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Managing change within news organizations

Although change is inevitable, some innovations are easier for newsrooms to adopt than others. How change fares has much to do with how the innovation is introduced and communicated.

In their latest research, assistant professor Brian Ekdale from the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Iowa teamed up with professor Jane Singer from City University London and fellow Iowa faculty Melissa Tully and Shawn Harmsen to investigate how news organizations deal with change.

The group did an in-depth case study, selecting a single newsroom and conducting both surveys and interviews. In total, the group conducted 20 one-hour interviews and surveyed 42 news workers. By looking at how a single newsroom dealt with three types of changes — technological, relational, and cultural — Ekdale and his colleagues provide important insights about how newsrooms should approach innovation.

The key takeaways? Resonant throughout the research is the idea that change is more successful when it fits with existing norms and practices. And it’s not enough to simply believe that the changes are in keeping with tradition — the consistencies have to be communicated to news staff.

Change is more successful when it fits with existing norms and practices.

Drawing from the famous “Diffusion of Innovations” theory made popular by Everett Rogers, innovation is more likely to be adopted when: (1) it is perceived that the innovation is better than what precedes it, (2) it is consistent with existing values, (3) it is seen as easy to understand and employ, (4) it can be tested on a limited-time basis, and (5) the results, or effect, of the innovation can be seen. Staff seeking to implement change should take these five tips to heart and think about how the proposed change fits within each — and how to communicate it to others.

Technological change

In the newsroom that they studied, Ekdale and his colleagues found that staff readily accepted technological change including a digital-first strategy and the use of social media. As one staff member said, “The old idea that you held onto it until it landed on somebody’s doorstep in the morning doesn’t work anymore.” Nearly all staff (97%) surveyed agreed with the statement, “The more tools I know how to use well, the better the journalism I can do.”

Twitter, in particular, was readily adopted. Ekdale and his colleagues explain that Twitter fits in easily with established norms about breaking news, making it easy for journalists to integrate it into their work. Eight in 10 agreed that social media were “important tools in my work.”

Of course there were still signs of growing pains — news staff wanted more training and time to keep up with technological change. They also worried about the trade-offs with shoe-leather reporting. One reporter wrote, “Having to tweet, shoot photos and video, post online and on Facebook ultimately takes away from how much time a reporter has [for] composing the story.” In general, however, the researchers uncovered broad acceptance of technological change.

Relational change

Having the audience play a greater role in producing news content and determining news coverage received more mixed reviews. On the one hand, over 80 percent of news staff agreed that social media helped them to get information from, and information to, their community.

On the other hand, only 14 percent endorsed the idea that members of the community should be part of the news team. As one reporter wrote, “I think the whole focus on bringing people from the community and assuming they can do journalism is not well regarded among the reporting ranks.” This practice seemed inconsistent with existing values, the second element of the Diffusion of Innovations theory.

News staff with positions dedicated to community building were not evaluated positively by others in the newsroom. About a newly hired employee with the title “Community Builder,” an editor shared “I don’t know what he does day to day in this building.” Without communicating the need and the effects of such a position, it’s difficult to see how the Community Builder will succeed.

Cultural change

More sweeping cultural changes were greeted with higher levels of skepticism. The CEO’s vision of connecting, informing, and engaging the community around local problems did not seem to mesh with a traditional journalistic mission. “As a journalist, you are supposed to stand back and report on what’s happening, not create it,” one reporter commented. Coinciding with this orientation, 89 percent of those surveyed agreed that “a journalist’s job is to reflect what is happening in the community.” Fewer, although still a majority (68%), agreed that “a journalist’s job is to foster community engagement in civic matters.”

One reason for the reticence when it came to cultural change seemed to be connected to communication. Only 25 percent of survey respondents thought that management had communicated its goals effectively.

The news organization selected for the study was based in a mid-sized, Midwestern city and had “a 50,000-circulation daily newspaper, a market-leading TV news outlet, and associated websites.” The organization had gone through tumultuous changes in staffing and leadership over the past several years, and was pursuing a new vision that involved the technological, relational, and cultural changes described above.

Although not all changes were warmly received, the lessons emerging from Ekdale et al.’s analysis are telling. By better communicating goals and demonstrating their fit with existing norms and improvement over past practices, news organizations will be in a better position to enact change.

Next steps

Scholars and news organizations interested in continuing this line of research could collaborate to analyze:

  • What changes are more broadly adopted by the industry and which are not adopted, by studying a broader array of news organizations. Organizations with the most and least change could be studied to understand why change sometimes occurs quickly, and sometimes more slowly.
  • The messages used to communicate change by newsroom leadership. This would allow us to theorize about why some messages work better than others.
  • Where in the newsroom hierarchy endorsement of change occurs. It is possible that in some organizations change comes from the desks of reporters, while in others, changes are imposed from above. We could develop a better understanding the prospects for successful change depending on where it originates.

Citation

Ekdale, B., Singer, J. B., Tully, M., & Harmsen, S. (in press). Making change: diffusion of technological, relational, and cultural innovation in the newsroom. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly. doi: 10.1177/1077699015596337

Research Review is a monthly series highlighting useful news-related findings from scholarly research papers. It is written by Natalie Jomini Stroud, associate professor of communication studies, assistant director of the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life, and director of the Engaging News Project at the University of Texas at Austin. We hope this series will bring new insights to working journalists, as well as spark ideas among academics with an interest in researching the news.

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