Culture shock

Trying to turn the tide of the decline of newspapers from the inside involves a great deal of evangelizing and pontificating and running through sets of common scenarios with folks who are still firmly planted in the Paper business rather than the News business.

That’s no surprise.

And it’s no surprise that top-down, do-it-this-way mandates don’t work just because the ideas are sound.

Taking those two obstacles as a given, my basic goal when I talk with the staff at a newspaper is to try to identify — or bring out of the woodwork — one early adopter.  This might be a photographer or a reporter with a personal blog or an editor who got sent an interesting link in their e-mail and ended up bookmarking a blog.

The important part of the job isn’t speaking to the first 20 people on the conference call for an hour, it’s maintaining contact with the one person on the call who has the potential to Get It:  Moving from the Paper business to the News business isn’t as simple as picking up a different skillset; it’s about changing the mindset of journalists.

So find those early adopters and corner them.  Point them in inspiring directions and let them start to work out – on their own – where to go next.

Because you can’t mandate mindset.  But you can grow culture.

Related: Jason Kristufek’s notes on a few things Scott Sines said at a workshop in St. Louis.

16 Replies to “Culture shock”

  1. Ryan, this is great advice. One thing we do is to pinpoint people who want training and give it to them.

    We seek out the talent and the potential talent because it helps change the culture.

    One of the first things I did when I started at Forum Comm was to weasel myself into a newsroom. Most of my work is spent with other projects, but in the past year, my simply being there–along with the top down mandates–has help dramatically change the cuture.

    When others see how what we web nerds can help them daily the tables quickly shift.
    Great post.

  2. Ryan,

    I agree with your approach. I like the idea of ‘seeding’, encouraging, watering the plant and letting it grow.

    The only thing I’d add is that those of us doing this sort of work from within newspapers (or radio stations or wherever!) need to do more than just encourage colleagues who seem ready to make the moves.

    We need to spread the cultural change beyond the one or two – and probably can’t rely on the one or two doing it themselves (unless they are really senior or otherwise powerful!).

    A few thoughts about this include: recruit management to change; once ‘new’ approaches proven to work change structures (publishing processes, whatever) to apply the new approach more broadly; lead by example; be willing to change tack (spin on a dime) as required; be clear about the vision so that you don’t waste too much time on the wrong changes.

    I’m sure others have other thoughts and experiences…

    J

  3. Ryan am I that 1 person at my paper? haha.

    I try to get them to care about online – but they listen to nothing and no one. All they care about is print and getting home early.

  4. Brandon,
    BINGO!
    I think many reporters have been conditioned by the lack of attention given to their ideas. Here’s the thing: I find that some of the Powers That Be at a newspaper could give a cat crap about anything but costs and getting the paper out. After young reporters find that their idealism is secondary to producing a product (I liken it to build the lawn mower, get it to the trucks, get it to the box stores no matter if they are build correctly or not) and getting it out cheaply.
    Where I love, I’m the evangelist and have been shut down about online news (run a small paper)because there is till the mindset that print is the only thing that matters and costs must be kept down.
    When I started out, we were excited and would work all night to break a story. Now, the PTB want us to work under 40 hours, keep the budget low and we are in continual downsizing mode because ad revenues are waaay down.
    But our hands are tired.
    Thinking of a new profession because, golly gee, I like news but the constraints can be too overwhelming.
    Sorry, this isn’t angry journalist, just sharing my experience. I love journalism.

  5. What advice do you give people who are those early adopters but have trouble communicating the right way or in a place were others simply won’t listen for one reason or another.

    The work those early adopters do and the evangelism is there, but sometimes that’s not enough.

  6. @Julia – It’s definitely crucial to have some buy-in from top management at individual papers, but I’m making the case that change from the bottom is always going to be more likely, and more productive.

    Hypothetical example: Newspaper executive makes speech about change; newspaper publisher has meeting about change; newspaper editor writes memo about change; city editor says he doesn’t have time for change, maintains the status quo.

    But, if you start at the bottom, and win over one reporter, or maybe even someone on the copy desk who will start finding the time in their day to do something interesting on the Web, then you now have a change agent walking around in the newsroom, doing cool stuff on a daily basis.

    I’ve been that guy, and I think I did a decent job of turning staffers from naysayers to receptive, at the very least.

    @Zac has the right idea working out of a newsroom instead of corporate HQ. I might have to try that sometime. 😉

    @Jason: The best advice I can give you is to make sure you’re physically working somewhere in the newsroom where reporters can see what you’re up to. Hang out with the staff, talk about what you’re working on, show them cool stuff.

    One of the ways I used to do this was to send out a daily “Top 5 stories” e-mail to the newsroom as bait, then I added a “bonus link” every day to a cool multimedia story somewhere, or a great blog post, or a useful piece of software, etc…

    You need to show people what’s possible. Otherwise, all they see is ink on paper, every day.

  7. Nice post Ryan. I think you’re right on. There’s been times when I wish I could just toss down a mandate and say “hey everyone, it’s time you have to start doing this or that.” But that type of stuff is never successful. What I have seen is getting one or two people excited by small successes can grow into a larger group of people getting hooked on metrics and improving their web presence. The biggest lesson I’ve learned in transitioning print minds to web journalism is – it’s all about small steps. One step at a time.

  8. I’ve been reluctant to use the “e” word when describing to my colleagues what I’d like to instill in my newsroom. But I have to fess up: I’m an evangelist for digital media, if only a budding one right now.

    That’s an inspiring and thrilling challenge for me. On the other hand, the greater obstacle — getting others in the newroom to embrace the notion that these changes are not just necessary, but positive — is quite formidable.

    Without going into details, some recent experiences I’ve had the last few days sum up where I think we stand right now — one step forward, two steps back. There are a few willing souls eager to try new things, but they are rareties.

    This is going to be a very long haul, I’m afraid, and we’re running out of time to get the message across. I need some good ideas — and there are fine suggestions here — how to do this without pissing people off.

  9. Wendy,

    I try to do all my flogging from a “here’s how this can you help you” perspective.

    For example, to the people who are all about narrative, narrative, narrative, I talk about how helping build the newsroom wiki we’re starting will ultimately give them more time to write and craft.

    Also, I learned pretty quickly begging isn’t worth it. Flog with a smile and move on.

  10. Ryan,

    I am here, in Delaware, you’ve got my attention. I am behind the innovation that you and GateHouse bring to the table. I am excited and ready to go. They said we’ll have video on the website – I bought a digital scanner and video camera – they said we’ll be selling online advertising – I began to teach some of the staff flash, etc… The future is bright… I love the future…
    Again, you have my attention. Anything I can do to help the cause in Dover, just say the word.

    Chris

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