Today, Steve Buttry has written a long post on “Leading a Digital First newsroom.” His points are thoughtful, useful and, for many of us, very hard to actually translate into practice.
I read the post several times, the last with an eye toward these questions: Which of these points are we struggling with, and how can we improve? Here are my conclusions:
1. Focus your meetings on digital platforms.
No one likes to admit it, but print newsrooms are built around news meetings. In the “good old days,” we had a meeting at 9:30, another meeting at 10 or 10:30, a meeting at 2 or 2:30 and a meeting at 4 or 4:30. At each meeting, editors generally read from their budgets. The process was linear , information delivered department by department, with varying degrees of questions from others.
At the Star-Telegram, we’ve tried for at least two years to change the print meetings to focus on digital. So far, we have accomplished no lasting change. I can think of many reasons for this, but the biggest one is that too few people really know how to think digital first. As Steve says in his post, “The print default setting was too powerful.” The digital focus has to be “unrelenting.” But that’s exhausting, and it’s too easy to let go of the rock and let it roll back downhill.
Solution: Create a meeting agenda and stick to it, come hell or high water. Write it down and follow it, step by step, until something clicks. The meetings will be short and quiet for a while, until editors start to understand what is expected of them. Some of the items on the agenda should be:
— What digital opportunities did we miss in today’s paper? (Assign an editor each day to offer this critique.)
— What stories will be ready for digital distribution during the day, what time and who is responsible for publishing them?
— What was the most popular story on the website yesterday, and why?
— Which story is currently getting the most attention via comments? Is the reporter reading the comments and weighing in?
2. Priorities have to change. As you focus more on digital platforms, you have to focus less on print.
In my opinion, we have utterly failed at reshaping priorities, for a variety of reasons. “Print brings in all the revenue.” “First, we have to redesign the print product.” “We don’t have enough resources.” “We’ll learn to do that when we get more people/have more time/see more digital revenue/whatever.” And, perhaps most discouraging, the top people in legacy print newsrooms are more comfortable with print and, thus, print gets the attention, the feedback and the resources.
Solution: Create small digital first teams within the newsroom, free them from the print editors, and let them experiment with storytelling, technology and new habits. A massive, top-down reorg of the newsroom may be too hard to contemplate. But organic change can happen right now, with the right approach and commitment from a small group of people.
3. Consider whether each job fits your priorities and whether you have the right person in that job.
The takeaway from this point for me is, “Evaluate people on their digital skills and their willingness and ability to learn new skills.”
It’s not clear that everyone in our newsroom understands and agrees on which digital skills are important and to what degree. This is a very difficult personnel area, but one we have to solve to move forward.
Solution: Write new job descriptions that include the relevant digital skills. Get in a room and argue about them if necessary. Digital enthusiasts can’t just say, “This is important.” We have to show why a particular skill is important, how it will improve our journalism, and what can be done to implement it. That’s a tall order, but persuasion is usually the best way to obtain a commitment.
Persuasion, of course, takes time, and we really don’t have that much. But that’s a problem for another day.