Want to create a more digital newsroom? Find your inner startup
On a gray day in the fall of 2013, a dozen department heads of the Dutch media company NRC huddled together in a room in Amsterdam. (Full disclosure: I was one of them.) Paintings of bygone editors of the esteemed daily NRC Handelsblad decorated the walls. That day, we made the decision to launch a startup within the newsroom in order to help ease the transition to a digital-focused company.
The resulting project, NRC Q, covers business, tech, and careers. NRC Q publishes forward-looking news stories, relies heavily on video and infographics (both created in-house by reporters), and repackages newspaper stories for an online audience (partly by limiting the word count and making the tone more conversational). We intended it to be a testing ground for a new kind of NRC journalism, where we’d address business questions like monetization.
Because we wanted to give the reader an active voice in the reporting process, we looked at data daily. Chartbeat, Google Analytics, and A/B testing were all terms that had been previously gone unheard at our 187-year-old organization. Reporters only knew a story had done well if a colleague patted them on the shoulder, or if they got a letter from a reader.
NRC Q has been a success: Our niche publication in a relatively small market has just shy of a million unique visitors per month, attracts a whole new audience for NRC, and continues to push boundaries in its search for a new kind of journalism. Startup-like platforms out of the newsrooms at, for instance, The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and The Dallas Morning News have seen similar success.
Innovation may be stereotypically associated with starting in a garage, wearing hoodies and eating pizza while pulling all-nighters. We’ve sure had our share of that, humbly starting in the archive room of NRC’s otherwise glass-and-light-filled Amsterdam offices.
But real innovation isn’t about garages. I’ve come to see innovation as an organizational structure issue. How do we produce or repackage journalistic content? Who do we hire? Where are we located? How do we relate to the rest of the newsroom? What processes make it harder for us to innovate? And how should the leaders of legacy papers approach young upstarts within their newsrooms?
As a Knight Visiting Nieman Fellow this past spring, I set out to explore how other news organizations have become more digitally oriented — specifically, how they’ve used startups within the newsroom to enact transformation.
In the course of my research, I visited with America’s largest media brands (The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal), talked with regional bastions of quality journalism (the Minneapolis Star Tribune, The Dallas Morning News, The Boston Globe), included digital-only publications (BuzzFeed, The Huffington Post, This.cm) and the outside view of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and added to all that the expert opinions of professors and thinkers at Harvard Business School.
A lot is still being figured out. Even though we’re drawn to digital, print is still the main source of revenue for many newspapers. Digital subscriptions and ads haven’t yet offset print losses. And reporters can be wary of change.
“Nobody claims it’s an easy transition,” said Anita Elberse, a professor at Harvard Business School who specializes in the digital transformation of media businesses. “But it’s just so much better than managing decline.”
My aim throughout my reporting was to provide a roadmap for other news organizations that might want to host a startup within their walls. Here’s what I learned.
Make sure the masthead and the publisher realize the need for drastic measures. Allocate budget accordingly and incentivize the sales team to attract online advertisements. Not every innovation has to be a blockbuster.
Change your day-to-day operations. In order to let the startup succeed, and your organization transform more easily, implement changes gradually but surely. Don’t waver. The head of the startup should have weekly meetings with representatives from departments outside of the newsroom. The journalists themselves shouldn’t pitch for the paper anymore — they should pitch for online, since that’s where the initial journalistic decisions have to be made. There should be no more talk of the front page in the main news meeting (see Case Study), since online is the way to go. The newsroom will adapt both in workflow and in state of mind.
The new, fast teams that are set up to push innovation within U.S. newsrooms are often given fast-sounding, military-style names. They’re called Urgency Teams. Guiding Coalitions. Innovation Catalysts. Digital guru Sree Sreenivasan, who prefers to go by “Sree,” calls them “the SWAT teams who do the hard work with no glory.”
Sree used to be a professor at the Columbia School of Journalism, but two years ago the Metropolitan Museum of Art hired him to help digitize the museum. Many of his colleagues, surrounded by art, think in millennia-long business cycles. Many journalists, on the other hand, feel that the end is nigh.
“Whenever I’m in a newsroom these days, I feel like I’m at a funeral,” Sree told me. “So depressing. Agreed, the same old thing doesn’t work anymore, so let’s push forward. Stop giving up. Take a chance. Do things. Be aggressive.”
Many newsrooms are trying something new. The newspaper, in this startup-based model, appoints a small group of people; gives them a wide mandate to invent new products, services, and ideas; and makes sure they feel free to operate outside the constraints of the legacy newspaper. “They should earn the right to run the whole paper,” Sree said, half-jokingly.
At The Wall Street Journal, executive editor Almar Latour has created several of these groups in the last year. Some worked to create newsletters, some to create new web sections. Others are working on newsroom reorganization and data journalism. When we met this spring, one team — including members from design, product, and the newsroom — was working on the redesign of the website. Another team was working on an Apple Watch app.
First, Latour said, an organization needs to ask what it can do to be best in class in, say, data journalism or visual journalism. It should follow that up with an assessment of what works in the present organization and establish how to reach its goal. There should be a sense of urgency: The group should aim for initial results in less than three months. Speed is of the essence.
Who and where?
Build a team with the mandate to innovate. The team should be no smaller than five and no larger than fifteen, and should have clear permission to operate without free from the constraints of the newsroom or other tight controls. A gag order to exclude the entire newsroom from weighing in might help. To prevent endless discussions, set a clear deadline (e.g., three months) for the project to be completed.
Staff the team as diversely as possible. Suspend hierarchy; don’t ask bureau chiefs for recommendations. Appoint knowledgeable and entrepreneurial and eager reporters, complemented by representatives from different departments like sales and product design. Don’t be afraid of new hires. Keep the masthead well-informed but keep them out of the operation itself to both make sure the mandate is still in place but so is the room to operate. Appoint a connector to spearhead the young upstart.
As soon as the startup is ready to go live, find a place in the newsroom. Visibility is key and change is the new norm. In order to have a lively conversation about journalism with reporters, designers and developers outside the startup, be present in the newsroom. Don’t hunker down and only talk to other members of your team.
This team may include the most unorthodox combination of coworkers that have ever shared a room in your company. The newsroom, sales, customer service, developers — every part of your business should get to have one representative on the team.
When the Journal’s Latour builds a new team to innovate in the newsroom, he aims to suspend hierarchy. “Someone could have a long, distinguished career at the paper, or may have just walked in the door — the only thing that counts is the level of interest in the project and the expertise and ideas they bring,” he said. Latour also suggests asking a few “happy and eager participants” to make it easier to get the job done.
There are two groups of people that should not be on the innovative team. One: People whose bosses think it’s time for them to be “rewarded with a project.” Two: The actual leaders in the newsroom, the masthead.
The more interesting the work of the online group gets, the more the masthead will probably want to get involved — and they should, of course, support the startup. But including them on the actual team carries the risk of counter-productiveness, said John Kotter, Konosuke Matsushita professor of leadership, emeritus at the Harvard Business School.
If these leaders really wanted to innovate, Kotter believes, they would have done it already. So he suggests coming up with some lines to deter them in advance, in case they insist: “The demands on you are too high already, you need to put out a paper every day, you have to make sure we meet our quality standards, you’re already responsible for us not losing money…”
There’s a lot of academic research on how to fill these teams. The Harvard Business Review’s guide to innovation, for example, recommends filling at least a third of the team — and possibly more — with outside hires (as long as they’re the best in their field), because they are freer to operate and ask questions from an outside perspective.
The Minneapolis Star Tribune took such an approach: In the past year, following a buyout, it hired 32 new, mostly digitally-inclined reporters, Terry Sauer, assistant managing editor for digital, told me.
Many of the reporters at legacy papers are the best in their fields. But the newsroom does not necessarily contain all the right people to actually innovate, warned Blake Wilson, the Times editor who worked on the NYT Now app.
Not every great reporter is good at writing headlines for the web, or at making longer articles accessible to readers who only have limited time online, or at realizing that digital media can require a different tone of voice.
NYT Now, which launched last year, is an app that provides a selection of New York Times stories, plus aggregated content. The NYT Now team is staffed with a combination of internal and external hires, with editors and developers working closely together.
Some editors in traditional roles have cycled through the team for short rotations to gain exposure to the new dynamic. (At NRC Q, we offer “internships” that are one day or one week long, and we are already seeing results.)
That just leaves one thing on the personnel side: who to lead this “ragtag band of people,” as Latour put it. He thinks the best results come from a person who knows how the organization works, and at the same time who can envision success and move it into reality, “who delivers something fresh.” That’s an unusual combination.
As for the where: The Minneapolis Star Tribune moved to new offices this year. Editors for both print and digital sit together at a “hub” in the center of the newsroom. The Journal has a similar setup in New York; other newsrooms are starting to provide space for engineers and product designers on the floor as well.
Don’t put your newsroom startup in a corner or in the basement, Latour implored. The Journal has two digital teams working in the middle of the newsroom on a mobile initiative and the new WSJ.com. Developers and digital designers moved into the newsroom in May, and the digital designers now also report to it. Mobile and web developers in the newsroom will work side by side with journalists on products and new features.
“It’s comparable in magnitude to when we first moved digital journalists into the print paper,” Latour said. “It has to be in your face, because change is the new norm.”
Case study: Change your meetings
It’s the execution that counts.
If building a startup within a legacy news medium is one way to spur innovation and the transformation to digital, changing your day-to-day operations is another track. It alters your workflow, papers that have made the change tell me, and it alters the newsroom’s way of thinking.
Meetings do matter. Sometimes it’s on a small scale. At The Boston Globe, the managing editor for digital has a Monday morning meeting with the head of products, the head of editorial, and a representative from the sales department.
Other times, the changes are more radical. Take, for instance, the daily 10:00 AM “huddle” at the Star Tribune in downtown Minneapolis. The front pages of competing newspapers like the St. Paul Pioneer Press, The New York Times and USA Today are pinned to the wall. But Terry Sauer, assistant managing editor for digital, starts off the meeting by showing — and delivering context about — a live feed of Chartbeat. In the first part of the meeting, writers pitch stories that should go online. “Now that,” Sauer said, “is putting people on the spot.”
The Sports section announces a chat about hockey and both pre-game and post-game blogs. The Features Section will be blogging about fish sandwiches. The business desk will run the crop forecast outlook for corn.
A day later, at the The New York Times: Different venue, same idea. The most important meeting of the day, the 10 am news meeting, was officially retired this spring. Up until then, it was called the Page One Meeting and editors pitched their stories accordingly: The emphasis was on the print paper, and on page A1.
Now the meeting has a new name — the News Meeting — and a new feel. A social media editor starts by putting up the website and the mobile app on a big screen, and walking the group through what happened the previous day.
There are close to twenty editors sitting at the oval-shaped table and another ten sitting on the second row. The Paris and London Bureaus are on speakerphone and Clifford Levy, who led the team that developed NYT Now, is looking at his Chartbeat dashboard on a laptop.
All the pitches are focused on digital. The editor for National has a story on the prosecution of Senator Bob Menendez for that evening, but he’s asked “why wouldn’t we put it up right now.” The Business desk offers a story on the New York Auto Show to go online and the Culture Desk has a review of the new Whitney Museum to be published at 1 p.m. A profile of “Orphan Black” actress Tatiana Maslani is already going up today — it’s a Wednesday — even though it won’t appear in print until it runs in the New York Times magazine on Sunday.
No one mentions sections, page numbers, or even the front page. A smaller group will decide on that later today — it’s not relevant for this (most important daily) meeting.
All the editors want to be on what they call “Dean’s List.” Editor-in-chief Dean Baquet wrote in a leaked memo to his staff last February: “Stories that the masthead selects for Dean’s List will receive the very best play on all our digital platforms — web, mobile, social and others yet to come. Desks will compete for the best digital, rather than print, real estate.” It is, according to Baquet, “a small but significant step in our digital transformation.”
The meeting ends with the photo editor presenting a compilation of pictures to possibly be published online: A Cold War bunker in Norway, Secretary of State John Kerry during the Iran nuclear talks in Switzerland, and a “cuddly and fluffy angora show bunny“. The image is still on the screen when the room empties.
What good leaders say and do
Be sensitive to office politics; implement a no-jerk-policy. People naturally fear change, so explain (and explain and explain) and assist in building a new skill-set for colleagues outside of the startup. At the same time, educate your new hires about the history and the shared values of the organization. Have brown bag lunches to bridge possible hostilities. Understand why both sides need time and help. Give people chances to talk, bond, and laugh.
The masthead stays on message. The newsroom leadership should back the startup and not get flustered when mistakes happen — because they will, and they should. This public display of high-level support is crucial and thus criticism is dealt with informally and privately. The rest of the newsroom should not be made aware every time a small change is discussed. Maintain a no-jerk-policy in both the startup and the rest of the newsroom. Complaining and obstructive behavior are counterproductive to the future of the entire company.
It’s sometimes difficult to get an organization’s leadership to recognize the fact that the company needs to transform digitally. The problem is structural, according to Harvard Business School professor Kotter: The organization is set up to publish a new paper every day. it’s not set up to figure out how to make that paper obsolete.
“I could get you out of complacency by hitting you on the head with the facts and the numbers, but you’ll forget everything else but me … That’s not a sustainable force of change,” Kotter said. “Self-realization is.”
“Nobody ever goes, hey, let’s innovate a bit here,” Latour said. “No masthead or CEO will just innovate because they can.”
Even if a newsroom’s leadership realizes the need to innovate digitally, there are still hundreds of journalists to take into account, and not everybody is there yet.
“Take a long, hard look at the biggest disconnect there is,” said Stacy-Marie Ishmael of BuzzFeed News and formerly of the Financial Times. “There’s a gap between what the audience wants and what journalists are doing.”
But you can’t simply brush naysayers off as irrelevant. Kotter urged to keep an open mind. “It’s really not that they’re complacent and egotistical,” he said — they’re scared. Some also have “a perverse incentive,” Sree said, because “they’re just trying to get to their retirement.”
Skok believes in Clay Christensen’s RPP theory: It’s about resources (people, budgets), processes (workflow, digital-first), and priorities (editorial and managerial). When all of these are in place, the company can more easily adapt to change.
Sree regularly gives talks to newsrooms and reminds them of the U.S. railroad companies that didn’t realize how serious it was that their business model was under pressure from airlines. They assumed they were in the railroad business, when in fact they were in the transportation business — and see where they are now.
Similarly, Sree said, journalists aren’t in the print paper business anymore. They’re in the news, information and data business.
The Huffington Post’s Koda Wang, who oversees the company’s global expansion, urges newspapers to stop thinking of themselves as newspapers: “The idea of a fixed print format is long obsolete.” And so the thinking in the newsroom has to change accordingly.
There are plenty of practical ways to include reluctant colleagues in the process of change: Group meetings, weekly brown-bag lunches for workers from various departments, video presentations. Here are some other ideas:
— Sauer made laminated cards for the Star Tribune that explain what to do online in the event of breaking news. “Newsroom policy,” it says on the top of each card. “No exceptions.”
“Don’t start writing an entire story and come to me in forty minutes to tell me you’ve written thirteen beautiful paragraphs,” Sauer said. “No. Write a minimum of eighty words now, update it constantly, and keep hitting publish each and every time. We need something that gets us in the game.”
— Visibility and repetition help. Ishmael recommends “always over-communicating.” Tailor different messages for different groups: vendors, journalists, the board of directors that needs to sign off on an investment.
— Don’t get frustrated. As Kotter said, “You’ll never win everyone over.” You don’t have to get the entire newsroom behind this industry-changing model. Your goal is 50 per cent plus one.
— Latour takes steps to empower a startup-like feeling at the Journal. He keeps the door to his office open and tries to talk to people in person instead of sending out hundreds of emails. “The party line should be that we don’t know exactly what will work, but we’re taking steps.”
That brings up a question I’ve encountered in many newsrooms: Doesn’t all this innovation hurt our core business?
As a way of countering that question, Latour urged editors-in-chief and other newsroom leaders to maintain a clear message: The quality of our journalism is sacrosanct, “but a lot of our behavior will have to change, newsroom behavior has to change, the ways in which we reach people has to change, our form of storytelling has to change. There is no other way: we have to change.”
Finding room to innovate (and fail)
Don’t do just one startup — do a lot of them. Andrew Golis, who was entrepreneur-in-residence at The Atlantic and who founded This.cm, advised newsrooms not to just do one startup — do a lot. In this fast-moving media environment, it’s not just the idea that counts or brings you success; it’s also timing and sheer luck. “Startups fail. They’re supposed to fail.”
Niche verticals at legacy papers can create a “safe space,” in the words of the Times’ Blake Wilson, to experiment without alienating readers and without foregoing the institutional culture.
“A massive budget? Not necessary. An endless stream of meetings? No,” said Ishmael. “The new group should just strive to get more small things done.”
One of the classic traps of innovation is the expectation that every startup has to succeed. But not every idea has to be a blockbuster. Small successes can also lead to new revenue streams (and a larger scaled transformation in the newsroom).
Jim Moroney, publisher and CEO of The Dallas Morning News, bases his transformational strategy on two assumptions. The first is that print advertising revenues will continue to decline. The second is that, for a local newspaper like the Morning News (with a 250,000 Sunday circulation and 8 million unique website visitors per month), geography prevents digital advertising revenue from scaling enough to offset print ad declines.
Moroney doesn’t want to downsize the newsroom more than it’s already been downsized. It was 600 reporters strong in 2001; today, it’s half that size.
“Basically,” Moroney told me, “we have to solve the business model problem.”
The Dallas Morning News has experimented with different solutions. It put up a complete paywall — with no meter — in February 2011. That didn’t work, so Moroney took the paywall down.
Now the Morning News is trying a range of other ideas. It offers events like “One-Day University,” where professors give classes to readers. It started a content-marketing agency. And it now owns the craft beer and indie music festival Untapped and the food and wine festival Savor.
The paper also found room to innovate in arts and culture. This year it launched GuideLive, a mobile-friendly site with an infinite scroll of things to see and do in the area.
A team of seven, including an editor, a producer, and a designer, oversaw the GuideLive project. Moroney instructed the group to build the site as if it were a startup, without creating any extra work for the newsroom. All the regular journalistic principles still applied, including the separation of church and state (content and ads). “But they might want to open with Maroon 5 and not with opera, and that’s fine. In the old days, we would just do it all.”
Moroney admitted that initiatives like these have little to do with safeguarding democracy (which he strongly considers to be one of the Morning News’s goals) or even selling papers. The paper can help sell tickets, though: “I have unsold advertising inventory [that I can use to] help put people in seats.”
This, Moroney says, is all about sustaining innovation. His strategy is not to disrupt his own company, but to try and find enough sources of revenue to sustain it.
Case study: Office politics
Change is hard for people, says office politics expert Karen Dillon. Expect “anxiety, stress, and in-fighting when you make the transition to digital.”
Dillon is the former editor of the Harvard Business Review and author of The HBR Guide to Office Politics (with Clay Christensen). “If you experiment, if you change your organization, it would be weird if it didn’t result in some kind of office politics. Change in structure typically leads to personal reactions.”
Here’s my interview with Dillon, lightly condensed and edited.
Short-term mutinies actually can work, but in the long run you’re still losing because change is inevitable — in any company, and especially in quality journalism right now. So it’s better to root for success, to figure out how to do great work, and start to shine yourself.
Listening to the reader, and the data
Think of the reader’s needs. What job do you need to do to best serve the reader? Your app, website and social media content should be seamless.
Reporters need to be knowledgeable about the financials of the company and the industry as a whole. Use readership data (engagement time, pages per session, number of visitors or subscribers) to promote change and to help solve conflicts. Editorial choices are not made solely on the basis of what readers want. The newsroom, however, is ultimately at the service of the reader’s desire for quality news and information.
“When you’re a 125-year-old company,” the Journal’s Latour said, “it’s easy to forget the reader.”
The Times struggled with that in the creation of the NYT Now app. All of the new content sometimes felt like homework to new readers who didn’t have a history with the brand, said Blake Wilson.
NYT Now saw some successes and some failures. One of its goals was to find a significant new audience. That worked; there are no signs that the app cannibalized the Times’ paid audience, Wilson said. The second goal was to monetize the app by charging $8 per month. That didn’t work so well: The New York Times announced this spring that it would make the app free.
NYT Now uses bullet points and a conversational tone to sum up stories. Those bullet points were a matter of debate in the newsroom. But Wilson said that many mobile readers on news apps simply scroll down to get a glimpse of the headlines, reach the bottom, and scroll back up without ever clicking on a headline. By adding bullet points under headlines, NYT Now provides more information on the display layer.
Sometimes, such changes in tone of voice, character and format trickle into the rest of the paper as well. Bullet points have appeared on the Times’ homepage, and the paper is commissioning more conversationally written “explainers.”
“The audience has given us permission to take what we’re doing further,” Wilson said.
Meanwhile, the Globe kept the audience in mind when it had to reframe the way it thought about delivering a story.
In the old days, the Globe’s goal was to deliver the best print story. All the other media — Facebook posts, Twitter, video, even the Boston.com and BostonGlobe.com websites — were supposed to promote the paper. Print was everything.
The challenge now, Skok said, is just to create a story, in any shape or form, and help it reach its intended audience. Twitter helps publicize that story. So do Facebook, Snapchat, “and, by the way, print as well.” The Globe is not a platform-specific publication anymore — it’s a story-telling machine. In this model, stories can both appear in print and online, and it doesn’t matter which comes first.
The Minneapolis Star Tribune’s website attracts seven million unique visitors per month and is the second most profitable part of the company, after the Sunday paper.
On the day I visited the Star Tribune, Arizona senator Harry Reid announced he wasn’t going to seek re-election. Terry Sauer’s team gave the Harry Reid story the second-best position on the website, right below a story about a fire in the suburbs that caused a death. When he checked Chartbeat, he was surprised to see that the Reid story got more readers than the fire. Contrary to his earlier plans, he kept the story up there.
Usually Sauer is more conservative than his staff, he says; they’re the ones pushing the envelope, and he’s fine with that. He agrees that there should be room on the site for “a three-headed cow in Wisconsin.”
“Cats and lists have actually always been a part of newspaper history,” Sree agreed. “Papers have tried for centuries to lure people in.” And throughout that time, there have been many other changes that were criticized at first, too: Color, new sections, different story formats like interviews.
All of these decisions should be informed by data.
Journalism is the only profession, Sree said, that prides itself on not knowing about its financials. But he thinks journalists should learn everything about their business: How many subscribers do we have, in print and online? What’s our ad revenue? Are we actually still profitable? To that end, many newsrooms are installing Chartbeat and giving reporters access to Google Analytics
Sree proposes that, every day, a journalist should send the entire newsroom an email about the daily numbers and what they actually mean. Which stories performed best, and why? What can we learn from the use of certain kinds of headlines? Did the amount of time spent by readers on a specific story reveal a curiosity gap between the headline and the content actually delivered?
On a daily basis, data comes to the rescue. Debates about that headline with a question mark? Provide your colleague with data you’ve gathered from A/B-testing different headlines. Why can’t a story be any longer than 500 words? Because the reader demonstrates he doesn’t have time for it and clicks away. “When arguments get heated and tension arises, we look at the data,” the Globe’s Skok said. “It always helps.”
All of this is, in Skok’s words, the “unsexy” work of making your newsroom a more product-centric and user-centric organization. It may not immediately reward you with a Pulitzer prize, but it might help get your organization better aligned with a more digital time.
“It would be naive not to hold ourselves responsible for our possible demise,” Skok said. “But I don’t feel an air of inevitability about that anymore.”