Executives from leading Danish media organizations met this week at a summit on innovation and the future of media hosted by the Danish Media Association Danske Medier.
Questions from the Danish editors got Washington Post to share failures and successes and Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism to give good advices on diversity in newsrooms.
These are the 19 questions and answers from the keynotespeakers, Greg Barber from Washington Post and Alexandra Borchardt from Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.
Director of Newsroom Product, Washington Post
1. Do you have claimed pro-Trump journalists writing about politics?
The Post’s Opinions section features writing from political thinkers of all stripes, including people writing in support of President Trump or particular policies.
2. What impact has Jeff Bezos had on the mindset at the Post? And how has the reaction in newsroom been?
Having Jeff Bezos as an owner has been great for The Post. He’s invested in us across the board, from funding projects in the newsroom, engineering, advertising and elsewhere to boosting our entrepreneurial spirit — or, as he’d say, our “swagger.”
Reaction to the sale in the newsroom at first was tentative — The Post had been owned by the same family for 80 years and journalists, as we know, are cautious at best in the face of institutional change. But when they saw that the newsroom under Bezos ownership would be well-resourced and directed in the same way by our editor Marty Baron, my colleagues generally accepted the change and moved on.
3. How do you make reporters feel safe in this transition-period?
Reporters aren’t safe: our job is difficult, and our industry is in transition. As managers, we shouldn’t sugar-coat that. But we can make sure they know that they’re not alone and that we are here to help guide them and the entire team through this transition. Coaching is one effective way to do that, as is giving people opportunities to grow or try out new skills.
4. How do you make sure the findings from the “News Desk” and “Social Embeds” etc. transform in to change in the different sections?
Two main ways: many of our strategy-layer roles are embedded roles — people who sit with the section they’re meant to advise. That way, a social embed or an operations editor is known to and trusted by the team they work with. Also, the managers of these teams meet regularly with managers of our content sections to discuss broader strategy. By communicating at these two levels, we inject data into the system two ways.
It’s by no means perfect. We’re continuing to refine the process.
5. How do you make sure the journalists are included in all the new projects and feel safe?
This is a challenge for us. One of the top bits of feedback from our reporters is that they’d like to know more about new initiatives. We still haven’t found the perfect way to do that.
What we’re trying now: recurring emails about new and upcoming initiatives, company-wide forums to present new ideas, and direct one-on-one outreach to reporters and editors who might be interested in a specific initiative.
6. Can you give us examples of “failures” (= learnings) at Washington Post we don’t have to replicate in Danish media?
I’ll share one of mine. I’ve long wished I could convince more reporters to engage directly with readers on our site. It’s the most effective way I know to combat mistrust and to spur loyalty (and subscriptions). I’ve had some targeted wins, but no widespread success. The learning there: reporters need the right kind of motivation to reach beyond their comfort zone, and so far, I haven’t made a compelling case. I’m working on it still.
7. When a reporter has a great story that you decide to unfold over all platforms – does the journalist do the reporting on all platforms or do specialists take over the reporting, e.g. make the podcast for the reporter?
The best collaborations I’ve seen have involved reporters with different skill sets working together on a story. An incisive writer paired with a dogged researcher, a creative graphic designer and an innovative photographer or videographer can craft some amazing stories.
Stories that have been retrofitted for another platform almost always feel less compelling to me — like they’re missing a key ingredient.
8. What has been the most important project for Washington Post the last year? Did you succeed or not – and why?
I can’t narrow it down to just one for the whole company, but an important project has been our continuing coverage of the Trump White House and the U.S. Congress. We measure success there by readership metrics — unique visitors, time spent, subscription starts — and journalistic metrics: are we breaking news, are we covering the right stories, are we providing the information our audience needs.
So far, I’d say we’re doing well, but the story is far from over.
9. How do you make sure knowledge transport from one silo to another?
When silos are unavoidable, the best method I’ve seen is to set up way stations for information-sharing. If it’s at the management level, setting up a regular coffee meeting can help. For staffs, a monthly check-in (fueled by a crisp agenda) can do wonders.
10. Can you format any classic new story to a younger audience to make it eatable?
Younger audiences like what all audiences like: good stories, crisply and accessibly told. The generational differences I’ve seen have been in location — younger readers tend to find us more through search and social than directly — and in presentation: young readers may want more multimedia than readers more attuned to print. The best way to approach this I’ve seen is to think about the best way to tell a story before it’s composed.
11. Is it possible to implement your setup/strategy/model into a small (Danish) media company (with say 40 employees)?
Yes! Pick one thing core to your mission and your strengths that you’d like to improve, create a plan to improve it, set goals for success, then give it a try — measuring against your goals all the way.
Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, Senior Research Associate
1. What is in your opinion the most important talent to hire, if your media is to be geared for the future?
The editor-in-chief … No, you don’t have to replace leadership if leadership is open minded. The most important talent to hire is the one you don’t have. Think about your vision and strategy and start from there. Chances are that someone who understands product (like Greg) can be very helpful. You also need someone who understands audience data to find out whether you are moving in the right direction, developing and retaining a loyal audience. And obviously you need people-minded, attentive and resilient managers.
2. We tend to recruit people similar to the rest of the staff. Do you have any recommendations on how to recruit talent with other social and ethnic backgrounds etc.?
Find out where the communities are you’d like to serve and screen talent from that community. Work closely with journalism schools, or run a condensed media programme yourself (maybe in cooperation with other publishers). Think about your employer brand: Could it feel cool to work for you? What would have to change to make it feel cool. But don’t sell something you are not. Doing a cool image video and welcome candidates with a very traditional, hierarchical culture doesn’t work. You need to remain true to who you are and sell the qualities you are best at. Analyse your recruitment procedures, interview processes, etc.., get external help to professionalise them. And don’t kid yourself: managing diversity can be hard, there will be conflict. So, find the common grounds: the values you stand for, the mission you have.
3. Are you aware of any good examples of newsrooms, that have managed to increase diversity?
BBC News is doing pretty well. Reuters is another one that is taking diversity seriously. Zeit Online in Germany is decent at it. One of the first brands that really worked on gender diversity was Bloomberg News. They had a three-part approach: Reporters were expected to quote diverse sources, they were expected to get acquainted with the most important women in their beats (that’s why Bloomberg was the only one who knew GM CEO Mary Barra when she was promoted), panels were supposed to be diverse.
4. Where should we find talent, where we are not looking today?
In communities that don’t even consume news. Young people need role models, they need to be encouraged that this is a profession that is fun and they can make a difference with. With students, it can work to encourage those with other backgrounds (science, engineering, music, etc.) to think about a journalism career. Or screen blogs for talent, particularly in the local environment. Active recruiting is key, our profession is not used to that. And maybe you find it in your very own newsroom. Some of your employees might have interests and talents you don’t even know about. The probably best data guy of The Guardian was an actor in his earlier professional life and started at the Guardian as a messenger.
5. How should the media in rural areas attract talent?
Be open and approachable. Some people might feel they don’t meet the standards, tell them there is demand. Do video competitions or blog competitions where young people can apply and showcase what they can. Rent a bus and travel to rural areas to talk to people about their needs, you might get approached by interesting talent. Don’t scare people of with overwhelming demands. Lots can be achieved if you train passionate people on the job.
6. What are the most efficient programs for talent development – and who has the responsibility for attracting and developing talent? Do you use a certain system to find new talents?
The German Press Agency revamped their trainee programme and now offers different career tracks for incoming talent: a traditional reporter career, an editor/manager career, a tech-oriented career. This is the end of the one-size-fits-all trainee programme and from what I heard it works rather well, also because it puts different talent on the radar. Obviously, it is also about training on the job, continuing education, sending people to leadership classes and fellowship programmes where they meet international peers and return with a whole bunch of new best-practice ideas (like the programmes at the Reuters Institute). Of course, leadership is responsible for talent. If your organisation is big enough you could create a role for that in the newsroom, like for example the Financial Times did.
7. What is your best advice to leaders with young talented journalists that feels unsafe in their job and profession because of the situation in the news-industry?
It’s hard to provide a safe environment in a challenged situation. Make sure they feel listened to and that their concerns matter. If you can, give them unlimited contracts. Train them in skills and methods that make them employable in other professions if worse comes to worse. Actually, audience-/customer-centred thinking, understanding data and draw conclusions from it is highly valuable in many industries. Train them in project and budget-management, that comes in handy everywhere. Employability of these new types of journalists is much higher than it used to be for reporters whose basic skill was to research and write stories. And if it gets really bad: let them go someplace else and hire them back if they want to return. You will get a whole bunch of new experiences as a side-effect and very loyal employees.
8. Tell us about the greatest newsroom you have ever visited. Why was it so good?
I really like the Financial Times, because it has a great company culture (disclosure: I used to work for Financial Times Deutschland when it was founded for five years). How can I tell? They are constantly experimenting with new roles, products, formats, are not afraid to discard old habits and rethink stuff that doesn’t work. Obviously, they are still very white and male and cater to an elite audience, but the newsroom is way more diverse than its readers are. And FT journalists rarely complain, that makes me think culture must be great (journalists tend to complain all the time, is my experience). This all said, in the leadership classes I ran in Oxford, some of the most innovative ideas came from smaller newsrooms. They have been faced with challenges and problems much earlier than some of the big brands, so they have had to come up with innovative solutions. You don’t always have to start big. Make sure you get started somewhere and look for some quick wins that encourage change throughout the organisation.
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