10 keys to newsroom transformation

Three years ago, one U.S. newspaper chain quietly leaped into what it now calls a “Digital Leads” future. The goal: Transform print newsrooms into real-time digital news operations engaged with community at every turn. In this article, Vikki Porter, Director of the Knight Digital Media Center at USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism in Los Angeles, tells how they achieved measurable success.

by WAN-IFRA Staff | September 30, 2015

The Knight Digital Media Center (KDMC) joined the E.W. Scripps newspaper division, now a part of the Journal Media Group, in a “learning partnership” to transform 13 small- to medium-size print newsrooms into digital-centric operations.

“Transformation” is a buzz word heard frequently in a challenged industry. But the process created by KDMC in partnership with Mizell Stewart III, now Managing Director/Content at Journal Media Group, has delivered measurable results in audience growth and engagement. It also has provided a road map for other news organizations.

KDMC published takeaways from the Four Platform Newsroom Initiative that any news organization can adopt in a report called Digital Leads: 10 Keys to Newsroom Transformation.

Those findings may be of interest to editors, particularly those attending next week’s Newsroom Summit in Hamburg because the challenges of small and medium newsrooms are global. The key elements that helped these 13 newsrooms transform to Digital Leads organizations include:

1. Strategy. Corporate’s overarching strategy was to support newsrooms that focused on “watchdog, data, real-time, and grassroots journalism and on intensive coverage of franchise topics, unique coverage of high interest to potential digital subscribers.”

2. Research. Market research was conducted in the largest local markets focusing on interests of younger target audiences. This research provided the demographicand self-identifying interests of those local news consumers.

3. Staff Ownership. Rather than top-down directives, newsroom leaders createdteams representing different newsroom strengths and interests. The changes in coverage were developed by these teams, with top editors facilitating their work and providing time and resources. The teams used the market research to identify unique, high-interest “franchise” topics that they could “own” because of their expertise and the quality of their journalism on multiple platforms.

4. Process. KDMC facilitated a process that brought the news consumer and community to the center of decision-making. That process began with teams building on the research with their own in-the-field interviews, conversations and listening sessions with community/audience members.

5. Leadership and culture. Corporate and local newsroom leaders maintained a steady, clear stream of expectations and goals, communicated at all levels of the organizations. The process revealed newsrooms where culture was healthy and collaborative as well as where culture was directive and mistrusted.

6. Organization-wide buy-in. Newsrooms shared their goals and action plans with business-side departments and collaborated to ensure the initiative was understood and valued. It was most critical to have support from the marketing departments who could craft outreach messaging to consumers.

7. Training and tools. KDMC and company training were provided in digital literacy, strategy, social media and digital skills using simple tools and taking advantage of free and peer learning. Targeted training identified special needs (data-base reporting, for example) that could be shared within the company.

8. Organizational Change. The newsrooms were free to develop the internal structure and workflow that worked best for them to meet the initiative’s Four Platform goals and provide real time, data, investigative and grassroots (social) reporting. Newsrooms also changed their planning and meeting schedules to reflect the change to real-time digital publication demands. Digital content was given priority and print planning “completed the cycle.”

9. Priorities. Newsrooms with reduced resources were given “permission” to stop doing things, including some traditional coverage that was not as valuable to the audience as other compelling digital franchise work.

10. Feedback Loop. To ensure that the news consumer/community audience was front of mind, the newsrooms developed strategies for “checking back,” using both analytics and real-time, real-people interaction.

As the Journal Media Group approaches 2016, its focus is on sustaining the processes and the newsrooms’ unique approach to franchise topics and consumer-focused coverage. On-board training is being developed to introduce new hires and managers to the Four Platform Newsroom.

For those who would like to know more, KDMC is offering a free webinar Tuesday, 6 Oct., at 11 a.m. Pacific Time/2 p.m Eastern Time, with Mizell Stewart III and KDMC senior programming consultant Michele McLellan discussing the Digital Leads findings. (Webinar registration is required) In addition, I will be available to provide more information at the 14th International Newsroom Summit on 5 Oct.

Vikki Porter is director of the Knight Digital Media Center at USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism in Los Angeles, where she supervises Professional Development Programs for journalists and others engaged in providing news and information. She spent 30 years in print newsrooms throughout the U.S., mainly in supervising editor positions.

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