Dietmar Schantin: Overcoming resistance to change

Apr 06, 2021 at 08:15 pm by Staff

All journalists hate their publishers. I am exaggerating to make a point, but there is some truth to journalists having a general distrust for the "business side," and for resisting anything they see as interference in editorial independence.

That's not a bad thing, but it sometimes manifests itself in resistance to any newsroom changes, even when they don't interfere with independence. So, when the bosses, often aided by outside consultants, seek to convince the newsroom their editorial process is weak, and they're writing about the wrong things, there is usually scepticism if not outright hostility.

This obviously poses a huge challenge to the digital transformation that is key to newsroom survival. Without profound changes to the content, organisation, workflows, platforms - which involved a critical examination of all products and processes - news organisations will fail, jobs will be lost, and the value of independent journalism will disappear.

But this crucial transformation process will also fail if the staff not only accepts the need for change, but genuinely and positively participates in the process.

Changing the editorial products to meet the demands of today's audiences and the new storytelling opportunities presented by digital media shouldn't be controversial - everyone knows media are under threat, as are newsroom jobs. But it still takes convincing to overcome resistance, ensure the team is accepting, and to avoid backsliding. It is simply human nature to be leery of change, perhaps based on inertia, or true belief in the traditional way of doing things, or even on personal fears about their own skills and position. Ignoring these very human concerns is a recipe for failure.

There is both art and science to changing the culture so transformation can succeed.

The "science" is demonstrating the strengths and weakness of the offering through cold hard facts. Conducting a content audit, for example - recording the types, categories and quality of stories that have been published over time - can clearly demonstrate that resources may be misplaced, and that the staff's gut feeling about the content mix is surprisingly skewed.

It takes time to do an audit, but it is hard to argue when it shows too much space is devoted to news created elsewhere, to subjects that don't differentiate the brand and don't use local strengths and competencies. Or when it shows the headline, teaser and intro do not draw the audience into the story. Journalists are often surprised by the results, but they are convinced by facts and the discussion about it - and nothing gets their attention better than demonstrating their beliefs about their daily product are possibly flawed.

The "art" comes by overcoming the natural human reticence to change, especially when someone tells you what you've been doing since the dawn of time no longer works. And you can do this by understanding the fears, and addressing them in a personal manner, in both staff meetings and individual consultations. Some people are better at this than others, so find the people who are best at grasping why the changes are needed and explaining it to their colleagues. Look for them not only at the top, but throughout the staff - sometimes the evangelists with the best grasp of what you need to accomplish are deep in the newsroom.

Communication is the key, the more the better, and not just PowerPoints and strategic plans, but daily attention to the staff's desire for information. Some newsrooms are requiring nothing less than mandatory training for all staff, so every single person has to attend. This involves providing information for each section/department - and the individuals within them - on how they will be involved and benefit from the change.

The style of communication is just as critical as the content. If a presentation makes the process seem more complicated than necessary, if the presenters are "top down" and assume everyone will follow, all the staff will walk away without asking questions because they don't want to look foolish for not understanding. But they will talk to each other about their confusion, and whisper about their concerns. You won't get the necessary support.

Getting staff to accept your plans takes an enormous amount of time and requires listening, engagement and empathy. Taking care to bring staff along carefully, right from the start, is a well-rewarded investment in time. As there is no simple digital revenue model, and new strategies have multiple components, the implementation requires staff to understand and embrace the new ways of working. And that starts with responding to their desire for information, and their natural and healthy scepticism.

• Dr. Dietmar Schantin is founder and principal at the IFMS Media Consultancy in London, UK, and Graz, Austria

Sections: Columns & opinion


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