How to transform newsroom culture and overcome blockers to digital change

byJessica Weiss
Nov 03 in Digital journalism

In June 2009, the city of Liverpool, England, was brought to a halt when a 100-ton crane crashed into a block of apartments in the city center at midday. Journalist Alison Gow and her digital team at the Liverpool Echo went out to report. But they soon realized the news was already being reported online by residents and other eyewitnesses snapping photos and documenting it on social media.

“The story was out there, happening, and if we weren’t telling it in real time, we weren’t going to be part of it,” said Gow, now the editor of digital innovation at Trinity Mirror Regionals, one of the U.K.’s largest multimedia companies.

So instead of waiting to publish a story hours later, the digital team set up its first-ever live blog, and populated it with tweets, mobile photos and collaborative reporting via eyewitness reports. Quickly, it became an authoritative resource. According to Gow, that was the tipping point for The Echo’s shift to digital. “It was a demonstration of how a legacy title was utterly irrelevant in the digital age,” she said. “It was all about Internet and content, and what our audience wanted.”

That fundamental shift, from being in control to being part of the conversation, is happening in newsrooms across the world at varying speeds. For newsrooms that are still struggling with the shift, Gow has eight suggestions on ways to transform culture and overcome blockers to change. She recently presented these tips at WAN IFRA’s 13th International Newsroom Summit. IJNet reached out to Gow after the summit to review:

1 - Build your business around a digital-first, audience-foremost newsroom.

The days of discussing print versus digital are over, Gow said. “There’s not going to be a Hollywood ending for print,” she said. “The good old days are not coming back.”

2 - Provide engaging content, when your audience wants it.

Analytics are essential to knowing what devices readers are using to consume the news and what info they might want around what time of day. Gow points out that an online audience is not “one big, homogeneous thing.” Instead, it’s made up of individuals with different habits. “The experience of a mom trying to get kids to school in the morning is very different from the commuter trying to catch two trains.”

3 - Be accessible - operationally, via platforms and culturally, in how you engage and interact.

“In the morning, people access us mostly on tablet. During the day it's desktop and in the evening it's via tablet or mobile,” Gow said. Trinity Mirror uses live analytics through Chartbeat to instantly show how people are accessing information, whether it be through search platforms, social media, e-newsletters or instant messaging. “Once you’re following the trends and analytics, it doesn’t take long to get intuitive about what works and when.”

4 - Experiment, collaborate, innovate.

“I really like the idea of bringing in people who potentially aren’t journalists to work on things,” Gow said. Likewise, it works the other way around. “Put your title and yourself back out into the community,” she says. This helps to inspire innovation and to take chances on new ideas, which is a fundamental key to success these days. “You have to experiment and innovate or you will stagnate,” she said.

5 - Be committed to engagement with communities.

It’s important to not just sit in the office, Gow said. In rural Wales, where Internet is sparse, her team held digital workshops with citizens to set them up with Skype, Facebook and other tools. “It’s not a Pulitzer prize, but it’s something that nobody else is doing,” she says. “We gave back and that meant people were invested in us.” Other ideas: Go to your local Hacks/Hackers meetings, sit in the town hall or put yourself on the map by adding geolocation to your social media content and let people talk to you.

6 - Understand and anticipate audience demands.

Trinity Mirror runs internal calendars around upcoming events to meet audience demands. For instance, people may start thinking about Christmas in October. Knowing that trend, publications can begin publishing content about Christmas early on to boost credibility. Another example: “If you start publishing snow-related content ahead of snow season, when a snowstorm hits and it's breaking news, you’ve got that content created and you’re going to show up on top of the search results,” Gow said.  

7 - Embrace social media. It’s your communications system, newswire, distribution platform, contacts book, playground and your judge and jury.

“I always say, it’s expected not requested,” Gow said. Though social media might be run by a dedicated person or team who can set up searches and track the publication’s footprint, Gow recommends everyone in the newsroom be an expert in Twitter.

8 - Innovation is not restricted to the newsroom -- what’s your system for managing ideas?

People across the spectrum might have great ideas for an event or a different way of presenting content or organizing a website. So someone needs to be there, dedicated to taking and considering ideas. Gow said this is hard for journalists, who are used to being the authority. “Taking the ego out of things is a really important part of our future,” she said.

For more tips from Gow on setting a digital example in the newsroom, check out her presentation from the summit here

Image courtesy of Flickr user Matteo Parrini under a Creative Commons license.