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What are the seven “Table Stakes” essentials?

The phrase “Table Stakes” comes from poker – the amount required to have seat at the table. The Table Stakes manual is for newsrooms, identifying what’s required to play and win the game of news in the 21st century. Developed with major metropolitan daily news organizations, it is meant to accelerate journalism’s shift to digital from print, help newsrooms evolve their practices, reach new audiences and better engage their communities.

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

Launched in 2015 as the Knight-Temple Table Stakes project, the effort brought together four leading newsrooms to act as testing grounds for new mobile and digital practices. Editors and others – more than 50 people in total – participated in the first year of the initiative, which was expanded in 2017 and renamed the Knight-Lenfest Newsroom Initiative.

Newsroom transformation. Culture change. Digital first. The phrases alone are enough to cause a collective eye roll by cynical newsroom staffers.

Leaders at four major metropolitan newsrooms – the Dallas Morning News, the Miami Herald, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and the Philadelphia Media Network – each expressed some level of skepticism about these and other concepts in the early days of the project. After all, “culture change” programs have been tried for years in newsrooms – and far too many yielded little more than shelves of dusty three-ring binders.

But, to a person, all said this time was different.

A year-plus later the four newsroom participants said, without a doubt, that they’re better positioned to survive and prosper as digitally capable newsrooms. They’re closer – although not yet there – to effectively operating in a digital age. In 2017, drawing on these early successes, the initiative expanded under a new name the Knight-Lenfest Newsroom Initiative, signaling the addition of a new leadership partner, the Lenfest Institute for Journalism.

The seeds of this initiative were planted when Knight Foundation’s VP of journalism, Jennifer Preston, arrived at Knight in late 2014 and began touring newsrooms across the country. She found newsrooms had not yet fully embraced digital best practices but said she didn’t find resistance to change. “Instead, I met one newsroom editor after another clamoring for guidance to help transform their newsroom’s culture and practices.”

She reached out to Doug Smith, a former McKinsey & Co. consultant and guru on change management who created and runs the decade-old Sulzberger Executive Leadership Program at Columbia. The Sulzberger Program is not about how to run digital news companies. It’s about “performance-driven change” – the idea that effectively leading an organization through change happens through the work itself, with an intense focus on results, rather than just training and process.

Along with leaders at Temple’s School of Media and Communication – in particular Dean David Boardman and Assistant Dean Arlene Morgan – they created a project to accelerate newsroom change through hands-on coaching, establish the “table stakes” for modern publishing, and spread the resulting insights to all news publishers — primarily here, on Better News.

The Table Stakes

By the time the teams gathered in February 2016, seven common themes had emerged to tie together the granular, more specific table stakes for core work, workflow, roles, skills, technology, tools, organization and culture. What emerged is not the end-all-be-all, silver-bullet list of answers. In other words, these aren’t the only or definitive table stakes. There could be others, different, fewer, more. But they were good enough to help the four newsrooms get going on putting them into practice.

All are predicated on the belief that putting the audience at the center is the only and best way to deliver value. They are:

1. Serve targeted audiences with targeted content: Think and act audience first. Be audience- driven across your enterprise. Identify and focus on particular, target audiences with needs, interests and problems that you can address well and derive revenue from. Use your local market knowledge, perspective and presence to serve these audiences far better than competitors. In doing this, don’t trap yourself into serving individuals alone – don’t overlook businesses and organizations as potential content customers you can serve.

2. Publish on the platforms used by your targeted audiences: Go to your audiences rather than expecting them to come to you. Take responsibility for publishing and promoting on the platforms used by each of your chosen target audiences. Do so in ways that serve their needs and interests in using each platform and take best advantage of the particular features and dynamics of the platforms themselves. In other words: Be platform optimal, not platform agnostic.

3. Produce and publish continuously to meet audience needs: Organize to provide an “always on, always there” flow of digital-first content matched to the life rhythms and habits of your target audiences, their time and attention availability, and their particular moments of need, interest and problems they need solving, across the platforms they use. Put differently, publish at the convenience of your chosen audiences instead of the convenience of the newsroom and print schedule. End fruitless either/or battles between digital versus print by emphasizing digital first, print later and better.

4. Funnel occasional users to habitual and paying/valuable loyalists: Guide your audience through the stages of a “funnel:” from random/occasional use, to increasing use, to habitual use, to paying for your content/products/services – and to valuing your brand and content enough to recommend it to others. Use the same step-by-step funnel approach to maximize value you get from advertising as well as any other ways you earn revenue from users/customers. Do this through the focused use of data and analytics, technology, content and platform tactics, multiple types and approaches of “offers” and “asks,” and continuous testing.

5. Diversify and grow the ways you earn revenue from the audiences you build. Innovate, test and develop as many ways as possible to gain revenue from the audiences you build, and the relationships you develop. Avoid the search for silver bullets – for the answer to the new business. Do this by collaborating across all functions of your enterprise with a focus on innovating to growing consumer revenue and advertising and creating, testing and growing a range of new products, services and businesses of value to your target audiences and community.

6. Partner to expand your capacity and capabilities at lower and more flexible cost: Use partnerships, third-party services, shared resource arrangements and flexible staffing to expand your capacity and capabilities across all areas of your enterprise: content creation, marketing and distribution to target audiences, new services and products, access to needed skills, technologies, tools and data, and more. Do this in ways that lower investment requirements, reduce and add flexibility to your cost structure, increase speed, and better share risks compared to doing it on your own.

7. Drive audience growth and profitability from a “mini-publisher” perspective: Drive growth and profitability in your chosen target audience segments and key publishing platforms by developing cross-functional “mini-publisher” teams and team leaders who use a general management perspective and strong sense of ownership and accountability to drive performance. Expand the scope of these teams’ responsibility beyond content creation, content distribution and audience development to include revenue generation, financial contribution and brand development.

What the four newsrooms learned

The four newsroom teams then identified and assessed gaps where they fall short of these table stakes.

Lastly, each of them set about implementing change. As each team set about implementing table stakes for their own challenges, several common themes emerged:

  • Newsrooms needed to reorganize their workflows to better suit their audiences’ needs. Per Table Stake No. 3 (“produce and publish continuously to meet audience needs”), each of the four newsrooms recognized they weren’t going far enough to meet audiences where they are when they’re there. Participants shifted the focus and timing of news meetings, changed shifts and schedules and created new roles (like “real time” news desks) to address the problem. This was a key step toward the notion of digital first but print later and better. “I held fast to this belief that I did not want to let go of print and that somehow embracing digital meant that I was giving up on print,” said Courtnay Peifer, the Star- Tribune’s national editor. “But Table Stakes allowed me to see that it did not have to be ‘either/or.’ It could be ‘both/and.’ That was transformative for me because it removed a barrier that I had – and one that I think other journalists have – that a Sophie’s Choice was necessary and that embracing digital meant somehow contributing to the decline of print. It seems like any conversation about improving digitally immediately prompts questions about our commitment to print. It turns out that embracing digital can actually benefit print.” Peifer and team created a two-person daytime copy desk, with editors responsible for posting wire and emerging local stories, editing longer-term projects, assisting with social promotion, and helping print workflow with earlier starts on inside pages.
  • Participants needed to adopt tools better suited for digital workflow and efficiency. All four teams moved further away from memo-driven email and adopted – or began regularly using – Slack for more efficient real-time communication in the newsroom. (In Dallas, News staffers even use Slack to get notifications everyone can get behind: pizza or cake in the newsroom.) All four experimented with improvements to their CMS. In Philly, editors decided not to update their print CMS and instead moved most desks to work exclusively in the digital CMS. And the team in Minneapolis built storytelling tools to make it easier to deploy quizzes and interactives; Dallas hired a data journalism team that created tools for experimental storytelling, including ChartWerk for reporters to build and embed their own charts.
  • Newsrooms needed to do a better job testing – or at least workshopping – headlines. All four newsrooms took steps to craft headlines more appropriate to the medium. In Miami, the team worked with McClatchy to update their CMS to accommodate separate headlines for search (literal, specific, with the right keywords) and social (headline and share text that prompted interest without giving away too much). All four newsrooms use Slack or real-time meetings to workshop headlines in the moment. In Dallas, in a process dubbed “Headline Rodeo,” editors propose two or three headlines on a Slack channel, and a live meeting narrows in on the best options. They use emojis to raise questions, express approval, cast votes, etc.
  • Each participant found they had an opportunity to better utilize data and analytics. The four participants were at varying stages of moving from gut-driven decision-making to data-driven – or at least data-informed – decision-making. They had to make a conscious and concerted effort to customize and share data throughout the newsroom. Participants worked with the American Press Institute’s Metrics for News program to better tag and analyze reach and engagement of their stories. They used tools like Chartbeat, Parse.ly and Omniture and put them in the hands of a greater number of staffers. In Dallas, the team used Metrics for News’ ability to create an index that blends 13 metrics and “editors get regular progress reports that show where individual reporters are succeeding and where they need improvement.” In Philly, editors learned about the “mushy middle” — stories that are longer than dailies but not quite major enterprise. “These stories – which can take several days to report but aren’t full investigations or enterprise pieces – tended not to resonate with readers and may not always be worth the effort we put into them.”

Not everything worked, of course. There was less progress made on Table Stake No. 5 (“Diversify and grow the ways you earn revenue from the audiences you build.”) For example, each of the newsrooms struggled with figuring how to connect the work of the newsroom directly to digital subscription revenue.

Importantly, the project gave participants a sense of accountability they otherwise wouldn’t have. Each team spoke about the role of positive peer pressure: Participants were required to show up at each gathering with an update and the last thing they wanted to do was show up without making progress. “I don’t think, without the framework of Table Stakes, we would’ve worked to complete it,” wrote the team in Dallas. “It focused us to keep plugging away at it.” Further, the project connected newsrooms that have much in common but otherwise had no relationship. Participants now have an informal network of fellow newsroom leaders dealing with common issues.

* * *

In February 2017, Knight and the Lenfest Institute for Journalism announced $4.8 million in funding to expand the project. Over the next three years, through the Knight-Lenfest Newsroom Initiative:

  • The team-based change management approach will be expanded to include — the Houston Chronicle, the Milwaukee Journal, the San Jose Mercury News, and the Seattle Times — and welcome back the Philadelphia Media Network.
  • The Poynter Local News Innovation Program will provide teaching for up to 20 local news organizations using its News University e-learning platform.
  • The Center for Innovation & Sustainability in Local Media at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill will coordinate a version of the Table Stakes program for regional news organizations in the Carolinas.

And this website, a separate initiative by the American Press Institute, funded by Knight, documents and spreads best practices from the initiative — and elsewhere — so news innovators across the country can find the guidance they need.