Digital First Media pilot newsroom involves entire staff in its local version of culture change

Culture change in an organisation comes from the bottom as well as the top.

Project Unbolt, our effort to change newsroom culture throughout Digital First Media, started at the top, with CEO John Paton announcing it in a speech to the Online Publishers Association and former Editor-in-Chief Jim Brady and me making it a top priority for our newsrooms.

Kevin Moran, vice president of news for New England Newspapers Inc., quickly embraced the idea and volunteered his largest newsroom, the Berkshire Eagle, as one of our pilot newsrooms. But he knew he couldn’t lead the effort by himself.

Moran started the Eagle’s unbolting work by involving the whole newsroom. Each of the newsroom’s 33 staffers served on one of six committees planning the Eagle’s work in each of the six pillars of Project Unbolt: coverage and storytelling; planning and management; mobile; standards; engagement; processes and workflow.

A different editor led each of the six groups, ensuring that middle management was involved in the project from the first, too.

Working through February and into early March, the committees developed an 18-page “Berkshire Eagle Unbolt Master Plan.” Each committee determined priorities, wrote broad objectives and specific goals, assigned responsibilities, and set deadlines.

Some of the Eagle’s plans aren’t exactly what I would have suggested, but they shouldn’t be. If the Eagle staff were executing my plan, enthusiasm would wane, if anyone were enthusiastic at all.

But this is the Eagle staff’s plan, with each staff member being responsible to his or her colleagues to execute part of the plan.

My initial plan for Project Unbolt was designed as a conversation starter for newsrooms. I’ll be leaving the company soon, and if the newsrooms are really going to transform their cultures, they need to make their own plans and get to work on them.

And the Berkshire Eagle is working on the plan. The coverage and storytelling plan called for the newsroom to “change workflows and mindsets to achieve live coverage of most news events covered by The Eagle.”

That meant live coverage of a triple murder trial in February. Reporter Andrew Amelinckx had not live-blogged before, but he started the trial live-tweeting from the courtroom, feeding his tweets into the Eagle’s Web site using ScribbleLive.

The trial was compelling, and the live coverage was riveting.

The community tuned in for nearly 26,000 engagement hours. As Moran said, that’s enough hours to work a 40-hour week for more than 12 years without a vacation.

Each visit to the live blog lasted an average of 21 minutes, and visits per unique user were unusually high, showing that people came back wanting more.

Moran expected the live blog to go quiet during jury deliberations, but Amelinckx was starting to understand the interactive power of the live blog. So he invited questions from the community and just kept a running conversation going for two and a half days of jury deliberations.

To help clarify the lessons of the experience for Amelinckx and his colleagues, Moran interviewed him about the trial coverage and shared the lessons on the Eagle’s Unbolt blog.

The to-do list on the Eagle’s master plan is long, with more work remaining than checked off. But I’m confident that, by involving the full staff in the work, Moran has set his newsroom on a path of permanent culture change.

If you’re interested in reading more, I started a series of posts on my blog this week, sharing the full Berkshire Eagle Unbolt Master Plan, along with some of my comments and updates on progress in the execution of the plan.


About Steve Buttry

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