In 2015, researchers at the University of Iowa published a study finding that legacy newsrooms often embrace technical innovating (social media tools, digital-first publishing), but they’re still very resistant to relational and cultural change. In other words, they’re not necessarily interested in changing the way they interact with their audiences or each other, and they’re not interested in changing the way they report the news. (For more on that study, read Ben DeJarnette’s great article for MediaShift)
Newsrooms’ resistance to culture change is a challenge for us at Hearken, given that we’re promoting a new process and culture for making journalism. We know from firsthand experience that not everyone in the news industry believes in the core beliefs behind our model. Still, we get our collective foot in the door because of the mavericks and early adopters who believe that making news with, not just for the audience is a solid path forward. In order for those journalists to succeed, however, they need to get buy-in from their fellow reporters, managers and from the people who control the checkbook in their newsrooms.
If you’re reading this, you may also be trying to enact culture change in your newsroom. It might be anything from encouraging collaboration between teams to experimenting with story structure, or maybe even enacting a public-powered model like Hearken’s. Many days, it may feel like an uphill battle. We’re here to tell you: resistors gonna resist, haters gonna hate. We’re here to reassure you: this is normal, even expected. And we’re here to let you know that doubters do become believers after proof of concept.
The following are tips and tools we put together from our experience working with newsrooms around the world to shift their culture toward public-powered journalism. However you’re hoping to shift the culture in your newsroom, we hope these tips will help you get buy-in and spread change.
Introducing new ideas
We’ve found that when you frame your efforts as experiments, people tend to be a lot more open to your ideas. After all, experiments convey the goals of learning, trial and error, creativity and fun. And of course there is no innovation without experimentation.
Experiments can be framed in myriad ways, and before you embark on any experiment in culture change, it’s important to arm yourself with a hypothesis, frame what you’re testing, and establish benchmarks to measure success.
Helpful phrases for framing your experiments to colleagues and bosses can begin with “To understand X …,” “to learn whether or not Y …,” “to test if Z …” etc. Below are a few ways we encourage newsrooms to test the theories and practices of Hearken, but you can adapt to whatever change you’re hoping to usher in:
- To understand if the audience has good questions or contributions that can lead to great stories
- To get to know your audience as a collection of individuals, rather than a mass, and to see what can be learned when you treat them as individuals
- To learn who else is in your audience besides the angry folks in the comments section
- To see if there are productive ways to get audience feedback and engagement before publishing and the comments section
- To see if you can report original stories that no other competing outlet is doing
- To understand how audience-initiated stories perform compared to traditional, reactive or press-initiated stories perform
Overcoming the doubts of colleagues
You’re likely to face resistance and doubts from someone in your newsroom at some point. It may be in the form of a lot of questions, or an “I’ll believe it when I see it” attitude. That’s fine. Don’t be preoccupied with winning everyone over. Instead, do what you can to get the space and permission to experiment and start testing your ideas before getting broader buy-in.
Here’s the good news: we’ve seen fresh cultural ideas and innovative projects become magnets for kindred spirits in newsrooms. These are the folks we lovingly refer to as “the coalition of the willing.” When you’re starting out, what’s important is that you find your coalition. It may be one other person, it may be twenty. And you may be surprised about both who is attracted to your idea and who does not seem to share your vision. Don’t take it personally.
You can start finding and building your coalition in the most banal of places: at the water cooler, riding the elevator, staying a few minutes later in a meeting or arriving a few minutes early. Share the idea, gauge their reaction, and keep those close who feel sparked by the conversation.
Those who “get it” (whatever “it” is) are people you’ll want to keep close at hand and invite to participate in the experimentation. This may entail cross-departmental collaboration, or after-hours brainstorming at a local bar, or information gathering from people you’ve rarely spoken with in your organization. Whoever the people are that are attracted to your vision, don’t squander their enthusiasm — leverage their particular talents to advance the development of your project or to help spread new cultural ideas in your newsroom. The more your colleagues are truly engaged and feel some degree of ownership over the direction of your initiative, the more they’ll want to ensure it succeeds.
Use your data
One good way to overcome doubts is with hard-numbers. We’ve found that the higher up you get in your organization, the more likely you’ll need hard to win approval for your project or initiative. Not all cultural experiments have quantifiable outcomes, and that’s OK. Figure out what’s “trackable” or at least what’s meaningful to those making decisions, and see if you can attach some way of measuring your experiment.
If there truly are no obvious quantifiables with the shift you’re making, see if what you’re proposing aligns to your organization’s mission and vision statement. Often those statements are somewhat lofty and vague, but inspiring nonetheless. And if your idea matches the spirit of your organization’s mission, you can sometimes win over approval by reminding those in charge of a greater purpose.
For Hearken partners, we encourage reporters to track the stories they’ve created with our public-powered framework, and see how well they perform versus comparable length stories from the newsroom. Do these stories have higher pageviews, uniques, time on site, and do they travel better on social media? We’ve found from the dozens of newsrooms we work with that these stories do outperform the average.
Also, when an audience member gets involved with the Hearken process, we encourage partners to keep track of how audiences are talking about it and promoting your work on social media. This, of course, is a marketer’s dream: to have your audience personally advocating for your brand and helping to get their friends involved, too. Whatever you measure, keep track and show the bosses.
Note: if you can show that the change you’re advocating for either saves money or makes money (or both!), that may be the quickest way to building support for it at the upper levels.
It’s true that the plural of anecdotes does not equal data, but anecdotes are still very convincing. They tell a story that’s hard to capture with data, and those stories can be even more powerful. When we first founded Curious City at WBEZ (Hearken’s predecessor) we joked that our favorite metric was the number of hand-written thank you cards our group of reporters received from our audience, compared to other departments.
When you get those nice letters or any other kind of positive feedback from those involved, be sure to share them, both on social media and throughout your newsroom.
Finally, know that overcoming doubts can take a while … a very long while. When we first started reporting with the Hearken framework at Curious City, we consistently pushed out the top stories in the newsroom, even won prestigious awards with stories. It still took us a solid couple of years to win over the major skeptics.
One by one
Real culture change happens from heart to heart, person to person. It’s not something that can be forced upon anyone. One way of spreading the culture is just working with as many people in your newsroom as you can. See if you can get every reporter in your newsroom to weigh in or participate in your idea.
If their experience is good, they’ll want to keep working with you. And slowly but surely, you can build from a seed of an idea to a wholesale transformation.
Want to learn how to better engage the public? Download our free engagement checklist guide.