LITTLE WINS, BIG CHANGES: THE CASE FOR EXPERIMENT-DRIVEN TRANSFORMATION

Updated: Jul 26


 

by Lillian Ruiz, COO, The National Trust for Local News and Brian Boyer, Technologist and Award-Winning Journalist



 

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In May of 2021, the National Trust for Local News acquired the 24 local weekly papers of Colorado Community Media, and made them the anchor of the Colorado News Conservancy. The post-acquisition period has been focused on the deep analysis on the workings of this set of community publications in order to better understand where its baseline aligns or differs from other types of publications. As opposed to being digital-only publication, or a startup, these papers have a long history, and, well, they’re papers.


Notwithstanding the ambition of growing a robust digital presence, we set out to understand the unique process and questions that face a community paper as it evaluates what it means to serve its customers and ultimately assess what it should accomplish to achieve that task. In March of 2022, I connected with Brian Boyer, who NTLN had hired as an interim Digital General Manager for the Colorado titles in November 2021. Brian and I were both coaches for Google News Initiative's Startup Labs North America in 2021, where we individually coached a handful of digital-only outlets on phased revenue and business model experimentation. Our discussion focused on everything from our favorite transformation frameworks, to common pitfalls, and new learnings that publishers can use as they assess transformation initiatives for their organizations.


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OVER THE COURSE OF OUR DISCUSSION, A FEW KEY THEMES EMERGED:

  1. Process and structure breed innovation. Avoid the shiny object or the massive overhaul. Digital innovation and transformation isn’t necessarily rolling out a new product or a launch, or overhauling your tech. It’s a set of committed processes that keep you focused on results.

  2. An audience-centric mission is the ultimate priority rubric. “It’s your organizational ‘why.’...If you start from there, that gives leadership, and staff, the guide to hold up to any idea and say, ‘does this idea further our mission?’”

  3. Transformation is all about diagnosis. Diagnose your audience's needs, then your business needs (based on your audience), and lastly, your technology needs – in that order.

  4. Fix the problems you have, not the ones you don’t. Test and experiment. Solve the problems that are cluttering your path now, so you can get to the bigger issues and questions sooner. Avoid premature optimization.

We have condensed and edited our discussion below. While still fairly wide-ranging, we hope publishers and leaders in local and community publishing will come away with many usable insights. Questions? Find us on Twitter: @Lillian_Ruiz and @BrianBoyer


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BRIAN, YOU HAVE A LOT OF KNOWLEDGE ABOUT WHAT IT TAKES TO BRING A DIGITAL TRANSFORMATION PROCESS TO BEAR IN THE NEWS SPACE. BUT MANY PUBLISHERS WHO ARE TRYING TO FIGURE THAT OUT, DON’T HAVE YOUR EXTENSIVE BACKGROUND, OR YOUR CAPABILITIES. THEY MIGHT BE COMING TO THE QUESTION OF DIGITAL TRANSFORMATION WITH A REALLY LIMITED UNDERSTANDING, OR A KEEPING UP WITH THE JONESES’ APPROACH, THAT CAN MAKE STRUCTURING THIS PRETTY OVERWHELMING. WHAT ARE SOME WAYS THAT PUBLISHERS CAN THINK ABOUT BIG THORNY QUESTIONS – LIKE DIGITAL TRANSFORMATION – AND BREAK THEM DOWN, REGARDLESS OF THEIR SIZE OR EXPERTISE?


I’ll start my answer a bit tangentially. So, a lot of people just want to be innovative. The thing about being “innovative,” is that it’s not a useful direction you can point to. It’s not a goal. Innovation is something that – if you’re doing lots of other stuff right – happens along the way to your goals.

What I’ve found is that no matter if you’re working in the newsroom, or working in product, or other areas where transformative change has to take place, you’ve got to start at the foundation: Who are we trying to be as an organization? What are we trying to accomplish? What are the overarching business goals and mission? Who are we serving? Most importantly, why are we doing this?

An important framework, is to “start with ‘why.’” [Note: “Start with Why” by Simon Sinek is a popular book on building mission-drive products]. Once you’ve got a shared understanding of what it is that we're attempting to achieve – why we’re doing this work, why we do the journalism – that’s where the goals flow from, and then the execution planning flows from that. You have to be rigorous and structured about that order so you can start executing well.

This might not sound like exciting stuff, but that’s the thing. The best ideas don’t just emerge fully-formed from your genius thought-leader brain. Success happens when you are structured and deliberate in learning what you need to deliver. You keep doing that over and over again and that’s how you become an innovative team.

Digital innovation and transformation isn’t about rolling out huge new products, or overhauling your tech. It’s a set of committed processes that keep you focused on results, not chasing the shiny thing. As a leader, whether you’re the CEO/publisher or a team leader, you drive change through outcome management, not outputs, by supporting your team in an iterative process.


YOU TALK A LOT ABOUT PROCESS AND GOAL SETTING BEING NECESSARY FOR TRANSFORMATION. WHEN THERE’S A FEELING OF URGENCY – BE IT FINANCIAL, OR OTHERWISE – DO YOU HAVE A CRITERIA CHECKLIST OR FRAMEWORK TO HELP LEADERS EVALUATE AND PRIORITIZE GOOD TRANSFORMATION PROJECTS FROM DISTRACTIONS OR PET PROJECTS?


Yes, and it’s very simple. Make an audience-focused mission statement, if you haven’t already.


SO, COLORADO NEWS CONSERVANCY’S MISSION AND STRATEGY IS “OUR READERS’ HUB FOR EASILY ACCESSIBLE, FIRST-IN-CLASS, LOCAL INFORMATION AND DEEP COMMUNITY REPORTING IN ITS COVERAGE AREAS.”


It’s your organizational “why.” And folks should know, it could be something as simple as, “This is the greatest city in the world, and the people who live here deserve better!” The team I worked with at 100 Days of Appalachia, came up with “Appalachia matters.” If you start from there, that gives leadership, and staff, a guide, a test, to which you can hold up to any idea and say, “does this idea further our mission?”


To be more specific, for example, if everyone is telling you to run video on your site, or else. You have to look at that mission statement first, then you can ask whether or not your audience is consuming news on that medium. If they’re not, or they don’t, then are you really serving that mission? Probably not.


Another, different example: your buddy publisher friend at another outlet says, “Hey, everyone is implementing this ad network. You should set it up.” The first thing to recognize is that there's a lot of work that goes into that work. There’s contracts, there’s development, and so on. After all that, then, maybe your website gets filled with ads. Is that helping your mission? Is that transforming your digital experience?

It is a really good exercise in enforcing priorities.


OKAY, SO ANOTHER QUESTION, AND YOU STARTED TO TOUCH BASE ON THIS A BIT. THE COST OF TRANSFORMATION CAN BE REALLY HIGH. EITHER BECAUSE IT’S A LITERAL COST – EXPENSES, OR STAFF OR CONSULTANTS, SO ON – OR BECAUSE IT HAS A HIGH COST TO YOUR BRAND. WHAT ARE SOME WAYS THAT ORGANIZATIONS CAN NAVIGATE AND SOLVE FOR THAT EARLY?


When we're talking about big projects, a big new thing, there’s all the costs you mention. There’s also organizational costs! There’s a lot of psychological weight. There will be a new way of doing things. People's job roles will change. That makes folks uncomfortable! People resist change not because they don't wish well for the organization, and not because they don't want to try new things, but when it redefines their identity. So when you say “This is the new way we’re going to do stuff!” That terrifies people!


But there are simple alternatives to “The new way.” How about “Let’s try this for a bit?” Or “This team over here is gonna test an idea for a couple weeks.” It’s a much easier kind of change to manage, it’s lower risk, and it feels way less threatening. And bonus, if it doesn’t work out, you’ve wasted far less time. But if it does? Then you can show people the success and it’ll be easier to persuade everyone else to try it out!


Some folks approach this with an idea called the “minimum viable product.” Instead of, say, investing large amounts of time and money into a big design and process overhaul, you focus on small experiments. “What's the first, smallest possible thing we can do to prove to us that this thing is a good idea.”


ESPECIALLY, IF YOU HAVE A SMALL TEAM, OR ONE THAT FEELS NOVICE ABOUT THESE SORTS OF THINGS.


I think it's really important to recognize that digital transformation is just hard. Small-scale transformation experiments are often cheaper, they’re effective, and they also reframe the problem in such a way that it doesn't scare people to death.


SPECIFIC TO OUR WORK TOGETHER IN COLORADO, WHAT WERE SOME THINGS THAT YOU FOUND INTERESTING ABOUT THE PROBLEMS, EXPECTATIONS AND SOLUTIONS THAT HAVE BEEN ASSOCIATED WITH THE PROJECT SO FAR?

We started with the beginning assumption that we would probably need a new Content Management System - a CMS. A big question a lot of smaller publishers face is, “Do we have the right CMS?”

RIGHT. “CAN THIS THING HELP ME DO WHAT I NEED TO DO, TO GET EYEBALLS WHERE I NEED TO BE.”

There are always new options, and the grass is always greener on the other side, but we should also understand that all CMS’ are broken. They’re all just broken differently.

LET’S TALK ABOUT WHAT YOU MEAN HERE. I AGREE, BUT THIS IS ALSO A STATEMENT THAT WILL BE FREEING FOR SOME FOLKS AND UTTERLY TERRIFYING FOR OTHERS.

They’re all challenging tools for a lay person. So to embark on a systems change, it has to be less about the shiny features, and more about enhancing your ability to serve up local news, consistently and efficiently.

So there’s three big questions a leader should ask: One, does this technology do everything we need it to do to publish reliably and on time? Two, does this technology do everything we need to do to support our business model? Three, what does this technology cost us in terms of not just price, but staffing?

SO, THIS IS REALLY ABOUT ASSESSING, “DOES THIS TECH HELP US GO ON WITH OUR WORK? DOES IT HELP US GET THE PRODUCT OUT WITH MINIMAL PAIN?” RATHER THAN AUTOMATICALLY APPROACHING THE ASSESSMENT THROUGH A FRONT-FACING UX (USER EXPERIENCE) LENS?

Right, and in the initial situation as it was framed, the migration would have been not just about moving to a new big system but also a wholesale redesign.

RE-DESIGNING AND RE-PLATFORMING AT THE SAME TIME IS TERRIBLE. A NIGHTMARE.

Really terrible. They’re distinct problems, but so frequently in this industry we'll do the re-platform and the redesign at the same time, which takes your six-month project and makes it a year or more. Especially if you have limited resources.

So, back to the Colorado CMS. Our assumption before getting under the hood was that we were going to have to pull it out and start with something new. In terms of staffing, we had some really manual processes that on the face of it seemed onerous, but in practice made sense. The tools we have solve a unique business problem, which is that we publish, in print, for 24 markets and we are frequently publishing the same stories in many or all of our markets.

There are very few CMS’ out there that are effective at managing a network of sites that share content. That’s an extremely high priority for our software choices. Of course, another solution is to hack it together yourself. I’ve built a CMS that tackles this use case. And I can say from experience that it’s a much more challenging endeavor than we’re likely to take on in Colorado. As long as publishing to multiple sites is a part of the business model, making changes without first assessing the model becomes an expensive fishing endeavor.

Anyway, the point is that, there might be shinier new tech out there and it might feel really uncool to not be on it, but it’s easy to waste a lot of people’s time, and a lot of your money, buying or building a fancy new CMS. That’s not to say that it’s never the right choice, but at this moment we’re still finalizing the business model, and that’s the wrong moment to start messing around with these decisions.

I THINK THE THEME OF A LOT OF WHAT YOU’VE BEEN SAYING IS THAT LEADERS NEED TO BE DIAGNOSTIC. WHETHER IT’S ABOUT DIAGNOSING YOUR “WHY,” OR DIAGNOSING YOUR BUSINESS MODEL OUTCOMES, DIAGNOSIS IS A BIG PART OF MAPPING OUT DIGITAL TRANSFORMATION. IT CAN FEEL LIKE IT’S TANGENTIAL, BUT IT REALLY IS THE MEAT OF THE WORK.

Yeah, to solve the business needs you have to know your audience's needs. And once you get your business needs, you can solve your technology needs.

AND THIS FEELS VERY SPECIFIC TO MISSION-FOCUSED MODELS. PLENTY OF ORGANIZATIONS EXIST WHERE THE BUSINESS NEEDS ARE THE ONLY NEEDS, SO YOU BUILD WHATEVER IT TAKES TO FEED THE BEAST.

It’s the difference between novelty and necessity. And, you know, in retrospect, when you start making things that are novel, those are usually the things that are just going to break. That’s what slows down your ability to deliver on transformation.

SO, ONE OF THE THINGS THAT WE WRESTLED WITH IN COLORADO IS THIS BUSINESS MODEL QUESTION. HOW DO WE USE NEEDED BUSINESS MODEL CHANGE AS AN IMPETUS FOR DRIVING AND PRIORITIZING DIGITAL TRANSFORMATION NEEDS? CNC WAS ABLE TO HAVE SOMEONE’S DEDICATED THINKING ON THIS, BUT A LOT OF ORGANIZATIONS THIS SIZE AND SMALLER JUST DON’T. NO ONE’S HANDING THEM A BUSINESS MODEL PROJECTION, OR PUTTING THEM IN BUSINESS STRATEGY SESSIONS TO HELP THEM DECIDE WHAT THEIR IMMEDIATE AND LONG-TERM OPTIONS ARE. WHAT ARE THINGS THAT THE FIELD COULD AND SHOULD BE DOING TO MAKE THAT STRATEGIC DECISION-MAKING EASIER?

Well, the future-of-news internet is littered with guidebooks and playbooks, and there are some great ones out there – BetterNews.org and The Membership Guide. But on the technological side of things, I think the continued development of “opinionated software” that’s specific or exclusive to the achievement of certain business models or stages of growth is really important, albeit somewhat out of fashion. software [Note: opinionated software refers to an engineering strategy focused on creating software with limited functionality, specializing in one or two specific processes or outcomes]

Instead of building fully customizable software that can adapt to “everyone’s” workflows, there’s a lot of benefit to the layperson to just have products that get you to specific growth outcomes in a really efficient way. And that stands in contrast to a lot of these enterprise installations that are really popular, but maybe don’t support most local and community publishers, who don’t need endless customizations or choices.

For example, instead of asking for a bunch of workflow rules from the user like enterprise installations do, opinionated software just goes ahead and says, “If you publish more than seven times a week or whatever, X is a good homepage layout. If you publish less than three times a week, Y is a good homepage layout. If you want to persuade your audience to subscribe to your newsletter, because you're then going to ask them for money, these are the three places on your website where you should see that.” We have the knowledge in the field to codify that, and you can see that in something like Tiny News Collective. They’re building the smallest possible, minimum viable publishing tool for a well-defined group.

AND NEWS REVENUE HUB IS VERY OPINIONATED ON HOW A PUBLISHER SHOULD BUILD, TOO.

Right.

SO IT FEELS LIKE ONE QUESTION IS: WHAT ARE THE TOOLS AND CMS’ THAT GET A PUBLISHER TO GROW FROM SOMETHING LIKE A TINY NEWS TO A NEWS REVENUE HUB, FOR EXAMPLE. HOW CAN FOLKS EASILY MOVE FROM ONE TO ANOTHER, TO KEEP GROWING OR FIND THEIR HOMEOSTASIS? PUBLISHERS WANT TO KNOW THE DAISY CHAIN. THEY NEED THEIR PRODUCT FUNNEL.

We have to learn what works, and the challenge that so many publishers have is that by the time they’re midstream, there’s already so much infrastructure just bolted on. With something like the Colorado papers, we have paper products we have to get out and then existing web products and tools. So our challenge there is to not overbuild, and instead to test key things. You know, “What happens if this thing goes away for a few weeks – will we miss it? What happens if we launch a new product to one or two markets? Where does that put tension in the system? Where does it create opportunities?” Building out a twenty-four market solution on day one would have been ludicrous, and money not well spent. But if you test and experiment, that gives you an opportunity to solve a problem you have, rather than start solving for a bunch of issues you haven’t even had the opportunity to have.


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We deeply appreciate the support of the Google News Initiative in the development of this work. The Google News Initiative works side-by-side with publishers and journalists to build a more sustainable, diverse and innovative news ecosystem. Through programs, products and partnerships, they strive to advance the practice of quality journalism and strengthen publisher business models in the digital age. Since 2018, they have supported more than 7,000 news partners in over 120 countries and territories around the world. They have provided training for over 450,000 journalists on skills including digital verification, data visualization, and machine learning through in-person training. And they have worked to bring together industry leaders around the world, cultivating a diverse news community to spur innovation and tackle pressing issues like media literacy and misinformation.

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