Podcasts? Fine. Google Voice and Alexa? Excellent. Instagram? Go wild.

But you probably won’t significantly move your media company’s bottom line if you haven’t worked seriously at some far more important (and difficult) tasks: ensuring the right organisation, leadership, and culture is in place, and that you’re actually writing enough well-read stories every single day.

Look, we get it. We’ve been there. Google Voice is new and shiny. Podcasts are great fun — to listen to and to produce. All the cool kids hang out at Instagram — and you want to hang out with them. That’s fine. They’re your future customers. It’s brand building. We understand.

But are you really sure that’s where your efforts are best spent? Are you really sure a Google Voice offering, the next podcast, or even a well-implemented Instagram strategy is what stands between you and success?

Editorial coach Stine Holberg Dahl working with editors at an Amedia newspaper. (Photo: Jostein Larsen Østring)
Editorial coach Stine Holberg Dahl working with editors at an Amedia newspaper. (Photo: Jostein Larsen Østring)

At Amedia, we do all of these things ... but we only chose to implement them after a long, hard slog through organisational change that involved staking out a course for digital newspaper leadership and changing our company culture. All those new formats are just the icing on the cake, building on top of an editorial hierarchy of needs that start off at a far more fundamental level.

Our company has been on a digital subscription journey that kicked off in 2014 — propelling a struggling traditional local media company to new growth and, to our surprise, into one of the world’s most talked-about media companies from 2017 on. That was never our goal. We just wanted to fix what was wrong, navigate safely through the digital breakwaters, remain profitable, and continue to invest in local journalism that was valuable to local people.

We would never have been able to do that without working with the fundamentals of the company: the people, the management, the organisation — in essence, Amedia’s culture.

Make no mistake: This was incredibly hard work. But it was also immensely rewarding when the first few successes come in ... and when all those small successes pile up and create momentum. Much like life is what’s happening when you’re busy making plans, culture is what happens as a sum of all those tiny everyday decisions. What you actually do — what you actually decide — in the next hour ... well, that’s a tiny part of culture-building in your company.

At some point early on in the journey, we recognised we needed to guide those decisions toward a digital future. Through that work, led by Amedia’s vice president of editorial development, Jostein Larsen Østring, we determined our hierarchy of editorial needs.

The hierarchy as of 2019 looks like this:

  1. The foundation is organisation, leadership, and culture.
  2. The next layer is quantity/quality in story production.
  3. Then breaking news.
  4. Then video.
  5. Then target groups.
  6. And finally, new formats.
Amedia's hierarchy of editorial needs.
Amedia's hierarchy of editorial needs.

The foundation for a successful news operation rests on culture, organisation, and leadership (1).

That base layer should then operate to write as many well-read stories per day as possible (yes, you read that right: we actually track and push for quantity in editorial production, not just quality). (2). We’ve found this, more than anything, is what keeps customers engaged.

Then, the news organisation should make a concerted effort to be first to break news (3), which is central in getting both subscribers and non-subscribers to revisit.

Amedia’s editorial development team has been perhaps the key change agent in the turnaround. Led by Larsen Østring, previously one of Amedia’s top news editors, the team today includes 11 people, most of whom have on-the-ground experience from local newsrooms. Their main remit is supporting Amedia’s 73 newsrooms and empowering our editors-in-chief.

The editor, we found, is the single most important factor in newsroom change. Since 2016, the team has shared best practices, documented what works, guided editorial decisions to keep readers and subscribers engaged, and attracted new audiences. All those learnings are codified into a single editorial dashboard with key KPIs per newspaper. This necessarily entails a bucketload of data, but the development and operation of Amedia’s data platform is another story.

In essence, the editorial development team is charged with changing editorial culture.

Some of our core findings:

  • In management: It is vital news management spends its time leading journalists instead of sitting in meetings or overseeing print production. A running news management ensures the right priorities, that journalists get the right guidance, and that available capacity is utilised.
  • In creating a strong news centre: The news desk solves several critical needs in the newsroom, especially on breaking news and running news management. Sufficient staffing ensures the right quality in the editorial product, especially in evenings and on the weekends.
  • In planning: Strong planning of stories ensures a sufficient editorial offering in late evenings, early mornings, and on the weekends. This also, incidentally, goes for planning print production. With solid plans for how to produce tomorrow’s printed newspaper, capacity on the print desk is utilised throughout the day — and we effectively avoid the rush toward print deadlines, which can steal capacity and focus from the rest of the newsroom.

Once the core functions of organisation, story production, and breaking news are in place, diversify into video. We found a substantial willingness among local readers to pay for certain video content, but we also found video needs to be a natural part of our journalism. In other words, it needs to slot naturally into the layers below in the hierarchy.

And when you have a seamless organisation geared toward producing well-read and well-watched journalism, what happens when your journalistic instincts tell you to get that breaking story out in front of your audiences now — every time? What happens when the machinery works, at scale?

Amedia’s editorial development team, from top left: Fredrik Dyrnes Svendsen (editorial coach), Janne Rygh (editorial coach), Erling Brøndmo (editorial coach), Stine Holberg Dahl (editorial coach). Row 2, from left: Ivar Folkedal (editorial coach). Mathias Bergquist (editorial coach), Kjetil Høiby (developer, data-supported journalism), Eivor Jerpåsen (head of editorial development). Row 3 from left: Tord Selmer-Nedrelid (head of video), Linn Hoppestad Art-iam (editorial analyst), Jostein Larsen Østring (VP Editorial Development)
Amedia’s editorial development team, from top left: Fredrik Dyrnes Svendsen (editorial coach), Janne Rygh (editorial coach), Erling Brøndmo (editorial coach), Stine Holberg Dahl (editorial coach). Row 2, from left: Ivar Folkedal (editorial coach). Mathias Bergquist (editorial coach), Kjetil Høiby (developer, data-supported journalism), Eivor Jerpåsen (head of editorial development). Row 3 from left: Tord Selmer-Nedrelid (head of video), Linn Hoppestad Art-iam (editorial analyst), Jostein Larsen Østring (VP Editorial Development)

This is where it gets tricky and potentially far more rewarding. Having created and sustained a large audience willing to pay for quality journalism, this is when you discover which readers you’re not reaching with your journalism. That’s when you start experimenting with reaching younger audiences, female readers, and people in geographies you thought you were covering well ... but, as it turns out, you weren’t. You have blind spots in your coverage. This is where you discover them.

In short, if you thought prioritising your meagre resources was difficult before, then buckle up because now it gets substantially harder. But this is also where you’re able to successfully personalise for new customers — if you actually have journalism that resonates with readers in your blind spots. If you don’t, then no personalisation technology in the world will help you reach them.

Then, and only then, look at new formats. Podcasts may reach new readers, Google Voice and Alexa might offer valuable incremental engagement to existing customers, and Instagram is great for visual communication with future customers — but none of these is the point for a traditional media company. They are tools. They are tactics. When implemented well, they’re great. But they’re really just the icing on the cake.

A healthy business depends on far more fundamental — and difficult — processes, starting with changing your culture, decision by decision. Executed right, though, the reward is all the greater. Your culture should not be about fast implementation of the latest technology and devices, but about creating a basic foundation for listening and learning with your accumulated decisions based on insight, knowledge, and hard data about your customers’ preferences.

This just might be the very thing your company needs to count on to survive.