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Shift time and attention of senior leaders away from day-to-day matters and toward longer-term challenges of newsroom transformation

Today, the most important job of senior newsroom leaders is to transform their newsrooms by putting the Table Stakes in place. Absent this, the newsroom – indeed, the whole organization – cannot escape decline into irrelevance and even extinction.

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

Shift the time and attention of senior newsroom leaders away from day-to-day matters in favor of the medium-to-longer-term challenges of newsroom transformation

Today, the most important job of senior newsroom leaders is to transform their newsrooms by putting the Table Stakes in place. Absent this, the newsroom – indeed, the news enterprise – cannot escape decline into irrelevance and even extinction.

Newsroom transformation happens over a range of time frames:

  • Near term of 2 to 3-ish months:
  • Win the day throughout the day
  • Win targeted audiences
  • Win on platforms being used
  • Win trust
  • Medium term: 4 to 8-ish months:
  • Best talent
  • Best platforms
  • Best technology, tools, data and analytics
  • Best partners
  • Best innovation
  • Longer: From 10-20-ish months to 2 to 3 years
  • Winning audience/content choices
  • Winning economics/financial performance
  • Winning products/services
  • Winning brand(s)
  • Winning ecosystem

Senior leaders must deploy themselves across these challenges and time horizons. Chapter 2 provides an overview of these different time horizons, the kind of performance objectives to set and how senior leaders can think through who is accountable for those results.

Problems arise when:

  • Senior newsroom leaders spend too much time directing, approving and inspecting day-to-day work.
  • Front-line reporters, editors, digital specialists and others never think beyond getting through the day or end of the week and just keep churning out the same output.
  • Mid-level leaders don’t give enough attention to setting targets for medium term performance and putting together initiatives to get there.
  • Senior leaders react to the latest fads and launch hurry-up efforts that disrupt plans and approaches already in place without first thinking through and involving those affected to at least discuss whether and, if so, how, such shifts might or might not make sense.

The result can be confusion, frustration, and ineffectiveness.

Metros are particularly susceptible to this dysfunction because of daily and Sunday print production deadlines. Reporters and editors focus on getting the paper out. More senior folks do so as well while also guiding major features, reporting projects and investigative series, and perhaps longer term thinking about the annual calendar for producing major supplements. Overall, though, senior time and attention is badly out of balance and heavily weighted to the near term while also concentrated mainly on content as opposed to audiences, platforms, identifying and closing skill gaps, redesigning key workflows, spurring innovation, partnering with others, building a local ecosystem, coordinating across the news enterprise, managing financial performance – in short, all the things needed to transform the newsroom and get in the game.

Senior newsroom leaders must escape being stuck in the near term and, instead, spend:

  • Much less time on the immediate and near term, which is always tempting but now must get delegated to audience and platform teams along with other newsroom colleagues.
  • Much more time on the medium time horizon challenges described above
  • And more time on the long term in working across the enterprise in areas such as identifying new target audiences, developing revenue opportunities beyond those of individual mini-publisher teams, developing major long term partnerships, assessing next generation technologies and emerging platforms, and increasing the overall profitability of the enterprise.

Collectively, all these shifts in time horizons across the layers of the organization are essential to the enterprise’s digital transformation. A major constraint, though, is limited existing leadership capacity and bandwidth. In addition, then, to considering hiring outsiders for leadership roles, your enterprise should:

  • Tap the talent, spirit and capacity of individuals to do more in their individual roles as part of evolving a fuller set of skills and perspectives (e.g., learn and practice more of the skills demanded to be a fully skilled and audience focused reporter/producer)
  • Form teams and create leadership roles that have wider responsibilities and further out time horizons — audience teams, platform owners and then audience-based and platform-based mini-publisher teams
  • Empower these teams and leaders by not getting in their way and, in effect, duplicating their work
  • Free up senior leadership capacity to redeploy time, attention and focus to the medium and longer-term needs of the enterprise.