December 30, 2016

Here’s something you don’t hear enough: Journalists, you’re doing a good job.

Chances are good that you learned a new skill this year and put it into action. Maybe 2016 was the year you started using Snapchat to tell global stories. Perhaps you figured out how to use GIFs, or augmented your reporting with data. It’s also possible that you unleashed some bots upon the world.

In the last two decades, the average reporter has tackled the basic coding languages, CMSes good and bad (mostly bad), social media, photography, videography and more digital tools than your granddad’s garage could hold.

In my mind, at least, the word “journalist” is now just as likely to conjure an image of Dev Patel hunched over a Skype call with a source in Egypt as it is of Robert Redford clacking away at a typewriter. That’s significant. All of that learning took hard work and the underappreciated courage to try something new.

But — and I’m sorry, but here’s where things get less rosy — very little of that matters because, while we’ve changed what we do, we haven’t changed who we are.

Newsrooms have always been good at innovating. But that innovation can’t enhance our journalism, prop up our business model and sprout roots if the culture is inhospitable to it. And through layoffs and attrition, opacity, fatigue to change or burnout, that’s exactly the sort of culture many journalism organizations have built.

How many great ideas (or great people) has this industry squandered because nobody has noticed or embraced them? Can you imagine if a caveperson, exhausted from chiseling, held up the first wheel, only for everyone around to let out a dismissive sigh?

Plenty of others have argued that newsrooms are great at innovating but terrible at culture change. Some have tried to help.

This year, I teamed up with my colleague Katie Hawkins-Gaar in an effort to enable everyone in the newsroom — from the greenest intern to the most cynical editor — to do something about it. We interviewed a handful of thoughtful changemakers and published a video series called 40 Better Hours. If culture is the invisible glue that holds an organization together, I like to think of 40 Better Hours as a well-meaning nail polish remover.

As we spoke to each person, an overarching lesson began to emerge. Though culture change can only happen through a concerted effort from both leadership and employees, a single persistent person is often enough to spark meaningful change. But it takes effort to be that spark; as much effort as you spent learning how to “@” reply someone and take short videos on your phone, if not more.

So, if you’re ready to commit to improving your newsroom’s culture in 2017, where to start?

The first thing is to understand that change isn’t something to overcome — it’s a constant. Rob King, ESPN’s senior vice president of SportsCenter and news, learned this lesson early in his career at a Disney training session.

“It forces you to think, yes, alright, after I develop this vision about where we’re going to be great, I’m going to look for the next place to be great,” he said. “It actually then turns your job into something more than just a destination.”

Journalists need to be selective about new skills and tools to learn. You can’t learn them all, but realize that learning is going to be a major part of your job. And leaders need to free up time to watch for emerging change. Google employees famously used 20 percent of their time to experiment on projects outside of their regular workflow. That’s almost certainly too much time for a newsroom leader to justify, but using some percentage of time for research and discovery is critical.

On the contrary, it’s important not to spend too much time soaking up information because it actually makes us less productive. Manoush Zomorodi, host of WNYC’s Note to Self podcast, recommends scheduling time to unplug, slow down and consider.

“I am a better journalist when I give myself time to think about what I’ve taken in,” she said, noting that researchers have proven that most people can only keep about five ideas actively in their minds at once.

Slowing down in a newsroom, where swiftness is celebrated and time is a luxury, is easier said than done. Zomorodi compensates for this by creating to-do lists for everything, actually scheduling time on her calendar to think deeper, and by focusing on one task until she’s done — or “singletasking” — whenever possible.

Finding time to slow down can be hard when meetings and responding to email swallows significant chunks of the day. Journalists are great at weathering those annoyances with a grumble, but Katie Hawkins-Gaar, faculty for digital innovation at Poynter, has found that leaders are often able and willing to address them. They just need for employees to speak up.

“When you’re spending your 40 hours, or however long it ends up being, at work just kind of buried in emails and going to meetings, you’re not really thinking beyond the day-to-day, minute-to-minute things,” Hawkins-Gaar said.

The 40 Better Hours series has dozens more tips for dealing with culture change issues, including fostering collaboration and working across teams and managing burnout and mental health.

This matters because culture guides how your newsroom reacts to everything that comes its way. If you’re not being deliberate about the culture you’d like to work in, it’s going to form on its own.

And I’m going to say this again because I know you don’t hear it enough: Journalists, you are doing a good job.

Now, just think how much better you could be doing if you devoted time not just to what you do, but how you do it.

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Ren LaForme is the Managing Editor of He was previously Poynter's digital tools reporter, chronicling tools and technology for journalists, and a producer for…
Ren LaForme

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