Newsrooms are at the top of the food chain for creating and distributing superb content. And it’s caught on. Banks, health insurers, schools, local governments, and a host of other organisations are building their own newsrooms.

In an exclusive INMA Webinar on Wednesday, communications strategist and former editorial director Stuart Howie explained the impact of these “DIY newsrooms.” Drawing from his new book, The D.I.Y. Newsroom, Howie shared with INMA members why news outlets need to jump back into their communities to reinstate their place (or see their audiences further fragmented), as well as some tips for how organisations can do this.

In his career, Stuart has been editor of The Courier, deputy editor of The Canberra Times, editor of the Illawarra Mercury, general manager of editorial development for Fairfax Regional Media, and editorial director for Fairfax Regional Media, all in Australia. Today, he serves as creator and director of Flame Tree Media.

Stuart Howie explained how the DIY newsroom has made everyone a publisher.
Stuart Howie explained how the DIY newsroom has made everyone a publisher.

Smart way: Five steps to success

Howie opened the Webinar by sharing his five steps for success for a DIY newsroom:

  • Strategy
  • Media
  • Authenticity
  • Results
  • Team

“How do you know where you’re going if you don’t have a road map?” Howie asked. “Media in the context of a DIY newsroom is about understanding what works best for the client, and what’s going to work with their audience. Authenticity is the core of a newsroom; it’s what makes the connection with an audience.”

The 5 steps to success for a DIY newsroom provide a road map for publishers.
The 5 steps to success for a DIY newsroom provide a road map for publishers.

He also stressed focusing on metrics that matter, as well as your team: “It’s great to have all these metrics and dashboards, but if you do not have a great team in place and are able to mobilise that team, then these things won’t work. It’s really very central to your success.”

The sum of these parts is what defines a DIY newsroom from the more orthodox teams, Howie said. “It’s an approach, it’s a way of working that’s based on what we do within newsrooms.”

Why newsrooms?

Thinking organisations are moving away from piecemeal marketing to a more holistic, newsroom approach. Why newsrooms? Because they are the top of the content food chain.

Howie stressed that the DIY newsroom is not any one thing: It’s not journalism, content marketing, brand marketing, PR, or corporate communications. Rather, it has elements of each.

Seven habits of highly effective newsrooms

Howie went on to explain the seven aspects that effective DIY newsrooms have in common:

  • They are expert storytellers.
  • They are organised for chaos.
  • They have a sense of urgency.
  • They are idea factories.
  • They are team driven.
  • They have a mission to change the world.
  • They are fun.

When it comes to “changing the world,” Howie said that this doesn’t mean the mission has to be to effect huge global change, but can be small local newsrooms making an impact in their community.

The DIY newsroom in practice

Even organisations with modest communication resources can establish an effective DIY newsroom. Howie gave some examples of DIY newsrooms in Australia, but said they could apply globally.

The Australian Football League, among others, are examples of non-news organisations with a DIY newsroom.
The Australian Football League, among others, are examples of non-news organisations with a DIY newsroom.

The Australian Football League is “like a religion,” Howie said. AFL.com.au is the No. 1 Web site destination for sport, in season. ANZ bank has a discreet, small digital newsroom that just produces a newsletter. The largest insurance company in Australia, Bupa, also does DIY news successfully.

“These teams might have between half a dozen to a dozen people,” Howie said. “What we’re seeing is that they’re moving on to the patch of local media, which has suffered a lot of the fragmentation of what’s occurred in our industry. A lot of journalists have been made redundant. Less reporters means less reporting. Local councils are operating like what we think of as newsrooms, and they are filling a void.”

Winning the attention economy

The most important thing in winning the attention economy is a publisher’s ability to retain audience, he said. “Most importantly, I see organisations that have the ability to consistently and sustainably produce new content. They have to go through that ‘smart process’ to get to that, doing the right thing with the right tools.”

Winning the attention economy means retaining audience and controlling your own content.
Winning the attention economy means retaining audience and controlling your own content.

When organisations go DIY, they are also controlling their own message — an important point when it comes to social media platforms. “When you’re doing it yourself, with people who are totally invested in delivering that message, it’s much more authentic and powerful,” Howie said. “It also builds goodwill; you may not be bulletproof when crisis breaks out, but you’re better positioned to protect yourself from damage.”

What does this mean for publishers?

When it comes to competition for winning audience attention in an age of fragmentation and potential loss of audience, there are five responses that publishers can take to harness the power of this wave of change they are facing.

  • Reflect and acknowledge what’s going on around us: Understanding the dynamics in play is really important.
  • Review: Are we positioned as well as we could be? Ask what is your strategy — what are you doing, and why are you doing it? Is what you do still relevant, still important, and still valued by your audience?
  • Renew, reload, and rebuild on your existing capabilities: There’s always the opportunity to both learn from others, and to do things better.
  • Re-assert your point of difference: This is your independence, how you speak with authority. The DIY newsroom can produce credible and authentic content, but it comes from a very different starting point and foundation. It’s not journalism.
  • Re-engineer your business model: What you do in the newsroom has value and an incredible amount of intellectual capital. Can you teach others how to do that without compromising your charter — for example, with NGOs or community groups? Can you partner with others or support them on your platform? How can you open up your newsroom for wider public benefit or for profit?

Trump, truth, and trust

Non-news organisations that are using a DIY newsroom model may be copying media publishers, but they cannot replicate media’s true state of independence. They are not unbiased journalists. A media publisher’s motivation is different from non-news organisations, and their journalism is at the core of a functioning society. But, audience trust in the media remains a challenging factor.

“We have a job to rebuild the faith in media,” Howie said. He cited the 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer findings as a “call to arms” for media publishers.

Audience trust in news media is still a hurdle for publishers to overcome.
Audience trust in news media is still a hurdle for publishers to overcome.

Globally, media and government remain the least-trusted institutions. “People actually have a greater relationship with their employer and put more value on the information they get from an employer about a company or their interests than they do from the media,” Howie said. “The world is increasingly looking to CEOs to get out in front of subjects. We want leadership, that’s what people are saying.”

If you run a DIY newsroom for a company, it shows the importance of internal communication. “That’s why we need to rebuild that relationship with our audiences. Trust in the media is building, but it’s still a big problem for us to address.”

The DIY newsroom approach represents a new level of professionalism in communications. “It’s a flattering acknowledgement of what we’ve been doing for generations in newsrooms,” Howie said. “But it can also be a threat.”

Howie concluded by saying that media publishers have a need to reclaim their communities, however small or big: “Because if we don’t, people will be creating their own DIY newsrooms in our own backyards.”

INMA members can get a discount on The DIY Newsroom.
INMA members can get a discount on The DIY Newsroom.

Q&A

INMA: Much of your focus is taking non-media organisations to communicate with the market. What does reverse engineering that look like? Isn’t changing the world too broad? How do newspapers get more cohesive around a mission?

Howie: I see that changing. Ten years ago we were trying to do everything. I think now, we know our limits and resources more. We have to be very zoned about what we do. I see a lot of technological change and the splitting of resources. What I see in my part of the world is that it’s almost putting things “back in the box.” I think we’ve changed with the times.

INMA: Do you have a sense of what the desired distribution method is for DIY newsroom content?

Howie: Most organisations I work with start off with a clear fascination with social; but increasingly I see organisations very focused about print where it’s required. For example, a big healthcare provider called Ryland (a booming business worldwide in the aging population) — they use a lot of print, but they also need to get to the children of potential clients, who use Facebook. So they have a variety of ways to deliver their message. It goes back to that principle of knowing who your audience is and how to reach them. But you want to control your channel, and you can’t control Facebook or Google.

INMA: What in your opinion are the biggest pain points for DIY newsrooms?

Howie: One would be change. Organisations I work with, the CEO or board will say we want to change. But it’s one thing for people to say they’re up for change, and another to go through that process. Actually executing the change and doing it well. The greatest way to make change is to take everyone along on the ride with you. You want change to be organic. The other big pain point would be that we have so many channels and tools that we can use that we’re overwhelmed by that. Getting through all that is a bit of a process as well. Try to keep it as simple as possible, understand your audience, and be quite clear about what the channels are you’re trying to use.

INMA: Are all the points discussed applicable across all TV, print, and digital?

Howie: I’ve mainly worked in newspaper-based organisations, but I have worked with some digital strategies. I don’t see why the principles wouldn’t be applicable to all mediums.

INMA: Media newsrooms can put out a marketing method for being trusted, but how do you suggest they go about proving it?

Howie: There has often been a disconnect between one organisation’s print newspaper (highbrow and trusted) to its Web site (clickbait and tabloid). I think if there’s a disconnect between products, then what’s the strategy behind the company?

INMA: Do you have any sense of big DIY newsrooms beyond Australia?

Howie: One of the areas I picked up on is local government and local councils. There is a lot of council resource (in the UK) devoted to this. I think we see this more in certain industries as well.

INMA: What are the tools these organisations use to build their newsrooms?

Howie: There’s the physical structure of a newsroom that’s part of it, such as a little studio for even a one or two person team, with lights and cameras and other tools. Then there are the other things you require like people, skills, and processes. One of the tools I see that’s powerful is the media ecosystem. What’s you’re constellation of channels? What content are you distributing, and when are you distributing it? Having a visual representation of this is an important tool.

INMA members can receive a 20% discount off Howie’s book, The D.I.Y. Newsroom, by using the code DIYINMA2019.