API has a new take on innovation -- ignore the tribal nature of news organizations at your peril

One model was for a single-subject news website shows the staffing structure of the site. Rather than present the team in a typical org chart, they use concentric circles to show that each group is connected. (Image from the API report)
One model was for a single-subject news website shows the staffing structure of the site. Rather than present the team in a
typical org chart, they use concentric circles to show that each group is connected. (Image from the API report)
News organizations have become more "tribal" than ever, according to a pair of new reports from the American Press Institute, and effective innovators must work with that reality rather than try to bulldoze change through.

At news organizations, Jeff Sonderman, deputy director of API and co-author of the report, told me by phone, a frequent problem is that "we come to the same building every day, but we may not really be working toward the same goals."

Knowing the need for change or even being willing to change are no longer the big issue, Sonderman said, "but how to do it, how to make it work and stick is."

The API report identifies reporters as one tribe. Visual journalists, ad sales reps, middle managers are among others.  And the newly important tribe in news organizations trying to innovate are the developers and designers.

The report seeks to apply "human-centered design thinking" in a news context. In pithier terms it quotes the tech start-up aphorism "culture eats strategy for breakfast" -- how the people in a workplace interact may be more powerful than the best-reasoned of innovation plans.

In a brief introductory section, the report cites API's own Newspaper Next project of the mid-2000s as a case in point.  The industry-sponsored research made an urgent case for major changes and offered a "blueprint for transformation" based on Clayton Christensen's theories of disruption and defining "jobs to be done."

The study and follow-up presentations received respectful attention but relatively little of what was recommended got done.

The Knight Foundation (funders of the API report) had a similar experience with years of investment through the Knight News Challenge in developing innovative digital tools.  Disappointingly few were adopted in practice.

Both Knight and API think that the right kind of organizational culture was the missing piece of the puzzle.

So what's needed?:

Culture is defined by leadership and then fulfilled by staff. It is a shared set of expectations, values, motivations, and purposes.

Leaders, our research found, create an innovative culture by exercising three fundamental steps:

  1. Setting the right goal — Establishing a shared mission, vision and vocabulary that unites the whole organization.
  2. Aligning all teams toward the goal — Coordinating, nurturing, and enforcing a shared set of current priorities that all teams will work toward while recognizing and respecting the different roles each plays.
  3. Energizing the process — Driving, demanding, rewarding and sometimes
    protecting the necessary change and improvement.

In an environment with those three ingredients — with everyone working toward the same high-level goals while respecting their necessary differences, working with each other enthusiastically and creatively to reach them — innovation is far more likely to flourish.

Without this environment, our researchers found, any one person or team’s efforts at significant innovation are usually plagued by conflicts, insufficient resources, or internal indecision.

Here it is important to note another finding — we do not see “innovation” as a goal in itself. It is more of a byproduct: innovation is what happens while you’re busy creating your future by solving problems

Tribes, reporters particularly, have often been viewed as obstacles to change, summarily rejecting ideas by saying that's not the way we do things here. However that need not be so, Sonderman said. Work-group tribes "generate energy.  We learn from each other. That's part of why we come together in the workplace."

Getting the tribes and work teams aligned is tricky, according to the report.  A goal imposed from above (say, increasing web traffic) may be resisted, rather than embraced.  Similarly physically interspersing developers into a newsroom may have limited benefit -- may even isolate the developers.

Processes API identifies as promising include:

  • Examining work routines that may be reinforcing the status quo.  The New York Times Innovation Report, for instance, identified a series of daily news planning meetings as focused on the primacy of page one in print whatever was being said about commitment to digital transformation.
  • Have the tribes that need to collaborate adjacent to each other and sharing their expertise on tasks -- like using web analytics -- that span several departments.
  • Use an open layout and some freshening up to "create a physical space that suggests transformation rather than decline."
  • Introduce entrepreneurial concepts to the organization such as The Lean Startup or Minimum Viable Product.
  • Hold "demo days" where an interdisciplinary team working on a new initiative shows the work in progress to a larger group in the organization.
  • Set aside time for hack days.

API intends to develop consulting for individual organizations around these findings, though that is still in the formative stage.  Sonderman describes the report as partially "reconnaissance for how to support culture change -- a learning document for us."

In that same vein, a companion report by Craig Silverman includes interviews with more than a dozen leaders from traditional and new organizations on best practices in news innovation.

For instance at Vox, there are bi-weekly priorities meetings aimed at tweaking and adjusting goals as they evolve.  A separate monthly meeting for a 60-member product team applies those revisions to a range of ongoing projects.

I was surprised by the prominence of "tribes" as an organizing concept for the report.  I know Sonderman and co-author Tom Rosenstiel well enough to be sure that they are neither deeply under the influence of Margaret Mead nor binge watchers of Survivor (which rates a mention).

Sonderman concedes that the report has an unusually "anthropological" perspective.  "The way people behave in a work setting is not that different from social or other settings...We can't pretend people stop being human when they come to work."

In my view, the report is more theoretical manifesto with fewer data points and examples of success than most of the genre.  But it honorably attempts to find some new ground on an issue that has huge importance for the future of news and has largely frustrated legacy organizations to date.

Also, given that API is affiliated with the Newspaper Association of America and governed by a board of high-level industry executives, you may want to watch for this approach coming to a newsroom near you before long.

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