Newsrooms balance the business of journalism with essential reporting

By Peter Bale


New Zealand and the U.K.


Welcome to the latest Newsroom Initiative newsletter

We like to think the INMA Newsroom Initiative deals with the biggest questions facing newsrooms from cultural change to business models and trust.

This week, we’ll look at the INMA World Congress of News Media, going on right now in New York, and some of the best work seen lately in tackling and accelerating the transition from print to digital. I found them inspiring stories that encompass great data, transparency with newsroom staff, and shared goals.

This week we also take another look at the biggest story of our time, climate change, and how it fits into every beat and the challenges that may pose to traditional journalistic norms.

Dealing with the big questions in newsrooms

Coinciding with the INMA World Congress in New York, we’ve issued a comprehensive report on what newsroom leaders have told us over the first year or so of the Newsroom Initiative. It reflects state-of-the-art knowledge of best practices in newsrooms globally.

The emphasis from the start has been on connecting newsrooms to the business of publishing and reinforcing the power of journalism to create sustainable titles. It also covers the big cultural questions of how to run toward change — not away from it — in teams that are aligned on the same goals, targets they can believe in, and metrics they can use to get better every day.

“Bringing newsrooms into the business of news is vital today because of the shift in content economics behind digital consumption habits. In the newspaper world, that means the shift from an advertiser-driven print bundle to a reader-driven and story-based digital brand,” the report states right at the start of the executive briefing.

I thought about how that idea resonated through a remarkable Webinar we ran with the Alabama Media Group on its decision to abandon print titles and focus entirely on digital (we also met with their parent company this week on our study tour). AMG President Tom Bates and Vice President of Content (what we might have called editor-in-chief) Kelly Scott were joined at the hip about the business and editorial goals.

Alabama Media Group President Tom Bates joined INMA in a recent Webinar.
Alabama Media Group President Tom Bates joined INMA in a recent Webinar.

I came up with the webinar title “Liberate Your Newsroom: Closing Print Editions with Alabama Media Group” because I was so impressed with the optimism Bates and Scott when I interviewed them in March just after they closed the remaining newspapers. They were aligned, they had worked it all through, and taken customers and their journalists with them. Costs were a factor but not the driving force behind a long-planned shift to commit totally to digital.

In the Webinar, Bates explained they could make the change “not just because we had to but because we could.”

Many attendees at the World Congress face the same questions of either an eroding print business or a print business that still accounts for a larger portion of revenue than digital. They also face issues of how to shift the focus of their newsroom from paper to digital — something Mapula Nkosi, managing editor of City Press in South Africa, will talk about in the Newsroom Initiative workshop on May 24. Her newsroom is still strongly fixated on print.

The question of how to get newsrooms behind a faster transition to digital has been bubbling away for years, but the combination of high newsprint costs — and especially physical distribution — is making the transition even more urgent. The Alabama Media Group Webinar offers a great primer on this as does an earlier Webinar with leaders from Bonnier B2B who are running a similar process — with the same level of analysis and positivity — in Lithuania and Slovenia.

Expect also big discussions on changing culture in the newsroom, investing in your teams and yourself with training and a commitment to staying on top of new technologies and methods. 

We’ll also look at how organisations can survive near-death experiences and thrive, especially the story of how travel news site Skift turned the pandemic into an opportunity. Here’s an earlier interview with Skift co-founder Rafat Ali on how not to waste a good crisis.

“We really were three weeks away from running out of money at some point in April 2020,” Ali told me in February. Tune in to the World Congress to hear how he’s getting on.

Newsrooms grapple with the biggest story of our time: climate change

Climate reporting was once something of a niche for nerds in the newsroom — domain experts who read the IPCC reports with increasing alarm and tried to explain to readers and often their colleagues that climate change was real and in part caused by humans.

Denialism has retreated in the past couple of years as it has become clearer that we are in a fluid environment and that the rate of change has accelerated as predicted. This poses great challenges for newsrooms and that’s why we’ve dealt with it in the INMA Newsroom Initiative because it’s no longer a niche story — it’s THE story across all beats.

John D. Sutter was a genuine innovator in reporting and trying to explain the implications of climate change and environmental degradation when I worked with him at CNN. He was early to understand the implications and to find creative ways to bring home the scale of the problem to especially American television audiences on CNN.

He’s still a commentator at CNN, helping explain complex issues around climate change such as why it matters to try to keep global average temperatures from rising more than two degrees. He’s also an EMMY-winning documentary filmmaker focused on the environment and climate.

Building on all that journalistic experience and understanding of what it takes to tell the story of climate change and why we should all care, Sutter was recently appointed as the Ted Turner Professor of Environmental Media at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. He’s starting with a semester teaching environmental journalism to graduates and undergraduates of the School of Media and Public Affairs at the university.

Sutter was kind enough to talk to me about that new post and what newsrooms need to think about when they try to tackle the whole area of climate change and the environment. Here’s an edited Q&A extracted from that interview, which I will share more of in future newsletters.

Q: John, are you going into this plumbing the last 15 years of your career to give these students what you wished you knew when you started?

Sutter: It’s partly that and on my current work in documentaries and in news. Part of the idea is to have someone who’s like an activist teach this stuff because the media landscape moves fast, so it helps to have a foot in it.

Q: Is it about the science or the storytelling that’s needed to explain what’s happening?

Sutter: I've always been interested in how we process what we know about climate science and have known for a really long time and just haven't done enough with. So there are updates on the forefront of science and then digging into how as a society we make sense of this.

Q: You’ve told me you use the COP 21 Paris Agreement on agreed limits on emissions to try to contain global heating below two degrees as a benchmark for when the science became settled, but how do you think journalists should deal with denialism or maybe it is more defeatism?

Sutter: A story that’s trying to convince someone who doesn’t trust the science of climate change is way different from writing for someone who’s been plugged into this for 20 years and is trying to push ahead faster. Within one (news) outlet you need to speak to multiple audiences. The deniers have become increasingly small in number — you don’t have to prove it so much anymore and I am not up for debating it. I do think there was a time when it was important to push back against the “two-sidesism” but I’ve seen a concerted move away from that.

I honestly think news organisations have been far too timid about connecting the dots between the patterns we see happening in the weather and what we know — that the climate crisis is making these events more likely. Right now I think the worst error is wanting to prove that every incident is beyond doubt caused by climate change rather than over-attributing it.

Q: How should journalists use services and tools that try to attribute weather events to climate change?

Sutter: Climate attribution studies have been around since the early 2000s, and I think that gives journalists far more authority. You can dig in with a lot more granularity to see what we have supercharged (with human actions). You see our fingerprints on the storms.

You also have to be careful not to overstate that, but you don’t want to end up in a world where we’re debating how much of the weather we see is or is not (caused by humans) ... . Journalists are so trained to pin things down with absolute certainty but if we wait for everything to be absolutely certain we’ll be in a four or five-degree (higher) world.

Q: You say that the climate crisis challenges journalistic shibboleths like objectivity and balance?

Sutter: I don’t believe in objectivity and a lot of the big news organizations in the world are admitting that everyone has a bias, their institutions have a bias, their perspective on the world comes from like usually a national perspective, which has a bias. We have tools to mitigate bias, to be fair and inclusive, and accurate … but I don’t think you can look at the science and say that nothing needs to change. So journalists should be going in with a stance of ‘we should be headed for a net-zero world’ that is what the science is saying.

Q: With the climate story spreading out from environment reporters to all beats, what risks do you see there and what is the role of those specialist reporters?

Sutter: When I see a piece of news and I'm frustrated with the way its reported it tends to come from those other beats, especially politics where the training is very much bothsidesism. I think there has to be a broader newsroom conversation about this. 

It’s the hardest story to tell. It’s both extremely urgent and present and now and past but also extremely long term in the future; carbon stays in the atmosphere and ocean for a thousand years. Thinking on those timescales is really hard for anyone like climate reporters.

My personal approach in my own work has been to try to broaden the types of stories we're telling and to surprise people and hopefully engage them in a new way.

This interview has been edited for clarity. 

Recommended follow

Nicholas Diakopolus @ndiakopoulos is the professor of computational journalism at Northwestern University and a great source of ideas and information on the implications for journalism — and the potential benefits — of generative AI. I wrote about Nick’s presentation to the International Festival of Journalism in Perugia.

Talk back

Tell me what you want to read and what you like or don't like in this newsletter, please. E-mail: There’s also an INMA Newsroom Initiative Slack channel

About this newsletter

Today’s newsletter is written by Peter Bale, based in New Zealand and the U.K. and lead for the INMA Newsletter Initiative. Peter will share research, case studies, and thought leadership on the topic of global newsrooms.

This newsletter is a public face of the Newsroom Initiative by INMA, outlined here. E-mail Peter at or with thoughts, suggestions, and questions.

About Peter Bale

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