Why newsrooms need to stop transforming and start changing

A directional sign that I liked whilst in Southampton.  Sometimes it is the simple things that catch our eye.
Photo by Nick Fewings / Unsplash

The news industry has had the greatest gift of all when it comes to disruption: time. And it squandered it.

Video rental, travel agents, taxi’s. These are all industries where after the category was entered by a new competitor the disruption wrought by the web was fast. When technology allows a new paradigm to expand faster than the incumbents can react, the results were pretty predictable.

However the news and media industry (by and large) has had a big enough moat to buy it the time to get better.

Good journalism costs more than just good technology, it costs people.

All those journalists, photographers, sub-editors, desk editors, picture editors, were impossible to replace with technology a decade ago. In the last couple of years some roles such as copy-editing are starting to be augmented by developments in machine learning, but most are likely impossible even in the medium term to replace with technology (as opposed to, say, automated brokerages such as ad buying and targeting).

If you are a startup looking for scale, getting into a business with huge capital requirements and significant ongoing costs doesn’t look very attractive. So, while the industry has been buffeted by disruption in advertising models, distribution models, commodification of the base product, increased competition for readers and a thousand other small cuts; it's all been slow enough that we should have done a better job building our way out of the ditch we found ourselves in as print revenues started an irreversible decline?.

It’s also true to say the disruptions that have hurt us, have also helped us - we can find audiences for our journalism more easily and cheaply than ever before, we can measure the impact of our work more accurately than before. We can publish stories that are richer and more visual than ever before.

So why is both our journalism and our overall product experience generally not up to scratch?

It’s partly because we are often competitor obsessed rather than customer focused. But it’s also because we have resisted making the structural changes and inviting new thinking into the newsroom. We have failed time and time again to exploit changes in our environment as Richard Rumlet (author of Good Strategy Bad Strategy) argues is one of only two ways to get higher performance.

There are only two ways to get that [substantially higher performance]. One, you can invent your way to success. Unfortunately, you can’t count on that. The second path is to exploit some change in your environment—in technology, consumer tastes, laws, resource prices, or competitive behavior—and ride that change with quickness and skill. This second path is how most successful companies make it. Changes, however, don’t come along in nice annual packages, so the need for strategy work is episodic, not necessarily annual.

We have been neither quick, nor skillful in how we have adapted to disruption and the opportunities it presents. We have been far too slow to recognise the new skills we need and elevate them to positions of power and decision making. We have been too timid to change the product we have in fear of what we will lose, rather than on what we might gain (Kodak anyone).

From transformation to...

I have been working in the industry for over ten years now and I haven’t seen many sustained, coordinated attempts to solve our structural issues outside of a few isolated examples.

I’m becoming increasingly convinced that our focus on transformation programmes is very unhelpful for a number of reasons.

1. They suggest there is a clear and understandable end point we are ‘transforming’ to. They are classic waterfall programmes - decide on the end goal, outline a plan to get there, spend months or years doing the work and the world has moved on around you in that time.

2. They put unfair pressure and responsibility on too few people. When it becomes a few people’s job to change the way you work they take on a much bigger burden likely to lead to burnout and most importantly, other people don’t think it’s their job to help.

3. It’s too ‘Boom and Bust’. We’ve made that change, ‘we’re done’. It doesn’t help you build a muscle, a capability to constantly adapt as your environment changes.

At both Tesla and SpaceX Elon Musk has talked about how figuring out ‘the machine that makes the machine’ is the harder thing to do, and the act that brings the most change when done successfully.

“We realized that the true problem, the true difficulty, and where the greatest potential is – is building the machine that makes the machine. In other words, it’s building the factory. I’m really thinking of the factory like a product.”

What if we thought of the newsroom and their relationship with other departments, the silos and the misaligned incentives more like a product? How would we approach changing our structures and our cultures to get a better result? What would it change about how we fund these changes, about how we measure the impact of them? Would we be able to value new roles, new perspectives and new ideas with less judgment?

I think we need to get to the point where the status quo is an expectation of adaptation and resilience. Where we actively teach and support our teams how to evolve and thrive. Where we invest in improving not just what we make, but how and who gets to make it.  

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