Changing the newspaper’s perceptions of change


Newspapers love a simple story. Complex ideas and years of research are regularly condensed into a tightly written opening paragraph and headline. And this is usually a great skill.

But it should be of no great surprise that we’ve done the same thing to the message that “newspapers have to change,” simplifying it to the point where it’s become a rallying cry, not a particularly useful tool for analysis, strategy or genuinely improving our lot. It is just possible that building a brave new future requires more than 500 words with pic, graph and breakout quote.

In 1990, management experts Dunphy and Stace devised a change strategy matrix, which I’ve only just read about but which gave me a “road to Damascus” experience. Now I can hear the news heads in the room grumbling that “hell, that was 20 years ago” and surely there’s something more modern, more well, newsy out there that I should be quoting. But here’s the thing about change literature. Sometimes the oldies are the classics. Just like Shakespeare.

Dunphy and Stace argue that there are four types of change needed to any situation:

  • Fine tuning — such as redesigning a section.

  • Incremental adjustment — such as redefining content.

  • Modular transformation — building a new team structure such as a seven-day roster.

  • Corporate transformation — repositioning the company entirely, starting with big changes from the senior executive down.

And they argue that there are four styles of change management:

  • Collaborative.
  • Consultative.
  • Directive.
  • Coercive.

People — and companies — can have different beliefs about how each style of change should be managed. Some of us prefer to be consulted and to take part in the ideas of how change should be done. Others just want it done and over with and believe cracking heads together is the only way forward, bulldozing those who disagree.

Dunphy and Stace argue small change is described as “evolution,”, and big change is described as “transformation.” They argue that it’s harder to get agreement from a lot of people for big change which is why collaboration often fails. Likewise, riding people hard over small adjustments gives you a reputation for being domineering. The best approach should be decided based on the scale of change needed, how fast it needs to happen and the level of resistance that is likely.

The real revolution of what Dunphy and Stace suggest is that if you do this properly and match the type of change needed to the style of change, you will get greater understanding and less resistance.

“The selection of the appropriate types of change depends entirely upon the strategic analysis of the situation,” they write. “Change agents should select the most effective strategy and mode of change, rather than reflexively relying on a change strategy and mode compatible with their personal values.”

So just because we personally prefer a change to be implemented in a particular way doesn’t mean it’s the best way to go — or will even get the result we want. We need a bigger toolkit: a broader vocabulary to discuss and describe change and an understanding that there is more than one way to skin a cat than to take a knife to its throat.

When it comes to introducing change into news organisations we should expect not to do it as we have always done it with the people we’ve always had — we may need to mix it up, bring in new ideas, skills and experience. We should also stop thinking that because it is change, it will necessarily always be new. There may even be times when we look to the classical texts of the past to help us pave the way forward.

To get good change we may need to change our perceptions of change altogether.