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7 priorities can help news media leaders change the culture of their newsroom

By Amalie Nash

INMA

Denver, Colorado, United States

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Louise Story has spent much of her career in roles that put her at the pivotal center of organisational change: at The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and as a media consultant. While she says change can be daunting, she reminded the Webinar audience that: “People in journalism actually have some muscles in them that are useful for transformation and cultural change.”

Namely, journalists love to learn new things, and journalists make mistakes — so they may be wired to innovate and willing to make mistakes along the way.

Lessons she offered for digitally transforming and making cultural changes:

  • Form cross-disciplinary teams: Bringing in people from other disciplines, from across the newsroom and across the business, can lead to faster results. And often people in different areas of the business have their own cultures, so cross-pollinating can bring in new skillsets and learnings. Relatedly, work to permanently break down the silos that often exist between news, product, and technology.

  • Be transparent: Cultural change often stalls when plans are formed behind closed doors and communication is opaque. Whenever possible, when laying out a new strategy, bring people into the process. “People will trust more if they understand more about it,” Story says. Bonus if you have good visuals when you present to your newsroom.

  • Do your homework: Whether leadership is new or tenured, there’s often a prevailing sentiment that “we already know what we’re doing.” Step back, learn more, interview people — and even if ultimately the plan reflects what leadership thought all along, the process will lead to greater buy-in.

  • Identify the biggest fears: What is making people resist? Find out by talking to them, preferably one-on-one, and thoroughly address those concerns. “Don’t dismiss those concerns,” Story says. “Dig in and examine them. Come back to people with answers.”

  • Find ways to involve everyone: When it comes to cultural change, there can be a feeling on the front lines of some organisations that only a small subset of people get to be involved in doing the new, cool things. So figure out how to invite everyone to take part in the change. 

  • Agree on the same metrics: It’s hard to make cultural change when different teams or departments don’t agree on the same metrics. There are a lot of metrics to consider, but agree on which will be measured. Tell the story of: Why are we using these metrics and what do they show us?

  • End top-down culture: Be clear and communicative and empower people on the front lines to do things on their own. Story argues it’s also important for talent retention.

Louise Story offered several lessons in cultural change for newsrooms during a recent INMA Webinar.
Louise Story offered several lessons in cultural change for newsrooms during a recent INMA Webinar.

The topic of resistance to cultural change came up during the Webinar — and again a few days later in the INMA Master Class: Mobile-First News Media Sites. GerBen van ’t Hek, deputy chief-editor at Mediahuis, talked in his presentation about the need for newsrooms to become “relentlessly mobile-first.”

The first question from the audience: Did you get pushback to making changes and how did you tackle that?

“There are always people afraid of change,” he said.

His take: Communicate and explain changes, show the data — but force change as necessary. And success can be a big motivator.

I also loved this turn of phrase: “We never lose. Win or learn.”

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About Amalie Nash

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