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Broaden skills and combine roles to enable more efficient workflows

Use three steps to broaden skills in support of more effective workflows: (1) Define and build the skills required for digital publishing ‘self-sufficiency’ across the newsroom; (2) reposition producers and digitally skilled specialists to help others practice new skills while also being masters of enhanced storytelling and innovators; and (3) think in terms of roles instead of positions while shifting many traditional positions into combinations of roles.

Define and build the skills required for greater digital publishing “self-sufficiency” across the newsroom

Newsroom folks always name digital skill building as crucial. Yet, far too often skill building efforts are poorly designed, ad hoc, and disconnected from performance goals and requirements. Instead of falling in these traps, start with a clear objective: every reporter and editor should have all the skills needed for the “one person workflow” for creating, producing, publishing and monitoring a basic digital story on the major publishing platforms used by your newsroom.

With this objective, define at a granular level the specific skills required, assess individuals’ current skill levels against these requirements, and set expectations that folks will do whatever’s needed to learn and use required skills. Finally, set – and demand individuals to achieve – specific traffic, engagement and other goals whose success depends on digital skills.

As a first step, define the skills needed for digital “self-sufficiency.” Start by specifying the elements of a “good digital post.” Include both the tangible elements of the post itself (text, visuals, links, embeds, etc.) as well as the practices needed for audience-focused digital storytelling (e.g. social listening). Use these specifications to lay out the necessary skills along the workflow stages of the “one person workflow.” For example, for your main web and mobile web site this could include:

You can then expand your requirements for self-sufficiency by adding other primary platforms where audiences expect your staff to be able to post, e.g. Facebook or Twitter. Add any elements and skills not already covered that are specific to these platforms. For example, in the case of Facebook, this could include effective story selection and writing an engaging headline and social lead.

What you choose to include in your “self-sufficiency” specifications will vary based on factors specific to your newsroom and its current level of digital transformation. As mentioned earlier, you may want to tackle such skill requirements in waves or phases. Or you may be at a point where newsroom folks are in need, of and ready for, a full bore approach. The important thing is to intentionally do the work needed to clearly and granularly define needed skills continuous digital first publishing.

Once you have clearly defined required skills, use the steps described in the chapter entitled “Shaping the right staff roles and skills for your newsroom” – including assessing newsroom folks current skills against those required, choosing ways to support folks trying to gain skills (use of specialists, training and so forth) and setting and holding folks accountable for performance results (e.g. traffic, engagement, etc.) that can only be achieved with the needed skills. In addition, you’ll need to think through what and how to best work with folks who are not trying. The Shaping Roles and Skills chapter also provides guidance for how senior leaders of larger newsrooms should focus on skill gaps at the desk or team level while requiring desks and teams to focus on individual skill development.

Reposition producers and digitally skilled specialists to help others practice new skills while also being masters of enhanced storytelling and innovators

In general, three choices confront individuals or teams whose success depends on learning and practicing one or more new skills, behaviors, attitudes and ways of working with others:

  • Do this myself
  • Do this with me
  • Do this for me

Say, for example, you wish to have a new kitchen table yet have no furniture making skills. You have three choices. You could have someone do it for you – buy a table at a furniture store or hire a carpenter. You could choose to learn furniture making with the help of a carpenter – that is choose ‘do this with me.’ Or, you could go buy books on furniture making or take other steps and ‘just do it yourself.’

In many newsrooms, producers and other digital specialists spend nearly all of their time ‘doing it for others’ – that is, reporters, editors and others who lack needed skills hand the work over. Not only does this preclude the practice required to learn new skills – it also means the specialists spend far too much time doing basic tasks instead of the kind of enhanced story telling and innovation needed to serve and grow audiences.

Instead, senior newsroom leaders need to reposition how these experts spend their time and are evaluated. Here’s a rule of thumb for newsrooms just getting started with digital transformation:

  • Skills developers (50% of time): Doing skills work “with others” by providing coaching, workshopping, training and side-by-side support for developing digital skills across the newsroom. In other words, specialists have the key role in building “self-sufficiency” for digital publishing. Senior leaders should hold such specialists accountable for the progress in performance and learning of those acquiring digital skills. For example, if a digitally skilled producer works half her time over the coming 6 to 10 months with, say, 10 to 20 people in the newsroom, then the progress of those 10 to 20 against their traffic, engagement and other goals should be partly what is discussed at the specialist’s own performance evaluation and review.
  • Skills innovators (20 to 30% of time): Keeping abreast of developments in their own field of expertise; continuing to develop their own skills; identifying and spreading better practices across the newsrooms to refresh and advance skills; and working with groups across the newsroom on conducting and evaluating quick story-telling and platform use experiments to better serve audiences. Success here reflects some blend of identified and deployed new practices with audience and other metrics/goals accomplished as a result.
  • Skills masters (20 to 30% of time): Working with reporters and editors on enhancing select, high investment stories where advanced skills can really make a difference in deepening audience engagement, expanding audience reach, and building audiences’ recognition and perceived value of the newsroom’s brand. Success here turns on the performance of such stories and projects.

In doing this repositioning, it’s important to discuss with the individuals involved how their roles will be changing along with the rest of the newsroom and that they will be expected to carry all three roles going forward. Some individuals may be stronger in one role than another and take more of a lead in that area within the newsroom. But few if any should be allowed to just “do their thing” in isolation. In addition, these different duties, time requirements and success factors ought to get written in to job profiles for new specialist hires. And, finally, senior leaders in conversation with these specialists must monitor the progress of newsroom folks toward digital self-sufficiency. As this happens, the allocation of effort across the three roles should change with more time going toward innovation and master story enhancement.

Think in terms of “roles not positions” and shift traditional positions to combinations of roles

Digitally transformed, audience focused newsrooms are far more flexible than traditional print centric ones where reporters wrote text, photographers shot photos and copy editors edited copy. Instead of these highly fixed, folks in transformed newsrooms can and do play several roles that themselves vary over the course of a day, week, month, quarter and year.

Here are examples of combinations of roles that emerge in digitally savvy, audience-focused newsrooms:

Traditional functional position Roles and combo roles

for audience-focused continuous digital first publishing

Reporter •  reporter/producer/audience developer (“one-person workflow” capable)

•  member of an audience and/or minipublsher team (see Table Stake #1 and #7 for more)

Editor •  producer/editor/audience developer

•  digital story editor (all elements of the story, not just text)

•  digital hub “real time” producer/audience developer

•  digital hub shift editor/manager

•  leader of an audience, platform or minipublisher team (see Table Stake #1, #2 and #7)

Digital producer •  story enhancer (applying advanced skills to select stories)

•  skills developer and coach

•  story form creator (working with audience teams and producer)

•  skills innovator

Photographer, videographer or graphics designer •  visuals producer/editor/audience developer

•  visuals skills developer and coach

•  visual story form developer (working with audience teams, producers and tech developers)

Audience developer •  audience development skills developer and coach

•  audience development opportunity identifier

•  audience development innovation/experimentation leader

•  audience or platform team leader/owner (see Table Stake #1, #2)

•  skills innovator

Tech developer •  story form developer (working with audience teams and producer)

•  technology coach and advisor (e.g., primers, cautions on breaking and hacking)

•  audience experience watchdog (e.g. load times, page/screen rendering)

Thinking and organizing around such role combinations rather than set positons makes for a stronger and more dynamic newsroom, especially from an audience perspective. The payoffs include:

  • Greater staffing flexibility for serving audiences when and where they want to be served (e.g. for filling shifts in the “digital hub”);
  • An increased sense of total story ownership by individuals (versus responsibility for only certain steps in the workflow);
  • More cross-newsroom collaboration and teaming as individuals learn and appreciate the roles of others and share their skills with others;
  • A common focus on the audience as all roles are reshaped from a perspective of “what value are we providing the audience?” and “How are we monetizing that value?” In this sense, “audience development” is no longer the responsibility of just the person with that title.

In addition, work is more fulfilling for folks doing these combinations of roles — in part because the overall work is more challenging. Instead of working throughout a whole day on a narrow set of tasks, these folks operate across a multi-colored checkerboard of various roles played at various time throughout each day.

The exact role combinations you develop will depend on your circumstances (e.g. union or guild presence) and will shift over time as you move beyond Table Stakes. Specialization will always be part of the mix. This is true especially for a larger newsroom with the scale to warrant and support such specialization and benefit from the potential advantages that can come with it (greater focus, higher work efficiency, more accumulated experience, deeper skills, etc.)