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March 29, 2007

News, Improved: Learning to Change. From a New Book by Michele McLellan and Tim Porter

Tim Porter (of First Draft) and Michele McLellan (ex-Oregonian) have been on a tour of American newsrooms, daily newspaper division. Now they are back with "change or die" findings. It's the people who have to change, they say in an excerpt from their new book. And guess what? It's happening.

Special to PressThink

News, Improved: Learning to Change

by Michele McLellan and Tim Porter

Back in the day—that day when the newspaper was as much as part of daily American life as the cell phone now is—back in that good ol’ day, newsrooms were run and staffed mostly by autocratic, tough-talking men, news was what those men said it was, by God, and no one on the editorial side (and not too many on the business side, either) worried about making money because having a newspaper was pretty much a license to print it.

That day, as we know, has gone the way of the green eye shade, but vestiges of its temperament linger in our newsrooms, hampering their ability to envision and implement the one thing they need for survival: strategic change.

The good news, though, is that many newsrooms have moved on. They’ve shuttered the trophy cases of the past and pointed their focus forward, to a future that while still unknown will surely be shaped only by those who get their hands dirty with its making.

During our work with Tomorrow’s Workforce we saw all points in the spectrum.

We saw many journalists clinging to the way things were. They rationalized their resistance to change by invoking the rules of journalistic tradition, complaining about lack of resources or accusing others, such as bloggers or even readers, as the reason for newspapers’ decline in relevancy.

We also saw many journalists embracing change - editors trying to craft new forms of journalism atop its core principles, reporters carrying cameras as well as notebooks, executives launching targeted news products to capture audience.

Mostly, though, we saw many journalists worried about the future of news. They knew change was necessary and they knew they needed new skills for a new age of journalism - both for themselves and for their news organizations - but they weren’t sure how to make that change happen or how to acquire those skills.

That’s the group we wrote News, Improved for. We wanted to provide journalists who intend to succeed at transformational change with a set of tools that can help them adopt techniques and ideas more apt for today’s digital world.

In the newsrooms we worked with - and in others we visited - we saw three key areas of behavioral change: Leadership, newsroom culture and strategic training, by which we mean training so that your people can do something critical to survival that they could not do very easily or very well before.

Here are some examples of what we mean, with excerpts from News, Improved.

Leadership: Moving Beyond Management

The reinvention of newspapers requires the reinvention of newsroom leadership.

Good editors are discovering that the traditional, top-down “I-paid-my-dues-and now-it’s-your-turn” style fails to foster the nimble thinking, collaboration and risk-taking newspapers today need. Organizational culture expert Toni Antonellis says newspapers are finally learning the lessons of other companies that operate in highly competitive environments:

If you’re … getting your butt kicked on a regular basis and competition is prolific, then you tend to be more mindful about what motivates people and what creates an environment of risk-taking and innovation and adaptability. Necessity is the mother of invention. I think that’s true in a business context as much as it is in a personal context. We all grow when we’re challenged. I’m not sure that up until the last five years we’ve been challenging our (newspaper) leaders to say, ‘How do we need to behave differently to change the dynamics of the organization?’

“I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve participated in at the leadership level where they’ve said, ‘What are we going to do to change the organization?’ versus saying ‘What are we going to do to change our behavior that will then create some change?’”

Many newspapers editors found themselves in the ranks of management somewhat by chance. They were good at their previous job - reporting, say, or copy editing - and got tapped for a promotion. They adapted to the duties - and adopted the values - of their new jobs, becoming decisive, directive and demanding, good for driving a fast-paced environment like a newsroom, but less useful in leading organizational change. That requires communication, collaboration and coaching.

We spoke with many editors who described the difference. Here’s Mike Jenner, executive editor of the Bakersfield Californian:

My job has changed significantly in the last seven years. It’s changed remarkably. The job I stepped into is a completely different job than the job I’m doing now. I used to do some editing, and now I do very little… . Much of what I do now is much less focused on the day-to-day and the news itself and the newsroom itself, and a lot of it is focused outside in dealing with the public or other parts of the company, more strategic things than operational things-which I think is absolutely the way it should be. I’ve had to learn as I go.

And John Smalley, editor of the La Crosse (Wis.) Tribune:

I had to be willing to look really honestly at my role in either helping or hindering the cause of training and the accomplishment of goals in the newsroom. It wasn’t always the most fun to dig into my own shortcomings, but it was very useful in the long run.

And Melanie Sill, executive editor of The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., describing how she reacted to a 360 review of her performance:

“It required me and the other newsroom leaders to consider our own needs to improve and grow, as well as training needs of the rest of the staff. I wish I’d done it 10 years ago.”

These editors, and many others, discovered that leading a newsroom today requires new skills:

Julia Wallace, editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, one of the most progressive training newsrooms in the country, told a panel the American Society of Newspaper Editors convention in Washington on Tuesday that the burden for change rests heavily on the shoulder of top editors. “It’s our problem,” she said, “not our staffs’ problem.”

Exactly right.

Culture: No More Whining

Most newspapers are hidebound by defensive, hunkered-down cultures that reward journalists for thinking small, value editors who can make the trains run on time (even if the track doesn’t lead anywhere) and dismiss the type of creative thinking needed in an age of dynamic media.

As much as newspapers need to reinvent their leadership, they also need to change how they work as organizations. Culture change is hard, but possible. We saw it happen at many newspapers we worked with and studied.

We described culture like this:

Culture is an amorphous term, a touchy-feely sounding concept that seems alien to the hard-charging self-image of the newsroom. But every organization has a culture, and it controls how individuals think they are expected to behave and how they perform. Even cultures based on misperception and miscommunication remain powerful, persistent collections of common beliefs that dictate behavior within the organization.

And like this:

Culture is the air an organization breathes. It is the environment, unseen but omnipresent, in which everyone works. It helps shape attitudes, morale, values, product and even vocabulary.

Ever see a reporter only a couple of years out of journalism school speak with the same jaded weariness and pessimism as the grizzled, 30-year, seen-it-all cityside reporter? When you do, you know the newcomer has been drinking a potent newsroom Kool-Aid, a daily high-octane shot of defensive culture.

Culture is complex. But once you recognize the signs the basic concept can become pretty simple. Contrast the traditional defensive newsroom culture with the newer one that is taking hold in newsrooms with bold leaders who train their staffs heavily and address longstanding problems in the process.

In the old, defensive newsroom culture, a typical staffer…

While in the new, more constructive newsroom culture, that person is more likely to…

Our list sounds abstract. But signs of a defensive culture abound in the daily news meeting, a cultural stage where a newsroom displays values and shows attitude. After sitting in on (and too often suffering through) an uncounted number of news meetings, we summarized the ritual this way:

A dozen or more editors sit around a conference room table. Section covers from that morning’s newspaper are tacked on the wall. The most senior editor opens the meeting with a monolog, lauding a news break in a Page One story, asking why the reporter failed to quote one official in the same story and mentioning that the name of a local athlete was misspelled in the high school sports agate. The city editor adds a few comments about accuracy, deflecting the comment about the missing quote in a story she edited.

By the time the discussion moves to the next day’s newspaper, a lot of the early morning energy that came in the door has fled the room. Shields up and heads down, each department representative reads top items from a budget printout, answering the boss as best as possible while fending off questions from peers with a flip answer or a promise to find the answer later.

Even when an editor has a blockbuster in sight, she is reluctant to be pinned down.

Editors often have had no conversation or only a passing one with their reporters before the meeting, so they don’t really know what they can promise. (Plus the reporters don’t want to be pinned down either.) At the same time, word editors labor to deflect questions and suggestions from photography and graphics editors, preferring to keep them out of the loop until they can pry more information out of reporters.

One editor whose team will produce a major story that day says that she will have to pull one or two others off other urgent projects to help. A colleague from another department has at least one reporter at loose ends that day; it does not occur to him to offer help.

With only a vague idea of what the next day’s front page will look like, participants escape the conference room. Some feel relieved, others uneasy about what they will be expected to deliver by the end of the day.

What are the lessons people learn from such a meeting, day after day?

No matter how often newsroom leaders say they want more risk-taking, more collaboration and more personal initiative, the staff absorbs the more concrete messages of such news meetings and acts accordingly, further hardening the newsroom’s defensive shell.

How can you move a newsroom from a defensive to adaptive culture? We found newsrooms doing three basic things that work: Offering more training. (What we call strategic training, a key byproduct of which is better communication.) Employing groups like staff committees to identify problems and recommend solutions. Allowing more decision-making and trial-and-error at the staff level.

Bob Zaltsberg, of the Herald-Times in Bloomington, Ind., worked with The Learning Newsroom project. His staff launched a new blog without telling him beforehand. Says Zaltsberg:

Two years ago that would have made me feel really uncomfortable. Now we’ve done enough talking about what we want and the readership we’re going after, I trust that they’ll do a good job. If they don’t, we’ll worry about it later.

When top editors loosen their hand on the reins a bit their staffs respond with enthusiasm and initiative. Mike Jenner of Bakersfield explains the culture change he saw in his newsroom in 18 months:

One of the hardest things we’ve had to do-and it’s not just me, but my department heads and all the managers here-is letting go. We’re such control freaks. Getting things right is critical to our credibility, but the idea that I’ve got to sign off on it, or I’ve got to be the last guy to touch it, that tends to tell people below us that “I don’t need to worry about this so much.” Learning to tell people “this is yours, you’re in charge, I’m not going to follow up,” that’s really vital to reaching a level where people feel they are empowered to innovate and to take risks. Like many editors, Jenner says, “we’ve got many, many smart people in this newsroom.” But he adds that they don’t need him constantly looking over their shoulder. “Some of the old habits I learned from editors I worked for over the years, I have to let go of those because I think they’re detrimental.”

Zaltsberg emphasizes how critical communication is to good culture:

There’s just more information that’s shared with everybody. Today, we’re having a brown bag meeting about the newsroom budget. We’ll talk about how it’s put together, what our revenue goals are-and we’re not meeting them, which is why we’re not filling a position.

Why does culture matter anyhow? Because defensive cultures inhibit innovation and professional growth - two things the news industry badly needs right now. Constructive cultures, by contrast, foster learning, creativity, retention of the best and brightest staff and have been linked in other industries with improved business results.

Strategic Training: The Business Imperative of Continuous Improvement

Here’s a typical old newsroom answer to questions about training: Training? No time. Training budget? What budget? Even traditional news organizations that are ready to change are overlooking a key lever - smart, strategic training and staff development. Some in the industry, including leaders like Jay R. Smith of Cox and McClatchy’s Gary Pruitt, understand this. As we wrote:

Change will demand new forms of leadership and new skills throughout the newspaper industry, says Pruitt, and that increases the need to spend more on training. Some industry executives are prepared to buy into change, but others are not.

“The tumult in the industry has forced everyone to recognize that we need to change to be successful and that there is a need for leaders and employees who are trained to handle that,” says Pruitt. “On the other hand, there’s a sort of bunker mentality that may actually rein in any training spending because some people think they have to weather this storm.”

The “bunker mentality” or old-think is evident in news industry training figures. Nationally, corporate spending on training has increased since the last recession. On average, companies spend an estimated 2.3 percent of payroll on it, more than five times as much as the newspaper industry, according to an analysis by the Inland Press Association.

Rather than increasing, training budgets have been flat in the news industry after dipping during the downturn. Many organizations reduced training or stopped entirely. A new survey from the Knight Foundation shows only a third of news organizations have increased their training budgets in the past five years.

The rest appear to be using the old newsroom model, in which much training for journalists is a random, opportunistic act of kindness that is heavily underwritten by charities, like our funder, the Knight Foundation.

In the old newsroom model, need for training is overwhelming: nine in 10 journalists want more, according to new research, and nine in 10 newsroom executives—often the most experienced and knowledgeable journalists in the room—say they need more training as well.

In search of a new newsroom training model, we looked to other professions and industries to learn more about why organizations train more heavily, especially in fiercely competitive times. Here’s what we learned:

… companies that invest in their people and create environments that support innovation are better able to adapt to changes in their markets. They also have highly satisfied employees and outperform their peers financially. These companies devote money and time to ongoing learning because they see it as critical to their core mission.

We relied heavily on research and thinking from the Readership Institute at Northwestern University, which has long linked training and other investments in employee development to business success: “People factors are twice as important as economic factors when explaining the overall differences between high performing companies and average performing companies,” says the Institute.

Indeed, a study by consultants Roberts, Nathanson & Wolfson of 5,200 organizations found that “world-class development practices targeted at ‘rank and file’ individuals throughout the organization make a significant impact on business results.” The study also found that strategic training enables organizations to become more constructive and more flexible. Training, the study said, is “learning for their future success.”

Training so that…

Mary Nesbitt, managing director of the Readership Institute, says strategic training “institutionalizes the notion that in order to be adaptable, in order to respond to the market, which is what all businesses do, we need to be a continuously learning organization.”

Training also tells people what the company thinks is important, Nesbitt says. It’s part of the “so that” equation: training so that you can do something. Even more important, a company that invests in its employees tells them they are important, and from that Nesbitt sees a bonus. Not only, she says, does training help “the company realize its stated goal, but it also leads to improvements and innovations that had never been thought of before” because people are “being encouraged and rewarded” for thinking.

Mike Jenner, executive editor at the innovative Bakersfield Californian, says training has been critical to transformation:

Today, the Californian operates with a fully converged newsroom, its 80 staffers moving fluidly and fluently between the print and online publishing worlds. Mike Jenner, its executive editor, says the growth of the newspaper’s digital abilities directly paralleled the rise in newsroom training.

The number of training hours at the paper rose more than 70 percent from 2004 to 2006, with a heavy emphasis on multimedia skills. “Not one hour was devoted to multimedia training in 2004,” says Jenner. In 2005, “that number was 76 hours; this year we’ve recorded 276 hours of training in Web video, audio and other convergence issues. This does not include one-on-one training in multimedia editing, which takes place nearly every day.”

Bakersfield isn’t alone. Other news organizations are using training to transform their newsrooms and their products, among them: The Atlanta-Journal Constitution, The Herald Times in Bloomington, Ind., the South Florida Sun-Sentinel and the Corpus-Christi Caller-Times have all used strategic training to achieve significant changes in the content of their news products, the culture of their newsrooms and, in Bloomington’s case, circulation of its newspaper - upward!

Is strategic training a panacea for all the woes of the newspaper industry? Of course not. Mostly like ad revenue and print readership will continue to erode. Most likely the continuing upsurge in online revenue and readership won’t be enough to replace print losses. Most likely there will be further staff reductions.

But we wrote News, Improved for the news organizations that intend to survive these changes and thrive in the post-digital future. What that future will be, we can’t say. We do know this, though: The future of news will belong to those who build it. And strategic training, supported by leadership and constructive culture, are the right tools to do the job.

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…

News, Improved is a new book from CQ Press by Michele McLellan and Tim Porter. It explains how news organizations can, by training their people the right way, improve the product, discover new leaders and make their journalists better. The book is based on the work of Tomorrow’s Workforce, a Knight Foundation project which helps newsrooms develop training plans for experienced journalists.

You can read excerpts online. You can also buy the book. Here’s their one-page survey about training at your news organization. They also have a tools section.

And don’t miss Doc Searls, How to Save Newspapers.

Posted by Jay Rosen at March 29, 2007 8:49 AM