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Want to create a more digital newsroom? Find your inner startup

Newsrooms large and small have hosted startup-like projects within their walls. Here are some ideas if you want to do the same.

Originally published on NiemanLab on August 25th, 2015 by Freek Staps

On a gray day in the fall of 2013, a dozen department heads of the Dutch media company NRC huddled together in a room in Amsterdam. (Full disclosure: I was one of them.) Paintings of bygone editors of the esteemed daily NRC Handelsblad decorated the walls. That day, we made the decision to launch a startup within the newsroom in order to help ease the transition to a digital-focused company.

The resulting project, NRC Q, covers business, tech, and careers. NRC Q publishes forward-looking news stories, relies heavily on video and infographics (both created in-house by reporters), and repackages newspaper stories for an online audience (partly by limiting the word count and making the tone more conversational). We intended it to be a testing ground for a new kind of NRC journalism, where we’d address business questions like monetization.

Because we wanted to give the reader an active voice in the reporting process, we looked at data daily. Chartbeat, Google Analytics, and A/B testing were all terms that had been previously gone unheard at our 187-year-old organization. Reporters only knew a story had done well if a colleague patted them on the shoulder, or if they got a letter from a reader.
NRC Q has been a success: Our niche publication in a relatively small market has just shy of a million unique visitors per month, attracts a whole new audience for NRC, and continues to push boundaries in its search for a new kind of journalism. Startup-like platforms out of the newsrooms at, for instance, The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and The Dallas Morning News have seen similar success.

Innovation may be stereotypically associated with starting in a garage, wearing hoodies and eating pizza while pulling all-nighters. We’ve sure had our share of that, humbly starting in the archive room of NRC’s otherwise glass-and-light-filled Amsterdam offices.

But real innovation isn’t about garages. I’ve come to see innovation as an organizational structure issue. How do we produce or repackage journalistic content? Who do we hire? Where are we located? How do we relate to the rest of the newsroom? What processes make it harder for us to innovate? And how should the leaders of legacy papers approach young upstarts within their newsrooms?

As a Knight Visiting Nieman Fellow this past spring, I set out to explore how other news organizations have become more digitally oriented — specifically, how they’ve used startups within the newsroom to enact transformation.

In the course of my research, I visited with America’s largest media brands (The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal), talked with regional bastions of quality journalism (the Minneapolis Star Tribune, The Dallas Morning News, The Boston Globe), included digital-only publications (BuzzFeed, The Huffington Post, This.cm) and the outside view of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and added to all that the expert opinions of professors and thinkers at Harvard Business School.

A lot is still being figured out. Even though we’re drawn to digital, print is still the main source of revenue for many newspapers. Digital subscriptions and ads haven’t yet offset print losses. And reporters can be wary of change.

“Nobody claims it’s an easy transition,” said Anita Elberse, a professor at Harvard Business School who specializes in the digital transformation of media businesses. “But it’s just so much better than managing decline.”

My aim throughout my reporting was to provide a roadmap for other news organizations that might want to host a startup within their walls. Here’s what I learned.

The new, fast teams that are set up to push innovation within U.S. newsrooms are often given fast-sounding, military-style names. They’re called Urgency Teams. Guiding Coalitions. Innovation Catalysts. Digital guru Sree Sreenivasan, who prefers to go by “Sree,” calls them “the SWAT teams who do the hard work with no glory.”

Sree used to be a professor at the Columbia School of Journalism, but two years ago the Metropolitan Museum of Art hired him to help digitize the museum. Many of his colleagues, surrounded by art, think in millennia-long business cycles. Many journalists, on the other hand, feel that the end is nigh.

“Whenever I’m in a newsroom these days, I feel like I’m at a funeral,” Sree told me. “So depressing. Agreed, the same old thing doesn’t work anymore, so let’s push forward. Stop giving up. Take a chance. Do things. Be aggressive.”

Many newsrooms are trying something new. The newspaper, in this startup-based model, appoints a small group of people; gives them a wide mandate to invent new products, services, and ideas; and makes sure they feel free to operate outside the constraints of the legacy newspaper. “They should earn the right to run the whole paper,” Sree said, half-jokingly.

At The Wall Street Journal, executive editor Almar Latour has created several of these groups in the last year. Some worked to create newsletters, some to create new web sections. Others are working on newsroom reorganization and data journalism. When we met this spring, one team — including members from design, product, and the newsroom — was working on the redesign of the website. Another team was working on an Apple Watch app.
First, Latour said, an organization needs to ask what it can do to be best in class in, say, data journalism or visual journalism. It should follow that up with an assessment of what works in the present organization and establish how to reach its goal. There should be a sense of urgency: The group should aim for initial results in less than three months. Speed is of the essence.

This team may include the most unorthodox combination of coworkers that have ever shared a room in your company. The newsroom, sales, customer service, developers — every part of your business should get to have one representative on the team.

When the Journal’s Latour builds a new team to innovate in the newsroom, he aims to suspend hierarchy. “Someone could have a long, distinguished career at the paper, or may have just walked in the door — the only thing that counts is the level of interest in the project and the expertise and ideas they bring,” he said. Latour also suggests asking a few “happy and eager participants” to make it easier to get the job done.
There are two groups of people that should not be on the innovative team. One: People whose bosses think it’s time for them to be “rewarded with a project.” Two: The actual leaders in the newsroom, the masthead.

The more interesting the work of the online group gets, the more the masthead will probably want to get involved — and they should, of course, support the startup. But including them on the actual team carries the risk of counter-productiveness, said John Kotter, Konosuke Matsushita professor of leadership, emeritus at the Harvard Business School.

If these leaders really wanted to innovate, Kotter believes, they would have done it already. So he suggests coming up with some lines to deter them in advance, in case they insist: “The demands on you are too high already, you need to put out a paper every day, you have to make sure we meet our quality standards, you’re already responsible for us not losing money…”

There’s a lot of academic research on how to fill these teams. The Harvard Business Review’s guide to innovation, for example, recommends filling at least a third of the team — and possibly more — with outside hires (as long as they’re the best in their field), because they are freer to operate and ask questions from an outside perspective.

The Minneapolis Star Tribune took such an approach: In the past year, following a buyout, it hired 32 new, mostly digitally-inclined reporters, Terry Sauer, assistant managing editor for digital, told me.

Many of the reporters at legacy papers are the best in their fields. But the newsroom does not necessarily contain all the right people to actually innovate, warned Blake Wilson, the Times editor who worked on the NYT Now app.

Not every great reporter is good at writing headlines for the web, or at making longer articles accessible to readers who only have limited time online, or at realizing that digital media can require a different tone of voice.

NYT Now, which launched last year, is an app that provides a selection of New York Times stories, plus aggregated content. The NYT Now team is staffed with a combination of internal and external hires, with editors and developers working closely together.

Some editors in traditional roles have cycled through the team for short rotations to gain exposure to the new dynamic. (At NRC Q, we offer “internships” that are one day or one week long, and we are already seeing results.)

That just leaves one thing on the personnel side: who to lead this “ragtag band of people,” as Latour put it. He thinks the best results come from a person who knows how the organization works, and at the same time who can envision success and move it into reality, “who delivers something fresh.” That’s an unusual combination.

As for the where: The Minneapolis Star Tribune moved to new offices this year. Editors for both print and digital sit together at a “hub” in the center of the newsroom. The Journal has a similar setup in New York; other newsrooms are starting to provide space for engineers and product designers on the floor as well.

Don’t put your newsroom startup in a corner or in the basement, Latour implored. The Journal has two digital teams working in the middle of the newsroom on a mobile initiative and the new WSJ.com. Developers and digital designers moved into the newsroom in May, and the digital designers now also report to it. Mobile and web developers in the newsroom will work side by side with journalists on products and new features.

“It’s comparable in magnitude to when we first moved digital journalists into the print paper,” Latour said. “It has to be in your face, because change is the new norm.”

It’s sometimes difficult to get an organization’s leadership to recognize the fact that the company needs to transform digitally. The problem is structural, according to Harvard Business School professor Kotter: The organization is set up to publish a new paper every day. it’s not set up to figure out how to make that paper obsolete.

“I could get you out of complacency by hitting you on the head with the facts and the numbers, but you’ll forget everything else but me … That’s not a sustainable force of change,” Kotter said. “Self-realization is.”

“Nobody ever goes, hey, let’s innovate a bit here,” Latour said. “No masthead or CEO will just innovate because they can.”

Even if a newsroom’s leadership realizes the need to innovate digitally, there are still hundreds of journalists to take into account, and not everybody is there yet.

“Take a long, hard look at the biggest disconnect there is,” said Stacy-Marie Ishmael of BuzzFeed News and formerly of the Financial Times. “There’s a gap between what the audience wants and what journalists are doing.”

But you can’t simply brush naysayers off as irrelevant. Kotter urged to keep an open mind. “It’s really not that they’re complacent and egotistical,” he said — they’re scared. Some also have “a perverse incentive,” Sree said, because “they’re just trying to get to their retirement.”

David Skok is managing editor for digital at The Boston Globe, which has recently launched two news startups — Crux, “covering all things Catholic,” and Beta Boston, covering tech news in the region.

Skok believes in Clay Christensen’s RPP theory: It’s about resources (people, budgets), processes (workflow, digital-first), and priorities (editorial and managerial). When all of these are in place, the company can more easily adapt to change.
Sree regularly gives talks to newsrooms and reminds them of the U.S. railroad companies that didn’t realize how serious it was that their business model was under pressure from airlines. They assumed they were in the railroad business, when in fact they were in the transportation business — and see where they are now.

Similarly, Sree said, journalists aren’t in the print paper business anymore. They’re in the news, information and data business.

The Huffington Post’s Koda Wang, who oversees the company’s global expansion, urges newspapers to stop thinking of themselves as newspapers: “The idea of a fixed print format is long obsolete.” And so the thinking in the newsroom has to change accordingly.

There are plenty of practical ways to include reluctant colleagues in the process of change: Group meetings, weekly brown-bag lunches for workers from various departments, video presentations. Here are some other ideas:
— Sauer made laminated cards for the Star Tribune that explain what to do online in the event of breaking news. “Newsroom policy,” it says on the top of each card. “No exceptions.”

“Don’t start writing an entire story and come to me in forty minutes to tell me you’ve written thirteen beautiful paragraphs,” Sauer said. “No. Write a minimum of eighty words now, update it constantly, and keep hitting publish each and every time. We need something that gets us in the game.”

— Visibility and repetition help. Ishmael recommends “always over-communicating.” Tailor different messages for different groups: vendors, journalists, the board of directors that needs to sign off on an investment.

— Don’t get frustrated. As Kotter said, “You’ll never win everyone over.” You don’t have to get the entire newsroom behind this industry-changing model. Your goal is 50 per cent plus one.

— Latour takes steps to empower a startup-like feeling at the Journal. He keeps the door to his office open and tries to talk to people in person instead of sending out hundreds of emails. “The party line should be that we don’t know exactly what will work, but we’re taking steps.”

That brings up a question I’ve encountered in many newsrooms: Doesn’t all this innovation hurt our core business?

As a way of countering that question, Latour urged editors-in-chief and other newsroom leaders to maintain a clear message: The quality of our journalism is sacrosanct, “but a lot of our behavior will have to change, newsroom behavior has to change, the ways in which we reach people has to change, our form of storytelling has to change. There is no other way: we have to change.”

Jim Moroney, publisher and CEO of The Dallas Morning News, bases his transformational strategy on two assumptions. The first is that print advertising revenues will continue to decline. The second is that, for a local newspaper like the Morning News (with a 250,000 Sunday circulation and 8 million unique website visitors per month), geography prevents digital advertising revenue from scaling enough to offset print ad declines.

Moroney doesn’t want to downsize the newsroom more than it’s already been downsized. It was 600 reporters strong in 2001; today, it’s half that size.

“Basically,” Moroney told me, “we have to solve the business model problem.”

The Dallas Morning News has experimented with different solutions. It put up a complete paywall — with no meter — in February 2011. That didn’t work, so Moroney took the paywall down.
Now the Morning News is trying a range of other ideas. It offers events like “One-Day University,” where professors give classes to readers. It started a content-marketing agency. And it now owns the craft beer and indie music festival Untapped and the food and wine festival Savor.

The paper also found room to innovate in arts and culture. This year it launched GuideLive, a mobile-friendly site with an infinite scroll of things to see and do in the area.