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A primer on shaping the right staff roles and skills for your newsroom

This section focuses on how you must hold already employed staffers accountable for specific results that arise from learning, practicing and excelling at required skills, behaviors, attitudes and working relationships.

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

Common sense and experience bear out that metro, local and regional news enterprises cannot get into or win the game without the blend of staff roles and skills required to do the work needed to serve audiences in today’s digitally mediated reality.

The work that must get done today differs dramatically from, say, a decade or so ago. Today’s metro, regional and local newsrooms (and their colleagues across the whole enterprise) must have the skills and capabilities to:

  1. Serve targeted audiences with targeted content
  2. Publish on the platforms used by your targeted audiences
  3. Produce and publish continuously to match your audiences’ lives
  4. Funnel occasional users to habitual and paying loyalists
  5. Diversify and grow the ways you earn revenue from the audiences you build
  6. Partner to expand your capacity and capabilities at lower and more flexible cost
  7. Drive audience growth and profitability from a “mini-publisher” perspective

Building the needed staff roles and capabilities demands that you:

  1. Define what you need to be in the game/win the game: that is, what specific roles, jobs, skills, behaviors, attitudes and working relationships are needed to succeed at the seven core table stakes.
  2. Identify gaps: assess the baseline for where you are now versus what you need; that is, what are your shortfalls when you compare your current capabilities to what’s required? You need to do this for individuals, for teams (e.g. desks) and for the newsroom and enterprise as a whole.
  3. Close these gaps by:
    • Holding folks accountable – as individuals and as teams – for results from learning, practicing and excelling at required skills/talents
    • Identifying, attracting, hiring, and onboarding new folks – then holding them accountable for results in the same ways as already employed folks
    • Partnering and/or using independent contractors – and again holding all accountable for results
  1. Focus on performance – that, is commitments to, and accountability for, performance results – as the context for migrating talent toward what is required.
  2. Monitor and adjust role and skill requirements as the news game evolves – otherwise, your newsroom will fall in the trap of playing endless catch up.

Are you doing these things? Have you defined the roles, skills and capabilities you need?   Have you assessed your current folks against these requirements? Have you specifically identified shortfalls and gaps – for the newsroom as a whole, for teams, and for individuals? Do you have a game plan that blends helping already employed folks to learn needed skills with hiring new folks who have the skills and/or using partnering and independent contracting to get those skills? Do you? Do you have a game plan that’s written down and actually used – actually managed? Have you connected what success looks like in terms of outcomes and performance results for this game plan? Have you gained commitments to specific and measurable performance results from folks – teams as well as individuals? For example, have you gained traffic and engagement goal commitments from desks/teams and, by extension, individual reporters, editors, producers and so forth? Do you hold folks accountable for those results? Are you providing support and help – data and analytics, training, work shopping, online self-serve guidance and more – to people who have made performance commitments? Are you actually managing all this in a rigorous, buttoned-up way? Do you have regular reviews of progress – reviews that fine-tune the game plan based on what’s working and what’s not working – and also provide everyone – from senior leaders on down – a picture of ‘how we’re doing’ against clearly defined goals?

Are you? Are you doing all this stuff?

If not, then you’re not even in the game of getting into the game.

We point briefly to new hires – and to the good news about the sizeable labor pool as well as the importance of onboarding and maximizing the impact of new, already skilled folks – and, by extension, the similar steps for independent contracting. We encourage you to look at Table Stake #6 to identify and take steps to partner to expand capability and capacity. Primarily, though, this chapter reviews what’s required to migrate already employed folks through the challenges of behavior-and-skill change.

A note on size: The steps to get what’s needed vary based on the size of newsrooms. Those of you with, say, 10 or 20 or so folks in the newsroom need to move forward in ways that differ from those of you with, say, 50 or so – and, that, in turn, varies from newsrooms of one or two hundred or more. And the steps you take will differ if your newsroom is unionized. Still, as Robyn Tomlin of Dallas (who has worked in tiny as well as large newsrooms) emphasizes, the principles and objectives driving choices and approaches are the same: namely, the 7 key table stakes.

Regardless of size, your newsroom must:

  • Have folks – or partners – with the required skills in the following essential jobs or roles–reporter, editor as ‘mini’ publisher*, digital producer, audience-developer, visual producer, platform owner and developer/coder. By job, we mean a full-time job. By role, we mean tasks someone might perform as part of a larger job. So, e.g., in smaller newsrooms, a front-line editor (a job) might also include duties related to the role of platform manager. Indeed, as a general matter, and regardless of size, your newsroom gains flexibility and effectiveness by emphasizing roles instead of jobs.
  • Use the discipline built into the talent-management matrix described below to figure out development pathways for folks – both as individuals and as teams. If you partner for any needed skills, then you must review and manage those partners (or independent contractors) with this same discipline.
  • Make performance commitments and accountability the central focus for training, workshopping, peer-to-peer/colleague-to-colleague, and other development efforts

* Pick whatever title or phrase you like. If the language of ‘mini-publisher’ will cause more trouble than it’s worth, then choose a different phrase – just so long as the meaning conveyed include responsibilities that, in the print era, were classically owned by publishers: attracting and retaining readers/users, distributing the content, and monetizing.