News Leadership 3.0

March 26, 2012

Training: A change agent for news organizations

The sad demise of the American Press Institute is a reminder of the newspaper industry’s lack of commitment to training and professional development - and why that’s one of its biggest mistakes as digital transforms the news landscape. But even without training budgets, newsrooms can implement training programs - here are some tips for doing that.

API let go its staff Friday as part of a merger with the Newspaper Association of America, and that set off a round of Twitter laments about the need for training in news organizations today. No kidding.

Journalism and press training organizations have struggled in recent years, much like the newspaper organizations they serve. Some have found themselves short on digital expertise and wedded to an expensive training model that brings trainees to the training organization for multiple days. In turn, their client news organizations have cut training budgets and increased workloads - so a) who can get away for training even if she can pay it? and b) will she even have a job when she comes back from training?

Then again, it’s not as if the news industry suddenly turned its back on training. The news industry has never valued professional development of its staff - at least not enough to invest much money in it.

One study by Inland Press, nearly a decade ago showed that the newspaper industry invested a paltry 0.4 percent of total payroll in training and staff development. At the time, the national average for training was more than five times that amount. Both averages may have diminished in recent years but I don’t imagine the ratio has changed. In fact, many companies invest more heavily in training in a downturn to prepare their employees for their next adaptation.

Instead, of offering consistent staff development, the news industry has relied primarily on occasional, opportunistic training from organizations that are often subsidized by foundations. (Knight Digital Media Center, by the way, is primarily funded by the Knight Foundation. I work with both organization but these views are my own.)

The problem is not just a lack of money. It is a lack of consistent, strategic thinking about the role training can play in taking an organization, as well as its employees, where it needs to go.

In “News, Improved,” Tim Porter and I wrote: “The news industry trains people as badly as a fast-food diet nourishes them. Training is episodic rather than continuous. Random, rather than strategic. Long on talk. Short on measurable impact. Not exactly the kind of well-balanced learning diet” required to build and maintain an adaptive organization. By strategic training, we mean programs that are developed based on specific organizational goals that are clearly and consistently articulated by the leadership and understood by the staff. The organization would then develop tactics designed to accomplish that and provide training to the staff on why those tactics were chosen and what skills and practices are needed to implement them. For example, a goal might be to increase user time on the website. An example of a tactic would be to develop more data interactives. The training would be designed to enable that. This approach to training not only raises skills, it improves the culture of the organization. It can help highly change-resistant news organizations, become more able and eager to adapt to changing consumer needs.

“News, Improved” was published in 2007. We had spent a couple of years working with more than a dozen newsrooms and we developed tools and best practices for creating a learning organization that seem highly relevant today for news organizations that know they need to help their staffs learn and become more adaptive and willing to embrace change.

Here, for example, are 10 tips for creating a goals-focused newsroom learning program:

1. Keep the newsroom’s goals out front.

Newsroom goals determine the foundation of the training program and factor heavily in decisions and priorities for training individuals.

2. Put someone in charge.

A training coordinator, even if not a full-time position, means that someone comes to work each day with staff training as a top priority.

3. Engage the staff.

Whether the goal is changing organizational culture or building staff skills, including staff members in the training committee - both to assess needs and develop the curriculum - is key.

4. Illustrate specific goals.

Whether it’s through a short, staff-produced video or a simple printed guide, find a way to make training goals visible and concrete.

5. Know the newsroom, know the market.

We performed detailed, pre-training assessments for newsrooms, which helped them link training needs to culture, market challenges, goals and leadership development needs. We looked at leadership capacity, staff capacity, market demographics and challenges, newsroom resources and readership goals.

6. Identify trainers and develop modules.

Explore all three major sources of newsroom teachers: current staff, new hires, and outside trainers. Regardless of who runs the training, that person must keep in mind the basic principle of adult learning: Adults learn by doing. Classes should include opportunities to actually do something. If a training exercise can produce a news story, so much the better.

7. Clarify expectations for attendance and participation.

All staff members must understand the goals and their personal roles in moving toward them. If some staffers - most often those opposed to change - opt out, it is unlikely the program can improve newsroom culture or news content. For this reason, managers must be accountable for staff attendance.

8. Create a long-range training calendar.

The calendar must reflect the newsroom’s capacity to develop a quality training program and engage staff in it. Training opportunities should be frequent enough to support the message that learning is continuous.  Allowing staff members and their supervisors to plan ahead is critical. People can plan to attend the sessions most relevant and interesting to them, rather than simply decide thumbs up or down on a random session at the last minute.

9. Consider quality of training.

The impact of training may be assessed by four measures: reaction, learning, application and impact on the news product. Time-starved newsrooms can learn what they need to know by focusing on the first measure, reaction, and the last, impact on news content.

10. Measure impact of training.

Too often, news organizations fail to measure whether training has improved content. In addition to measuring cultural change in partner newsrooms, we evaluated whether changes in news content reflected training goals. We generally used a simple count of stories, photos or other elements in a 28-day sample of the newspaper to assess change.

In addition to the book, much of this work is detailed in excerpts from “News, Improved,” archived at While many of the newsrooms we worked with in 2004-2005 focused their training efforts on print, the concepts we developed with their help can transfer to efforts to build adaptive digital newsrooms today. NPR has used similar concepts in pushing its transformation from a radio organization to a multi-platform organization - interestingly, a report on these efforts is entitled “News, Improved.”

Training organizations can and will help with that work. But most of the effort has to come primarily from within the news organizations and their leaders who see that having skilled, adaptive, creative, change-embracing employees is their best strategy for getting their organizations into the future.

The News Leadership 3.0 blog is made possible by a grant to USC Annenberg from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.                                                                                                                      


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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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