Communicating the urgent need for change

This morning’s post about whining photographers at Gannett got me thinking today a bit how change is communicated.

Of course, no amount of communication is going to help some people cope with or accept change, but the photogs complaints seem to reflect a high level of misinformation and misunderstanding about what Gannett is doing and how our industry is changing. The thread is not the only example of out there of Gannett employees not getting it, but it is the topic of the moment.

Now, I’ve never worked for Gannett, but I’ve worked for large news organizations, so I imagine this initiative is going something like this: Top level executives get an idea, talk to some site-level executives, and they begin to experiment. The experiment gets some traction, and it gets communicated to managers throughout the organization as the new initiative. The managers, not wanting to buck management, and knowing just enough about industry trends (stuff they follow with but one eye while they do the real work of putting out a daily newspaper), enthusiastically jump on board. But they don’t really understand everything, so they don’t communicate the vision or tactics clearly. Staffers, as newspaper staffers often do, hear only what they want to hear. The miscommunication is compounded because if you’ve spent your life behind the lens of a camera or with your nose buried in a town council agenda, you’ve probably missed some important news about newspapers.

If that’s the scenario, of course there’s going to be some clueless comments on industry bulletin boards.

For upper management, we’re the people who spend all day thinking about this stuff. We read all the industry reports, the hottest books, go to all the industry meetings and work our networks. We know what’s going on and think about it all the time. The rest of our organizations don’t do that. What might seem obvious to us strikes many editors, reporters and photographers as wacky and misguided. And for our part, maybe we’ve forgotten a thing our two about our salad days in newsrooms or sales offices.

For those of us who believe the industry must change radically and quickly, we need to communicate better — and I don’t just mean through our individual companies, but also through our professional organizations and industry publications.

Everybody in our news organizations, at every level, must get why change is necessary, what the strategy is, and why radical and urgent change is imperative.

Key points to communication:

  • Circulation has been declining since the 1970s (really, since the 1930s), and nothing we can do with our print products is going to change that. As more people get broadband, more people are switching to the internet for news. Young people today will NEVER read a newspaper regularly. This isn’t about driving our audience to the web (as some of the Gannett photogs seem to believe); it is about following our audience to the web, and maybe even taking a lead in giving them something worthwhile on our sites so we can keep them as readers.
  • We need to explain disruption and innovation. We need to help staffers better understand why things are shaking out the way as they are, what it means to us, and what our options are for strategically intelligent responses.
  • We need to show how the net is changing the way people consume information, how expectations of timeliness, quantity and quality are changing, and that the days of packaged goods media are over. We need to explain why and how we’ll develop new products to meet the changing demands of the marketplace. We are no longer just news companies, but that doesn’t mean we get out of the news business or abticate our responsibilities to the social welfare of our communities.
  • We need to help people understand that the evolution of journalism to more participation and alternate methods of communication does not necessarily equal bad journalism. It’s just different.
  • We need to sooth fears that changes necessarily mean job cuts. In fact, the opposite could be true, if we do this right.
  • The internet is not a fad. Go digital or go home. This is our future, like it or not. What we know of the internet today is maybe a twentieth of what it will be five years from now. You simply cannot rely on the notion that print has always survived and it will survive this too. The world is changing faster than we can really visualize, even as it goes on around us. Technology is guaranteed to overtake the need for print. We either figure out a new business model or die.

We can’t assume any of those points are known in our newsrooms. Our communication needs to be more comprehensive and better sourced than what I’ve outlined here, but we need to make sure the feet on the street in our industry get the message and grok our sense of urgency.

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4 thoughts on “Communicating the urgent need for change

  1. Those are some quality words, including the note of humbleness about forgetting “salad days.” I’ve said before I’m not wedded to the printed page – though I like – I’m committed to standards and I can’t change them down if it means abandoning principles that help me sleep at night.

    “BE ADEQUITE” – and more. ….

  2. Here’s what I’d really like to see from Gannett and the others – drop your profit margins to 10% and STAFF your newsrooms. That’s probably one of the few things that will guarantee success, but I bet it’s one of the last things they try.

    To me, the whole Info Center thing seems to be about shuffling titles and responsibilities around an already over stretched newsroom.

    You can’t tell me a 10% profit margin isn’t enough because it is for a lot of other industries. What really saddens me is that we’re talking about NEWS and MEDIA trying to keep those high profit margins no matter the cost.

    Renaming positions and definitions seems like a good idea on paper, but I’m serious in that the only thing that’s gonna help save ‘old media/big media’ news operations is for them to staff their newsrooms – go on a hiring frenzy instead of continually laying people off and shipping the writing overseas (which company did that for business stories? Can’t remember…)

    Anyway, your thoughts on communication are sound, but I really think the people at the bottom are just seeing the ‘reality’ of the situation – more work with the same (or less) people.


  3. What good are a lot more people going to do if they’re doing the wrong thing? The LATimes has been historically overstaffed, and have won a boatload of major prizes in the past several years, yet they have among the biggest circulation drops in the industry — and no journalist in his or her right mind would question the quality of the journalism of the LAT.

    Clearly, spending money just to spend money is not the answer.

    And we’re getting our butts kicked by a lot of people not spending much money, or little of it relative to what they’re doing to our industry.

    Clearly, it’s not how much money we spend, or how big our profit margins. It is what we do with our money and our time. We need to be smarter and more nimble, not overstuffed. We can’t throw money at the problem and expect to fix it.

    Hey, if Gannett’s found a formula for doing more with less, then bravo, because they’re going to have a lot less revenue anyway. Trimming and lowering the 20 percent profit margins may be inevitable anyway. So shouldn’t newsroom staffers be part of the solution, instead of a roadblock, and learn work smarter and more efficiently? Digital requires lean efficiency.

    Things have reached such a state that newsroom staff either need to get on board with change, or see if Wal-Mart is hiring … or do like you did, and start their own online empires.

  4. I am the editor at The Des Moines Register, a Gannett newspaper. Your points about communication are right on, and I am proud that we have put major emphasis on that at The Des Moines Register as we lead to smart change in our industry. We need to make it an ongoing priority to invest the time to talk – to repeat the principles, to continue to change as we learn, to bring people along who adapt at different paces. We had retreats with our editors, a full-day interactive retreat with the entire staff, more retreats with editors to get smarter about multimedia and conversation, etc, and department staff meetings to update our progress and talk about what’s working and not. This is a crucial time for our industry and, thus, for our communities and we all need to move forward together. In case you are interested, here is a column I wrote about this about a month ago.
    Carolyn Washburn

    NOTE: I edited this comment to make the keywords a hyperlink rather than display the full URL (hbo).

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