This article was originally published on the website of Table Stakes Europe, a performance-driven change management initiative for local and regional news organisations, supported by the Google News Initiative Digital Growth Programme

When news publishers join Table Stakes Europe, one of the key advantages they benefit from is that each team is assigned a coach who will work one-to-one with them as they work on their challenges throughout the programme.

In this, our second instalment in our interviews about coaching in Table Stakes Europe (TSE), we get further perspectives in how this process works in practice and how it is useful for the teams to have an outside perspective.

One of the publishers participating in the current round of TSE is Hildesheimer Allgemeine Zeitung (HAZ), which is the leading daily newspaper in their area in Hildesheim, Germany. The family-owned publisher employs more than 150 people, and its newsroom consists of 29 journalists and editors.

The company has a truly historic past: it was founded in 1705, and since Austria’s Wiener Zeitung recently printed its last daily edition, Hildesheimer Allgemeine Zeitung is now thought to be the oldest newspaper in the world with a print edition.

We spoke to Christian Wolters, HAZ’s Deputy Editor-in-Chief, and Jana Hintz, their Head of Digital, who shared their experiences within the programme. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

To find out more about coaching within Table Stakes Europe, read our earlier interview with Stéphane Mayoux, Hildesheimer Allgemeine Zeitung’s coach in TSE.

WAN-IFRA: What has been the biggest advantage of having a coach during TSE?

Jana Hintz: The most helpful effect is that it keeps you on the road. I mean, we’re having lots of ideas and actually doing stuff, but there are times when it’s such a big workload that the whole process comes to a stop because there are so many other things to do. And that’s the point where our coach, Stéphane, has been extremely helpful. He always shifts our focus and says, “Yes, you do have a big workload. But that’s part of the process.” And then he puts things in perspective for us. Having him looking at our work from the outside is extremely helpful.

Christian Wolters: He gives us structure and discipline. The fact that we meet once a week forces us to concentrate on the process. And beyond the meetings with Stéphane, we soon realised we need to meet twice a week as the TSE group. And of course, Jana and I both work in the newsroom, so we meet on a daily basis. All that has given us a lot of speed and focus.

Have you been involved in other transformation programmes in the past? How does TSE and coaching within it compare with those?

Wolters: We have been in different programmes as part of our transformation into a digital publishing house. But the big difference is that in Table Stakes, you have to do the work continuously, not only once a month or once every two or three months. And the coaching is different because it’s actually coaching, not counselling. We have had extremely good consultants that we’ve worked with in the past, but their approach was different. In Table Stakes, we have to do the work and we have to provide the results.

Can you talk more about those differences?

Hintz: It’s not like there’s just a week or a month when everybody is really motivated, and then everything goes back to as things were before. It’s training us to stay on this road for the long run.

Wolters: And the outcomes of our efforts are much more sustainable.

Your coach Stéphane said in our interview with him that a big part of coaching is to help teams better understand their challenges. How has the coaching process helped you in coming to grips with your challenges?

Hintz: Stéphane helped us to really identify the main fields that we have to work on. It was helpful that we had somebody doing that with us. It was really refreshing to have his view from the outside.

Wolters: I think we pretty much knew what our challenge was because we’ve been working on our challenge over the past couple of years [in terms of trying to build new digital revenue by focusing on specific audiences]. But Stéphane gave us the tools and different approaches to actually tackle the challenge. That’s what was new for me and for us as a group.

For example, looking at concrete numbers and figures, how are you going to measure success? How are you going to decide if what you’re doing works? 

We had worked on different audience approaches in the past a couple of times. And we pretty much knew what our digital challenge was when it came to changing workflows. We’ve been working on all that for a couple of years, but still we weren’t satisfied with the outcomes. That’s changing now.

What were your first steps in TSE? Did you have a clear understanding of what you wanted to work on?

Hintz: Actually, we have to confess that we started quite blank. We heard about Table Stakes and we got the offer to try to participate. And we talked about that: “Would we have time? Maybe we should just try. We don’t have anything to lose…” And in the beginning we didn’t really have an exact picture in our head. We were really open-minded and just thought, let’s try, maybe something good will come out of it.

Wolters: We were actually lured into the program by a colleague, who said, “Well, it’s not a big deal. Let’s just apply and then we can decide how much we work on it.” And pretty soon we realised that that approach was not going to work, but we have to put the work into it. That’s when Stéphane was extremely helpful, too. There were times when I was pretty sure that it’s not going to work for us, that it’s not going to be feasible to do Table Stakes in parallel to our daily work. And that’s when he always said, “Trust the process.” 

Hildesheimer Allgemeine Zeitung’s TSE team [L-R]: Thomas Radtke, Head of Product, Christin Himmelmann, Publishing Manager Reader Market / Head of B2C, Jana Hintz, Head of Digital, and Christian Wolters, Deputy Editor-in-Chief.

Has anything about the coaching process surprised you?

Hintz: I would say the biggest surprise has been the atmosphere during coaching. Of course, Stéphane has lots of experience, and it’s exciting to listen to him and his experiences. But he also has a way of challenging us while also encouraging us in a really nice way.

Another surprise has been that when we start our meetings with him, we might feel like it’s all a bit of a chaos, there’s this and there’s that, and we’re losing ground… And then he just cuts straight to the point and puts structure around us. That’s a really good thing about the coaching: it helps us see through our chaos.

Wolters: He also creates an atmosphere where we can exchange arguments on a very constructive basis. That was rather challenging for me at the beginning. I had the impression that everyone was talking about the newsroom and journalistic work without knowing how the newsroom works. You have people from other departments of the company sitting together, and a lot of times I felt like, “Why are they talking about my business?” Stéphane manages to draw in opinions and ideas from all team members just by creating the right atmosphere. And now I’ve got used to it!

In addition to your daily work, is it sometimes difficult to find the time to work on your TSE projects? Does coaching help with this?

Hintz: Yes, it is difficult from time to time. There are weeks when it’s a bit easier. And then there are weeks like right now, when summer is starting and people are getting into vacation mode and projects are coming to an end, and everybody’s tired. But Stéphane helps with that as well and says, “Okay, let’s talk about how to overcome the summer phase.” It’s really helpful that he helps us plan in advance: “I see a problem coming, and we should talk about that.” 

Wolters: It is difficult to fit it into your daily routine, into your work schedule. But both Jana and I work as content managers in the news desk, so we can easily integrate the Table Stakes experiments into our daily work. And that’s what Stéphane strongly advised us to do. For example, just getting started with projects and integrating the “Design-do” idea into the daily work.

Can you talk more about how you’re using that method in your daily work?

Wolters: Let’s take food lovers, which is an audience we’re focusing on. We have done different food tastings, and tested where you can get the best takeaway noodles, or the best sausages, for example.

Before the first test, we hadn’t planned the whole thing through like we used to when we did things like this in the past. And one of my colleagues said, “You’re pushing us to start without thinking it through.” And I said, “Yeah, well, we’re just going to try, and if we have problems we’ll talk about them.” And this colleague said, “You’re completely mad. I want the old Christian back!” I said, “No, that’s not going to happen. Because if you keep planning and discussing and thinking about everything that could happen along the way, you don’t get started and you lose a lot of time.”

How did that project go in the end?

Wolters: It was very successful. Huge engagement score, big audience, good media time. And we even had some conversions. And the best thing was, the colleagues who did the tests had fun and everybody heard them laughing. That’s what we tried to tell the team: “Just listen to them. They’re still laughing next door.”

So we had other colleagues who wanted to join them. Now six different journalists got involved in the food testing series. This has also allowed them to discover the Table Stakes way of thinking.

Your coach Stéphane said he tries to make sure his teams keep things moving and continuously work on their challenges. How has that worked for you in practice?

Hintz: Of course meeting regularly with Stéphane helps. We prepare for the meetings with him, and afterwards talk about what we need to do by next week. Stéphane is always really determined about having this meeting: if he can’t participate in one, he suggests different options when to do it instead. That’s really helpful, and it gives us the signal that these meetings are important, and they help us stay on the road.

Wolters: You get the feeling that you’re in the process together as a team. And the coach, in a way, is a member of the team. At least that’s the way we feel it.

Is there a favourite feedback you have received from Stéphane?

Wolters: From the very beginning, we’ve always teased each other. We told him we don’t like praise, and we don’t like “warm words.” And he said, “Maybe, but I don’t care. I will voice my praise despite your wishes.”

Hintz: I wouldn’t say there has been one specific thing, but he always sounds as if he means what he says. Like with words like “amazing,” “outstanding”… some people just throw them at you. He is able to encourage us so that we really believe him.

What’s usually on your mind after the call with Stéphane?

Hintz: Sometimes motivation to keep going. Sometimes, “Uff, even more work to do.” And the good feeling of seeing the way again. Because when we get to the meeting we might be confused, we have lots of ideas, we have tried something and we don’t know what to do next. Or we just don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. And after the meeting, it’s like, “Oh yeah, it’s not as bad as we thought, it’s not as chaotic, we are on the right track.”

Wolters: After the meeting with Stéphane we always have a call as a team, and we agree on who has to do what. So starting from chaos, in one hour we see our situation more clearly and are able to agree on the next steps. It’s quite okay, isn’t it?

Anything else you want to add?

Wolters: We should mention humour. It’s very important for us, because in our newsroom, we are used to talking a lot of nonsense. And that’s important in this programme as well. Having fun and being able to laugh once in a while. And we get that from Stéphane as well.

Hintz: I would encourage other people to join [in TSE], even though it’s a lot of work. We’ve sometimes thought, “Oh, are we able to manage this thing? We are a rather small newsroom. Can we really do all this?” It would have been good if there would have been somebody who has been in our shoes saying, “Go for it.” It can be a really, really good thing for you. Even if you’re a small newsroom, it’s worth it.

The post ‘It helps us see through our chaos’: How coaching in Table Stakes Europe allows a local German news publisher to navigate its digital transition appeared first on WAN-IFRA.