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Jan. 10, 2022, 11:51 a.m.
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Need help navigating change in your newsroom? Khan Academy has some ideas.

A case study of how Khan Academy changed how they worked — and what newsrooms can learn from how they tested new ideas, tackled challenges, and found success.

Kim Perry and Eric Athas have worked in dozens of newsrooms leading change, including The New York Times, NPR, and public media member stations. For this piece, they looked outside of journalism to find out what news organizations can learn from other industries.

Newsrooms are facing the next great wave of change — they’re bringing people back to hybrid office set-ups, reimagining culture to prioritize diversity and inclusion, and facing continued digital disruption. But they’re not alone in grappling with a changing workplace. There’s a lot to be learned and borrowed from industries outside of journalism. Organizational transformations look very similar when you break it all down.

Khan Academy is one such example. The educational nonprofit started as an organization that catered to individual learners. Some teachers used it in their classrooms. But in the last few years, in addition to the free platform, it’s launched formal programs for partnering directly with school districts to put Khan Academy into classrooms. The goal was to disproportionately reach more students from low-income communities and students of color. Now, while continuing to offer free learning, Khan Academy is working with over 250 school districts across 45 states.

Before launching into this new direction, the organization piloted with multiple school districts across the country, learning how to best support schools, teachers, and administrators — and ultimately students in the classroom.

“District partnerships really changed the way every function works at Khan Academy,” said Marta Kosarchyn, Khan Academy’s chief technology officer and VP of engineering.

This is a case study of how Khan Academy changed how they worked on the inside to meet the needs of students in the classroom — and what newsrooms can learn from how they tested new ideas, tackled challenges, and found success.

Start with a high-touch pilot and learn as much as you can

Khan Academy’s partnerships with schools might seem like an expected evolution for the company. And in some ways, they were — teachers were using Khan Academy courses in their teaching, and sometimes in their classrooms. But Khan Academy wasn’t originally designed for classrooms. It was aimed at individuals who wanted to access free learning online. When the organization launched a pilot program in 2017 with the Long Beach School District, it had a lot to learn. They started with a “high-touch” model: fewer schools and more hands-on, dedicated attention.

“At that point we were saying yes to every request because we’ll learn from it,” said David Herron, who leads district partnerships at Khan Academy. “Open house for parents? Any way you can fly down? Yes, we’ll be there. That was our guiding principle for year one: Say yes, but make sure we document what we perceive is the lesson.”

School districts needed different things individual users accessing education content online: Administrators needed to track progress across the district, and teachers were gatekeepers to students’ learning and needed tools to support classroom teaching.

Product managers, designers, and engineers were able to visit classrooms and observe teachers and students using the product.

This is where newsrooms can borrow from Khan Academy. When you’re growing your newsroom’s ambitions, or responding to a workplace change, there will be lots you don’t know. Develop a plan to learn more. Make sure there are real on-the-ground experiments. Don’t worry too much about scaling at this stage — the goal is to learn. This will cost more at the beginning, but lessons and understandings established here will create the roadmap for what’s next. It will also help you see where high touch is needed and where tools or playbooks can do the heavy lifting. In past newsroom projects at the Times, like rolling out new story formats or launching training workshops, we’ve taken a three-pilot approach. By the third pilot, we’d modified it enough to start thinking about scale.

“We’ve learned to sometimes go slow to go fast,” said Kosarchyn. “Really pause and learn how to do something well, and really understand what its implications are, as opposed to just scale, scale, scale.”

Grapple with how to scale changes

As Khan Academy leaders wrapped up the initial experiments, they started to think about scaling to more school districts. They had learned a lot from the high-touch approach. But as their ambitions grew, they needed to evolve their approach, said Catherine Wang, the chief marketing officer at Khan Academy.

“How do you balance the right number of things that are automated with the custom things you might want to do with a district?” said Wang.

One lesson they took from the pilots was that the first steps of a partnership were crucial. That was when they would build a relationship with the district’s leaders, understand their needs, set expectations, and define success. To make sure this happened while expanding, the team created a playbook to standardize how they should work with each district — a “set of interactions we try to have with every partner,” Herron said.

At your news organization, once you’re ready to move beyond the high-touch piloting stage, take a moment to identify what worked well in the pilot and build from there. Maybe it’s spinning up standard templates for developing diverse source pools. Maybe it’s simplifying a workflow for a tool to make it easier for people to use on deadline. Or maybe, as it was at Khan Academy, it’s making a playbook that documents your process.

At the same time that you’re standardizing and templatizing, be prepared to refine all of it as you go. As you expand, there will be more to learn. When we’ve rolled out new tools for reporters and editors, we’ve made sure to document best practices and make them easily accessible. As tools and our guidance for them evolved, so did the documentation.

Frequently communicate the “why” internally

Khan Academy’s pivot to creating products for school districts meant the company had to change how it was working. Developers, designers and product managers needed to think about the needs of administrators, teachers, and students. And an enterprise approach meant that school districts would be paying for the specialized Khan Academy services while the online learning remained free.

With all of these changes happening, the Khan Academy leadership needed to communicate why they were moving in a new direction and how charging for Khan Academy was still aligned with their mission. They shared updates at all-hands meetings. But that didn’t mean everyone absorbed every detail or could connect it to projects they were involved in.

As changes happen across your own organization, you may fall into a similar situation. Maybe you have an exciting new initiative gaining traction — new workflows, communication norms, DEI goals, or digital formats — and need people to coalesce round it. You’ve made the announcement and sent out an all-staff email or two.

But, as Khan Academy learned, don’t assume that’s enough. In order for people to do their best work, they’ll need the context for why they’re doing it. Sal Khan, the company’s founder and CEO, suggested drilling the message down to the two or three simplest ideas, such as, why are we doing this and what does this say about everything else we’re doing?

“Communicate, communicate, communicate,” said Khan. “If you don’t communicate that over and over and over again, people will gravitate to another narrative.”

Beyond announcements and reminders at all-hands meetings, Wang said the team needed to articulate the “why” in day-to-day work, too. For example, at the beginning of a new project, they try to explain how it connects to the overall goals. That way everyone knows the purpose of the work and how it relates to the mission before launching into it.

In your newsroom, think about the ways people talk to each other and how you can make sure a change is frequently communicated. Is there a way to incorporate a new initiative into a daily news meeting? Or in planning meetings for big projects? Can editors reinforce it in conversations with reporters?

Know when it’s the right time to implement something new

When Khan Academy’s new programs were fully up and running, the organization started to connect with more districts. When they did, they were often met with excitement from leaders who were eager to quickly implement Khan Academy into their schools.

This was good news. But even though a district wanted to move forward, it didn’t always mean they should do it right away, said Wang. In some cases, the district was in the midst of other big changes, like rolling out new curriculum. Other times, the school year had already begun and asking teachers to do something different would have been disruptive.

Sometimes the best strategy was to just wait, even if someone was enthusiastic about starting soon.

“We want to make sure the district is in a place to engage with us,” said Wang. “That they’re seeing Khan Academy as a priority.”

The reality is that there’s never a perfect time for change. And if you work in a newsroom, there’s always some kind of deadline looming that requires attention from you and your colleagues. But you can try to plan for the best possible time, especially by avoiding the busiest moments. Steer clear of launching major initiatives during news events like elections and sports championships. If you’re working with a specific team, be mindful of news happening on their beats. If there’s already extra work being asked of a team, like training or year-end evaluations, consider holding off. The idea is to implement important changes when those changes can realistically be prioritized.

And if you need to wait, you may still be able to move forward in small ways. For Khan Academy, this meant proposing a small-scale pilot or starting with one grade. It’s a way to say “no” without pausing entirely.

Make internal changes to meet the moment

When Khan Academy’s formal move into classrooms began, the organization followed an “agile” product development process, meaning its teams released updates continuously throughout the year.

But Khan Academy’s leaders quickly learned that this approach didn’t match the way schools and teachers work. Schools revolve around the school calendar. If Khan Academy made major changes to the products during the school year, that would be disruptive to teachers, who wouldn’t have time to learn new systems.

Khan Academy decided to reimagine its process. Instead of releasing changes in the pure “agile” fashion, Khan Academy became more of a “seasonal” software business. Minor improvements would still be made throughout the school year. But any significant updates to products would need to be planned far in advance of back-to-school so that teachers could have time to learn how things worked before day one.

“All of a sudden, there was a time-bound aspect to the project, which is typically what you don’t have if you’re really just working in a purely agile mode,” said Kosarchyn. “That fundamentally changed the way that we needed to develop product.”

The product cycle was not the only big change that needed to happen.

“District officials said ‘Look, we like Khan Academy. But if you really want us to adopt it, we need support, training, integration.’ That was a scary proposition for us because it’s a whole other enterprise muscle,” said Khan. “It was definitely a bit of a leap.”

As you envision changes in your newsroom, consider what Khan Academy did. The organization learned from its initial experiments and then made considerable changes across the organization, revamping product development and investing in new hires. Kosarchyn called this the “final leap,” when the bottom-up learning (the tests, pilots and early iterations) joined a top-down strategic plan (the internal transformation and investments) to accelerate the change.

At a certain point along the way in your transformation, ask yourself: What’s your big leap? What major changes are needed to truly allow your efforts to endure? What internal workflows, traditions or ways “we’ve always done it” are standing in the way of a transformation?

Eric Athas is deputy editor of newsroom development and support at The New York Times. Kim Perry was director of international strategy and operations at the Times and is now manager of editorial operations at Netflix.

POSTED     Jan. 10, 2022, 11:51 a.m.
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