Newsrooms struggle with priorities on path to “digital leads” footing

Part of a series on newsroom transformation to serve digital news consumers, originally published by Knight Digital Media Center @ USC Annenberg.

DigitalLeadsCoverFiguring out what to stop doing in order to serve new priorities was a significant  challenge as newsrooms move to “digital leads” footing, where they produce content and engagement on phones, tablets and the web and then repurpose digital content for the newspaper at the end of the day.

The pull of tradition – those routine stories, that focus on the next day’s print newspaper, the idea of being all things to all people – can undermine the transition from print focus to digital.

One strong trait of the culture in many newsrooms is “perfectionistic” – the fear of making a mistake. This serves journalism well. But organizationally, it can translate into fear of missing anything or of leaving anything out. That’s highly non-strategic.

We saw this play out repeatedly in KDMC’s work with 13 newsrooms that are now part of the Journal Media Group (formerly E.W. Scripps). As part of the company’s Four Platform Newsroom initiative, we facilitated a process that enabled newsroom teams to determine priorities for digital work after they connected with news consumers and figured out what topics and delivery methods were valuable to those consumers. (More about our work in “Digital Leads: 10 keys to newsroom transformation.”)

Determining those priorities, however, was just the start.

“The biggest hiccup was getting staff to identify what work they could stop doing and in getting them to agree to stop doing work of low priority. They were willing to take on the new tasks but also wanted to keep doing old tasks that no longer made sense to do,” Mark Tomasik, editor at Treasure Coast Newspapers and, said.

The newsroom in Treasure Coast developed a practice of measuring time-consuming work against three priorities: franchise topics, breaking news and investigative reporting. “Resource-intensive efforts that do not fit at least one of those categories are not a priority,” Tomasik said.

Adam Neal, an editor who lead the staff team that developed franchise topic plans and other digital strategies, said initially it took constant discussion in the newsroom to help people understand and follow the new approach. (Neal has since become Managing Editor.)

Building on Treasure Coast’s approach, KDMC recommended that each editor work with staff and the publisher to develop a short list of priority “filters” to use to test which stories were worth a high level of resources. The idea was to separate high-priority coverage from lower priority items. That way, the lower priority items would be competing against each other but not sapping resources needed for higher priority items.

Developing the list through discussion with the staff was designed to increase understanding and the likelihood that the filters would be used. Having publisher buy-in would be essential if the filters were going to be meaningful.

In Redding, the staff came up with a list of 26 possible priorities. They asked each member of the company’s management team, including the publisher, to rank their priorities and came up with a list of the top 10. Then they got feedback from 19 people who represented a cross section of the community and came up with the final list of five:

  1. It’s urgent/breaking or affects public safety
  2. It’s franchise topic coverage
  3. It’s hasboth high impact and high interest in the community
  4. It’s investigative journalism
  5. It supports our business goals (including growing subscriptions and activations and rewarding “membership”)

While Treasure Coast used its filters to hone daily priorities, Lyons, the editor in Redding, said his leadership team has since used the filters at quarterly strategic planning meetings.

“The work of filters is upstream. We have had three significant planning meetings since we arrived at those filters. For each, we started by reminding everybody what our filters are.”

Can other newsrooms adopt this approach? I think so – with careful discussion at the outset of what the priorities are, why they matter to digital news consumers, and how they will be used by everyone in consistent fashion.

This post is adapted from Digital Leads: 10 keys to newsroom transformation.


Leadership and culture: Linchpins of digital transformation in the newsroom

Personas: Connecting with digital news consumers

Owning the local news franchise

“Digital leads” newsrooms push print to the back of the line