Root causes of newsroom’s slowness to publish continuously
In working across metro news organizations to define this Table Stake a number of root causes were uncovered that underlie the resistance and slowness to make the changes needed to serve audiences across the times of day when they are seeking news. Many or all of them may be quite familiar to you.
- Prevailing operating assumptions about print. Given print’s long legacy and continued revenue generation, there can be many prevailing assumptions about how it must be treated in the transitions to digital:
- Print is still driving the revenue so it should still drive the publishing cycle.
- The print product will suffer by publishing everything on digital first.
- The print product will suffer if any fewer resources are dedicated to it or if too much attention is given to “digital first.”
So long as these assumptions, spoken or unspoken, remain unquestioned and untested they discourage experimentation and constrict actions that can both transform digital publication and improve the print product.
- Known versus unknown consequences. Print deadlines are very clear and real. And the consequences of not meeting them are obvious and material – press overtime, delivery delays, subscriber complaints, etc. Digital has no mandated deadlines. And the consequences of missing a digital publishing “deadline” may be understood conceptually but is not felt directly – e.g., when did a reader ever call to complain that a story arrived too late to their smartphone? It’s human nature to give more attention to consequences that are known and felt over those that are conceptual.
- Tangible vs. intangible success and rewards. A front page is still something you can see on the street; a front-page article is still a success you can clip and save. Topping the website homepage is ephemeral unless you screen grab and print it in the moment, the traffic count on a story is just numbers, and a URL isn’t something you can clip and tack-up. Feeling the personal value of reaching a digital audience happens only once you’re begun to realize the potential of reaching a far larger audience and become attuned to different forms of positive feedback.
- Existing skills and identities. There’s pride in the mastery and confidence in the work product that comes from well-honed print skills – pyramid-style story writing, space budgeting, page layout, section design, supplement production, etc. It’s harder to have confidence or claim mastery when the digital publishing environment keeps changing, when there’s no one proven and enduring model of success to follow, and the skills needed keep morphing and expanding.
- Lack of sunk cost and opportunity cost thinking on technology. The newsroom’s print-based CMS may be widely recognized as the biggest factor impeding earlier and more continuous digital publishing but it’s accepted as a given for the present. Besides the high costs of investing in new technology, there’s also uncertainty about actually getting a better system – “There’s no perfect CMS” – and reluctance to take on the huge task of converting to and learning about a new system.
Day-by-day it’s easier to stay with “the devil you know” and live with the cumbersome steps to do simple digital tasks, use the skills and tricks you’ve learned to make it work better, and keep developing work arounds to make incremental improvements for digital publishing. And while you manage through each day, the true costs of the current CMS in terms lost productivity, accumulated frustrations, and missed digital audience opportunities remain unexamined and unconsidered.
- Personal factors. Newsroom staff are comfortable with established workflow routines that give a known pace to the day. Work schedules are arranged around these workflows and their timing (i.e. print deadlines) and, in turn, personal and family schedules are organized accordingly (school drop-offs and pick-ups, spouse’s work schedule, daily and weekly living routines). The prospect of disrupting such intertwined schedules can in itself be a source of reluctance to change.
Addressing the root causes requires focusing on performance management and accountability
Many of these root causes concern personal mindsets and behaviors that both shape and are reinforced by existing roles, skills, workflows, shared habits and cultural norms across the newsroom. You can’t just exhort or order “be digital first” and expect anything much to happen. It’s not a matter of just giving new instructions to someone who already knows how to follow them and is most willing to do so. Because it involves deep-seated behavioral changes in terms of mindsets, skills, roles and ways of working, continuous digital first publishing it is inherently much harder to achieve.
These mindsets and behaviors will shift and change only when individuals actually do things differently as opposed to talking about doing things differently. And getting the staff of your newsroom to do things differently will only happen when they have clear performance objectives that are only achievable by doing things differently. As emphasized in the Introduction part 2: Focus on Performance, performance objectives and results are the primary objective of change, not change per se. And these performance objectives must be clearly tied to compelling personal and enterprise needs and interests, that is, the consequences of not reaching the objectives and the aspirations and sense of purpose fulfilled in achieving them.
So, for example, if you set audience traffic goals that can only be reached when content is published at the times the audience is seeking content, the changes in workflow, skills, habits and culture will have reason to follow as essential actions. Through the experience, learning and realization of success in actually growing audiences by making these needed changes, mindsets will shift and the needed behaviors will change.
Through all of this, it is useful to keep these root causes in mind in managing the process of performance improvement and organizational change. It will help in understanding and navigating through points of resistance and reluctance and in guiding how best to recognize and communicate early signs of success.