Culture Change: How Knight is helping accelerate digital transformation in news organizations

Journalism / Article

Shortly after arriving at Knight Foundation in the fall of 2014, I visited daily news organizations in cities across the country to better understand how we might better support local journalism and the information needs of communities, the heart of our work in the Journalism program.

Most newsrooms had not yet shifted their focus to digital from print, but I didn’t find resistance to change. Instead, I met one newsroom editor after another clamoring for guidance to help transform their newsroom’s culture and practices.

As a former fellow in the Sulzberger Executive Leadership Program at Columbia Journalism School, I knew Douglas K. Smith could help. After leading McKinsey and Company’s global change management practice, Smith began the Sulzberger program 10 years ago, coaching news media executives from around the world on how to drive change in their organizations.

Working with leaders from the Temple University School of Media and Communication in Philadelphia, Assistant Dean Arlene Morgan and Dean David Boardman, Smith designed a similar but different peer-to-peer learning approach for 50 newsroom leaders from four major metropolitan news organizations to help speed up their move to digital.

In just a year, The Dallas Morning News; the Miami Herald; the Minneapolis Star Tribune; and the Philadelphia Media Network, which is home to The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Philadelphia Daily News and Philly.com, achieved strong results, inspiring us to expand the program.

We are thrilled that 50 newsroom leaders from the Houston Chronicle, the Mercury News in San Jose, California, the Milwaukee Journal, and The Seattle Times are gathered in Philadelphia this week as part of an expansion of this project to dozens of other news organizations of all sizes.  

With our new partner, the Lenfest Institute for Journalism in Philadelphia, we are providing $4.8 million in new funding over the next three years to provide dozens of leaders in news organizations with the change management skills they need to adapt their workflows, staffing, technology and culture to more effectively connect with their communities and find revenue sources to support the important journalism they are producing.

The Lenfest Institute, one of the new models to support public service journalism at the local level, was started just a year ago by philanthropist H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest when he donated the Philadelphia Media Network to the newly formed nonprofit that is associated with The Philadelphia Foundation.

We are working closely with the institute’s new director, Jim Friedlich, who devoted his business career to journalism through his work at The Wall Street Journal. The institute is more than a funding partner. Under his leadership, the institute is supporting journalism innovation in Philadelphia and similar markets with a team of digital media experts in audience development, user experience and product development.

To complement this effort, Knight awarded The Poynter Institute $880,000 in funding for the Poynter Local News Innovation Program, which will offer intensive teaching and coaching to up to 20 local news organizations over three years. Poynter opened applications this week and will offer media organizations everywhere access to this information through online courses on its News University e-learning platform and robust coverage via a new innovation channel on poynter.org.

This next chapter also includes a collaboration with the Center for Innovation & Sustainability in Local Media at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Media and Journalism, which will help spread lessons from the project to local and regional news organizations. The American Press Institute, a key partner in the first phase, will lead an effort to document and spread best practices from the project through an interactive digital hub funded by Knight. It will also produce research and information for other organizations working on transforming their newsrooms, and a major report that it will produce this spring with Smith and original newsroom partners.  

At a time when journalism is more important than ever, we need to support our traditional news organizations, as well as our digital upstarts. With this project, we are helping them drive culture change and use technology to better meet the information needs of people in their communities.

We need to rebuild trust in journalism and better inform our communities following Jack Knight’s simple philosophy: “Get the truth and print it.”

Today, I imagine he would have said: “Get the truth and post it.”

Jennifer Preston is vice president for journalism at Knight Foundation. Email her via [email protected], and follow her on Twitter @jenniferpreston and at facebook.com/ jennifermpreston.