January 15, 2016

The news that Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes decided to sell The New Republic got me thinking about all of the established news organizations I’ve worked with in the past few years, and what all of them have in common:

Like The New Republic, they’re trying to become something else.

Some are trying to become “digital-first.” Or “audience-focused.” Or “platform neutral.” Or “engaged with the community.”

All of these aspirations have value and all, of course, are intended to help organizations achieve their number one transformation, to sustainability.

But the change is hard, and the march toward sustainability frustrating. In most cases, funds for investing in new ideas and up-to-date technology is limited, and the most successful profitability tactic to date has been cost reduction. (Which further complicates the pursuit of transformation.)

And so it is that managers seek advice on how to achieve transformation in a constrained environment. How, they ask, do you motivate a staff to become more digitally-focused, engaged with the audience, willing to change? One answer they get is:

Act more like a startup.

That’s apparently what Hughes wanted The New Republic to do; he invested $20 million into getting the organization to act more like the Silicon Valley startups that have become symbols of nimble, innovative, collaborative enterprises. After all, he helped create one of the most successful startups of all, Facebook.

But advising an established company to act more like a startup needs some fine print, like those drug ads that make you want to run up and down the beach or buy side-by-side, outdoor bathtubs:

Most startups fail.

People who get involved in actual startups know that fact—they understand the game. As Felix Salmon wrote in Fusion:

“Silicon Valley has a no-lose culture: you join a startup, and either it succeeds, in which case you win, or else it doesn’t, in which case you just join another. Failure is victimless, and indeed can be worn as a badge of honor. And precisely because failure is so socially acceptable, it is also extremely common; young companies regularly take crazy existential risks because the downside (another free roll of the dice) is so acceptable, while the upside is unlimited.”

But trying to treat your established organization like a startup can be perilous. Wrote Salmon:

“You can’t treat a century-old publication the way you would a one-year-old startup, and yet that’s pretty much exactly what Hughes did.”

And here’s one more piece of fine print for managers seeking to get your organization to act like a startup:

You are not a startup.

Jim Brady, founder of Billy Penn, the online news site in Philadelphia, raises his voice when he makes that point. “You are not a startup!” he repeats. The fact that your organization is an established business means you don’t qualify as an initiative with no history, no customers and no brand. He acknowledges how hard it is to manage an existing business while trying to transform for the future (He’s been there, too.) But he points to one of the benefits that an established business gets you:


“You don’t have forever to change,” he says, “but the business gives you time while you figure things out.” Startups, depending on how well they are funded, may not have so much time.

He makes one more observation about the clash of cultures between startup and established: “I’m frustrated by the purists on both sides. It isn’t all about change, and it certainly can’t be all about standing still.”

If you’re in an established organization, he says, you’ve got to work both realities: transform and preserve.

Brady’s right. Leading transformation is an art, one that demands you begin with a thorough understanding of what your organization does best and what your audience needs. It is an art that favors a skilled surgeon’s focus and precision over a scatterbomb; the capacity to create and deliver a product that responds to a real need, and an organization built specifically to carry it all out.

This is not to dismiss the value of integrating some elements of a startup culture into your transformation efforts. Surely you should. But that’s only one piece of a successful change strategy.

So what elements of a startup’s culture might you want to emulate?

Nicole Fallon Taylor, assistant editor at Business News Daily, wrote about embracing a startup culture and asked business leaders to identify some of those elements. Here are four:

  • A sense of social responsibility.
  • The ability to react and shift quickly.
  • Employees and leaders who own their contributions—seeing how their work contributes to the company’s progress.
  • An “anything is possible” mentality.

These all have merit, and some exist in established newsrooms already. Lots of journalists have a sense of social responsibility; it contributes to some of their most meaningful work. Many also are skilled at reacting and shifting quickly, at least when it comes to covering news. However, reacting quickly to changes in the ways people are consuming and creating media has proven more difficult.

Do your staffers see how their work contributes to the organization’s goals? Given the fitful way in which many newsrooms have approached a transformation strategy, many managers and staffers still struggle to see how their work fits into that strategy. (Think social media.) In newsrooms that have stuck with a change strategy over time, however, you’ll find journalists who know absolutely how their work is contributing to the effort.

The element of startup culture proving most elusive for established organizations in this age of downsizing is the “anything is possible” mindset. But hey, journalists are paid to be skeptical, and those empty desks argue against the possibility they can do “anything.” As a manager, your assurances have to be supported by their experience. Is “anything” possible? Prove it.

In the end, I’m left observing that these elements of a startup coverage actually exist in any “healthy” culture. Right? Sure, we relate them to startups. But they also exist in established organizations where leadership:

  • Owns and clearly communicates a vision that staff can embrace and contribute to.
  • Avoids trendy recipes for organizational success and, instead, inspires people to learn continually, contribute ideas and try new things, strategically.
  • Values experience as well as technical expertise, and provides everyone with what they need to participate in the organization’s evolution.
  • Successfully integrates the best of the legacy organization’s values and talents into the plan for going forward.

That last point is crucial. Managers who continually remind staffers of their shortcomings defy them to buy into a vision. Such managers remind me of Franklin Roosevelt’s observation that leaders who get to the top of the hill, look over their shoulder and see no one there—they have problems.

If you believe you need to torch the fields before you grow new crops, you might eliminate the need to win over veteran staffers, but you also lose the value that experienced, often talented people can bring. No, not everyone will come along for the ride into the future. But if you want to reap the benefits of the brand you’re managing, think twice before disregarding the people who built that brand.

They might play important roles in the organization you’re trying to transform. And you might be able to do it for less than $20 million.


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Butch Ward is senior faculty and former managing director at The Poynter Institute, where he teaches leadership, editing, reporting and writing. He worked for 27…
Butch Ward

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