Culture change at the NYT: A look at the Innovation Report

The relentless work of assembling the world’s best news report can also be a form of laziness, because it is work that is comfortable and familiar to us, that we know how to do. And it allows us to avoid the truly hard work and bigger questions about our present and our future: What shall we become? How must we change?” 

Resistance to change. It never ceases to amaze me how disruption prompts strikingly similar reactions across organizations and industries….change is constant, but human nature is far less mutable. In our research on newsrooms from the Christian Science Monitor to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel to a smaller local daily and others, Jonathan Groves of Drury University and I heard almost exactly the same things the NYT Innovation Report chronicled in its interviews with staff (although to be sure, our research participants could scarcely have even contemplated the resources at the Times’ disposal –  445 engineers in its Technology Department?! Holy crap.)

And this is why I decided to study organizational change in the first place: In the first class I took with Dr. Michael Diamond at the University of Missouri, I was bouncing out of my chair (yeah, I’m a nerd) with recognition at how well theories of organizational culture and learning helped explain the things I had heard and seen in newsrooms across the country.

NYT newsroom

NYT newsroom

The NYT Innovation Report is well worth the time to read, and not just for news nerds, but for any newsroom ready to think seriously about innovation and how to overcome its roadblocks. It offers a pretty good diagnosis of the problems most newsrooms face and some excellent, specific solutions. I agree with Joshua Benton at Nieman Lab who called itone of the key documents of this media age…an astonishing look inside the culture change still needed in the shift to digital, even in one of the world’s greatest newsrooms.”

To some degree this is a shameless plug, but it fits so well I have to do it: Groves and I are working on a book that essentially hopes to help newsrooms respond to the clarion call issued by this report to develop an aggressively digital-first, experimental culture. To ruthlessly examine print-based traditions, routines, and processes with an eye toward radical restructuring. To step back from the daily demands to develop a forward-thinking strategy that allows for better prioritization of work and coordination of effort.

We hope to use more than eight years of our own research and the theories and insights of people who have studied organizational change across many industries to offer some actionable guidance on how to do these things.

Best recommendations in the report

A number of the reports recommendations are consistent with what Groves and I would suggest based on what we have learned:

  • Examine reward systems carefully to determine if the behavior leaders are encouraging are consistent with their espoused digital priorities or long-standing underlying assumptions. Sadly but not surprisingly, Page One still exerts what the report calls a “gravitational pull” on the newsroom and is heavily used in performance reviews, even as reporters and editors remain unsure if social media “counts as doing work or avoiding it.”   Leaders can talk all day about “digital-first,” and they do, but all people hear is “blah, blah, blah” if they know what”really” matters is something else.
  • Leadership is critical. It matters that most promotions seem to be going to people with more traditional print skills, even as digital types feel their skills are marginalized and they are treated more as “order-takers.” Change starts at the top. Groves and I also found that in newsrooms big and small, one of the main things people are looking for is some specific guidance on what their priorities should be. Even curmudgeons are more willing to change than you might expect, but when you tell people the current priority is “mobile” or “video” but they don’t hear any specifics about what is desired, they go back to doing what they know. As one desk head put it in the report: “We do respond, but it is a matter of shifting our burdens.
  • Build that culture of experimentation. In our book we hope to apply some of the lessons of The Lean Startup by Eric Ries and those of other entrepreneurs to newsrooms, all of which dovetail nicely with academic theories of organizational learning. The Innovation Report gets it right when it says “experimentation is about adopting a rigorous, scientific method for proving new concepts and constantly tweaking them to be as successful as possible.” It is also dead on when it talks about pushing back against perfectionism and releasing new products quickly and then iterating as they learn from users. Increasingly journalists’ competitors are the likes of Google and Facebook, which are relentless when it comes to A/B testing and other experimental methods. One person said in the report:  “Currently, the risk of failing greatly outweighs the reward of succeeding at the New York Times.” This needs to change if you want people to try new things and learn from them.
  • The need for better communication can’t be overstated. Reader data and lessons extracted from successes and failures must be shared. If people don’t even know where to begin when they want to collaborate with somebody with different expertise,  that’s a huge problem for any organization. The report’s suggestions on creating contact lists and having more open meetings and emails lists are excellent.
  • Collaborate with the business side and get rid of useless metaphors like “The Wall.” Journalism’s finest stalwarts like Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel were talking about getting rid of these even back in ~2001, because at the end of the day, everyone should be working toward the same goals. Great journalism that doesn’t get read or can’t support itself can’t do all that important democracy stuff we all care so much about. It actually really kind of pisses me off that even in 2014, even incredibly smart people like those at the New York Times don’t seem to realize the rich trove of information folks on the business side of the organization have about readers. These are people, and lots of them, who spend ALL DAY talking to readers, interviewing them, doing focus groups, surveys, etc., but the newsroom basically doesn’t communicate with them at all?? All our journalistic talk of “public service” is a wee bit hypocritical if we have no interest in what our readers want and need, and I agree with those in the report that suggest it’s a bit precious and overly dramatic to suggest that all such information will lead immediately to cat GIFs and bikini models. The report also makes the good point that in the past, the business side was mostly focused on advertisers, but today, with that increasingly becoming a smaller and smaller piece of the revenue bundle, everybody in the organization is more squarely focused on serving readers. Startups place high value on understanding their customers and that’s partly what allows them to iterate quickly in a fast-changing landscape.
  • Critical evaluation of process and structure and workflow. These things matter and are currently heavily steeped in print tradition.
  • Change is constant. That’s why building a culture of learning and experimentation, as previously noted, is so important. I really like this: “Build the newsroom out of Legos, not bricks,” because the structure may need to change. “Too often, we’ve made changes and then breathed sighs of relief, as if the challenge had been solved. But the pace of change is so fast that solutions can quickly seem out of date, and the next challenge is right around the corner.”
  • Researchers like Doreen Marchionni of Pacific Lutheran have been building up a mass of evidence that the report is correct in arguing that readers increasingly expect connection, two-way conversation, and participation. The report has a lot of great suggestions on how the paper can do that without sacrificing its reputation for quality and careful vetting. I especially like this insight:  “The first step is getting more comfortable with the idea of pulling back the curtain and providing readers with a bit more insight into how we do our work, which will only deepen their connection to it.” I also like the idea of expanding op-eds and developing that part of the paper as a place for sophisticated, expert conversation about ideas. The Times has a great advantage there in that it has the kind of brand people are eager to be associated with, making it easier for it to be more than a troll playground.

Why can’t people just get it already?

New York Times journalist and developer Derek Willis expressed some frustration about some of the report’s findings via Twitter. He said, among other similar things: “You cannot convince me that my very smart & talented colleagues can’t learn about new things & new tools. But they have to *want* to.” I suspect many other of the more digitally-savvy people who read the report wondered that at times as well. 

On a personal level, I agree. I spend a disproportionate amount of my time banging my head into a brick wall because many smart people with advanced degrees in my own organization dig their heels in at change. I’m in the category of people who basically can’t imagine NOT wanting to learn, iterate, try a different way of doing something, etc. I find it baffling.

But another thing we learned from scholars like Diamond who take what is called a “psychodynamic approach” to looking at organizational change is that people’s defensive reactions are deeply embedded in individual and group psychology. People are shaped by their past relationships and experiences, and not always in rational ways. I think we all have a tendency to assume that our interpretations of statements and events are more universal than they actually are.

In newsrooms we’ve studied, there is a tendency to assume that resistance to change is mostly occurring at the individual level  rather than structurally, when it is actually happening at both. The structural barriers come up over and over and over again in similar patterns because they are real, and people are also wired differently. In most newsrooms today there is an overall, if grudging, acceptance of the need to change, but some people will take easily to experimentation and others will be more comfortable with guidance, specifics, rules. That doesn’t make it any less frustrating for people like me who want change to happen already, but we either have to face this reality or launch our own startup (I’m starting to thing the latter is a great idea, BTW).

This is where academic theory becomes practical: It helps us understand some of the triggers for defensive reactions, allowing organizations to remove barriers to change. It helps identify all the ways in which leaders may be sending mixed messages or working at cross purposes in ways that undermine their stated goals or intentions.

2 Comments

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2 responses to “Culture change at the NYT: A look at the Innovation Report

  1. Pingback: This Week in Review: Politics, gender, and digital innovation at The New York Times

  2. Pingback: Survival of the Fittest | keeping up with the joneses

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