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‘In the 21st century, the newsroom is the business’ – Doug Smith on sustaining journalism

By Lucinda Jordaan

Whether new or legacy, independent or not, every news publisher needs solid, practical strategies to remain sustainable in this continuously changing global media landscape. Here’s why Doug Smith believes targeted content is the ultimate starting block to transform your operations.

‘Fundamentally, economic sustainability and journalistic sustainability rely on audience habits. If people out there don’t visit and use your content as a habit, you will not be able to sustain yourself economically.’

Doug Smith has worked on transformative change across 60 industries. As the architect of Table Stakes and a WAN-IFRA Associate Consultant (USA), he summarised and outlined key elements of his methodology at the recent Digital Media Africa conference.

The session, ‘What every Strategy should start with (but is often underestimated)’, was aimed at helping newsroom leaders build teams that will seize opportunities, align with audience needs, set objectives, and measure results so they become better at what they do.

See Also: RAOOI: A strategic, practical tool for newsroom managers

Smith is the head coach in Table Stakes Europe, a performance-driven change management initiative for local and regional news organisations, a WAN-IFRA programme supported by the Google News Initiative.

Lessons from the past, for the future

“The most important lesson from all the work that colleagues and I have done for more than 15 years – primarily in the United States and Europe, but actually with news organisations everywhere around the globe – is that good journalism is the key to good economics of journalism organisations,” notes Smith.

But good journalism today requires a different, more well-defined strategy than that adopted by news organisations up to a decade or so ago.

We have to move away from providing general news content to the general public to providing targeted content and experiences that are crucial to targeted audiences,” posits Smith.

“Fundamentally, economic sustainability and journalistic sustainability rely on audience habits. If people out there don’t visit and use your content as a habit, you will not be able to sustain yourself economically.”

Basically, “good journalism and good financial results go hand in hand – and this applies, regardless of the so-called business model or revenue sources that you have.”

And the bottom line, stresses Smith, is that, while all other functions matter: “You have to work with the newsroom to be successful, but it’s just no longer the case that the business side is the business; the newsroom is the business.”

Turning attention to habit-forming journalism

While breaking news has its own urgent remit, Smith advises that every story must have a distribution strategy or approach for reaching the audience where the audience is, and when they are there.

You do need to go through the questions: Who’s the audience? What do they care about? How are you going to deliver it? Will they see themselves in here themselves? And, crucially, how are you going to distribute it?”

Smith proffers service journalism as an example of how to build audience habits: “We live in a pretty confusing, dangerous world, and people who need to solve problems in their lives don’t avoid sources of answers to how to solve problems. Service journalism really does help people solve problems in their lives, and helps build audience habit. And when you build habit through audiences and service, then they will be there for your breaking stories, or investigative pieces…” 

How to get started – and what newsrooms are missing

  • Identify those in your team who are ready and supportive;
  • Use a story process or other experiments as context;
  • Make sure to set specific funnel goals – getting audiences to come, stay and pay – so that people can learn what works, what does not work, and how to adjust.

What doesn’t work in newsroom transformation

  • Big reorganisation or restructuring BEFORE journalists learn the skills/ways of working in the audienceS-first approach;
  • Training – instead of learning-by-doing, or performing;
  • Strategy consultants, major new technology projects;
  • Hierarchy/organisation designs that separate editorial from the business people and functions;
  • Talking versus doing.


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