Helping news publishers become audiences-first: a coach’s perspective

2023-06-20. We spoke with Stéphane Mayoux, one of the coaches in WAN-IFRA’s Table Stakes Europe programme, about how coaching can support news publishers as they work to transform their companies into future-proof businesses: “Understanding problems, making changes, carrying out experiments: this is what media companies need to do to survive in the digital environment.”

Stéphane Mayoux (right) with the team from The Conversation UK at the conclusion of their company's Table Stakes Europe round.

by Teemu Henriksson | June 20, 2023

This article was originally published on the website of Table Stakes Europe, a performance-driven change management initiative for local and regional news organisations, supported by the Google News Initiative Digital Growth Programme

When news publishers join Table Stakes Europe, one of the key advantages they benefit from is that each team is assigned a coach who will work one-to-one with them as they work on their challenges throughout the programme.

Moreover, the publishers in Table Stakes Europe are also supported by the full team of coaches who work with other teams but provide a support network to all participants. 

But how does coaching in Table Stakes Europe (TSE) work in practice? What methods do the coaches use to help teams better understand their challenges? And why is it useful for the teams to have an outsider’s perspective?

To learn more about the role of the coach, we spoke to Stéphane Mayoux. He has been a coach in TSE since its start in 2019, and during the programme he has coached more than 20 teams from various countries across Europe.

Originally from France, Stéphane worked for the BBC for 25 years where he produced and edited Africa-focused programmes for TV and radio as well as co-designing and co-delivering digital change workshops. In addition to coaching, Stéphane is a fully accredited psychotherapist and sees individual clients in his private practice in London. Read his full bio here.

We spoke to Stéphane about the ins and outs of coaching within the TSE programme, why he advocates for having timeslots dedicated to thinking, and why coaching news professionals is a bit like coaching a football team.

WAN-IFRA: How would you describe your approach to coaching?

Stéphane Mayoux: I always say that as a coach I am passionate and neutral. That means I’m passionate about the success and the performance of the publisher. But I am also neutral because at the end of the day, I have to accept that decisions will be made by the participants, and I should not try to impose decisions.

At the same time, if I detect that a team tries to remain in their comfort zone, my job is to stretch their minds, to nudge them, with empathy but with the desire for them to do more, to do better.

And I think coaching is about being humble. I don’t have all the solutions, but I can ask questions for the publisher to find solutions. So humility and understanding of my limitations are very important to me as a coach.

I should say that in TSE, we are a team of coaches, each with their own background, skills and expert areas. As coaches we may have slightly different approaches to coaching, but as a team we can offer a rich sounding board for the participants who also come from a variety of situations and market conditions. (Note: you can read about the whole team of TSE coaches here.) 

Just to clarify, in TSE we use that word, coach – and not consultant. What is the main difference?

I think a consultant is expected to come up with solutions that the client will implement. And a consultant is an expert on the client’s problems.

Instead, a coach is driven by the belief that a lot of the solutions are in the client’s mind already. A coach is profoundly curious about who the client is, what his or her specific situation is like. I’m not saying the consultant isn’t curious, but I’m not coming in conversation with a publisher with a prepared solution. I think that’s a key difference.

Is there a specific method that you use as a coach in TSE?

We use a process through which we invite the participant to look for solutions. It’s a very powerful process, and the tools are tried and tested. I usually say the coach is responsible for the process, and the team is responsible for the content this process is going to produce.

Our coaching process is rooted in design thinking, which is about trying things quickly and learning from experiments. We believe it’s better to start with small experiments with enthusiastic pioneers who will learn on the job and gather credibility and energy through that learning.

When teams join Table Stakes, they need to define their main challenge in the digital media environment. The first aim of the coaching process is to help them better define that problem. Once the problem is better defined, we believe that it’s much more likely that the team will find the proper solutions.

And how do you help teams better understand their challenges?

One of the tools is, we ask them to “go on the balcony.” That means stepping away from the daily problems they face and looking at their situation from the top: looking inside their company, looking at the environment, the media scene, the economy, and so on. We call it “the balcony view.” Then we ask them to identify what they think are their main existential problems. We call these “gaps.” 

The coach is there to nudge the publisher to define the main gaps, and then to define their ambitions. In Table Stakes these are “From-To” statements: you define the problem, which is the “From,” and also the solution, the “To” part of the statement.

We also invite participants to work collaboratively across divisions, across disciplines, and invite people to be very, very collaborative. Of course, the newsroom and quality journalism is the engine, but we also invite marketing, data, subscription, product, distribution to collaborate constantly with the newsroom.

As a coach, how often do you meet with your teams, and what happens during those meetings?

My approach is to meet every team for one hour every week. For the teams that’s quite a discipline, it’s a commitment to the process. But for me, this is not negotiable.

The coach Nancy Kline defined coaching as “Time to think.” So a big part of those meetings is to invite people to get away from the daily grind. It’s an opportunity for teams to step away from the daily pressures and deadlines and firefighting, and to think about their situations, such as strengths and weaknesses inside their organisation, and also opportunities and threats in the environment outside the organisation. 

It’s important that they think about both internal and external factors to identify gaps and opportunities. That’s what I mean by “going on the balcony.” 

People participating in TSE tend to have busy schedules and lots of responsibilities. Is it a challenge for them to step away from the daily grind and just think about their challenges and possible solutions?

First, I would challenge that wording: “just think.” Gosh, this is the most important thing they’ve got to do! So let’s not say “just.”

But yes, of course there’s pressure, and we need to acknowledge it. So from the start, the teams need to commit to the process. That’s part of the deal. 

There are two things where this commitment brings rewards fairly quickly. One is a better understanding of what their real problems are, like we said. Number two, we invite them to start experimenting almost straight away. And that brings results, which is also very gratifying. So it soon becomes clear for them that it’s worth investing time in this. 

Finally, what’s absolutely essential in the Table Stakes methodology is that it’s not something you do on top of your daily work. It’s a different way to do your daily work, or your planning and strategising. We invite people to use it as an approach to do their daily work. Understanding problems, making changes, carrying out experiments: this is what media companies need to do to survive in the digital environment.

This week, actually, a very good and successful team looked a bit down during our call. I asked them, “What’s going on?” They said, “We’ve got so much to do.” So I reminded them how hard it can be to change things. It’s exhausting. I reminded them that they need to remind each other of their wins, and also take care of each other. Being a change agent is bruising. 

Mayoux speaking with teams from Le Quotidien Jurassien, Switzerland, and Edinet srl, Italy, during a Table Stakes Europe session. Photo by David Sandison.

You said that you want teams to start with small experiments so they can get results quickly. What about larger, structural changes, do they follow from these smaller experiments?

Yes, but one thing we should say is, the Table Stakes process brings immediate rewards, but people should realise that structural change will only come after 12 or 18 months. The coaching process is not about organising an immediate revolution. Quite the opposite.

It’s about being specific, being focused, involving people in getting small results at the beginning, and little by little changing the way they do publishing in general.

As coaches, we nudge and poke the teams all the time to keep things moving. I often ask a question which has become a bit notorious now: “What are you going to do on Monday?” It’s a key question.

Can you think of examples of teams moving forward quicker than they might traditionally have?

I can think of a couple of organisations who were developing new newsletters. Typically, for them it would have taken up to six months to make sure the product was perfect. The Table Stakes coaching process invited them to put it out there much more quickly. 

So, within a few weeks, there was something out there on the market that was perfectly good. Not perfect, but good enough, which had results that could be improved on. The coaching process allowed those teams to be ready to experiment much more quickly. 

We should remember that Table Stakes is not just about the relationship with the coach, but also about the other organisations taking part. The teams get to see what others do, and for example, it was during a meeting with all the teams that Le Parisien said, “No no, we’re not going to wait to launch our newsletter.” They decided there and then to launch their Buying Power newsletter in one month.

Can you think of other examples where coaching was really helpful to teams?

One team that was very successful was Nordkurier in Germany, who launched a newsletter for people who had moved away from their region. That was an amazing project that really flew from the start. The team came up with the idea, we went through it using the Table Stakes tools, and they launched fairly quickly. It was a good example of reasonable risk-taking and successes through coaching.

I would also mention the Swedish publisher NWT who successfully reached out to younger audiences. They were exceptional in identifying the needs and interests of that audience, and started producing both journalism and marketing that speaks to them.

I could go on highlighting more teams, but I can’t resist mentioning one more: Rheinische Post, whose initiative “Welcome Baby!” targeted young parents in their region. That project really helped them accelerate their audience-centric thinking.

Those last two examples chose to reach out to young people and new parents, which are not necessarily common target audiences for newspapers. Is it typical for TSE teams to choose uncommon or diverse audiences to focus on?

Table Stakes, at the core, is a program that is audience-centric. We talk about different audiences from day one, and we continue to talk about those throughout. So within the Table Stakes process, it is quite natural to identify a diversity of audiences. 

It could be young families, it could be people who have left their region, as I mentioned with Nordkurier. And it can be groups like younger women, or women in leadership. Or one example was from Reach in the UK, which created a newsletter for the Muslim community in their area.

Do you have a favourite feedback that you’ve received as a coach?

It’s usually a good sign when at the end of the process teams ask for more! Some teams have said, “We miss the weekly chat.” It’s quite sweet.

I have one specific comment that stayed with me. Someone from Les Echos said that in our meetings, there’s something that he called “la libre parole” – free speech, or freedom to express oneself. It seems to me that a principle of coaching is to create a space where it’s safe to disagree. And so we kept using that term, “la libre parole,” also in subsequent meetings. I said to them, this is precious, let’s try to preserve it. It was a very touching comment.

I often think about a mantra that Amazon apparently has about meetings: “disagree and commit.” You’re encouraged to say what you think, even if you disagree. But once a decision has been made, everyone commits to implement it. Even if you didn’t agree at first. 

It’s a very powerful idea. I think that as a coach, it’s important to create a space where diverging views can be heard before a decision is made.

What have you learned thanks to your experience as a coach?

I’m amazed how committed and passionate local and regional journalism is in Europe. I keep meeting people who are resolute, who are dedicated to their audiences, who want good journalism out there. That’s amazing.

I spent 25 years at the BBC, so I know that big organisations have their strengths and weaknesses. And I’ve worked in international journalism where, at times, I could be quite remote from my audience.

Here, I work with small teams of journalists who are part of their audiences, and their dedication, motivation, and desire to get news that is trustworthy and helpful out there is remarkable.

What is the most challenging part of being a coach?

I’m a great sports fan. I’m sure you’ve seen football games on TV, where the camera sometimes zooms in on the coach. And you can see those guys’ faces, the Artetas and the Guardiolas of this world. You see the intensity, the frustration, the elation at times. But they have to remain on the touchline. They may scream and shout, but it has to be from the touchline.

That’s the role of the coach. And it comes with some amount of frustration. I’m only a coach, I can only offer a process. What is difficult is not to be on the pitch. Coaching can be quite intense because you want your team to win.

… And the most fun part?

By training, I’m what we call a relational coach. It doesn’t mean couples counselling, it means that the value of coaching is in the relation you create between the coach and the client. 

So, the most exciting thing is to build relationships. Building trust, building mutual respect, cracking jokes, pushing, being demanding… this is the most exciting bit. This is the fun bit. 

And you know, when a team a year down the line has a meeting, and someone uses that sentence of mine, “What are we going to do on Monday?” That’s fun!

Teemu Henriksson

Research Editor

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