Changing mindsets still hardest part of media transformation

There have been a few signals this week – from the UK, US and South Africa – that culture change remains the key driver of successful media transformation.

by WAN-IFRA Staff | October 18, 2013

Moving from an old media mindset to a digital first and paid content culture is a tough process, but one that can succeed – at least at a corporate level – sales figures from News UK suggest. Katie Vanneck-Smith, Chief Marketing Officer of News UK, had told a London conference organized by the Digital Editors Network earlier in the week that the hardest part in moving the business to a paid content model had been changing the organizational culture.

To stop schizophrenia in the business, with teams working to different goals and in different directions, News UK had found a unifying metric: total paid sales, which everyone could rally behind. The focus has obviously worked at The Times and The Sunday Times with both print and digital sales up.

Elsewhere, particularly in newsrooms, there still seems to be a gap between those who talk about successful digital transformation and those who empower the right people to make the change happen.

On the eve of this week’s Online News Association conference in Atlanta, Rick Edmonds highlighted in an article on Poynter’s website, that despite digital transformation being the top priority for newspaper companies, few had given the editorial reigns to digital specialists. He counted half a dozen top editors out of 1,380 daily American newspapers who had digital editors at the helm and is skeptical as to whether the change will have accelerated a year from now.

The experts tell us that culture change takes time – often up to a generation – before it truly heralds a new mindset. This can be extremely frustrating given the speed of change elsewhere.

In South Africa this week, the difficulty of managing newsrooms through culture change became a public issue at City Press newspaper. Culture and transformational issues take on added complexity in South African newsrooms because of the legacy of apartheid.

According to the Media Online a meeting chaired by Editor Ferial Haffajee, designed to “future proof” the newspaper and to have “a discussion about a genuine future, to find ways of altering your work patterns, to do wonderful journalism.”

Instead the discussion raised alleged black on white racism and a Twitter debate which exposed the newsroom tensions. Haffajee tweeted “I don’t tolerate white racists, so what makes black racists any different? Today, I drew a line in that sand. Two sides: one awful coin.” More about the incident can be found here.

For those grappling with change and transformation in the newsroom, here are some of a set of 15 tips from Lauren Rabaino on Media Bistro. They may not be sophisticated enough to solve City Press’s problems, but will be of value to most newsroom managers.

  • Show don’t tell: show transformation by doing things, not talking about what you might do. Track projects’ success and show results– much like News UK did this week.
  • Show quick results early: start change projects by picking easy issues that can be quickly solved instead of starting with a huge project.
  • Find your allies early: find co-conspirators to support you in your transformation project.
  • Rock the boat without tipping it over: learn how to communicate and introduce change without scaring everyone.
  • Ask forgiveness, not permission — but carefully! Sometimes, if you really believe in something, you have to push it through, then ask later for forgiveness.
  • Choose your battles: You’re going to lose some so make sure those you fight are going to help you move the needle. Before every fight, ask yourself if it’s worth it
  • Seek first to understand, then be understood: Colleagues often feel threatened and get defensive when their ideas are dismissed or ignored. Listen to what people need and they will have an easier time understanding your needs.
  •  Keep your users at the heart of everything you do: At the end of the day, you’re not fighting these fights for yourself. You’re fighting for your readers — your users.
  • Remember that you’re not in this alone: If it ever gets hard, you have a whole community of people who are fighting the same fight as you. Reach out.
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