Sometimes you have to be a little hardline to get people to move with times and sometimes they have to take a deep breathe and dive in – no matter how much they wish they didn’t have to.
That was the message from Fleur Besters at Desk-Net Editorial Days 2015. Fleur, an entrepreneurial journalist who until recently worked for Eindhovens Dagblad was talking about projects working with colleagues “many of whom missed the digital revolution in 2000. For too many years we did our work sitting on top of an ivory tower, looking down to the world beneath us.
We are highly educated, smart people, and of course we know how things works in the world around us, even if it is not our disciplinary. We now what our readers because, without asking them. We decide what is important and what not. We do not need insights from our marketing colleagues, Because we are independent.”
But that’s not enough, and Fleur feels strongly that “we have to be part of the society we write about.” Which means new technologies, new platforms, and accepting new ways of working.
“Before we switched to Desk-Net everybody had their own Google document or bit of paper and we had to say ‘throw all of that away’.” Then she implemented the rule that any story that wasn’t on Desk-Net simply wasn’t going to be in the paper the next day. “Then they learnt fast” she observes.
This may sound a bit tough (“I’m a nice person really,” notes Fleur – and she is) but she is an absolute believer that journalists today need more organisation to deal with the multiple demands of multiple media (“journalists hardly ever look further than the next day”). Furthermore she is under no illusion about the way to implement change; “innovation isn’t implemented by central office it is done on the shop floor and if you don’t make it concrete it has no life.”
Her rule on using new tools is firm – “ never give them an excuse to avoid using tools” – but not uncaring. Knowing that a lot of people struggle to adapt she recommends a lot of personal intervention;
“What I always did was really help people with developing their skills. Because if they know how to do it, there is no excuse left to not do it! I literally sat next to them if needed, and they could call me anytime.
With people who didn’t dare to tweet, I advised them to send a tweet in the morning of the first week about what they planned to do. After a week they must send a tweet in the afternoon about how it worked out that day.
Working that way makes it fun for both. The innovator and the newbie both get an instant result. You don’t need fancy stuff, break out sessions or pizza brainstorms for your newsroom. Just ask them what they need to do their work.”
She also advises mixing and matching workers with different skills. “Make couples. Younger and older colleague, and find something they can teach each other. Show that older colleagues know a lot about journalism, and sometimes even more about digital. They already have a base they can build new expertise on. Young colleagues have to learn both!”
And finally, and most simply of all she tell us to “be brave…. and keep to your plan.”
We recently learnt that the New York Times had blocked its home page to its own staff to force them to reach for their smartphones and think mobile first. Good for the NYT, but there is no one way to manage editorial change, and Monika Jäger Local News Editor of the Mindener Tageblatt struck a chord with a lot of editors at the Desk-Net Editorial days when she shared her own experience of trying to bring in change. Minden is not New York, and the Mindener Tageblatt is not the NYT so Jager found that ushering change had a lot more to do with gentle coercion than lightning strikes.
‘Alive and Kicking’ was the title she chose for her speech; a title that reflected both the energy of the redesign, and a certain sense of relief at coming out the other side in one piece.
“What have we done in two and a half years?” She asked, “Everything, that’s what. We took every brick out of the building and turned it around”
And in that renovation what was the key area of change? “The integration of online and print – we have totally reinvented ourselves. I was talking to a colleague who said ‘how are we going to do this; I am honestly scared to death – as far as I’m concerned I am from a completely different profession, and a different job.’ Thing was he was right…. and I relate to that.”
Perhaps because Monica too comes from that pre-digital age, she is more understanding about the fears inspired by newsroom reinvention. “I am fifty-plus and I can remember using raw film and developing pictures. The changes in this business have been more far-reaching than any other industry. We are working with people who used a typewriter in the past and many of those working with us had severe reservations; you mustn’t forget these are people at a stage where normally they would be looking to get more settled and the changes mean more work, more effort, and the justified fears that go with that.”
A lot of the process for Monica was finding out where people really were in terms of personal digital development. “Many of our print colleagues didn’t have a PC at home. They don’t have smartphones, and only after a training course do they have Facebook. They still don’t have Twitter and when I proposed the idea of standby duties the news staff had to come and explain they couldn’t do late shifts because they didn’t have the necessary web facilities at home.”
What Monica took the trouble to find was a story you hear in a lot of regional papers. It’s easy to read about the New York Times, the Guardian, and the other early adopters and think your team is surely at a similar level but a closer look shows that much of the industry, notably the smaller newsrooms, is actually running at a very different pace. So rather than lay down the digital law with diktats, Monica took a gentler approach.
“In one case we found that tools such as an iPad and a laptop were only owned by a single department manager. So I took them and put them in a shared cabinet and got everyone to start exploring the possibilities of the iPad.”
Monica brought in training, and a culture of Facebook including a group page where staff could complain or make suggestions, plus an external consultant which worked, she says, because “they understood that it is mainly about people, not about structures.”
Monica learnt a lot about the pains of rebirth but her biggest single tip to bringing people on board was the simple advice to “never forget how big a challenge it is for someone who doesn’t like technology. It is a steep mountain to climb.”
When it comes to editorial management we read about digital first, mobile first, or even mobile-only but most of us are looking out at newsrooms which still have the traditions of print publishing running through their workflow like ancestral DNA.
Staff have to be weaned away from work practices and workflows that are so rooted in daily deadlines and overnight printing that they still smell of hot metal and wet ink.
So what do you do? Your thought leaders research the state of the art tools that others around the world are using to revolutionise their production. You read the research and the articles about great leaps ahead. And then the time comes to bring the staff onboard with the new approach and you find yourself suddenly bogged down in a long grinding campaign of attrition fought with a mixture of cajolery, bribery, and the occasional old-fashioned threat.
So what do other newsrooms do? The famous ones that have they eyes of the world on them? We got a taste recently when the New York Times abruptly decided to remove the front page from its morning meetings. The thinking was that by focussing on the front page the mindset was staying resolutely stuck in a paper-first mode. Pushing that off the top slot and into a side meeting made it clear this was not now the way of the Gray Lady.
There were a few raised eyebrows about this, but for many it was seen as largely symbolic. Now we hear that the latest move has been to block access to the homepage for NYT employees.
Yes, you read that right. New York Times workers, including all the journalists, cannot see the homepage of their news site when they log on. Which means they can no longer use their desktops to catch up on news, or to see what the site is currently running as its leads.
So why would a world-leading newsroom seemingly blindfold its own staff? Simple; to force them to get out their smartphones and see the home page or catch up on news on the small screen. Because that is what the readers are increasingly doing and the NYT is intent on changing the venerable culture of its organisation. As such it is prepared to force staff to see ‘mobile first’ as more than a buzzword – it is how much of the world works, and so it is how they expect their newsroom to work.
Would you dare do the same? We’ll be looking at some more examples of how newsrooms have begged, beguiled, or bullied their staff into change. Feel free to send us your own observations and experiences.
With the new version of Desk-Net (version #73) we have released an unobtrusive, yet very useful feature that many of our users have been waiting for: Repeating Events
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One of the most interesting reads from the whole of last year (for those who had the patience to plough through all 96 pages of it) was the New York Times Innovation Report.
A candid assessment of the newspaper’s progress (and stumbles) on the path to digital transformation it detailed the steps taken, and the steps still needed for editorial management and cross-media planning in the face of growing rivalry from the likes of Vox and Buzzfeed, as well as obvious rivals such as the Huffington Post and the Guardian.
It contained a lot of material for thought and became compulsory reading because;
a) it wasn’t published deliberately, it was leaked – and everyone loves a leaked document
b) It was the NYT – the publisher which seems to lead the pack. Not a week goes by without news along the lines of – NYT releases app for Apple Watch, NYT to publish on Facebook Instant Articles, NYT invents time travel (any day now), etc. If the Gray Lady admits to falling behind the pace where does that leave the rest of us?
This year at the World News Congress Arthur Sulzberger, publisher of the Times, stood up and told the attendees that “We’ve made experimentation the rule, not the exception, recognising that if you don’t fail occasionally you are simply not trying hard enough.”
He went on to back that up with the figures that digital traffic is up 28 per cent from April last year while mobile traffic has increased by more than 50 per cent over the same period.
The Times says the recommendations of the report have been implemented. I suspect that someone felt they had to say that after the publicity over the leaked internal document and the suggestion of weakness. Regardless of whether they have made all the running repairs it remains impressive that they actually had a document detailing their weaknesses in the first place. Have you done that lately? Not many of us take the time to map where we could be doing better. The Times didn’t deliberately own up to its weaknesses, and it didn’t mean to detail them all for everyone else to pick over. It did have the strength to recognise them internally however, and that has to be the first step forwards.
Most of the people I work with would describe themselves variously as experts in communication, research, and knowledge sharing. Information is what we do. Yet pretty much all of my colleagues would agree that their companies – newspapers and publishers all – have the internal memory of a teenage goldfish. We should be experts in editorial management yet publishers are notoriously poor at internal communication, and even worse at keeping any kind of record of who specialises in what. Most institutions only find out who has a particular branch of knowledge when they leave and take it with them.
Of course if you then factor in journalists who jealously guard their contacts it becomes clear that publishing, with its mix of staffers and freelancers, specialists and generalists, is a complex web of knowledge for which there is usually no structure or record at all. There are more reliable maps for finding Blackbeard’s lost treasure than there are schematics about who knows what in a newspaper.
Johannna van Eeden writes a nicely considered advice piece here at INMA on ways to improve institutional memory but she is notably diplomatic about just how much journalists contribute to the mess.
Many years ago, when dinosaurs ruled the earth, software came in boxes, and Lotus was trying to break away from spreadsheets and become a knowledge management company I attended a briefing about a knowledge mapping tool that would automatically trawl a company’s communications and identify the specialists in key areas. It seemed like black magic at the time, and the developers called it Raven, after a Norse myth featuring the tireless winged seekers.
It was a great idea but one of its key features – the ability to identify those with input on any given area from their pattern of communication – simply scared the hell out of journalists. It was, we all declared ‘a bit Big Brother’.
Well that was in 2000. Now, thanks to Facebook, Google, et al we’re used to the idea that our software checks up on everything we do, short of whether we washed behind our ears. Likewise search engines and the likes of LinkedIn mean that the journalist’s precious little contacts book isn’t quite as jealously hoarded as it once was.
So I doubt the same reservations exist now. So why do so few publishers have any way of mapping who to turn to in order to get things done?