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How the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel focused on prioritizing with a “Stop Doing” list

Here’s an idea to steal and adapt: The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel created -- and continually updates -- a list of newsroom activities that don’t contribute to its audience-centric strategy in an effort to find time and resources to devote to more meaningful tasks.

This is a series on Better News to a) showcase innovative/experimental ideas that emerge from the Knight-Lenfest Newsroom Initiative and b) to share replicable tactics that benefit the news industry as a whole.

This “win” comes from John Adams and Emily Ristow of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Question: What problem were you trying to solve, and why was solving the problem strategically important for your organization?

Answer: Like most newsrooms, we’ve lost too many journalists over the last several years but we’re still trying to do the same job in the same way with fewer people. Our daily to-do lists can’t be reasonably accomplished in a day. We want to do new things, and different things, but we don’t have the time to create, adjust and launch something new because we’re trying to keep up with what readers expect from us. So we wanted to solve the capacity issue that holds so many organizations back. We wanted to create a measuring stick to evaluate current practices and a concrete accountability system to add capacity so we can focus on moving forward in a way that makes sense for our readers and for our journalists.   

Q: How is this approach related to Table Stakes (e.g. one of the 7 Table Stakes and/or an outgrowth of the Knight-Lenfest initiative, etc.)?

A: This came out of a knock-down, drag-out Table Stakes team meeting. In order to accomplish most of the Table Stakes, we needed more capacity. We didn’t want to just add more things to everyone’s plate. We knew we had to stop doing some things. We decided it needed to be written down, reviewed, revisited and tracked.

Thus, the genesis of the “Stop Doing” list.

Q: How did you go about solving the problem?

A: Yes, our innovative, problem-solving idea started with creating a list. Sounds easy, right? We wish it were that easy, but that was just part of the process —  in fact, it’s probably the easiest part of the process.

The “Stop Doing” list must first be measured through the lens of our ultimate strategy. Our strategy is to:

  1. Attract a new audience/segment
  2. Engage that audience/segment
  3. Know that audience/segment
  4. Get that audience/segment to pay for a digital subscription

[Editor’s note: Learn more about audience funnel discipline by reading about Table Stake #4!)

If there’s something we’re doing that doesn’t meet at least one of those four things, it needs to be evaluated on whether we should be doing it or if it should be placed on the “Stop Doing” list.

Secondly, if there are things that are focused on accomplishing our strategy but are not working, they need to be evaluated, adjusted or put on the “Stop Doing” list.

Finally, if there are things that have worked and target at least one area on our strategy list, but we no longer have the expertise to accomplish those things, then it goes on the list. That’s right: if we aren’t willing or able to go out and recruit someone to take over where someone left off, then put it on the list.

This is key: The actual physical list is important because people often forget what was said during their 12th meeting of the day. Hell, we often forget what we’ve said 10 minutes ago. Having a list allows us to remember our commitment, track our progress and celebrate our wins. Reviewing the list on a consistent basis is a must, too.

Q: What happened that you didn’t expect?

A: We thought the list would be dominated by the things we do to fill print holes or the proverbial “print-only” features — bowling scores, one-column graphics, locator maps and such. What we found out was that there were a whole lot of digital things — manually tweeting to all accounts, posting to Facebook pages that barely had any followers, adjusting section fronts that had zero traffic, etc. —  we were doing that didn’t really accomplish our strategy or that took more time, effort and resources than we had available.

Q: What worked? Wherever possible, describe the resulting outcomes (specific, measurable results) as opposed to activities (tactics you pursued to get results).

A: First things first: JS on Politics. We did a weekly Facebook Live show and podcast about political issues of the week. We had a rotating host who would think of topics and questions to discuss. We had a few reporters who would rotate weekly and discuss their stories. We had someone doing the video, pulling audio, cutting the episodes, uploading it into the system and then notifying producers. Producers would then put the clips on stories that were already live and sometimes days old. And, sometimes things would fall through the cracks.

The Live show never really took off and neither did the podcast. Those involved wanted more promotion, but it still didn’t move the needle.

We sat down with the leader of the show and had a frank discussion. The question we asked: “If you weren’t doing this, what would you want to be doing?” Out of that discussion, we put together a plan to stop doing the show, and start moving our resources to launching a solutions journalism plan. In the months following, he launched community discussions that brought in hundreds of community members to discuss topics like education, Foxconn, race and culture. He has been invigorated and is building on his new beat that is increasing the amount of our known audience. He’s now launching “Ideas Lab,” a way to engage the community through discussions and to come up with ways to bring change to topics that we deal with in our community.     

The big swing: The community blotter.

Yes, the Holy Grail of community newspapers. The digital traffic for the blotters was non-existent. Plus, our journalists were spending a full day of their time going to the police stations, compiling the records and then putting them into the system. The amount of work for the digital payout was not worth it.

We knew there would be pushback from readers, but we also knew we had to make the change. So, we’ve stopped doing the blotters and focused on crime stories that really mattered. Our digital traffic is up. In March, we’ve produced nearly 100 fewer stories in the month and our total traffic is 19 percent higher than before we dropped the blotters. Our reporters have more time to focus on the stories they really want write and have increased the median page views by 62 percent. Our audience is being served with better content. And yes, we got some calls and emails from readers. But, no one said the “Stop Doing” list was easy.

Q: What didn’t work?

A: It wasn’t all rainbows and waterfalls.

One of the first things we retired was the News Quiz. It started as a weekly digital element that people could test their knowledge about some of the stories we had written the week prior. As we changed to our third different CMS, it was no longer an easy ask for the digital team. The numbers were no longer there either. But, at some point, the News Quiz made its way to the print product and filled a whole page of content on a day that we needed the content. Our newsroom mantra was, “If it isn’t building a digital audience, then we need to let it go.” The News Quiz landed in the high effort / low impact quadrant.

We thought everyone was on board with the change, but after we sent out the email celebrating the News Quiz’s retirement, things changed. A crusader wanted us to try a different promotional plan, get more help to lighten the load, or keep it as a print-only feature. Even though we knew it didn’t have a digital audience and that we were following the newsroom mantra, we compromised and kept it as a print-only feature. In the months to follow, we only got one email saying, “Where is the news quiz online?” — even if we got 100 emails about it, we were not bringing it back online because of the time and effort it took to create and produce it. We knew that there wasn’t a digital audience to support the weekly requirements.

Looking back, our compromise didn’t give us the capacity to do other digital features to gain new audience. Going forward, we were less likely to compromise, but yes, the News Quiz lives on.

Q: What would you do differently now? What did you learn?

A: We learned a valuable lesson to over communicate up front, and then stick to the newsroom mantra.

When something goes on the list, it doesn’t mean it’s officially dead. We can make adjustments to change it to make sure it meets our strategic goals. If it doesn’t work, however, it doesn’t work. By compromising, we don’t get more capacity to do the things that will drive new audiences. We’ve cut so much out of our papers that all anyone sees is the cuts. But if we focus and communicate the why we are cutting things and what we are replacing it with, it helps ease the transition.

Remember the goal: Add capacity by removing the things that aren’t accomplishing our strategy so that we can add things that will accomplish our goals.

Q: What advice would you give to others who try to do this?

A: Four things:

  1. People who complain about the “busy” work don’t always want to get rid of the work.
  2. People don’t always know what they want to do instead, and it might take some time to figure that out.
  3. Celebrate the life of the things going away — “retirement” emails that focus on what we’ve learned helps communicate the positive view of the circle of life. This isn’t about good vs. bad. Some of the stuff going away was very important at one time. They have served their purpose. The JS on Politics show got our newsroom into another form of storytelling that we can use in the future. This isn’t about failure. It’s about moving forward. Our friends at the Seattle Times even threw a memorial service for a newsletter they killed. Be positive. We must remember that these are strategic decisions to free up time for our journalist to be working on projects that have the most impact.
  4. Make sure you communicate and over communicate with all players.

Q: How long is the list?

A: It depends. For us, ours started with a few things and grew to a full page. Are there more things to be added? Of course. The list is meant to grow as we continue to evaluate more and more tasks in the newsroom. We would recommend reviewing the list, adding to the list and keeping track. We’ve added colors to the list to show where we are in the process — not started, in process, completed and additional information to collect.

Q: You’ve mentioned communication, even over communication, as a key. What does that look like?

A: We don’t want to just go to someone in charge of something on the “Stop Doing” list and say we need to kill what they are doing. It sends the wrong message to the individual.

What we want to do is pull numbers about the specific task and start the conversation with the stakeholder. Is this something that needs to be adjusted — better promotion, adjust the style of coverage or is it something we need to let go of entirely? The stakeholder might already have ideas on what needs to happen and we can join them in the transition. We also want to agree on a timeframe. If we adjust the promotion or style, there needs to be a time period where we review the results. If it is showing progress, we set another time for a follow up. If nothing is changing, we agree on a plan of attack on how we stop doing this tactic and where we go from there. We want to make sure we are talking to everyone — especially the crusaders — show the data, the new plan and the reasons why we need to adjust our tactics. Finally, we need to have a response to when we get that reader email (or 50). Yes, we know that readers will email us when they don’t see their favorite thing in the newspaper. We have to be ready to explain the benefits of our decision.

Most importantly, we need to show the results from the change. We aren’t just killing things to be killing things. We are replacing them or even doing fewer things better. For our JS on Politics show changes, we’ve launched a “listening tour” and community events around topics that we all find critical — education, race and diversity, job training and such. These events are engaging our readers in new ways. They are also building a relationship between the newsroom and the community. We need to highlight these wins to the stakeholders and the whole newsroom.

Q: Anything else you want to share about this initiative?

A: This “Stop Doing” list will most likely lead to launching a new list of things we need to learn. It did with us.