Transforming newsrooms

Lessons learned from two years of questioning how the media works

It’s been two years since I registered and started The Splice Newsroom. My goal hasn’t changed: I’m here because I believe newsrooms and their teams need a lot of help to evolve and survive. I want to be part of the solution.

Over the past two years, I’ve worked with some amazing clients — large legacy newsrooms to nimble editorial startups.

This is what I learned:

Build a “red team”. A small, but scrappy team mandated to build a service that cannibalises your cash cow. If you don’t figure out how to disrupt your own business, someone else will.

Assign someone to run experiments. Irregular projects that may not emerge as a full-fledged product, but drives the importance of innovation and smart failure. Find someone young, smart and hungry to solve problems. And give them the air cover to fail so that the wider newsroom learns.

Create processes, but only as a last resort. Processes work best to deliver operational efficiency but are terrible in managing people. Invest in creating trust instead.

Do what no one else is doing, even if it can’t scale. Build services that have inherent barriers to entry, the stuff that others shunned because it couldn’t scale. Ask: What can I build that can’t be easily commoditised?

Connect with technologists and entrepreneurs. Show them your problems. They may show you a solution.

Question the assumption that the article is the basic atom of journalism. Then go find other ways to inform your audience.

Look to other industries for ideas, analogies and case studies. If media had answers to its own problems, you wouldn’t need newsroom consultants. The biggest things that hurt media didn’t come from media. So look outside.

Look at your metrics. Are you measuring what you value? Or do you value what you measure?

Put technology at the heart of your evolution. Automate the mundane. A machine can often do the work with higher consistency and accuracy than any person. Save humans for the stuff that can’t be automated — stories about humans written by humans.

Be paranoid about security and hacking. You may be putting real people at risk.

You’re only as good as your CMS. Find out: What would your journos do if the tools didn’t get in the way?

Every now and then, stop and ask: If I had to rip this place apart and build it from scratch, what would I do?

Another question to ask: What can we do to turn this service into a platform? What would be useful (and valuable) to others? What APIs can we build on top of this newsroom?

What data should we collect? What trend stories can we tell a year from now when we harvest that data?

You may have the best teams, workflows and tools. But if you don’t have the right culture and courage, you can’t get them there.

But most importantly, ask: Would anyone notice if you shut down tomorrow?

This article was originally posted on Medium as “Two years of Splice: Here are some lessons we’ve learned about transforming newsrooms”.

Folllow Alan on Twitter.

Image: Flickr/Steve Bowbrick

Alan Soon

Alan Soon is the founder and CEO of The Splice Newsroom, an editorial consultancy that is helping newsrooms keep up with the constant change brought on by the digital shift. For more than 20 years, he's worked in radio, TV, news wires, magazine and online across the region. He started out as a reporter and grew into producer, editor, newsroom manager and eventually business leadership roles. In his last position, Alan led one of the largest digital news teams in the industry as Yahoo’s managing editor for India and Southeast Asia. He also worked at esteemed newsrooms such as CNBC and Bloomberg across Asia. He is a co-founder of the Online News Association in Singapore.