Tag Archives: newsroom change


A few weeks ago I came across this piece in Harvard Business Review imploring companies to embrace questions like: “Why are we doing it this way? Is there a better approach?” For some reason – maybe just my usual end-of-semester frustration – this one really hit home with me. The essence, when you get right down to it, of being able to adapt to change, to constantly improve, to be the “best you can be, whee!” is to:

Question all the things


In journalism, even the most traditional of our institutions are all about “experimentation” these days as they seek to evolve and remain relevant and viable businesses:  the New York Times Innovation Report mentions this several times; Washington Post Executive Editor Marty Baron told all of us at ISOJ in Austin that it’s a major goal of his newsroom. Most experiments begin, fundamentally, with a question, and an atmosphere that welcomes it.

A willingness let go of:  “This is the way we’ve been doing things for 20 years — who are you to second-guess us?”

One might think the spirit of inquiry is endemic to the academic mission, but one would be wrong. Even as our sector, much like the media, stands ripe for disruption, I’ve never worked in another field in which one is more likely to see resistance to even the slightest threat to the status quo. An article in the New York Times today on G.M.’s years-long failure to fix a deadly safety issue in its cars described the “G.M. nod” – aka “the nod as an empty gesture.” While thankfully most of the issues I deal with don’t have life or death consequences, I’m often amazed by how questions are met with just that kind of passive resistance.

I use theories of organizational culture in my research, and I’m well aware of how defensive mechanisms get triggered and how and why resistance to change occurs. But I wonder if something as simple as encouraging people to always question how they could do things better  and rewarding them for doing so would be a great first step toward building an experimental culture.

There’s always a better way to tell that story. There’s always a more efficient process. There’s always a new reporting technique. There’s always a better way to teach a course. There are always questions. Maybe it’s a wholesale overhaul, maybe it’s a tweak, but there’s always something that could be improved or better understood.

In many ways, I think being able to question is also what allows us to be satisfied and feel our work has meaning. Instead of simply pointing out what we are doing wrong, bosses that encourage questioning such as “How could we do this better?”  are not only more supportive but produce the kind of atmosphere in which everyone is working collectively to come up with creative solutions to problems rather than just slinging the blame around. I find questioning invigorating and intellectually satisfying, personally, whereas when somebody just tells me something I do isn’t good enough, I get defensive and angry.

Entrepreneurs know this – this is why many tech startups are constantly engaging in A/B testing and other ways of answering their questions. For example, in his book,  The Lean Startup, Eric Ries talks about using the “Five Whys” to evolve processes. When confronted with a problem, he writes, ask “why” five times, and you will often uncover the root of the problem.

The Harvard Business Review piece points out it’s also no good to say to people who have asked a good question and uncovered a problem: Now it’s your job to fix it – without any new resources and in addition to your regular job. That will shut everybody down and create frustration real quick. People need time and space to question effectively.

George Carlin knew about questioning, too:






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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.


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Newsroom Innovation Leaders: The Sports Department


Groves presenting research at AEJMC in Denver



This post is co-authored with Dr. Jonathan Groves, an assistant professor of journalism at Drury University. Both of us have spent several months in newspaper newsrooms, interviewing journalists and observing changes in processes and routines.

Nothing threatens innovation like tradition.

And no one bucks tradition like the sports department.

In the newspapers we’ve studied, the sports department is typically the home of the Web innovators, the place where the podcasts are being created and the Tweets are flowing furiously.

This pocket of innovation makes sense. Business researchers have regularly found that innovation and risk-taking occurs in the separate, autonomous divisions — think GM’s Saturn division in its early years — and at most news organizations, the sports departments are separate beasts, often working different schedules and feeling relatively less shackled by tradition.

A sports staffer at the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel told Brown: “Sports is in the lead in terms of online…Every night in sports is election night. We are used to that kind of workload. We are used to doing it late and doing it quick,” he said, noting that the immediacy and increased metabolism required to file not only stories but also blog posts, live game updates and Tweets comes a little more naturally to his department than the rest of the newsroom.

At the Journal Sentinel, Packer Insider, which charges avid fans a subscription fee for access to additional in-depth content not available on the main site, is one of the few examples around of a successful paid-content site, and according to the staffer, its successful launch in 2001 really helped “plant the bug” that sports could lead the way online.

At one newspaper Groves studied, the sports department had been more innovative than the rest of the newsroom about reaching out to the Web audience in providing “good enough” content. Inspired by a writing seminar, reporters soon began producing podcasts using a $40 digital recorder purchased by the sports editor. Despite the low fidelity, the first episode had about 1,000 listens, and it soon became one of the most popular items on the website.

It’s the type of “good enough” content desired by the audience. Instead of obsessing about the fidelity of the audio, the reporters focused on the content and delivered their expertise in the format desired by the audience.

A glance at the prolific comments on any sports story or the response beat reporters like the Journal Sentinel’s Greg Bedard get on Twitter shows that the sports department has also taken a strong lead in developing the vaunted community engagement news organizations desire online to increase credibility and keep readers coming back. Certainly sports staffers also have an advantage: By definition, their readers are committed fans. But their willingness to, in many cases, engage those fans in ways other beat reporters have not has really helped develop these online communities.

The challenge is spreading that learning to other parts of the organization. The sports departments developed new routines and figured out how to develop Web content in addition to stories for the print edition. But the separation that made the innovation possible also prevented that learning from spreading to the rest of the organization.

This post naturally only represents a small slice of our research, but we’d be happy to discuss further in the comments.


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