Changing hearts and minds: advice for cultural change in legacy news organisations

For something a bit different this week, we are giving a new report from Reuters on culture change a careful look. In this report, Lucy Kueng argues that the difference in digital transformation success in legacy media organisations is not due to strategy, as many have similar strategies, but instead in the translation of strategy into the “messy realities of human action” and “organisational inertia”.

So how have some organisations been able to successfully navigate this transition? It’s about harnessing hearts and minds within the organisation. The importance of this was highlighted in our last CEO Roundtable, in which culture change emerged as the number one challenge. That’s why this year’s CEO Roundtable will address this key challenge in a remote setting as part of our Future of News webinar series.

Join us today as we share insights from your news industry peers on achieving culture change, and then make sure to come back on December 1st for our roundtable with the CEOs of Chicago Sun-Times, DuMont, and Mediahuis Netherlands.

3 learnings for news leaders

Without the right leadership, no organisation will be able to truly transform. But what it means to be the right leader has changed. What has made leaders successful so far won’t bring them success going forward: they’re leading a different ship now than the one they boarded in the beginning of their careers.

To adapt to the reality of what it means to be a successful leader in a news organisation today, we have identified three key learnings from this report:

  • Balance being brilliant with being a novice
  • Watch out for “mother bird syndrome”
  • You’re only as strong as your team

Many of the top leaders in news organisations today have reached this level by knowing it all, but to be successful in a digital transition is to explore the unknown and to seek out answers from others. In short, news leaders today need to balance being both “brilliant” and a “novice”.

At Sweden’s national public-service television broadcaster SVT, the team noticed they had a problem with “mother bird syndrome”, as in people were waiting for top leaders to “feed” them answers.

People felt that they needed to ask senior people for direction all the time in great detail, and this ended up with the ‘mother bird’ syndrome – leaders have baby birds asking them for direction all the time that they have to feed with answers.

With the wide range of technologies and platforms, a leader cannot be an expert in everything. So it is key to empower subject matter experts to make decisions according to the higher strategy.

The people surrounding the top leader are key as well. They need to buy in to the vision, or be willing to clearly push back when they don’t. Their profiles are important as well. Often there is a temptation to have one or two ‘digital’ people on the leadership team, but this can send the signal that it is only their responsibility to focus on digital.

2 groups to listen to when changing culture

While culture is intangible and can be hard to define, it has a clear impact on results. Changing culture is the most significant challenge facing news leaders today.

When you do a transformation in an organisation with 1,000 people, it’s not one transformation, it’s 1,000 transformations.

To be successful, leaders will need to listen to two competing groups:

  • The 10% that will drag your organisation into the future
  • The small but loud group of detrators

Creating internal taskforces can be a powerful change lever. While the small group can help develop solutions that fit within the existing culture, this experience also serves as a way to create ambassadors for change. Through the discussions in the taskforce, often people’s own assumptions and beliefs can be changed, which they will bring back to their own teams. One interviewee called this group the “10%”, those who will “kick-start the process” and will “drag other people along”.

In addition to your 10% who will kickstart the culture transformation, you will face a small group who will actively try to block these initiatives. While opinions differ on how to handle this, it can be beneficial to listen to their concerns. It is important to not get bogged down in all of their criticism, but they can point out key flaws that will prevent others from buying in to this change.

1 key role to prioritise

There’s a growing awareness in our industry of the importance of product. We welcome the recent launch of the News Product Alliance, which will build a community of support and practice for news product professionals and product thinkers. We can’t overlook the importance of product people in digital transformation as well.

One of the key challenges faced in product roles is explaining exactly what the role is. Is a product manager part of the tech team? Or the marketing team? Or maybe it is even an editorial role. This is a symptom of a larger organisational problem: newspapers aren’t clear on why they should have product roles but they see how important they’ve been in the Silicon Valley.

They’re keen to hire product people because they’ve seen in Silicon Valley this is a key role … then they don’t know what to do with them when they get them because product people don’t fit in a media environment.

To solve this problem, news organisations are often recruiting product owners from big tech companies, similar to the ones in Silicon Valley itself. But then these employees are expecting a similar environment and may lack the passion for the mission the rest of the organisation shares. This can be disruptive and sow distrust between the teams. To avoid this, everyone in product functions needs a deep understanding of the culture of journalism.

We will further explore the importance of product thinking in news in an upcoming article and our future events, make sure to sign up to stay informed. Join us on December 1st for our CEO Roundtable to hear from leading CEOs on how they have managed these challenges in their digital transformations.

Mary-Katharine Phillips
Mary-Katharine Phillips
Media innovation analyst @ Twipe
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