In the digital transformation quest, don’t neglect people

By Dr. Dietmar Schantin

Institute for Media Strategies

London, United Kingdom


Newspaper brands have been moving from print to digital for more than two decades, but the journey has not been uniform. In some markets, news media now generate most of their revenue from digital. But in others, print still sells, and the transformation has been slower. The state of transformation runs from fully digital news operations, to those still driven by print, to every possible hybrid in between.

There are many approaches to transformation as media houses tailor their strategies to their specific needs. Experience shows that successful projects are audience-centric, data-driven, and holistic, seeking to reorganise all departments from technology to newsroom to advertising and business operations simultaneously.

As media companies embark on transformational changes, they must be mindful about how they bring their people along for the journey.
As media companies embark on transformational changes, they must be mindful about how they bring their people along for the journey.

The human factor and the corporate culture are essential for a successfully designed transformation. Unsurprisingly, all the building blocks for successful projects include a fundamental cultural change in the entire company. Whatever the approach, it is a big job to change people’s attitudes, develop their skills, and also find new people, who bring completely new skills into the company.

While this concept is easily understood, carrying it out can be complicated. In many companies, this difficulty is amplified because of a failure to adequately prioritise the transformation of the one department that is solely concerned with people: human resources.

Human resources management must work at the highest professional level.

One of the biggest corporate challenges in any sector is target-oriented personnel management. It ensures the right people with the right skills are in the right positions and that these people grow with the company. But the topic is given far too little importance in many media companies, although people are the most important asset. Their commitment is central to the success or failure of the entire company.

The entire human resources process — defining the requirements for the position, advertising for it, actively scouting talent, and structuring training and further development of staff — is not set up and structured properly in many publishing houses. The recruiting process frequently starts with “I know someone,” followed by a development plan along the lines of “he/she just takes the job and will learn it.”

This haphazard approach is more than just a brake on transformation. If it is coupled with entrenched staff protective of their jobs who do not want to face new challenges, it derails the change process before it has a chance of succeeding.

Basic things — including clear job descriptions, orientation and on-boarding for new employees, mentoring, continuous training opportunities, and “high-potential” programmes — are essential to actively shape the company’s future.

In newsrooms today, there is a need to fill completely new roles that are not fundamentally journalistic, yet require a journalistic mind set and understanding. These include data analysis, digital marketing for editorial topics, newsletter management, editorial sales management, and audience management, to name a few. There is an urgent need for qualified staff who may be difficult to attract, as news media are in competition with companies in other sectors when it comes to acquiring the expertise for these tasks.

In addition to completely new roles, traditional newsroom jobs are also changing in a dramatic way. At the most prestigious business media brand in the United States, for example, all newsroom leadership roles were advertised and up for grabs in the 2020 transformation process. Current job holders were asked to apply along with other internal and external interested parties.

That may be seen as a radical approach, but it proved to be an enormous boost for the organisation. As part of the process, the existing staff was assured they would be reassigned, not laid off, if someone else was assigned to their job.

Attracting new talent isn’t just a challenge for individual newspaper companies but for the industry. For young target groups, newspaper houses have an aura of decline and a lack of innovation. For these recruits, newspapers must compete with the likes of Google, LinkedIn, start-ups, or e-commerce companies. And this is an even bigger challenge for regional and local companies not in a big metropolis.

Therefore, pro-active and modern employer branding is the order of the day. This includes a professional appearance on the job market and sustainable human resources management to attract, convince, develop, and retain the right people.

Personnel management at the highest level is the foundation for all future strategies. And, it is obvious that you cannot deal with these tasks casually and with the methods of the 1980s.

About Dr. Dietmar Schantin

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