Change is here to stay, so what can we do about it?

Leading newsroom transformation comes with a wide set of challenges. We spent two days learning how to tackle them.

“We need to revise our set of routines, values, roles, that drive consciously and unconsciously our daily work.”

“It’s difficult to persuade journalists that their job is not only about journalism anymore. It’s also innovation, reaching new audiences, exploring new methods of storytelling.”

“Even when we find the time to talk about change and future, five minutes later we are back to daily habits and routines.”

The conversation about newsroom transformation is a complex one. It includes revenue models, technology, internal structures, editorial processes and audience, but not only. News organisations won’t be able to successfully move forward and adapt to the new, constantly evolving paradigms if their people are not involved, and a culture of change is not interiorised.

To discuss these topics, at our last News Impact Academy we gathered in Barcelona a group of newsroom leaders from 11 different countries. Together with a design strategist Tran Ha, we used design methods to think from a different perspective and find out how to embrace a culture of change and drive transformation in newsrooms.

The Academy is a training programme supported by the Google News Initiative that connects media professionals from all over Europe and empowers them with new tools and methods.

No matter if you’re a public broadcaster or a small digital-only outlet, these are five things we identified that you can apply to deal with the challenges your newsroom leaders are currently facing:

1. Get comfortable with the discomfort

Using Tran’s words, “the more you get comfortable with change and ambiguity, the better work you can do as a leader to drive change.” This is probably the first principle that any newsroom leader should keep in mind.

If you need your team to change the way they work, you’ll have to be reassuring and lead by example. A leader who doesn’t act and communicate with authenticity will only create distrust. This is why you should make your team understand why things are changing, explain the bigger picture and let them own the process.

“We imagine cultural change as a big bang, but it can’t happen at once, it is a process.” — Tran Ha.

Our guest speaker Michelle Homes, Head of Partnership at Alabama Media Group, has experienced first-hand the complexity of undergoing change in a big news organisation.

“I had to learn how to be comfortable with a lot of discomfort in the newsroom,” she explained, “and one useful tip is to make allies outside and inside the organisation and always remember: if you are not comfortable with the process, people around you will notice it, and it’s not going to work.”

2. Learn to pick your battles

When the group talked about the issues they’re struggling with, a common one was the question of where to focus their energy. When you have many open fronts, you have to pick your battles.

As expressed by one of the participants: “digital opens up so many different paths that you could do anything. But you cannot do everything. You have to make choices. And this is very hard to explain.”

It would be counterproductive to ask people only to do more and more work. Change shouldn’t be perceived as an extra layer of effort. If you want to add new routines or have your team being more experimental, you have to give them space and time to do so. Let go of what you don’t need anymore, to slowly introduce new habits, tools or workflows.

3. Reframe your problems before jumping into solutions

What are we doing wrong? What could we do better? What should we keep and what let go? Taking a step back and reexamining your challenges should be done before directly jumping into solutions.

At the Academy, we asked the participants to share with us one specific problem related to leadership or culture change that they were somehow stuck with. Working in pairs, they took time to help each other in identifying and questioning the multiple layers of their problems.

While there were many frustrations during the process, by breaking the problem down participants were able to identify new entry points and most of them ended up with a completely different question. Hence, one of the main realisations was that being a great problem-solver is not enough if you’re not an even better problem-framer.

Participants of the Academy working together to redefine their challenges. Picture by Paula Montañà

4. Don’t forget to celebrate the small wins

Thinking only about problems and roadblocks can become draining and, after all, design processes seek to create great things from what we already have. This is why we asked the participants to take a moment and reflect on all the resources and valuable assets they already had.

“An agile and smart team”, “a well-known and respected brand”, “a clear vision and mission”. These are things that shouldn’t be ignored when thinking about change. Instead, newsrooms leaders should give visibility to the actions or ideas that are positive and bring their organisations closer to where they want them to be.

Celebrate your team and make them feel part of the victories, even if they are small.

5. Build a collective leadership based on a culture of trust

“Tell people that what they do is important, even if they are not all on the same page. People that think different have to be included in the change process as well,” explained Michelle Holmes.

Newsroom leaders need to be very mindful on how and when to involve certain colleagues in the transformation process. Not everyone is ready at the same time and some people will simply refuse to join. Accepting this will allow you to focus your energy where it’s having an impact, nurturing the people who are working to make a difference.

Picture by Paula Montañà

Building an environment that is respectful and open to feedback is a crucial part of any successful transformation process. If we want people to get on board and give their best, we have to empower them to do so. This will only be possible when there’s a culture of trust and everyone in the team works to achieve shared goals.

At the end of the Academy, we asked the group to identify one thing that they were going to do differently. Sometimes these changes are small, but it’s only through tiny, convinced steps, that a broader change can happen:

“I’ll try to focus more on the problem framing and take a few minutes every day to reflect and celebrate success.”

“Talk less and do more. And be more open and vulnerable to find allies.”

“I will talk more to the journalists in the newsroom, not only the editors, to hear from them how can I better support their work.”

“I need to find ways to be comfortable with letting things go, even go bad sometimes.”

Want to take part in our next News Impact Academy?

On 5–6 November, we will explore the topic of membership-based revenue models at the News Impact Academy in Warsaw. The programme will be led by Emily Goligoski and applications can be submitted via https://newsimpact.io/registration/academy

And if you’re interested in continuing the conversation around leadership and innovation, join our News Impact Summit in Berlin on 3 December. It will be a one-day collaborative conference around these and other important topics for the future of our industry, and you can already register via https://newsimpact.io/registration/summit