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March 12, 2012, 3:30 p.m.

A call for leadership: Newspaper execs deserve the blame for not changing the culture

Two journalism professors who’ve been studying culture change in newsrooms say newspaper leaders shouldn’t pass the buck to their staffs.

Last week’s report by the Project for Excellence in Journalism uncovered some much needed data for making sense of the search for a new newspaper business model. But it also demonstrates how some leaders misunderstand the role they play in leading their cultures into the new reality of digital media. Here’s an excerpt:

“Probably the most difficult thing is to change a corporate culture because you don’t really have the power to do it,” noted one executive. “You can change CEOs, executive VPs, digital VPs. You can wave this magic wand all you want. But at the end of the day, the troops in the field hunker down. From our company, and I would venture for other organizations as well, the most difficult thing to do is change it.”

Changing a culture is not a top-down or bottom-up proposition: It’s a dance between leaders and their organizations. Edgar Schein, one of the foremost researchers of organizational culture and leadership, notes that mature organizations often struggle to live up to the ideals and vision of their founders. Think HP post Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard, Walmart after Sam Walton.

It’s up to subsequent generations of leaders to forge a vision of the future within the context of the existing culture. Lofty speeches about the need to be “digital first” are not enough: Leaders must examine their own actions carefully to determine what they reward and what they punish, what the day-to-day routines of their organization reflect, and how best to create an environment in which open and constant communication is a priority. They must develop concrete reward systems that encourage risk and help employees make digital duties as much a part of their routines as the traditional.

In our research of news organizations, in study after study, we have repeatedly found this to be the case. One daily newspaper of less than 50,000 circulation we studied struggled with the change to a web-first organization because, though its leaders acknowledged the importance of the new medium, they did not reinforce that desire through their reward and accountability systems. Print revenue and circulation remained the benchmarks of success, not digital revenue or pageviews. As a result, newsroom staffers struggled to develop the kind of online content needed to expand the web audience.

Another paper we studied, a metropolitan daily with a circulation of over 100,000, faced similar challenges, as staffers still celebrated getting on 1A and daily rituals like news meetings continued to be print-focused — despite lots of talk about “digital first.”

In our in-depth interviews with staffers from all departments and levels of the newsroom hierarchy, we also found that many of the people executives dismissed as anti-change curmudgeons were often much more thoughtful and accepting of new digital strategies than expected when asked directly. While they had concerns about change, the root of their trouble was lacking clear, specific goals from on-high. Staffers hungered for specific direction on how to reprioritize their workloads, which had increased substantially as staffs shrunk and responsibilities increased.

Connecting with culture

Contrast those experiences with the Christian Science Monitor, another news organization we studied. It abandoned its daily print product in favor of a weekly magazine and freed much of the news organization to focus on the online delivery of news.

Editor John Yemma acknowledged the storied tradition of the Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper and its deep connection to the First Church of Christ, Scientist, while looking forward to the future. When the daily presses stopped on March 25, 2009, Yemma sent an email to staff:

To the staff:

No need to bury the lede. This is a momentous day. After we clear the final pages of the daily print Monitor today, we are in uncharted waters. Everything we do from this point is new to us and new to the world of journalism.

We’ll try things, think about whether they worked, adjust, and try again. We are all moving into this new Web-first + Weekly world together. Years from now our successors at the Monitor — and probably a lot of people at other news organizations — will be using techniques that we have pioneered. […]

Our goal, of course, is to carry out our 100-year-old mission, expand our reach, and secure ourselves financially. It won’t be easy. But we have all the tools and support necessary to succeed. We are part of something bigger than ourselves, part of an unfolding demonstration of eternal Love for mankind. […]

Mary Baker Eddy [the founder of the First Church of Christ, Scientist] launched us in 1908. Each year of the 100 years and four months since then our predecessors have charted their course by the values she instilled. It’s up to us now.

With the help of Jimmy Orr, the online editor at the time, as a primary change agent, newsroom leaders pushed writers and editors to develop new routines — such as more frequent updates, more topical stories, and headlines written with search-engine optimization in mind.

The changes didn’t come without conflict. Several staffers told us they felt the moves didn’t match traditional conceptions of what they thought of as “Monitor journalism.” But they acknowledged the improving pageviews made them feel as though their work was more relevant, more part of the international conversation. And some thought they could bring the Monitor ethic to bear on the web.

As one editor told us in January 2011:

I have to do it six, seven times [a day], you know — to think of stories that bring what I would consider our Monitor values to a topic that is not where we normally would have been, and we’re doing it because the public is interested in this topic. So, what do we have to say about it that’s interesting, or clearer, or sheds some new perspective on what’s going on here? And it’s hard. You know, we weren’t accustomed to having to be that instantaneously responsive, and we don’t have the luxury of saying, “Well, you know that story is really not for us.” And when we’ve got pageview targets that we’re all assessed to hit every month, you’ve gotta come up with something on what people want to read about.

Today, receives 30 million pageviews a month, and advertising prospects are improving. And newsroom leaders are a bit more optimistic than three years ago.

Overcoming success

At every organization, success embeds routines, and the more successful an organization, the more deeply embedded those routines become. In the newspaper business, news organizations grew comfortable with profit margins in excess of 20 percent. It became the expectation of publishers and shareholders.

As a result, executives have little patience for profit margins of 1 to 2 percent — something more palatable among new organizations trying to innovate. Think of the profit demands of Twitter, Facebook, and Amazon in their early days — users bought into the quality of the idea, not the income statement.

Much of the PEJ study cites executives talking about the need for revenue and growth. One solution some companies came up with: centralize the decision making. From the report:

“Years ago we were founded on the concept of decentralization,” said one executive. “Now I would not say that….We are probably far more centralized than we were in the past.”

Harvard Business School professor-turned-news executive Clark Gilbert refers to this reaction as “threat rigidity” — the idea that when the going gets tough, the tough become inflexible and controlling. It’s not a recipe for innovation success.

It’s much better to put innovative structures in place where people can be free to experiment and fail without the pressures of the high profit margins of old. As Clay Christensen and Michael Raynor noted in The Innovator’s Solution, as a new strategy is developing, executives should be impatient for profits — any profits — but patient for growth. Once a strategy proves itself, the deep investment and expectations of growth follow.

Moving into the future

Now is the time for rampant experimentation. Executives should loosen the reins and encourage risk-taking. Last month, at the annual conference of the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting in St. Louis, journalism’s innovators were on display.

AP has allowed an innovator like Jonathan Stray to develop document analysis software at the Overview project to bring information-visualization techniques to journalism. The Guardian of London analyzes vast amounts of data at its Datablog in a way few news organizations have. The Washington Post has put experienced Python coders into its newsroom ranks to scrape data from the web in unusual and innovative ways.

Will all of these efforts turn a profit? Probably not. But the creative ways these journalists are gathering information and telling stories in the digital environment far surpass the traditional inverted pyramids of their forebears. It is time to encourage this innovation, letting the creative risks mature before demanding massive growth and high profit margins.

POSTED     March 12, 2012, 3:30 p.m.
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