So You Wanna Change Your Newsroom

It’s true.  65% of change projects fail.  And that’s the conservative estimate because some scholars believe the failure rate for change is closer to 85%.

Think of that in terms of how many newsroom transformations will fail.  Most will fail.

Why?  What’s the main cause?  This is the million dollar question and plenty of people have theories.  I have a few of my own which I’ll share below but first, a caveat or two.

Many variables can influence failure such as the market and external conditions beyond your control.  But there are many variables you can control.

I’m very cognizant of this so will only touch on some of the things you have in your control.  And I’ll touch on just a few because this is the topic that fills books and we don’t have much space in a short web article.

So rather than see this article as prescription, use it as the basis for your conversations as you consider transforming your newsroom.

No-One Likes to Change

The first hurdle any newsroom faces is the fact people don’t like change.

Yes, you will always find a small percentage who spring out of bed and seem to embrace change but these people are not the norm.

The reality is that humans dislike change because it’s hard work.  It involves deliberately not doing things they are used to doing without thinking.  And it means deliberately doing new things which take time and energy to learn.  It involves forgetting old ways of doing things and embracing uncertainty.

Some of the research in neuroscience can help us understand this.  When we do a task over and over again a memory is hardwired into our brains.  It’s like a circuit forming.

Think about the impact of change on your journalists.  The more they write news articles in the same way, the more they learn to do it without thinking so it in fact becomes much easier.

Being able to write fast and effectively gives a journalist more “bandwidth” to focus on the content of the article and do things like research and investigation.

This is why experienced journalists are dependable and deliver good quality stories.

However, when they have to start doing stories as multimedia across multiple platforms, they have less time to work on the content because they need to spend time re-wiring the “brain circuits” that used to enable them to write fast and effectively.

Don’t be fooled.  This is hard work and effective change leaders respect this and do everything they can to support the shift.  Poor change leaders just demand the change without realizing the work involved and failing to support staff through the change.

Think about this as you embark on change.  Anytime you ask someone to change they will see it as hard work and it will be a threat to the status quo.

Other factors can reduce the success of change.  New ideas are often seen as a criticism of how people currently work and folks go into a defensive mode.  Some think it’s just a fad and do not commit to change and instead wait for it to blow over.  And quite naturally, a lot of people in your newsroom will NOT want to change.  They may tell you this.  They may resist.  They may be open and honest.  Or they may be passive aggressive.  Being ready to understand resistance is critical.

Now, most of us instinctively understand we must change.  We see the world around us getting faster and more agile every day.  However, making that change is always hard work.

The biggest challenge for you as a leader is that you have to nurse people through this change.  Out of all the work, this should be one of your first thoughts.  Sure, designing a vision won’t be easy but it isn’t difficult.  Nor is managing the project of change.  The difficult part is preparing and supporting people to help you achieve your newsroom vision.

Here’s something I’ve learned.  Organizations often start their change initiatives with the planning.  They plan the logistics of moving to a new building.  Or they plan how they will implement a new range of products.  Almost always they are caught behind.  Leaders who start first with the people and consider their process through change have more success.

3 Elements of Change Projects

There are many ways to see the change process.  Kotter has his eight step model, Bridges talks about transitions and just about every consulting company has a proprietary process they’d be happy to roll out for a handsome fee.

I’m not going to suggest a model.  Instead, take a very high level view of the change process and see it as having 3 key elements.  They are:

The Vision Element

The vision element is where you sit down and work out what you want your newsroom to look like in three years.  Or perhaps in eighteen months.

Without a vision, there’s nothing to change.  And there’s nothing to set your sights on in order to motivate your teams.  Your vision may identify key missions and will be supported by a business case that offers a way forward based on some sort of data analysis.

Your vision could be anything.  It could be transplanting your newsroom to a new building.  It could be changing the production workflow.  It could be developing new products.  Or even better, it could be transforming your newsroom’s culture to become an innovation factory.

The Mechanics Element

The mechanics element is where you roll up your sleeve and get involved in the mechanics of change.  If you’re moving your newsroom, it may involve designing the desks, buying the furniture and building multimedia studios.

It may involve re-designing workflows that support the vision, re-evaluating existing policies and procedures or writing job descriptions.  It could involve a review of remuneration structures.

I look at a lot of the “mechanical” work as being project management.  It’s doing implementation charts, Gantt charts, Pert Charts, responsibility charts and the like.

The People Element

The people element is what I see for most people as being the hardest aspect of leading change.  It’s easy to sit in a conference room and decide where people sit in the newsroom, where to put laser printers, photocopiers and other basic equipment.  And it’s easy to re-write job descriptions, change who reports to who and add new responsibilities to staff.

But expecting staff to give up old job descriptions can be tough, especially if staff are attached to them.  Such attachments can be formed by positive memories, fear of change and even connections to networks of benefits and influence.  Having staff get behind your new ways of working can be difficult too.  Dealing with members of your teams who may want to sabotage your project is challenging too.

What we’re talking about is lots of little unpredictable elements that are hard to see on a Gantt chart or workflow document.  The angst a sports writer brings to work is not easy to quantify next to milestones or other project management documents.

Poor “People Skills” Boost Chances of Failure

I believe the lack of skills that leaders have when dealing with people is the most significant reason change fails.  It’s easy to get into the minutia of job descriptions and describe lofty visions.

But it’s not easy to get inside people’s heads.  If you want to be successful you have to be able to get inside their heads to understand their needs in the change process.

The people side of leading change is critical because you as an editor will not build your vision.  Just like an architect rarely picks up a hammer and nail, you won’t be making the vision a reality.  Your people will.

Your role as editor or publisher is to communicate the vision, inspire people to follow it, share it in a way that they buy into it and then give them a sense of stability in the change process.

A lot of people approach change confidently, setting a vision and drawing up a blueprint for success.  But they forget to plan for the people side.  So let’s just spend a few moments thinking about the people side.

Organizational Readiness

Before you can lead transformation, you need to understand people as a collective organization.  Is your organization ready to change?

Do the graphic artists have the same buy-in as the journalists?  Are there areas of your newsroom that you know will be resistant to change?

You should not embark on change until you have identified these areas and work to reduce their resistance.  If you don’t deal with the resistance, you will not have an easy run.

Now, dealing with the resistance is not like putting out a fire.  Sometime the resistance is justified and will alert you to serious issues the need to be considered about the change.  Ignoring this will reduce the success of your change.  Sometimes, resistance will not be justified and need some action.  Regardless, dealing with resistance upfront is critical.

I often think of this process in terms of how medical professionals deal with back problems.  A good example is to compare the different approaches used by chiropractors and osteopaths.

In England, if you see a chiropractor, you’ll go in for a quick spinal adjustment.  It will take 5 to 10 minutes depending on their analysis.  But when you see an osteopath the practitioner will spend half an hour massaging your back before they make a spinal adjustment.

The osteopath’s reasoning is that there’s no benefit in doing an adjustment if the muscles around the problem area of your back are stiff because the muscles will quickly force the spine out of alignment again.  Whereas, if you relax the muscles first, the spine will find its way back in place much more easily.

I know there are exceptions; some chiropractors prepare the muscles before an adjustment.  But the example serves as a metaphor for the work we need to do if we want to change the structure of our organizations.  We need to get the organizations ready for the ‘adjustment’.

Part of that preparation is identifying the resistance to change.  Part of it is allowing staff autonomy in the process and an opportunity to share their thoughts, frustrations and ideas.  There are methods for conducting organizational readiness checks which change management professionals can do easily.

Individual Resistance

You might find the organization is ready for change but discover some key individuals are not.  The reality is that most people will resist change.  It may not all be out of antagonism but simply the human’s natural resistance to change.  All the hard work of re-wiring the way we think about work.

Don’t see all resistance to change as a bad thing.  Rather, see it as an essential step in the process.  Some are threatened and some lack the confidence, especially when learning new technology.

You need to acknowledge this discomfort and honor the feelings of staff.  Very few will want to sabotage your success unless you put them into a position where they feel they are fighting for survival.

I was responsible for a team leading a very large technology project that was under the national spotlight.  The people involved had no trouble learning the new technology that was needed to output their stories each day.  But they were petrified of their ability to pull it off.

Once we discovered this we invested mire in confidence building rather than software training.  They didn’t need us showing them where to click their mouse.  They needed our encouragement so they would feel confident.

Who would have thought confidence training was needed for a technology roll-out?  Once we discovered it, the change process worked flawlessly.

Touching the Headlines

I know we’ve just touched on the headlines of what good change looks like.  There is so much involved that we should probably be surprised that some efforts succeed rather than being surprised so many fail.

One reason many efforts fail is that editors feel they must do it on their own without help.  While they were trained as journalists, some catching a Pulitzer or two in the process, many were not trained as leaders.  Leadership is as much an art and science as journalism.

This is why any editor contemplating change without training in leadership, change or people skills should talk to a people professional who can help you lead the change.  Turning to a people or change professional does not negate all the skills, wisdom and experience you bring to a project.  Rather it gives your wisdom, skills and experience the support it needs to truly help you transform your newsroom.

If you don’t have the budget for external help in terms of consultants or experts in change, or you feel compelled to go it alone, at least invest the time to read up and study human behavior and change theory.  Start with John Kotter and his work on change.  Look at Tom Rath and his work on leadership.  Follow up on Marcus Buckingham and his work on strengths-based leadership.  Look at the work on emotional quotient (EQ) in leadership.  Study Dan Pink and his book Drive which explains human motivation.

The unseen “people” side of change is your key to beating the alarming statistics.


About the Author

Jonathan Halls is a recognized teacher and consultant in the areas of media production and the dynamics or modern organizations. He has forged his knowledge through both research and real life experience. His leadership and change programs are based both on the latest thinking and his real experience leading large teams and facilitating organizational change. His media training is based on the latest thinking and his experience working with leading media companies throughout the world as well as his experience as a former journalist and talk show host.

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