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

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You can’t go wrong if you repeat the same buzzwords everyone else is using? No, not really.

This is the fourth-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, and third parts.

The digital transformation of legacy newsrooms can be very painful as the traditional strengths of newsroom leaders — writing, editing, local news knowledge etc — don’t often come into play, while their weaknesses — people skills, work process design and thinking, project management — are magnified several-fold.

If you are in the midst of a change exercise in a legacy newsroom, you’ll soon find yourself looking outside the news industry for advice on change management, business innovation, and start-up culture.

Here are some books on these topics that I’ve found helpful (and enjoyable):

The Content Trap, by Bharat Anand

If you still insist that “content is king”, this is the book for you. Using vivid examples and case studies, Anand argues that it is more important to examine connections and connectivity — the network effect, if you will — rather than obsess over content.

Zero to One, by Peter Thiel

This concise book by the godfather of the “Paypal mafia” offers some crisp lessons for thinking about how to build companies that create new value — which, at a smaller level, is what digital transformation in the newsroom is fundamentally about.

Founders at Work, by Jessica Livingston

There are many insider-ish books out there on the painful lessons one can glean from being part of a major start-up. But I’ve not read another book with as many interesting founders — in one volume — offering key insights into the early days of their enterprise. Essential reading.

The Innovator’s Dilemma, by Clayton M. Christensen

This is a sobering read, even if there’s nothing in the book that’s directly related to the media industry. The book’s central thesis on why even great companies fail in their attempts to innovate and change is a good wake-up call for complacent newsrooms.

On Change Management, from HBR

If, like me, you lack the expertise to pull off a major change management exercise, then you’ll have to start drawing lessons from the corporate world and elsewhere. This slim volume is a good place to start. The problems you encounter in the newsroom are not unique, and would have emerged in one form or the other in other industries. My favourite chapter: “The Real Reason People Won’t Change”.

Tencent, by Wu Xiaobo

Go to any bookshop, and you’ll be able to find a tonne of books on success stories in Silicon Valley. Good books on major Chinese start-ups — not so much. Sure, there are a number of books on Jack Ma-Alibaba. But there’s a real dearth of good material on the other Chinese tech giants like Tencent, the company behind the Chinese super-app WeChat. This book, in Chinese, is said to be the definitive book so far on the company’s journey from a scrappy start-up to Asia’s second-largest listed company.

PS: Within the news industry, not many newsrooms have publicly shared, willingly or otherwise, their blueprint for change. The two reports by the NYT (here and here) remain the most talked about on this subject.

I’ve also turned to great resources like Nieman Lab, Digiday, the Splice Newsroom, Poynter, others and for tips and inspiration.

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 #5: Change fatigue

Note #6: Final thoughts

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