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Managing change in the newsroom - and in the marketing department

To my mind, News is a conversation, for the most part written by Steve Smith, the editor of Spokesman Review, is one of the most interesting newspaper blogs around because it gives you a marvellous insight into how a regional newspaper is grappling with change: trying to involve its readers more, be of better service to them and working to become more transparent.

I started following this blog after I met Steve at a seminar he gave in Oslo last autumn (I covered his talk for Journalisten, in Norwegian). Among the things he mentioned back then was how he'd sent his local editor, Carla Savalli, who at that stage was one of his most change-resistant staff members, on a five week trip across the US to investigate the future of journalism.

"She is now the most radical agent for change in the newsroom," said Smith, so it was very interesting to read Carla's account of a conference she had attended on "Managing Change" recently.

Here's an excerpt, check out the full post for the bit about the marketing department (the main point being that newspapers were concerned their commercial arms hadn't figured out how to promote "the new journalism"):

1. How can you change workflow and content unless you go back to the readers? Too many newsrooms still insist they know what readers want, which is why they are endlessly experimenting and not 'landing on' a formula.

2. Strategy has to drive structure, not the other way around.

3. Journalists are appallingly dysfunctional.

4. Citizen journalism is less gimmick than it is changing the frame of reference. It's asking a different set of questions, assuming a different set of assumptions. It's not going to save us. It WILL make us more relevant. The sooner newsrooms get over themselves and bring these readers into our tents, the better off we'll be.

The only other item that sticks with me came from a business consultant (figures). He goes into workplaces of all kinds to teach adaptive change. You can institute top-down change, he says. And he supposes sometimes that is necessary when times are urgent and there's no room for democracy. But collaborative change has the potential for the greatest lasting impact. The first time an organizations goes through it is the hardest. Lay the foundation and each successive change is easier and eventually expected.

But this is what struck me: For rank and file, how you institute change is ultimately all about "justice." Who you talk to, who you include in task forces, who gets the opportunities, who gets an assignment change, is about power for the powerless. Managers have to be aware of that, and if it matters to them, try to talk to a cross-section of people - both horizontally and vertically - before imploding a structure.

Other than that, we're doomed. Hierarchies die hard in newsrooms. The best we can hope for is that the business side will catch the same entrepreneurial spirit of newsrooms and that we innovate something before the next Craigslist puts us out of business.


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