4 ways newsrooms must reorganise for digital transformation

By Dietmar Schantin

Institute for Media Strategies

London, United Kingdom


When media companies embark on digital transformation, the focus on digital — the platforms and technology — often masks what really needs to change in an organisation.

What is really at the centre of any transformation is audience. Audience transformation is what is driving digital transformation.

With advertising revenues a shadow of what they once were, media businesses are compelled today to focus on generating far more of their revenue from their audiences. But many companies aren’t adequately organised to fully implement an audience-centric approach.

Pivoting to digital requires reorganisation in the newsroom.
Pivoting to digital requires reorganisation in the newsroom.

When news companies think about their audiences (and there is always more than one discrete audience), it is usually from a gut instinct drawn from feedback and experience. While there is nothing wrong with gut instinct, it is insufficient in today’s media world. Even rudimentary research shows audiences are far more diverse with different needs than a reliance on gut instinct would reveal.

And that’s really the point: For media companies to thrive in today’s media environment, they have to be positioned to put all resources — money, personnel, practices, and time — into becoming audience-centric enterprises.

In working with diverse media companies, we have identified several organisational practices that help focus on audience and offer better products and services designed to engage them and increase their loyalty.

These include:

Investing in audience insight.

Research departments — comprised of the quantitative and qualitative research expert in collecting and analysing data from reader surveys, online usage data, focus groups, and other sources — are often associated with the business departments of media enterprises (advertising and marketing) but are more often working with editorial departments to define and better understand audiences.

As reliance on audience revenues increases, better serving the readers and users means understanding who they are and how they engage with you. A deep analysis of their desires, habits, and aspirations — what they want — is the first step in understanding how to better meet their needs.

For example, you may already know your audience through traditional demographics, but what about their values? Their fears? What they do for fun? What about marginal groups with room to grow, such as younger users and students? What might retirees be looking for compared with working people at different stages of their careers? When is each of these groups more likely to be visiting your site? This is also when research becomes insight: a deep understanding of the audience and not just responses from research questionnaires.

The more information and understanding you have, the better you can provide what your community needs from you — and investing in this kind of research and insight produces returns.

Getting this insight into the newsroom.

All the research and insight in the world won’t do any good unless the newsroom has access to it and uses it to inform daily reporting. The researchers themselves may not have the experience or understanding to communicate their findings so they can be used by reporters and editors. You need journalists to do that.

A small team of journalists who are comfortable using data can serve as an effective liaison between the “quants” and the newsroom. Think of them as internal advisors and coaches, whose job it is to advise daily journalists on how the story conception process can incorporate new audience data, how it can be used to determine what platforms and tools to use, and how it can effectively extend the reach and impact of a story.

These journalists can also be assigned to big stories to ensure the audience knowledge is applied where it is needed most. Realistically, they can’t work on all stories, but they can provide hands-on expertise where needed. They can advise the entire newsroom on how raw audience data can be applied to increase the impact of any story.

Freeing editorial managers to focus on journalism.

Newsroom managers are often promoted from the ranks and from the most talented journalists. But in their new roles, their oversight duties often require organisational tasks that take them away from journalism itself.

For section or department heads, it is hard to focus on journalism when the day is taken up with hiring, budgets, training, career development, and other non-journalistic tasks. Freeing section and department heads to focus fully on journalism is essential for an audience-centric organisation. This can be done by taking the “paperwork” off their shoulders and allowing them to focus on their core journalism.

A separate editorial department with responsibility for “everything that isn’t journalism” is a good investment. Need to hire a new reporter? This team could assist the manger with writing the job description, gathering resumes, vetting candidates, facilitating interviews, and handling paperwork. Need new equipment? This team can make sure you get what you need. Travel and visas? No problem. The list of tasks for this team is practically endless.

Diversifying the organisation.

A reorganisation benefits from new blood, both in terms of getting more women and minorities into positions of influence and also getting new, non-journalistic personnel into the decision-making structure. Those once considered “support” services — platform editors, visual journalists, technologists, or developers — should be added to the decision-making process.

It is no longer acceptable or desirable for decisions to be made by a roomful of men. The newsroom should be as diverse as the audience. Likewise, it is no longer acceptable for a story to be written and edited before someone decides a graphic is needed, leaving the graphic team with hours to produce something that would have been much better if it had been consulted at the start of the story process. Getting a diverse group involved at the time of story conception improves the journalism and presentation in a way that audiences expect and prefer.

Everyone talks about the importance of audience. But how that is translated into the organisation of the newsroom determines if the changes are truly meaningful.

About Dietmar Schantin

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