The year local publishers get smart(er) about change

“We know that change is continuous, and yet we’ve gotten comfortable in thinking about change initiatives as having a beginning and end. Even the word we often use — transformation — suggests a stable end state, a time when the change is done and we can all just get back to work.”

If back in 2013, you’d written off metro newspapers as can’t-get-it/won’t-get-it dinosaurs on a slow descent into irrelevance, it might have been hard to argue otherwise. Too many treated audiences with indifference if not outright disdain. Witness the painful ad experiences they threw at people or the smug, we-know-best attitude in Page 1 meetings that, tellingly, mostly revolved around print.

What a difference a few years make! The clarity of purpose that comes with asking people to pay for our digital products — and then needing to actually build products worth paying for — has begun to permeate even the most change-averse organizations. Yes, there’s still a lot of ground to make up, but finally, the journalistic mission and the business-model imperative are roughly aligned, with paying customers as our north star.

This year, some early paywall adopters among metro dailies began to see a path to a credible post-print business model. The Boston Globe recently reported that it had 90,000 digital-only subscribers with a goal of 100,000 by the end of 2017, while the Star Tribune in Minneapolis said it was closing in on 50,000.

At the same time, change initiatives in newsrooms have multiplied, sometimes aided by outside groups such as the Knight Foundation and the Lenfest Institute (which owns the Philadelphia newspapers and Philly.com, where I work) or spurred by dire internal reports laying out in stark terms the current reality and the futility of continuing on the present trajectory. My newsroom colleagues here in Philadelphia, for example, produced a “call to arms” report last year, which served as an effective catalyst for many of the change efforts we’ve undertaken over the last 18 months or so and continue to press forward on.

The old model

As important as the rising number of change efforts, though, will be shifts in how news organizations conduct those efforts. While one-time introspection is useful in pointing out gaps and jolting an organization into action, it is insufficient to bring about the sustained change we need. The New York Times, whose seminal innovation report in 2014 was widely studied and copied, acknowledged the unfinished nature of its own efforts by producing a version 2 of sorts this year.

We know that change is continuous, and yet we’ve gotten comfortable in thinking about change initiatives as having a beginning and end. Even the word we often use — transformation — suggests a stable end state, a time when the change is done and we can all just get back to work. That’s an illusion. After well over a decade of “transforming” journalism for the digital age, any change effort today that doesn’t acknowledge the open-ended reality of the challenges we face is asking for derision from transformation-weary staffs.

In Philadelphia, we’ve learned this lesson through our participation over the past two years in the Knight-Lenfest Newsroom Initiative, more popularly known as Table Stakes. Designed and led by Doug Smith, founding executive director of the Sulzberger Leadership Program, Table Stakes uses a primary focus on real performance goals and results not only to drive needed change in local news organizations but also to build the capacity for innovation and change in the years ahead.

The new model

Among other things, the program favors an iterative approach that values learning and reacting over long-term planning and phasing. This may seem obvious to anybody familiar with agile development methodology, but as a framework for organizational change, it’s surprising how novel a concept this model is in our industry.

Here are a few of the things this approach has helped us effect in Philadelphia:

  • A mandate at the individual and team level to regularly review priorities and use audience insights to inform them.
  • The beginnings of a culture of continuous learning and experimentation in pursuit of clear performance results.
  • The practice of reviewing the success or failure of every experiment and documenting lessons learned.
  • An end to the notion of indefinite ownership of rigid beats and roles.
  • The discipline to stop doing things that don’t produce sufficient journalistic or business value. (We’re still working on this one, but we learned from our initiative colleagues at The Seattle Times the cathartic value of holding a “celebration of life” ceremony for products that fail.)

In 2016, four major metro publishers participated in the first Table Stakes cohort. This year, 32 news organizations are participating across three different Table Stakes programs, and Doug, along with Quentin Hope and Tim Griggs, has published “Table Stakes: A Manual For Getting Into The Game Of News,” a comprehensive, step-by-step guide publishers can use to guide change. The American Press Institute has also gathered many of the lessons of Table Stakes into its Better News resource currently in beta.

My prediction: 2018 will see more legacy news organizations picking up and sticking with performance-focused iterative models for change, and local journalism will be stronger for it.

Eric Ulken is managing editor for digital operations at the Philadelphia Media Network, publisher of The Inquirer, Daily News and Philly.com.

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