Change Fatigue: Newsroom Transition Note #5

Things were simpler a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.

This is the fifth-part of a series of notes from my time at TODAY, a small newsroom in Singapore where I had spent 34 months trying to figure out what’s needed for a print-to-digital transition. Here are the first, second, third, and fourth parts.

In a legacy newsroom where many things need fixing for the digital environment, it is easy to be trapped into thinking that change, in and of itself, is a form of success. It is not.

If you can’t articulate what success looks like for your team, then it’s a matter of time before they lose momentum and your plan stalls, no matter how detailed the initial roadmap might be.

The reason is a simple if rarely acknowledged one in the news industry these days: Change fatigue.

In legacy newsrooms, major changes (such as the redesign of a newspaper) are infrequent as they are time consuming and take up a lot of resources. As such, the work flow stays status quo for long stretches, giving many in the newsroom the predictability they crave or need.

In digital newsrooms, however, there is an almost masochistic quality to the frequency of changes. (Real-life Exhibit A: How one US newsroom ran out of pivots and radical makeovers)

First, the product line is far longer. An online newsroom doesn’t just put out one main product, like a newspaper. Instead, it publishes content on a whole suite of products, from the website to the app to newsletters on emails and messaging apps, and not to mention various social media channels which have unique audience demands.

The shelf-life of these online news products are relatively short, meaning they can’t go one or two years without a significant overhaul. And some of these assets are closely linked — sometimes disastrously so at the technical back-end — meaning one can’t be changed without the other.

Second, online newsrooms don’t control the biggest platforms where their stories are discovered and read — such as Google and FB. This means unexpected changes by the platforms are often imposed on the newsrooms just when editors and journalists think they are settling into a good rhythm.

In other words, you are never really “done” with changes in an online newsroom, whether the changes are self-initiated or imposed by the global tech giants.

This constant churn and the high-level of ambiguity can be exciting for some.

But for many in a legacy newsroom, even among younger staffers whom one might assume to have a bigger appetite for uncertainty, such an environment can be deeply unsettling.

Journalists are a passionate bunch, willing to go the extra mile for a job they believe in. But their passion and goodwill are not inexhaustible.

If you are leading digital change in a legacy newsroom, that means making tough choices about priorities and being realistic about achievable goals.

With resources already stretched thin, does it make sense to plunge into yet another social media platform, or to “pivot” to the latest fad in the industry? What are you prepared to sacrifice in order to free up resources for the new projects you’ve ordered?

A legacy newsroom that resists changes is almost certainly doomed. But mindless rounds of changes will produce a similar result.

LESSONS IN DIGITAL TRANSITION: Notes From A Small Newsroom

Note#1: Coalition of the willing

Note#2: Post-print Traumatic Stress Disorder

Note#3: Lies, damned lies, and (readership) statistics

Note#4: What to think when thinking about digital transformation in a newsroom

Note #6: Final thoughts