection and enthusiasm for digital work. People will follow your lead, if you acknowledge the good work.

7. Make tough decisions about what you want to stop.
NPR stopped the Bryant Park Project, but started Planet Money. Planet Money, a big success, benefited from Weiss and others willingness to let the podcast/blog experiment and develop into what it is now.

8. Be transparent about metrics
and educate your staff. Counter the fear that work is going to be driven by getting the hottest number or different editorial standards.

9. Listen to people’s concerns
, don’t try to downplay them. Look for early adapters. Weiss won’t accept anyone not writing for web, but when it comes to social media, she trusts that buzz in the newsroom will build and grab people interested in it.

10. Have reasonable expectations
. You can’t do everything, pick a few things and try to do them well. Give people the support they need to do these things well.

Weiss and two other NPR executives, Kinsey Wilson, senior vice president and general manager for digital news, and Dick Meyer, NPR’s executive editor for news, shared some of their visions with the public radio group.

They stressed the importance of NPR being more than a destination site with multimedia like CNN or the Washington Post. NPR’s focus is on being a nimble site adapted to the new forms of the Internet that recognizes the advantages of audio, social media, niche sites/verticals and mobile platforms.

A big step for NPR has been to produce continuous news and information in what Kinsey Wilson called “real time” or the “price of information on the real clock not on programming time,” an effort which has taken 18 months of Knight training, retraining and hiring staff, and rethinking digital strategy. The goal is not to “match CNN” but to have NPR’s own sensibility and story selection to breaking news on internet time.

November 24, 2009

Online first? Four ways to show you mean it

Recent flare ups over the merger of The Washington Post’s print and online newsrooms leave out critical requirements for newsroom leaders who want their staffs to innovate online

I’ve been following a fascinating discussion about The Washington Post’s move to bring its well-regarded online news operation into the fold of the print newsroom. Since the announcement of the merger, talented top online managers have left the Post and this week came reports that a couple of award-winning multimedia journalists would be let go.

Mathew Ingram has a good roundup of the debate. He notes: “The recent cuts at the Washington Post (WPO)—as reported by Politico and Washington’s City Paper—have once again brought to the surface a culture clash that has been going on in mainstream newsrooms for most of the last decade, and one that shows no sign of ending any time soon.”

The online discussion tends to play out as a saga of good (new, online) vs. old (bad, print). The online folks, with some justification, usually say it’s better that online be separate lest it be co-opted by conservative print culture.

I’m not sure the structure of the newsroom(s) is as important as the leadership and how it demonstrates what it values. When I lead a newsroom training and change initiative sponsored by the Knight Foundation, we found that leadership communication was the most important factor in creating capacity for change. If top news executives really value online, they can do more to show it by:

1. Assigning all of the news gathering staff to report to an online editor with clout. The news gatherers might also fulfill assignments for the print newspaper, but their organizational allegiance would be to Web first.

2. Assuring that one of the top two newsroom executives comes out of online. The number 2 person, if not the top editor, would be an online expert and evangelist.  Sorry to have to say this, but most newsrooms are held back because their leaders - not matter how pro Web - come out of decades of print journalism. That’s the default.

3. Openly reward the online staff and print staff who make significant strides online. Even if pay raises aren’t possible, consistent praise and shows of approval will help.

4. Restructure the print production desk. Push down the number of people you need to produce the print newspaper until it hurts. More on that idea here.

How have you changed your newsroom or your attitude to promote online first? Please post tips and ideas in the comments.

November 17, 2009

Culture change 101

For news executives who find their staffs are still resistant new ideas and practices, here are three steps to start making change

I’ve been interested to learn in recent conversations with editors that at least some of the change-resistance that plagued many newsrooms a decade ago seems to have survived in today’s industry tumult. The topic came up again in questions Monday when I was on a panel at the ASNE Ethics and Values Forum at the Reynolds Journalism Institute, where I am a fellow this year.

Here are three tips I gave editors seeking change:
1. Keep your list of goals and priorities short, perhaps three or four items. Longer lists tend to translate into “everything is a priority,” which in effect means “nothing is a priority.” Once you’ve got your goals, use them to prioritize and explain what you want your staff to do. If you want something done that doesn’t really serve the goals, then don’t ask for it. Example: You personally would like to see more stories about the city council. But your priority is for your organization is to cover more non-institutional news. So stop asking questions about what the city council did.
2. Assume that people who resist change are doing so because they are afraid of the unknown. That’s often true. Even if it isn’t (and someone is just plain stubborn), you’ll get better results than if you go head to head. If people are afraid, a little empathy and some training that allows them to try the new thing in a safe zone, will help.
3. Keep the discussion of new practices and ideas very specific. Journalists often veer into abstract either-or debates about change. These seldom go anywhere.  Remember when newsrooms used to debate whether the Web would cheapen their journalism? A better discussion is how a specific story was (or wasn’t) well told on the Web.

Culture change takes time, often years. These tips will get your organization started. What are your tips for fostering culture change?

May 07, 2009

The 4th C: Culture

In a guest post, Steve Buttry discusses what C3, his Complete Community Connection news model, will mean for the culture of his organization

Steve Buttry, information content conductor for The Gazette Company in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, recently released his “Blueprint for the Complete Community Connection,” and wrote a couple of good blog posts (here and here) about his ambitious plan for revolutionizing his news organization. I asked Steve to write an additional piece for this blog with a focus on what attitudes would need to change for his organization to be successful. As a longtime student of newsroom culture, I think it’s important for newsroom leaders to develop culture change strategies that are in step with their content change strategies. Here’s what Steve had to say:

By Steve Buttry
A newsroom leader’s most important job today is changing a culture you love.
I love working in newsrooms. I love the energy, the fun, the humor, the skepticism. They are my favorite places to work. And they need to change.
As I outlined in my Blueprint for the Complete Community Connection, newspaper companies need a thorough change in our relationship with the community and in how we operate.
For most of my career in newsrooms, most of my colleagues were oblivious to most of the business considerations that paid our paychecks. We just wanted to do great journalism: tell stories, cover the news, uphold the honor of the First Amendment.
We can do all that. And we must. But we also have to lead a transformation of our companies and our industry, starting in the newsroom. In the C3 blueprint, I tackle several issues that traditionally haven’t been newsroom concerns:
Revenue. Journalists have enjoyed our insulation from the actual generation of the revenue that supports our work. I am not suggesting we jeopardize our integrity by actually selling ads or dealing with advertisers, but we have to advocate and work to achieve a new revenue approach to support journalism. The failure of our leaders and advertising colleagues to develop a new business model has caused too much harm to journalism. Waiting for someone else to innovate hasn’t worked. We can and must engage in the how of revenue generation, even if we have to keep our distance from the who.
Evergreen information. Our business model for decades has focused on providing timely information for our community. We need to continue that, but also become the place where the community turns for timeless information. We can add value to our work by using our archives to provide context and by developing community content that remains useful and brings people back again and again to a helpful community resource.
Personal news. From my first days in a newsroom, as a high school student covering sports in Shenandoah, Iowa, the jading process began as I scorned the “locals” that the Evening Sentinel published about people who were visiting, ill or retiring, and the formulaic announcements of engagements. But as an adult, I know that the personal events that barely make the newspapers, if at all, are big news in people’s lives. As I look back on recent years in my family, the huge events are a son’s wedding or graduation or a nephew’s illness. The C3 blueprint calls on us to provide personal-content platforms where people can turn these life milestones into the big news that they truly are.
Achieving success in these new pursuits (especially in a time of staff reductions) will require several changes in how newsrooms traditionally operate:
* We need to engage the community and let people tell more stories themselves. Where our reporting amounts mostly to gathering quotes from officials and participants, we should provide platforms where those people can tell those stories directly to the community. This will allow us to spend more of our resources telling the stories that officials don’t want us to tell.
* We need to separate content from products, at least in our minds and probably in our organizations. If you speak of stories in terms of inches, you are thinking of stories through the frame of the print product.
* We need to provide links to helpful information that adds depth and context, even if we didn’t publish it. News sites have been reluctant to send users away from our sites, as if that would somehow keep them captive. Google developed the most successful business in the history of the Internet by sending people away. We need to do the same. As Jeff Jarvis says: “Cover what you do best and link to the rest.”
When I was the editor of the Minot (N.D.) Daily News in the early 1990s, my attention focused heavily on the next edition of the paper or the next Sunday’s paper. I always knew what stories the staff was working on and what stories would be on Page One. When I came to Cedar Rapids last year as editor of The Gazette, I fell into the same pattern as a historic flood in my first week overwhelmed our city. I quickly learned that my staff could handle the biggest disaster in our state’s history. So I stepped back to let others handle the day-to-day challenges of covering the news.
My job was changing the culture and helping us find a prosperous future. I started the staff liveblogging events ranging from Black Friday shopping to federal trials to Hawkeye football. We began thinking about telling the story as it unfolded, rather than simply taking notes and telling it later.
I pushed my staff to use Twitter to connect with the community, gather news, write tighter and promote our content. We started engaging routinely with the community.
As the pace of change accelerated, we changed my title (to information content conductor), in part to reflect new realities and in part to underscore to the staff that all our jobs will fundamentally change.
We have a long way to go. And I think our staff will enjoy working in whatever our newsroom becomes. Much as we loved what was, we know we need to reach what will be if we want to continue having fun in this business. 

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Exploring innovation, transformation and leadership in a new ecosystem of news, by journalist and change advocate Michele McLellan.

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