LESSONS IN DIGITAL TRANSITION: Notes From A Small Newsroom

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Not an actual scene from the newsroom, but close.

For about 34 months, I worked with a small newsroom in Singapore to figure out what’s needed for a transition from its print operations to a digital future. Here are my notes from the trenches:

NOTE#1: COALITION OF THE WILLING

What does a legacy newsroom really need to transform into a digital one? A visionary leader? An inspired roadmap? Tonnes of money?

All three would help but none would guarantee a successful outcome.

For one, it would be a mistake to rely too much on one person to drive the transition, even if it is natural to look to a strong leader to lead a difficult process. The staff turnover in modern newsrooms is incredibly high, and you should never assume that only young people will leave for greener pastures.

A detailed transformation roadmap would go some ways in calming the anxieties in the newsroom. But no one should be under any illusions about what it really is — a general guide that will be derailed and potentially forgotten in a few months.

If there’s one constant in life in the newsroom, it is that plans always go sideways. Some crazy event, or series of events, will throw your plans into disarray and suck all the momentum from the transition process as the team scrambles to stay on top of news coverage.

Money is important for the transformation process but it is no substitute for talent, the key ingredient in the transformation process. The dearth of digital media/journalistic talent in Singapore means you can’t hire your way out of the problem, even if budget is not a concern.

So, what do you really need to transform an old-school newsroom?

My conclusion after 34 months at TODAY Online: A strong coalition in the newsroom’s leadership team.

This seems trite. Who wouldn’t unite around the need for change in this current media climate?

The answer might surprise you, once your colleagues have a clearer idea of what the changes entail and how they would be affected by the new demands and expectations.

Young and mid-level members of the newsroom already feel overworked and under-appreciated. The uncertain outlook in the media industry and the depressed pay structure don’t help.

Senior members of the newsroom may say they support change but often end up being the biggest obstacles for two reasons:

* First, digital change is not only disruptive but also destructive in their eyes — to the values, quality, and form that they hold dear in traditional media. The emotional attachment to traditional media is often under-estimated by those tasked with driving change (more on this in Note#2).

* Second, those with no affinity for digital media feel sidelined by the process. But at the same time, they wield significant power in the newsroom. If they are not onboard with the overall mission, the transition gets slow-walked to death, or fails to gain the full momentum needed for success.

At TODAY, there was a broad mandate for change. But section leaders were left to interpret what that meant in their respective areas of responsibilities. Without agreement on the overall goals, a “coalition of the willing” with a shared mission never formed.

The newsroom made progress in fits and starts, and never hit the full stride needed for a real breakthrough.

Bottom line: If you are tasked with transforming a traditional newsroom, don’t start by looking outside and worrying about whether you should do more on this or that social media platform, or push out that shiny new product that your boss has asked for.

The first and most important order of business is in the newsroom: Getting the buy-in for change — vertically and laterally — and addressing the opposition to the process from the onset. You can’t convince everyone, but ignoring the dissenters will only set the newsroom up for failure down the road.

In a sense, a newsroom in transition is not unlike a start-up — it is the founding team that really matters, not the initial plan or product idea. More often than not, the early plans and ideas are discarded in a matter of months as market reality bites.

And that’s why a strong leadership coalition is required to help the newsroom constantly adapt, evolve, and push ahead despite repeated failures.

Without one, the transformation effort is destined for failure.

Here are the other notes:

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

Note #6: Final thoughts

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