Innovation needs a network to thrive. With this tagline, four months ago we introduced the News Impact Network, the third and newest initiative of the News Impact ecosystem.
We have selected a cohort of sixteen talented media professionals from across Europe and in the past four months we have been working with them with a clear goal in mind:
to create a structured and dedicated network, where members support each other in shaping and scaling their ideas while exploring new solutions for some of the most pressing challenges the journalism industry is facing.
We are now halfway into this adventure, a programme designed as a year-long endeavour that combines online and in-person meetings. We provide leadership skills, inspiring ideas and tools to navigate the changing media landscape.
No similar programme exists on a European level and for this reason, we approached this year with a “pilot programme state of mind” and the awareness that these eight months were bound to be full of mistakes, lessons learned and adjustments on the fly.
We are also very lucky. The group we have selected has approached this experience with openness and no fear of trying things out and learning from the process. Four months in, these are some of the words that the participants used to describe how they feel about the Network today:
invested, upbeat, rich, togetherness, inspiring, empowering.
It seems we are onto something good, but the road to this point has not been short of obstacles.
Looking back to pave the way forward
Last week the group met in London, taking part in a three-day study tour, visiting companies and organisations from outside the journalism industry. The goal was to open up our minds to new ideas and to learn best practices that we could bring back to our newsrooms to approach our challenges from new perspectives.
Three intense, refreshing, fun, sometimes confronting and very inspiring days.
At the end of the tour, we sat down with the group to reflect on how the project has developed so far and to plan the next steps. We talked through all the elements of the Network we could change or improve, exploring out-of-the-box ideas and acknowledging the mistakes we have all made.
The openness with which all the participants approached this conversation really struck us and allowed for honest remarks and suggestions to emerge. We discussed the structure of the programme, the role of the four teams that the cohort is made of, the challenges we have been facing, the communications within the group, and much more.
This is what we have learned:
1. Challenges and work situations shift
Each participant joined the Network with one challenge to tackle during the year. These challenges are related to newsroom culture and processes, leadership skills, revenue models and community engagement. However, in a rapidly changing media environment, the problems that our cohort faces are also constantly evolving.
We created the Network as a structured process, designed to support them in tackling their challenges throughout these eight months. Sometimes though, this plan has proved to be too rigid. Not everyone works at the same pace and shifting challenges and professional situations require a more flexible system that can regularly be adjusted.
2. Tools are more empowering than a rigid process
When we started this journey, we shared with the cohort a roadmap mirroring the design thinking process that they all experienced at the Academy the year before. We believed that clear deadlines and monthly milestones would help them to address their challenges week after week.
As outlined before, the process was not always flexible enough to accommodate the needs of all the participants. In the second part of the year, we will loosen the structure and focus more on providing a set of tools that each participant can learn and decide how to use according to their own challenge and at their own pace.
3. We need to leverage the knowledge within the group
As part of the programme, we have organised several Ask Me Anything sessions with leading experts from the news industry — like Denise Law, Jennifer Brandel and Dmitry Shishkin — who could provide inspiration in the areas of study of the group members.
These online meetings have been overwhelmingly positive but looking at outside experts we forgot to acknowledge that within the Network cohort there is already an amazing pool of talent and expertise that should be shared.
In the second part of the year, we will still meet with external experts but we are also thinking of different ways to facilitate knowledge sharing among the sixteen members. For example, we’ll ask them to share some personal success stories that the other participants can learn from.
4. The recipe to foster collaboration is hard to find
Based on the individual challenges, we have created four teams around shared topics. The idea was that smaller units would facilitate collaboration. In part, this structure is working very well but the unintended consequence has been that these teams are sometimes perceived as silos that limit collaboration rather than fostering it.
The Network needs to provide more opportunities for the entire group to get together and leverage much more the diversity of skills and interests within it. One idea that came up in London: what if we identify one common mission to tackle together instead of just working on our individual challenges? Great things could happen.
5. There’s a lot to learn from other industries
That was the goal of the London study tour and it was indeed a great experience. We should all learn more from how other industries — like marketing or music — are dealing with disruption and innovation. We could discover how to better brand our work, improve our leadership styles, create safe spaces for innovation, hiring processes or work-life balance.
The study tour was a fantastic experience. We are now more convinced than ever that we need more of these moments to burst our bubble and be surprised, inspired and confronted by different ways of working.
6. Online engagement needs drive and structure
Since the members of the Network are based all across Europe, most of the communications happen online. Keeping up engagement and sense of belonging is therefore complicated as we don’t get to meet in person very often and journalists are, almost by definition, very busy.
We keep in touch mostly via Slack and emails. As programme facilitators, we try not to overload the group with information but finding the right balance is not easy and the style of communication needs to be optimised on each platform. Using only one channel on Slack, for example, did not work well: participants mentioned they did not feel comfortable sharing problems or asking for help in the same space we just used to share logistic information regarding an upcoming activity.
We have now created three separate channels on Slack — 1) general, 2) problems, 3) resources — and we are scheduling monthly group calls as a space to catch up on everyone’s challenges and general updates. The value of the Network lies in the peer-to-peer support and only by giving a clear purpose to each communication we can encourage and facilitate collaboration.
7. No online platform can match the value of meeting in person
Slack channels, regular calls, emails and WhatsApp messages; good tools but nothing can replace the in-person gatherings. We’ve been amazed and delighted to see the openness that all members shared during the kick-off meeting in April and, more recently, in London. At the end of the study tour, we all felt like being part of the same family. Especially during these moments the spirit of the Network has truly flourished.
Our next meeting is scheduled to be in Berlin at the beginning of December, but a request emerged spontaneously from the group: can’t we meet again before? The programme doesn’t have the resources to organise another meeting but we are now trying to do it anyway as everyone is committed to not let four more months pass without meeting somewhere.
8. Don’t forget to have fun
Meeting in person is useful for the participants to learn from each other, to realise that they are not alone with their challenges and to give and receive support. We talked a lot about journalism and the media industry but we also found time to relax and have fun together. For example, watching the World Cup semifinals or showing our most devious side while playing Werewolf.
Those moments were not included in the official programme, but their impact in strengthening the connections between us cannot be underestimated and made the experience so much more memorable and fun.
9. Innovation does need a network to thrive
It’s been four months since we embarked on this adventure. We have made mistakes and, thanks to the openness and engagement of our sixteen participants, we have also learned how to address them and improve the project in the next months.
Sometimes the programme might have felt a bit erratic and we know that there will be more adjustments to operate on the fly, but the Network has already proved its value. Combining the expertise of talented professionals from different countries and with diverse experiences in the news industry can truly unlock the potential for innovation to emerge, develop and ultimately thrive.
Sharing the learnings of the Network
Thanks to the honest and open conversations we had in London, we are now ready to take on the second half of the year, with confidence and a clear list of actions to roll out week after week to improve the programme.
The goal of the Network is also to allow the entire News Impact community to benefit from its learnings. For this reason, not only we are sharing some lessons learned via articles like this one, but the entire cohort will join the last News Impact Summit of the year, in Berlin on 3 December.
Make sure to save the date and to join us there if you don’t want to miss the opportunity to meet our sixteen members and hear about their experience, learnings and ideas to keep pushing innovation forward in the news industry.