“Just give us the number and we’ll make the cuts ourselves.”
That was the response we received from Postmedia editors in November 2011 as we prepared another round of budget cuts in the face of continuing revenue declines. It was the easiest and quickest approach, one repeated many times over across our industry and at Postmedia, a company born out of bankruptcy in July 2010.
We also knew it was not a solution but a tourniquet. Revenues were not going to bounce back, and we likely would be facing the same challenge as early as the next quarter. Yet, no one succeeds in chasing the bottom line down.
Nor did this jive with Postmedia’s two-pronged strategy to transform into a quality multi-platform media company while reducing newspaper legacy cost. Percentage cuts across the board are not strategic.
We needed to base these decisions on a vision of what the new company would look like and what it would need to both survive and grow. There were no instant fixes, and tweaks would no longer do.
Thus began a demanding journey.
Postmedia newspapers had three major strengths:
- Strong and independent news franchises in most of Canada’s major cities.
- A history of sharing content between properties.
- A demonstrated willingness to consolidate/centralise production functions.
Centralised services produced common back-of-the-book pages such as sports agate and television listings, and made shareable content from each site available to all.
But our No. 1 strength was also our Achilles’ heel. Each of our newsrooms had unique challenges that set them apart. This was clearly underlined in interviews we conducted with each editor in November and December of 2011.
For example, there was a strong feeling that only local editors could interpret world and national events for their local audiences. That alone meant that a wire service story would be handled multiple times for print alone.
Building a team
We began with a statistical approach. A content inventory and analysis examined those differences and how relevant they were.
The findings (and a lot more) were presented in a series of editors’ meetings that set the stage for a remarkable run of productive collaboration that continues to this day. By regularly bringing the editors and managing editors physically together, we evolved a way of working as a group.
We established “guiding principles” to state what we agreed on, rather than on what made us different — and we started to focus on the “dot on the wall” about what our operations could look like in the future.
From February 2012 to January of this year, there were seven editor conferences, including three from September to December 2013 that set the stage for what was to become a revolution, not an evolution.
An underlining theme at each was that the editorial strength of Postmedia “is in this room.” Thought leaders emerged to articulate specific positions to build on and were charged to develop measurable changes.
Presentations were made across the network, both by senior leaders and by the many newsroom leaders tapped to serve on task forces to develop specific projects and workflows.
A major step was taken at the editors’ meeting in May 2012. A task force was set up to develop “One Touch,” a project aimed at freeing up newsrooms to focus on local content creation by dramatically reducing local page production by moving the pages to our central pagination house in Hamilton.
Content decisions on non-local news and feature pages as well as the pagination of local pages would move to our Hamilton location. This would require a significant investment in people, equipment, and, indeed, space. It was also a huge change in philosophy and work flows.
It also coined one of our on-going rally cries: “Failure,” said the head of the One Touch task force, “is not an option.”
The last newspaper was absorbed into One To
uch the first week of September, and the savings from that project far outweighed the costs. The speed bumps were many — no surprise given the extraordinary timeline — and initially some staff at both the central site and local sites often reverted to the old ways. But as one editor said at a review during the September conference: “The burden of production has been lifted from my newsroom ... and our new focus on stories has invigorated our staff.”
Because each newspaper had its own unique styles and fonts, a true One Touch system was still beyond our reach. Even a byline required intervention to adapt to each newpaper.
The editors easily recognised this problem, but the idea of a common design was an anathema. Then, at the December 2012 meeting, a blind test we conducted a blind test, circulating a large sheet with samples of the styles and fonts from each newspaper.
There was a palpable pause as we realised the differences were virtually indiscernible to the naked eye.
It was a major aha moment.
Organisational structure was a constant theme at each conference. In October, we looked at how many local stories were being assigned each day and started the process of re-imagining a multi-platform newsroom that focused solely on content creation.
The concept of One Newsroom was introduced to leverage the overall strength of Postmedia newsrooms. The goal of One Newsroom was to provide a deep rich file across all platforms through a central operation while freeing local newsrooms to focus exclusively on the creation of local content.
For the December meeting, each editor submitted a report on how a central operation might work and how the local newsroom might be reorganised. From this emerged the Super City Desk, or, as one editor put it, the city desk on steroids.
Instead of traditional department silos, topic leaders formed the city desk. This new structure enabled many section editors to return to writing, further strengthening content.
We had come a long way, but some reluctantly. One managing editor summed up the concerns expressed in breakouts and coffee breaks succinctly, asking: “Are we franchising these newspapers?”
Still, we had laid the groundwork for our transformation, and by February we started to flesh out an ambitious game plan.
Four platforms and Super City Desk
We build the common design from the mobile phone out, and we placed two stakes in the ground.
We would go after non-traditional audiences with two new apps:
- A completely local, here’s-what’s-happening-now app aimed at the smartphone audience.
- A news magazine, a laid-back read that was both tactile and visually entertaining, published once a day on the tablet.
Also, the ubiquitous Web would have responsive design and be available on all platforms. Print would move away from commodity and yesterday’s news, and be more forward looking and analytical.
Cross-functional teams representing all departments — technology, advertising, circulation, digital, marketing — were struck to start building the products. It was readily apparent we had to move swiftly and deliberately on newsroom reorganisation to achieve these goals.
Each editor was asked to build a Super City Desk model newsroom, incorporating the four platforms.
Using the models, every editorial employee became part of a One Newsroom master chart. Then a small team was tasked with building a straw man newsroom from the ground up, platform by platform, position by position.
To a person, the team was profoundly affected by the master chart and the realisation of the potential power of Postmedia as a whole.
The conclusion was clear. We had the numbers, if not all the skills sets, we needed. The straw man became the prototype going forward and serves as a guide to any decisions on both any hiring or staff reductions.
On the road again
The One Newsroom plan was rolled out in detail to each newsroom in the fall of 2013. Staffs in general were excited by the new products and especially by the fact there was a strategy.
They also applauded the announcement that aging infrastructure would be replaced with the tools they needed to effectively and efficiently produce the platforms.
They also were given audience information. A massive national survey with market-by-market breakdowns was shared in a booklet written and presented by editorial.
In essence, they saw corporate ponying up.
The revolution continues
We decided early on that what we needed was revolution, not evolution. We engaged senior editors across the company in a conversation that led to specific action, and we have maintained a process of communication that extends across the entire company.
The Ottawa Citizen successfully launched the four platforms in May with the help of SWAT teams drawn from across the network.
As the cross-functional teams, now bolstered by Citizen staff, prepare for next launches, a recurring comment in their meetings has been: “This is what One Newsroom is all about.”
With input from Steve Proulx, director/content operations at Postmedia.