New report offers insights into digital transformation in newsrooms

As traditional news organizations move to digital platforms, new skills and tools are essential. But other factors – leadership, strategic goals, an open organizational culture and staff ownership – are also critical for successful transformation.

Those are key lessons of the  $10 million Knight Newsroom Training Initiative and of Knight-supported training and coaching for more than 100 news executives at the Knight Digital Media Center at USC/Annenberg since 2006.

Building on those lessons, the center developed a process to speed the digital transformation of Journal Media Group (formerly E.W. Scripps) newsrooms in 13 local markets. Knight Digital Media Center, acting as a consultant, has worked with the newsrooms for more than two years.

The effort is far from complete. But a new report, “Digital Leads: 10 Keys to Newsroom Transformation,” looks at some of the lessons we’ve learned. Among them:

•      When journalists learn to conduct, analyze and act on consumer research, they more readily embrace digital change and create content and engagement that connect with digital news consumers.

•      Journalists need ongoing encouragement to drop some traditional print content so they can focus on journalism that resonates with digital consumers.

•      Change efforts need an overarching strategy that sets a high journalistic standard yet is flexible enough to evolve and adapt. Goals need to be easily communicated and well understood.

•      To foster staff ownership of change, newsroom leaders must facilitate staff learning and adoption, rather than directing.

•      Free or low-cost training plays an important role in transformation. This initiative relied on training from Poynter’s News University and Investigative Reporters & Editors, also Knight-supported programs.

Knight Foundation has devoted significant investments to professional development for journalists and journalism education, about $225 million over the past 25 years, according to Eric Newton, senior adviser to the president at Knight and a longtime champion of professional development for journalists.

The Knight Digital Media Center, with Knight funding, focuses on digital strategy and leadership. It has worked with executives from dozens of news organizations including NPR, PBS, The Boston Globe and The Seattle Times.

The Journal Media Group initiative has produced promising results. Eight newsrooms have achieved a “digital leads” footing in which they focus on journalism for phones, Web and tablets and then produce a print newspaper at the end of the cycle, according to Mizell Stewart III, managing director for content, who is leading the initiative. The other newsrooms are on track to get there this year, he said.

In the process, many skeptics have become believers. “The beautiful part was that the process convinced a significant proportion of our journalists that they needed to go in that [digital] direction,” Stewart said.

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