News Leadership 3.0

June 12, 2008

Making the message stick

Promoting newsroom change
requires clear goals,
disciplined communication
What’s your strategy?

I tend to make long “to do” lists. I load them up with a lot of small stuff and get a sense of accomplishment as I check things off and move on. This practice serves me well in managing myself. It serves far less well in managing others because they may not be able to distinguish the most important priorities from the items that can wait.

I have seen this play out in more than a dozen newsrooms. The top editors are smart, energetic people who can see lots of needs and opportunities. They juggle a lot of priorities. For their staff’s, that often translates into “Everything’s a priority” or nothing is.

This is a follow up on my post “In a culture of perfectionism, it’s hard to let go.” I wrote about how the perfectionism of traditional newsrooms all but guarantees that people will have trouble giving up doing things they’ve always done in order to make room for the new things they need to do. When staff members see lots of priorities or feel they’re getting mixed messages, they most likely will return to their comfort zone.

Here are steps newsroom leaders can help their staffs adapt to the new:

1. A few good goals. Come up with a short list, say three to five significant goals that you want the newsroom to move on. Forget the lofty mission statements. Goals should pose significant challenges but be specific enough that people can act on them. Focus the goals on what you want your staff to produce. The systems and behaviors that produce them may change as well, but they should be in a supporting role. The goals should reflect an affirmative strategy, urging the staff to do more of something good rather than less of something less good. So a goal might be: Double the number of staff-produced videos on the Web site within the next three months.

2. Stay on message. Repeat the goals over and over again in the newsroom. Daily, even hourly.  Give examples of the kind of work you want. Put resources behind the goals: More video? Who gets equipment and training? Widen the conversation beyond the core working group, in this case the shooters. What does the staff need to know about the goal and who should be contributing ideas? Compliment successes and use them to illustrate and reinforce the goals.

3. Let go of the old. Most leaders have a couple of bad habits they will need to let go of. One, no adding goals to the list until something falls off of it, either because the newsroom has achieved it and incorporated it into practice or because it’s not working out. In our video example, this might be that site users don’t flock to the videos. Two, refrain from offering public criticism, either of the goals work or other work. Sure, it’s OK to examine ways to improve. But the routine criticism that goes on in newsrooms tends to mix the message.

Example: I once consulted in a newsroom where the top editor wanted his staff to take more risks, to be bolder in storytelling. And every morning he posted on his office window tear sheets of the newspaper with poor headlines, typos and other mistakes carefully marked in red ink. The message? Let’s be the risk-averse perfectionists we’ve always been.

How do you juggle priorities? How do you make the message stick? Please share your ideas in comments.


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Goals should pose significant challenges but be specific enough that people can act on them.


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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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