Final thoughts: Newsroom Transition Note #6

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What digital change in a newsroom feels like on some days.

This is the sixth and final-part of a series of notes from my time at TODAY, a small newsroom in Singapore where I had spent 34 months trying to figure out what’s needed for a print-to-digital transition. Here are the first, second, third, fourth, and fifth parts.

The terrible thing about people who give advice is that they often don’t take their own advice. Well, since I wrote about “data-led decision making” not so long ago, I’m gonna take my own counsel and end this series early.

Readership has declined sharply, from 391 “reads” for the first part, to 103 for the fifth, according to Medium’s stats. Can’t complain. It’s a niche topic.

Here are some final thoughts, wrapping up some issues which I had meant to discuss in fuller details:

* Radical versus incremental change

At the beginning of my stint with TODAY in January 2016, I was firmly in the camp of “incremental change”. By the time I left in October 2018, I had completely changed my mind on this issue.

“Incremental change”, unfortunately, became an excuse for coddling those who wanted to slow walk the process. The newsroom will eventually pay the price for a stalled transition, a result of wasting precious time that it doesn’t have.

On this matter, former Economic Development Board chief Philip Yeo said it best: “I don’t believe people can change. So the best way to change an organisation is to burn it down and start afresh. That means I sack the whole lot of managers.”

* Digital talent crunch

The digital talent crunch is one of the biggest issues holding back legacy newsrooms in Singapore. But you won’t be able to hire your way out of the problem as the talent pipelines from local schools are either outdated or designed for other industries like gaming.

You’ll have to train the talent you need for the digital transition.

This means re-setting expectations during the hiring process. Instead of looking for skills-ready candidates, hire those who are passionate about news, eager to learn new skills, and then put them through a structured training process.

The tougher part is training up the rest of the newsroom, and instituting a culture of continuous learning so that those with obvious skill-gaps will pick up essential new skills. Legacy newsrooms have a smaller window to get this right than they think.

* Workplace morale

When it comes to digital change, the one big question that many newsroom leaders struggle to articulate to the rank-and-file is this: “What’s in it for me”?

Will they get more pay if the transition is successful? Will they have better work-life-balance if readership grows? Or is the opposite more likely? Why should they work longer hours for the same pay?

Sure, they love journalism. But journalists are human beings too. If you are expecting your team to go over and above themselves out of “passion” for journalism, well, I have a reality check for you.

To be fair, newsroom managers have very limited ways to influence, much less change the financial or non-financial reward structure for their staff. Yet, the demands on the newsroom are growing by the month. You don’t need a crystal ball to see where this is going.

Finally, some have asked why I’ve not named anyone in these posts. Entertaining as that might be for the online bomb throwers, doing so would just obscure the real issues and turn this discussion into another silly food fight.

I’ll return to this topic if there’s a major development, but till then, thanks for reading.

LESSONS IN DIGITAL TRANSITION: Notes From A Small Newsroom

Note#1: Coalition of the willing

Note#2: Post-print Traumatic Stress Disorder

Note#3: Lies, damned lies, and (readership) statistics

Note#4: What to think when thinking about digital transformation in a newsroom

Note #5: Change fatigue

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