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A culture-based strategy for creating innovation in news organizations

For journalism it truly is the best of times and the worst of times.

The best, in that never has there been more opportunity for creative storytelling, audience expansion, and crafting or grasping new digital tools for whatever needs arise.

The worst, in that news organizations are often unable to seize the opportunities at their fingertips.

Between 2005 and 2008, the American Press Institute invested in groundbreaking research and designed a program called “Newspaper Next: A blueprint for transformation.” Based on the disruption theories of Clay Christensen, it prescribed how local newspapers could reinvent themselves around “jobs to be done” for their audiences. Though widely praised and noted, news organizations struggled to implement those processes.

Handing publishers a blueprint for transformation, the industry has learned the hard way, is not enough.

The Knight Foundation has invested in dozens of innovative tools and ideas in recent years through the Knight News Challenge. However, it has concluded, there has been limited adoption of these innovative tools in mainstream newsrooms, and the problems facing the information needs of communities continue to grow.

Creating tools and making them available is not enough.

Along with new tools for innovative journalism, and the knowledge of how to use them, news organizations need help with the underlying issues of transformation. This report, based on months of research into the opportunities and obstacles to innovation, explores a new way to do that.

Innovation is a product of culture. … Relatively small changes to an organization’s processes and structure can have magnified effects on its culture, which in turn can enable vital innovation in news organizations.

With the support of a grant from the Knight Foundation, a team from the American Press Institute visited a variety of news organizations and conducted human-centered design research to better understand the human, cultural and institutional factors that either enable or stifle innovation. Separately and simultaneously, API also commissioned an in-depth report examining best practices and ideas from some of the most innovative news organizations and news leaders.

Our findings from both research approaches shed new light on how news organizations (from legacy media backgrounds and not) can foster the adoption of new tools, business models, storytelling and other forms of innovation that better serve their communities and help secure their futures.

The essence of what we found is this: Innovation is a product of culture. And an organization’s culture is a product of its leadership, its structure, and its internal processes. We see evidence that relatively small changes to an organization’s processes and structure can have magnified effects on its culture, which in turn can enable vital innovation in news organizations.

We are also developing a new approach, based on these principles, to help news organizations innovate, one focused on people and culture, and flexible to the needs and capacities of different organizations.

What we did

Our research for this report had two primary thrusts. First, over several months, API dispatched a research team expert in both journalism and human-centered design thinking — led by Laura Cochran and Reggie Murphy — to visit a variety of news organizations and help us study the human and cultural factors that affect innovation.

The goal was to approach the problem of innovation first at the human level. We set out to develop empathy for the needs, behaviors, motivations, and problems of different types of people across the many functions of news organizations and companies.

The team conducted detailed interviews of an hour or more with staff who represented noteworthy extremes in organizations — veteran senior editors, young digital-native designers and developers, advertising and business leaders, among many others. In the discipline of human-centered design research, we then synthesized the findings into personas that represent the experiences of key players. These personas help define the core challenges journalism organizations and their people face in trying to adapt to the revolution in communications.

The second step in this process was to use the personas, as well as the insights from the individual interviews and site visits, to develop a model to help organizations advance more successfully. That model includes identifying what organizational characteristics enable innovators to thrive and organizations to evolve; identifying what cultural, human and systemic obstacles get in the way of that occurring; and identifying solutions to those obstacles.

Most of the personas’ challenges revolved around issues of building collaboration, communication, trust and relationships. The human problems, in short, turned out to be primarily about how people work with the other humans in the organization. These were the single biggest factors in empowering these people to innovate.

To look more deeply at possible solutions to these problems, API separately commissioned journalist Craig Silverman to identify the best practices for creating innovative cultures in news organizations.

Silverman’s report, which offers practical specific guidance, detailed the role that leadership plays, methods for creating a culture and structure that encourages innovation, how to pursue new ideas, and how to gather feedback and iterate on new experiments.

We also applied our own knowledge and other research about fostering innovation in news organizations, which has been a core focus and competency of the American Press Institute since its new start in 2013.

The path to innovation

In the tech startup world a now-famous phrase has been coined: “culture eats strategy for breakfast,” and it has been extended to include “technology for lunch, and products for dinner, and soon thereafter everything else too.”

Culture is shaped by many factors. There are professional mores, industrial processes, internal structures, communication, personnel, accumulated habits, and more.

Our research found that culture can be changed. But doing so is subtle and complex. The key elements involve understanding and addressing the values an organization sets, the structure it builds, and the processes it puts in place.

In the review of the landscape of news that follows, we will focus on three elements of organizations: culture, structure and processes.

It helps to think of these as three layers that build upon each other. At the top is culture — the culmination of what an organization is and what purpose it serves. Beneath that is a broader layer of structure — the organizational and seating charts that enshrine and reinforce the culture. Finally, at the bottom is a broad base of processes — the daily actions and interactions that occur within the structure and bring the culture to life.

Culture is the most important factor in enabling innovation — but also hard to change directly or immediately, because it often flows from the bottom up. It can change over time as the result of smaller strategic alterations to the structure and the processes.

To become the kind of adaptive innovators we want, news organizations (across the full range of the editorial, marketing, business, technology and circulation functions) must envision the culture they need and then change their structure and processes to achieve it. The following sections explains these concepts and a plan for supporting that kind of transformation.

Culture

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:

  • Setting the right goal — Establishing a shared mission, vision and vocabulary that unites the whole organization
  • 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. This involves creating a common understanding and a common vocabulary that clarifies where different parts of an organization are aligned and also respects the necessary differences among functions that need to be respected and protected.
  • 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.

First, an organization must have clarity about what future it intends to create (its mission) and what problems it is solving to do so (its priorities).

Innovation is what happens while you’re busy creating your future by solving problems.

It is also important, the research reinforced, that people not just hear the mission from the organization’s leaders but also see the mission being lived out by those leaders in daily actions.

When trying to make change in uncertain environments, another component is also important: In an environment of change, organizations flourish where more ideas are welcome. It is important for innovation to succeed, for the people below the highest levels to feel they can shape how these high-level goals are fulfilled.

This is where the following two components — what are called here Structure and Processes — come into play. The mission statement on paper is at best a skeleton — the right structure and processes flesh it out and bring it to life.

Structure

Structure is the way an organization arranges itself both administratively and physically.

One finding of the human-centered design team’s research was that the way people organize and interact within these organizations tends to reflect the way humans organize and interact naturally in any setting. They form groups among people with similar roles, motivations, personalities, values, vocabulary, and experiences.

We call these groups tribes. This is a critical, fundamental concept.

The “Tribal” model

It is hard to overstate the importance of tribes to the functioning of any organization.

Tribes can be a powerful, and potentially positive force.

In the context of a news organization, reporters form a tribe. So do web producers. Visual journalists are a tribe. And so are ad sales reps. Mid-level managers become a tribe. People may also be members of more than one tribal cohort. For instance, groups tightly organized around one coverage area such as sports could form a tribe, one that includes editors and reporters as well as developers.

You can see the power of tribal cultures in languages. Many indigenous tribes — the Inuit, for example — name themselves with their language’s word for “people.” The tribes we belong to are, quite literally, “our people.” It is not merely an association but an identity.

We saw a powerful example of the phenomenon of people organizing by tribe at a mid-size news publisher we visited. The new office space was entirely open — no seat assignments, no restrictions. Given the choice, nonetheless, reporters with more tenure naturally sat together while reporters with less tenure sat together. Sales and marketing sat together. Managers and other decision-makers sat together. People, in other words, naturally organized themselves based on who they felt comfortable with and who they thought they needed access to.

This separation by tribe is not a necessarily bad thing. Tribes can be a powerful, and potentially positive force. Tribe members, our researchers found, provide each other creative energy, motivation, support, learning, enjoyment, companionship, and problem solving. They also flourish when given freedom and autonomy to develop their own cultures, vocabulary, norms, histories, expectations, and path for advancement.

So one challenge is to allow tribes to flourish while not letting tribalism become an impediment to change.

Finding that balance can be difficult.

There are some things that can degrade the effectiveness of these tribes.

Tribes may suffer when their members face forced separation. Close-knit tribes can be mistaken for “cliques,” leading managers to force more integration by making tribe members stop sitting or spending time together. Or managers may try to integrate tribes by completely embedding the individual members of one tribe (like developers) in another (like newsroom reporters) — which can have a harmful effect. Developers cut off from other developers may lose some of the strength and knowledge they would draw from their own tribe.

Our research also found that tribes may suffer when members are pressed into competition with one another. If tribe members feel individually insecure, they behave like contestants on an episode of “Survivor,” motivated by fear and distrust.

Making reporters compete to get the most pageviews, for instance, can undermine the organization by making people secretive hoarders of story ideas and unwilling to help colleagues. While some competition for success is inevitable, and even desired, a shared sense of mission and shared reward can make that competition more successful.

How tribes influence an organization

Tribes are also are a powerful force in driving behavior within an organization, both enabling or impeding innovation.

Often no single person in an organization sees the complete picture. Certainly no one sees everything that is happening; and few, if even those at the top, see quite how it all fits together. This influences behavior. As the research made clear over and over, people primarily act based on what they see happening around them — in their corner of the organization, their tribe. And this can significantly inhibit or empower efforts at change.

When management sets broad, general goals (say about website traffic) without showing some of the tribes (say newsroom reporters) how those goals make them better at what they do or serve a larger shared mission, bad things can happen. The reporters often resist and disregard the goals, in part because the rationale was not understood or embraced. A mandate does not equal motivation.

The mission can also be made clear but still be ineffective when leaders do not connect it and communicate it properly to the structure of the organization.

One of the core findings of the research was that real transformation happens when there are changes in local behavior — at the tribal level — not simply because of signals from an authority at the top. And since people act based on what they see around them, the behavior and health of the tribe has a great effect on individual behavior. The influence of a respected, fellow tribe member can be greater, on a human level, than the influence of a CEO. The self-motivation of a tribe empowered to pursue its creative goals can be greater than any motivation that comes from a manager’s encouragement.

To encourage innovation and transformation, in other words, organizations need to empower and motivate their tribes.

Uniting tribes

While recognizing the influence and importance of individual tribes, one important concept the research suggested is the most successful organizations also take clear steps to unite their tribes.

In other words, while tribes that form around tasks, responsibilities, skill sets or even age and experience are the vital organs of an organization, much like they organs in a body, they cannot operate entirely on their own — often they need to work together to accomplish significant goals.

News organizations that fail to innovate often do so because tribes from the newsroom, business department, or technology team do not work with one another, do not share any mission, do not share any language. They operate in a state of adjacency, not connection.

This is probably even more important when organizations have to innovate to survive.

In such uncertain environments, it is essential to unite tribes around the larger shared goals of organizational change while allowing them to function creatively in order to make the change happen.

In fact, we find this question of managing unity and separation one of the key elements of cultural change.

Connecting the various tribes across a media organization requires several critical steps.

That begins by identifying a shared mission, or seeing how the tribes fit together. Business and editorial, for instance, are not at odds. But how do their differences combine to a common purpose? How do they actually work together to make changes, yet in ways that respect their different roles?

An important step in identifying this shared mission is creating a shared vocabulary, some language that helps different tribes describe that shared purpose. A shared vocabulary, particularly across the business and news sides of a media organization, can go a long way to developing a sense that people in different tribes are unified. Without it, people across departments can feel that their tribe is threatened, that innovation is going to undermine something they hold dear, and that mandated statements about shared mission are false or imposed.

Even with a sense of shared purpose and vocabulary, the sense of unity has to be something that people can see in action. For that to happen, researchers found that it was important to establish and encourage personal relationships across tribes, and to have what might be called ambassadors, people who have trust and communication with other tribes.

One way of doing this is to create shared projects in which people across tribes work together and see the benefits of doing so.

News organizations that fail to innovate often do so because tribes from the newsroom, business department, or technology team do not work with one another, do not share any mission, do not share any language. They operate in a state of adjacency, not connection.

The first step in order for tribes to want to work with each other, is that people must understand their shared mission. What interest do they have in collaborating? What are they all trying to accomplish together? And what are the current priorities all should be working on to advance that mission?

One particular challenge in a news setting is that many newsroom people see what they are engaged in as a higher mission — public service and public good — that transcends the company for which they work. On the other side, business people in news organizations can feel as though their mission is more critical and under appreciated because they provide the revenue that makes everything else possible.

A key part of the leaders’ role is to develop empathy and understanding with each tribe, and then communicate to the different tribes how their different missions align. How does the mission of creating more revenue for the advertising tribe meld with, not just benefit, the mission of public service strongly felt in the newsroom, and vice versa?

Creating innovative organizational structure, then, is primarily a challenge of empowering strong, unique, creative tribes while also connecting and coordinating them for the good of the whole.

The research identified several ways to do this. Some involve arrangement of physical space where tribes can be alone together and other physical spaces where tribes will naturally interact with other tribes. Other methods involve implementing organizational processes that unite tribes. That is what we address next.

Processes

The third element in creating an environment where change is possible involves processes. Processes are the daily or regular occurrences that unite the structure and create the culture. They are the acts that make up daily work life and subtly yet powerfully express who we are as an organization and what we value.

The daily planning meeting is a process. The way people communicate by email or instant message is a process. The workflow of content is a process. The way ads get sold or bundled is a process.

Any one process, viewed in isolation, appears to be just a mundane part of getting the day’s work done. But these simple routines that occupy daily life easily evolve into rituals that define it. With time they take on tradition and significance (“that’s the way we do things around here”). We are what we repeatedly do.

We can also change what we are, in part by changing what we repeatedly do.

Our research identified several examples of processes that news organizations can use to build and strengthen their structures and cultures. Some processes are useful in themselves for directly supporting innovative projects. Others are useful more as exercises that build the organizational capacity for innovation — building relationships, trust and tribal connections that will pay off over time.

We will explore some of those innovation-building processes in the next section.

Our plan for enabling innovation

Based on this new research, API has designed a strategy that we believe is an unusual, human-centered and flexible program of consultation, education, outreach and support to help news organizations enable innovation and problem solving for the future.

We see the key first step for an organization as a personalized assessment of its current culture, structure and processes. The goal of that is to clarify the organization’s mission, set shared priorities, and determine where it needs help in changing the culture.

Based on that assessment an organization would identify what help it needs to implement internal processes that will drive innovation and produce culture change. API is building modules that address different needs with a blend of training, consulting and other support.

Some of those modules would help the organization implement processes or structural changes we observed that play a part in creating the culture necessary for innovation. Those include:

  • Put tribes that must collaborate near one another. The groups who need to build working relationships and coordinate frequently should be in walking distance, preferably talking distance. We saw several models for doing this. One example is, make the newsroom an open space that is surrounded by many tribes (photographers, visual artists, designers, product managers, data analysts, etc.) with whom they should collaborate often. We saw that putting such tribes on different floors, or even different buildings, was a crushing burden on their creativity and ability to accomplish major innovations together.
  • Make the people and tribes working on different parts of a company priority accessible to each other. For example, if one of the current mission priorities is to use data better in pursuing growth of revenue and audiences, the people who handle newsroom website analytics must link up with the circulation people who analyze subscriber data, and the marketing people who analyze the commercial value of the audience. These are three different departments and tribes, but to accomplish this innovation they cannot operate in silos.
  • Rearrange physical space. Some aspects of collaboration and communication are greatly driven by the physical environment. Organizations need to figure out how to design shared spaces where collaboration and interaction can happen easily. Another dimension of this is that organizations that want to successfully innovate need to create a physical space that suggests transformation rather than decline. Paint, new carpet, and cleaning up and making the workspace more inviting and encouraging can be a part of this.
  • Implement some core concepts of entrepreneurial culture. Making change in uncertain environments is entirely different than in familiar or defined environments. It is one thing for a company to try to sell advertising for a new section, for instance. It is another to try to build a new revenue model around a set of new businesses inside a news company. Startups who thrive in uncertainty have defined a set of processes and concepts that minimize risk, add flexibility and increase chances of success. News organizations can adopt these ideas and tactics — such as Lean Startup concepts about defining risk and developing learning hypotheses, and ideas such as Minimum Viable Products — to create entrepreneurial energy and freedom within their established company.
  • Create new virtual spaces that are accessible and ambient. There are various new technologies for doing this. For instance, internal chat systems, such as Slack, that everyone in the company uses can help coordinate work. This leads to less email and fewer lengthy meetings. A chat system also helps break down silos by creating virtual “rooms” around roles and projects, breaking out of department silos. Many people can follow conversations, which creates accessibility and greater shared awareness. It is easy to catch up on conversations at your own pace. The goal here is to enable constant, ambient learning, and develop a shared vocabulary by overhearing everyone else.
  • Form small, multi-disciplinary teams for joint projects or priorities. Small enough to act efficiently. Diverse enough to access resources across the organization. Over time, these teams build trust and and relationships. At one major national news outlet we visited, the multi-month development of a new mobile app was one such project that united people from multiple tribes to great success. This process forms personal bonds and professional understanding between the collaborating members, forces invention of a shared vocabulary for them to talk to each other about the project, and the accomplished goal becomes an example to the entire organization of the mission they all share. At one digital startup we studied, they noted that this close collaboration means “instead of getting the editorial team telling the product team what to build, what you have is people making things together, having ownership together and trusting each other. And much better things come out of that.”
  • Hold “demo days” or “open houses.” These are opportunities for teams or tribes to show everyone else in the organization how they are building something or solving a problem. Invite questions and suggestions. Inspire related approaches in other teams. This is particularly effective when the leadership of an organization has established shared priorities. One digital startup we studied noted that they “organize demos and presentations of projects happening around a [specific priority]. So everybody has a working knowledge of, ‘Hey this is where we’re headed and here is actually how we’re acting on [priorities].'” Another organization held an “open house” in their work space for others to come meet them and learn about how they work and what projects are underway.
  • Create an embed program. In this process, people physically move for some period of time to be with another team or tribe. In one news organization we visited, the project manager floats between two desks — one desk upstairs with management, and one desk in the middle of the newsroom reporters. Embedding for significant amounts of time among the reporters helped her speak their language and understand their needs. At another major national news outlet and one large metro regional newspaper, we encountered programs in which copy editors could embed with the web producer tribe for a block of time to understand them better. One copy editor who did this ended up joining the producer tribe when an opening came up.
  • Do daily standup meetings. Every day, a 5-minute meeting where everyone from a project team or tribe is in the same place. These are short, casual, transparent meetings that happen in the open. People share three things: What I did yesterday, what I’m doing today, and problems that are in my way. Problems get solved and practical information gets shared. Daily standup attendance is mandatory for key people who need to coordinate information, but also open to anyone across the company to drop in.
  • Create “hack days.” These are full-day or half-day sessions set aside for people across the organization to come together to experiment and create solutions that advance the organization’s mission and current priorities. Small ad hoc groups form, including people from different tribes, disciplines, or departments, to spend the day designing, building or outlining a creative solution. It’s important to note that hack days are valuable not just for the solutions they may produce (many may never be finished), but for the the collaboration it engenders and the learning it produces. Those are human and intellectual payoffs that far outlast the inventions of the day.

This is only a partial list, one designed to suggest the kinds of events that begin to change the three layers of an organizations. From our work helping news organizations grow digital audiences and businesses, we know that these are difficult transitions to make and there is no substitute for hands-on intervention and assistance. The path is difficult, and varies for each organization — they need a guide to travel the path with them, help them when they get stuck, and see them through to the end.

Sustainable, meaningful transformation, our research effort suggests, requires a sustained, adaptable and holistic approach focused on culture, people, projects and applied discovery. The approach we are developing is designed to help news organizations enable innovative cultures by first diagnosing what their biggest obstacles to innovation are, and then offering a menu of solutions that they can choose and customize for their unique needs.

We encourage you to get in touch with us if you might like to try this approach in your news organization, if you have ideas or examples to add to what we describe here, or if you are interested in backing our implementation of this culture-based strategy for creating innovation in news organizations.

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