Two recipes just for you — how to get the newsroom to do new things

Those tasked with digital transformation face an incredibly tough job, something akin to juggling knives while standing on a balance board.

It’s not just about staying the course, it’s about navigating an ever-changing landscape of platforms, formats and storytelling devices while deepening audience engagement, broadening reach, attracting new talent, and ensuring existing talent stays up to speed. No small feat.

And while there is no established playbook for driving these changes, one thing is certain: newsroom culture plays a huge role in successful transformation.

In the course of my work at Wochit, I get the opportunity to pick the brains of many wise media mavericks from across Europe. So, I set out to gather some recipes, some real, actionable tactics on how to create the kind of environment that encourages experimentation and innovation.

Recipe #1: Finding your inner startup

Last month Freek Staps, a leader of digital transitions from NRC Media in the Netherlands, laid out a series of transformation ideas collected during his time as a Harvard Nieman Lab Visiting Fellow.

For some context on Staps, two years ago he founded NRC Q, what he described as “a startup within the newsroom [launched] in order to help ease the transition to a digital-focused company”. Staps is now one of two Managing Editors for Digital at NRC, tasked with spreading the digital transformation across the group. Staps and I have known each other across a few startups now, most recently from NRC Q’s partnership with Wochit, where they use us to stay nimble with their creation of digital video.

Here are three very concrete pieces of advice from Staps on how to drive the adoption of new thinking, new tools, and new workflows in the newsroom. Visit the the Nieman Lab site for full report, complete with case studies.

  1. Build a team with the mandate to innovate. The team should be no smaller than five and no larger than fifteen, and should have clear permission to operate free from the constraints of the newsroom or other tight controls. A gag order to exclude the entire newsroom from weighing in might help. To prevent endless discussions, set a clear deadline (e.g., three months) for the project to be completed.
  2. Change your day-to-day operations. In order to let the startup succeed, and your organization transform more easily, implement changes gradually but surely. Don’t waver. The head of the startup should have weekly meetings with representatives from departments outside of the newsroom.
  3. As soon as the startup is ready to go live, find a place in the newsroom. Visibility is key and change is the new norm. In order to have a lively conversation about journalism with reporters, designers and developers outside the startup, be present in the newsroom. Don’t hunker down and only talk to other members of your team.

Recipe #2: Making the mission personal

On a recent trip to Amsterdam, I had the pleasure of meeting another Dutchman with immense insights into the art of introducing change and progress to the newsroom. Wouter Bax from the Dutch national broadcaster has overseen digital transformation not just for print, but across broadcast, radio, and online; as the deputy chief of NOS 24, he is responsible for the central news provider of, Teletekst and the Dutch public radio stations 1, 2, 4, 5 and 6.

One of Bax’s proudest accomplishments was getting all NOS’s radio journalists to take photos to publish along with their stories online. As he said, “It’s no big tech thing, it’s just very effective. It added enormous value.”

I had Bax walk me through his recipe for this transformation, there’s no doubt that this approach can be applied to a variety of initiatives.

  1. Start with an official announcement of the new initiative to all those involved. “But that was just the start of the process, we had to convince them one by one to work for us, in a positive way”, added Bax.
  2. Appeal to reporters personally. As Bax put it, “People don’t just work for an organisation, but also for other people. You have to be a little charming, sometimes they do it just for you because they think you’re a nice person.” As part of this tactic Bax established himself as a friendly, helpful presence in the newsroom, making the rounds with a smile and building a good personal relationship with his reporters.
  3. Provide them outstanding support. When asking radio reporters to do something new, something extra like send in photos from the field, the experience that the reporters had was paramount. Bax made sure that his team in the newsroom got those photos published online as soon as possible. Bax explained, “if you don’t, they lose interest and it takes a lot of effort to get them back.”
  4. Show them the results. Bax advised appealing to reporters’ vanity, by giving them positive feedback and showing them the figures of how the audience responded. If you’re going to ask them to do something new, show them why it’s worth it.
  5. Lastly, take their limited time into account. It was important that reporters still felt like they had agency over their own work, and to get the recognition of their workload from the higher ups. Bax explained, “we kept our phone calls short and effective and after asking to do us this favor we left them in peace to do their radio things.”

A shift in mindset

At its core, the challenge in newsroom transformation is not about the tech: it’s not just a question of getting reporters to use Tweetdeck, or introducing some new video creation technology. Rather, the underlying challenge is convincing reporters to change their routines, and in doing so, to shift how they think about doing their job of uncovering, synthesizing, and relating information.

Both Staps and Bax suggest that this requires leaders to provide the newsroom with support, structure, and the freedom to experiment. I would add that it requires a certain amount of education as well.

First, reporters need a strong understanding of the current digital landscape, and how stories will best reach today’s media consumers. Then, they will have an appropriate framework for appreciating how new workflows / platforms / initiatives can help them do their job better.