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Focus only on performance

Use specific, measurable, outcome-based goals to drive performance.

This is an excerpt from “Table Stakes: A Manual for Getting in the Game of News,” published Nov. 14, 2017. Read more excerpts here.

Performance is the primary objective of change. Not change.

Change is a large word. It can mean any of the shifts described in this Table Stakes report. Moving from a general store providing general news to general audiences to serving targeted audiences with targeted content is change. Publishing on platforms used by your chosen audiences as well as continuously publishing to meet the needs of those audiences: both are changes. And so on for the rest of the Table Stakes (funneling, maximizing revenue from audiences, partnering to expand capacity and capabilities, and using the ‘mini-publisher’ perspective). All are changes.

There are numerous specific changes described in this Table Stakes report including: assessing skill gaps, then the training, work-shopping, knowledge management systems and more to close those skill gaps; deploying “Inc’s” (Miami) or ‘obsessions’ (Dallas); shifting the timing of daily editorial meetings while making them audience-and-digital first instead of print centric; using teams; experimenting with new products, services, revenue and audience approaches; installing new technologies, tools, data and analytics and getting front line journalists and others use them; hiring and/or partnering to expand scarce skills related to data or audience development; renovating platform presences whether social, mobile or otherwise; navigating shifts among behemoths like Facebook; finding and delivering actual, demonstrable value to what is local – all of these and more involve change.

And all are changes your newsroom and news enterprise must make to get in the game.

Yet, the surest path to confusion and failure is to focus on change for the sake of change – to make change the objective because you’ve failed to clarify:

  • How any of these changes fit in, and contribute to, the direction and strategy of the enterprise as a whole
  • To whom the changes matter and why
  • What success at the changes looks like in terms of results and outcomes as opposed to the activities described by the changes themselves

Here’s what happens when change is pursued for its own sake instead of performance that matters to direction and strategy:

  • People asked to change do not grasp why those changes matter to them and their jobs – nor how they would know if the changes to their work make a difference
  • Change becomes just one more thing to do – a recipe for failure in the already overwhelmed news enterprise
  • Managers and front line folks alike spend too little time, attention and persistence at what matters most. Episodic bursts of energy arise. But those dissipate; and, instead of demonstrable progress, failure spiced with cynicism spreads along with deep frustration
  • Change remains at the margins – instead of the core – of the “way we do things around here”
  • No one knows if the changes work – if they have positive impact.

Avoiding these traps demands keeping performance as the primary objective of change. And that, in turn, requires answering for any given change, “What does success look like?” in terms of SMART outcome-based goals – then holding folks (including yourselves) accountable for achieving those goals, or, failing that, learning what works, what doesn’t work, and adjusting accordingly.

This chapter provides guidance – and illustrations – for:

  • Articulating SMART outcome based goals that answer, “What does success look like (for any given change)?”
  • Identifying where performance happens and who must be accountable for delivering it
  • Managing across the different time frames in which real performance and change happen

Use SMART outcome-based goals to answer, “What does success look like for the change at hand?”

As described in the Introduction, once the teams from Miami, Minneapolis, Philadelphia and Dallas had defined table stakes for roles, skills, work, workflow, technology, tools, organization and culture, each choose a set of initiatives aimed at putting the table stakes in place.

For each initiative, the teams answered, “What does success look like in terms of SMART-outcome based goals?”

For readers not familiar with SMART-outcome based goals, they describe the results, impacts, or outcomes: that is actual differences made by actions taken. They are not activity-based goals.

Here’s an illustration contrasting an activity-based goal with an outcome-based goal for getting journalists to master the art of headlines in the digital space:

  • Activity-based goal: By December 15th, we will train all reporters in how to use headlines to drive traffic.
  • Outcome-based goal: By December 15th, all reporters will be have used headlines to increase overall traffic by a minimum of 10%.

“We will train all reporters” is an activity, not an outcome. When you articulate goals in terms of activities, you trap yourselves in a self-fulfilling prophecy. In this example, imagine the conversation after December 15th:

  • Manager: “How did we do at the goal?”
  • Staff: “We did great! We trained all reporters in how to use headlines.”

But, no one knows if the training made any difference.

Training is a terrific idea. So are other useful activities such as workshops, the ‘headline rodeo’ used in Dallas, coordination with SEO and audience development experts, A/B testing and so forth. All of these, though, require two conditions to make any difference: the reporters take the training in such things seriously; and, they actually use what they learn on the job.

Both conditions are far more likely to happen when performance results, not activities and not change, are the primary objective. Indeed, the teams from Philadelphia, Dallas, Miami and Minneapolis all recounted frustrations of having devoted time and attention to training only to find too many of those trained reluctantly attended and/or never tried to use what was covered on the job.

When the goal is for reporters to achieve minimum 10% traffic gains, the odds go way up that they will take training seriously, use what’s learned on the job and see and experience making a difference. In addition, managers and staff alike know what’s working, what’s not working and how best to adjust going forward.

This illustrative outcome-based goal related to 10% traffic gains is also SMART:

  • Specific: Reporters get better at using headlines to drive traffic
  • Measurable: 10% increase
  • Aggressive yet achievable: 10% is a stretch goal – yet one that is do-able
  • Relevant: Direct cause-and-effect relationship between headlines and traffic
  • Time-bound: December 15

Here are SMART outcome goals from some of the initiatives of the four metros:

Philadelphia had a key initiative seeking to build a better-shared understanding of valuable audiences across marketing, sales and the newsroom. The purpose – the hypothesis – was that, through understanding more about audiences of higher value to advertisers, the newsroom could serve these audiences better and, in doing so, create more value for the audiences as well as the advertisers seeking to reach them.

Now, quickly: this was not anything even remotely about Advertiser X dictating content to the newsroom. Instead, to illustrate, it was about building a shared understanding that, say, “men between 35 to 50 seeking healthier life styles” also had higher than average eCPMs in the Philly area. By understanding the data, Philadelphia’s health, sports, and life style desks could provide targeted content to this targeted audience (see Table Stakes #1) – content that men needed to be informed about, and make better health choices.

When asked to define success for this initiative over a 10- to 15-month time frame, the Philly folks chose this:

“By the end of 2016, create data bridges to connect content and sales to reach the highest value audience. With this, we will realize a 10 percent increase in eCPM, improve customer/advertiser retention by 5 percent and grow overall digital revenue by 5 percent.”

Dallas embarked on a major reorganization to make its newsroom digital first, print later and better. The vision was to “transform from our newspaper company into builders of valued and valuable audiences.” Among the ways Dallas answered what success looked like included:

  • Grow overall digital uniques by 15%
  • Grow local digital uniques by 25%

In addition, Dallas gained commitments from each of its verticals and hubs to (1) increase average monthly uniques by 10% more than the previous year’s average; and, (2) maintain or increase scores against a specially constructed engagement index that monitored 13 specific elements spread across four broad areas: (i) overall audience size and time spent; (ii) local audience; (iii) loyalty; and, (iv) social media engagement.

Miami sought to take advantage of being the ‘capital of Latin America’ by finding ways to serve and monetize audiences from beyond South Florida. In one of the experiments selected, a Miami team identified services and content sought by relatively well-heeled Latin Americans seeking to live, buy homes, start businesses or regularly visit Miami. Here’s how success was defined:

“In 6-12 months, we will innovate at least three products or services that this higher-end audience will pay for (such a real estate database or luxury travel or a database of medical, legal and business specialists or home decorating packages). Within the first year, this effort will grow to 1-2 million page views a month, and be gaining $500,000 to $1 million for premium advertising”

Recall that Philly had to physically (and culturally) combine what had been three separate newsrooms: Daily News, Inquirer and philly.com. Here’s how they answered, “What would success look like?”

“We will complete the job of creating a single newsroom to eliminate redundancies, maximize effectiveness and free us up to cover more of what our audience wants. By Q12017, our in-market audience will increase by 35% and our content production will increase by 20%”

Identify where performance happens and who is accountable for delivering it

SMART outcome-based goals define performance – which, if you think about it makes sense because you cannot manage performance if you have not defined performance.

Managing performance also demands understanding where performance happens and who in the news enterprise (individually and together) delivers it.

Twenty plus years ago, where performance happened in metro publishers, and who delivered it was crystal clear:

  • The newsroom covered the news using a beat structure plus investigative/enterprise efforts. Reporters, editors, copy editors and others created and delivered news articles every day in time for the print close.
  • Circulation sold and managed subscriptions, using a plethora of price, time frame (length of subscription) and other options.
  • Distribution delivered papers to subscribers and managed single copy sales
  • Advertising sold ads across a range of offerings including classifieds and coupons. Because most metros had dominant market positions, advertising as often as not did not sell as much as take orders from customers.

All the functions of the news enterprise had, in the words of a Dallas marketing executive, “their own performance swimming lanes.” The functions only occasionally needed to coordinate (e.g. policies about when to hold the paper for late closure).

Today, where performance happens, who’s responsible and the requirements for cross-functional coordination are more complex. For example, the newsroom reports, edits and otherwise shapes and publishes content in traditional and untraditional (e.g. aggregation) ways across multiple formats and distribution channels (platforms) in order to grow, retain and serve audiences. In doing all this, the newsroom must deliver performance results – sometimes themselves yet often with others across the enterprise – against a more complicated range of outcomes, including:

  • Content choice, format, quality, story form and time of publishing and blended average cost of all content through use of aggregation, bots and so forth
  • Platform and distribution choices and implementation (including, of course, print)
  • Traffic and engagement on digital platforms, including platforms owned and operated by the news enterprise as well as platforms belonging to others (e.g. Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and more)
  • Target audience selection and service
  • New product and service innovation
  • Partnering with others
  • Mastering technology and tools (including selection and review of whether any particular technology/tool works)
  • Reinventing and revitalizing what local journalism does and for whom

The newsroom cannot do these alone. Consider, for example, what to do about ad blockers? Choices for how best to respond to ad blockers requires agreement about the nature and quality of the audience experience, technology options, and brand, and revenue alternatives that, in turn, require perspectives of the newsroom, marketing, sales, technology, finance, and senior management.

Or, take product and service innovation. It is folly to imagine your newsroom can or should pursue new products or services in the absence of coordinating with marketing, sales, technology, finance and senior management. Belo, for example, has embarked on knitting together a local ecosystem aimed at becoming the go-to place in North Texas for content marketing, events design and management, digital optimization services, digital marketing, warehousing, distribution, direct mail and other services. Dallas Morning News’ success at building valued and valuable audiences is essential to this strategy and the odds of success rise with intentional coordination across the various companies Belo has assembled.

Ditto for Philly’s experiment at building data bridges for shared understanding of the newsroom, marketing, and sales (not to mention key third parties) of what makes audiences valuable.

Or, consider Table Stake #7: “Drive audience growth and profitability from a ‘mini-publisher’ perspective.” Will Pry, Amanda Wilkins and their team who created Dallas’ award-winning GuideLive in 2015 were a prototype for the mini-publisher approach. They succeeded by using a whole business perspective to knit together work done by journalists, audience developers, technology, tool providers, and others in making, then acting on, targeted content for targeted audiences.

Manage performance across different time horizons

Legacy newsroom efforts revolve around the daily print cycle. Still, reporters, editors, managing editors and executive editors have lots of experience managing efforts that go beyond the daily cycle. Consider investigative and enterprise. As celebrated in the movie Spotlight, the Boston Globe’s work to uncover sexual abuse scandals in the Catholic Church extended well over a year.

So, the concept of managing efforts over different time horizons is not some alien, never been done before idea. Think, then, about the time horizon required to implement Dallas’ root-and-branch reorganization. The DMN/Empirical teams began work in summer 2015. The basics of having folks in new roles with new reporting relationships and digital-first objectives were essentially complete by spring 2016. Even then, as Robyn Tomlin and colleagues attest, there remained much to do to get fully good at the new ways of working.

As part of Knight Temple Table Stakes, Gabe Escobar and Dan Sarko of Philadelphia embarked in early 2016 on a significant innovation: using data to build shared understanding of valuable audiences across marketing, sales and the newsroom. As of this report, that effort continues to progress yet isn’t complete. Some of the elapsed time could have been shortened – Dan, Gabe and others, like so many of today’s metro leaders, faced significant other demands on their time and that slowed things down. Still, an innovation as fundamental as this doesn’t happen in the course of the daily cycle. It takes months of effort – and months of management focus, time and attention.

The initiative to reimagine Miami.com tells the same story. Importantly, the team leading the effort got to work right away with the resources they had on hand (including free lancers) to figure out what sort of content would better serve target audiences. They immediately set goals and tried things out so that they could learn by doing instead of slipping into the trap of analysis paralysis. But the overall requirements for a reimagined approach also demanded using design thinking, McClatchy corporate resources, website and mobile redesign, rebranding and more – essential steps well beyond the daily cycle and rhythms of legacy newsrooms. It’s no surprise, then, that the effort is still under way in Miami.

Well before Knight Temple Table Stakes, the Star Tribune chose the occasion of moving to a new space to launch an extensive re-branding effort. From conception through implementation, this too took over a year.

All four newsrooms worked with API to change the nature and use of data and analytics. While there was a range of time frames for the four groups, the effort to choose and put in place new data and analytic approaches took several months – again, not something that happened in a day.

Finally, every one of the four newsrooms changed the purpose, flow and timing of their editorial meetings as part of implementing table stakes. Today, each has a key meeting focused on laying out the digital-first choices that they monitor and adjust through other meetings. In Miami, this cornerstone meeting is in the late afternoon with an eye on digital for the following day. In Minneapolis and Dallas the cornerstone meetings happen early morning. In Philadelphia, largely for reasons related to the guild, the meeting happens late morning.

So, what’s the time frame demanded for this change? Making the decision to shift can happen in a moment – though, the discussions and pros/cons prior to that decision likely take longer. But it’s a mistake to imagine the change is simply about a decision.

Shifting the purpose, flow, approach and timing of the daily meeting schedule only succeeds fully when folks involved get good at digital first approaches. For example, Dallas’ ‘headline rodeo’ changed the approach to their early morning meeting, one that encouraged, demanded and supported the use of headlines as story pitches as well as actively managing what performance results happened as a consequence. Dallas began this in late 2015. They are quite good at it today.

And they got better and better at it by doing and practicing it every day – and providing workshops and other supports along the way. In one sense, Robyn Tomlin, Amanda Wilkins and others who managed this change did so every day. But they did not stop with any single day’s effort. Instead, they managed the change with a leader’s eye on ‘getting better’ over the several months time.

Managing performance, then, demands managerial perspective on ‘how long it will take to deliver results and get good at’ any given change. Results from making a shift in the daily meeting flow can begin to happen immediately. And, as described earlier, results are more likely to begin if you and your colleagues set SMART outcome based goals that answer, “What does success look like for shifting our daily meeting flow?”

Still, consistent improvements in results – and deepening capabilities – will take two or three months or so for this change in daily meeting flow. Similarly, and assuming you set clear goals, results from training journalists in needed skills also can begin quickly – but sustained performance for individual journalists and, more critically, teams and the newsroom as a whole occur over several months. Results from the marketing, sales and newsroom data bridge effort have yet to materialize. As long as Philly sticks with this, results are likely to happen –but it will likely take over a year.

The point is that results and capabilities marking a transformed newsroom happen over various time horizons – and must be managed accordingly. Here’s a guide that matches time horizons to objectives, goals and specific tables stakes as well as who is primarily responsible to lead performance and change:

Time Horizon Objectives Illustrative Results Table Stakes Primary Responsibility

This Week

Win the day throughout the day Ÿ Traffic (especially local)

Ÿ Engagement (especially local)

Ÿ Timing/speed (posting time versus when audience present)

Ÿ Average/blended cost of content

1, 2, 3, 7 Ÿ Audience and platform teams/mini-publishers

Ÿ Real time news desk folks

Ÿ Digital experts

Win targeted audiences Ÿ Traffic (for target audience)

Ÿ Engagement (for target audience)

Ÿ Average/blended cost of content

1, 2, 3, 6, 7 Ÿ Audience and platform teams/mini-publishers
Win on platforms Ÿ For owned platforms:

–  Traffic

–  Engagement

Ÿ For other’s platform who link back:

–  Traffic

–  Engagement

Ÿ For other’s platforms who do not link back:

–  Brand awareness

–  Traffic

–  Engagement

Ÿ Quality of experience: load times and so forth

1, 2, 3, 6, 7 Ÿ Platform and audience teams/mini-publishers
Win trust Ÿ Impact and/or earned media or other recognition for investigative, enterprise and other efforts that serve local audiences and community

Ÿ Brand value

6, 7 Ÿ Audience teams/mini-publishers

Ÿ Investigative, enterprise teams

Ÿ Senior news leaders

Today through next 2 to 3-ish months Best audiences Ÿ Growth rates in traffic and engagement

Ÿ Habitual engagement

Ÿ Revenues tied to funnel

Ÿ Revenues tied to mini-publisher plans

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 Ÿ Audience and platform teams/mini-publishers

Ÿ Biz side contributors

Ÿ Partners

Best Talent Ÿ Individual and team achievement of performance goals

Ÿ Closing of capability and skill gaps

Ÿ Retention and advancement of high performers

Ÿ Success of new hires

1, 2, 3, 6, 7, and Talent Chapter Ÿ Individuals for their own performance and change

Ÿ Teams/mini-publishers for team members

Ÿ Senior newsroom leaders for teams plus key individuals

Best Platforms Ÿ Growth rates in traffic and engagement for owned platforms and others’ platforms who link

Ÿ Achievement of goals set for platforms owned by others and who do not link

Ÿ Achievement of continuous improvement goals related to platform experience and performance

Ÿ Achievement of learning and performance goals set for potential new platforms

Ÿ Partner relationships with non-owned platforms

Ÿ Speed of adoption in newsroom of new features/functions of platforms

Ÿ Platform contribution to achievement of funnel and other revenue goals

1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 7 Ÿ Platform and audience teams/mini-publishers

Ÿ Biz side contributors

Ÿ Senior newsroom and news enterprise leaders

Ÿ Partners

Today through next 4 to 8-ish months Best tech, tools, data and analytics Ÿ Install, continuously improve data and analytics needed to win

Ÿ Identify, build, test and, if merited, deploy tools needed to win (and, that are consistent with whatever CMS realities/constraints you face)

Ÿ CMS capabilities and ongoing improvement


1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 Ÿ Tech/tool experts

Ÿ Senior management

Ÿ Audience and platform teams/mini-publishers

Ÿ Biz side contributors

Best Partners Ÿ Objectives relevant to any particular partnering effort such as:

–  Content creation

–  Lower average/blended cost of content

–  Marketing and distribution to target audiences

–  Delivery of key services (e.g. events)

–  New services and products

–  Access to needed skills, technologies, tools, data or analytics

5, 6 Ÿ Senior leaders

Ÿ Audience/platform teams/mini-publishers

Ÿ Biz side contributors

Ÿ Partners

Best Innovation Ÿ Continuous improvement as well as more fundamental innovation related to:

–  Identifying/meeting audiences needs (solving audience problems)

–  New products,

–  Services and platforms

–  Continuous improvement in exiting products, services and platforms

–  Reinventing and revitalizing the value in local

–  Partnering with others

Ÿ Failing fast and failing cheap at converting serious unknowns (lack of confidence) into knowns (and confidence)

Ÿ Partnering advances

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 Ÿ Audience and platform teams/mini-publishers

Ÿ Innovation project teams

Ÿ Biz side contributors

Ÿ Senior leaders

Ÿ Partners

Today through 10 to 20-ish months Winning strategic choices about audiences, platforms, content, products, and services Ÿ Audience, platform and/or content performance results and whether shifts or modifications in those choices should be made and pursued

Ÿ Product, service, business unit performance and any shifts/modifications needed

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, Winning Ÿ Senior leaders

Ÿ Mini-publisher teams

Winning economics and financial performance Ÿ Enterprise financial sustainability and growth

Ÿ P&L performance for audience, platform, other product, service business unit teams

4, 5, 6, 7, Winning Ÿ Senior leaders

Ÿ Mini-publisher and other product, service, business ownership teams

Winning brands Ÿ Brand(s) awareness, recognition and trust 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, Winning
Winning ecosystem Ÿ Audience and financial/economic performance for elements in ecosystem – whether those elements are owned (as with Belo/Dallas) or done through partnering 4, 5, 6, 7 and Winning

Look particularly at the first (Time Horizon) and last (Primary Responsibility) columns: other than paying attention to winning trust, senior newsroom leaders should NOT be spending much time on ‘today/this week.’ Instead, for metros, locals and regionals to be in the game, front line desks and other leaders must manage today/this week while senior leaders shift attention to the medium-to-longer time frames within which real performance and change – and your news enterprise’s best future – happen.

This doesn’t mean senior newsroom leaders must stop concerning themselves with the news and what’s important. Not at all. But, it does mean senior leaders have to dramatically shift their time and attention to managing – to guiding their newsrooms and news enterprises transition to ‘getting into the game.’

In doing so, and to summarize what’s required, senior newsroom leaders must act to insure:

  • Performance is the primary objective of change, not change
  • Folks throughout the enterprise know who and where performance results happen and hold themselves accountable
  • SMART outcome-based goals defining success get framed and used to drive accountability
  • Regular performance reviews happen across the differing time horizons within which news enterprises will win or lose the game of 21st century news