Changing long-established workflows and processes is very hard, as many news publishers have discovered. In particular, broader organisational changes are difficult to implement, and too many companies have seen their transformation efforts stall or fall short of their initial goals.

This is why smaller, specific transformation projects are at the heart of 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.

Now in its fifth year, Table Stakes Europe has helped more than 80 publishers from 17 countries to build on specific initial transformation projects and accelerate their digital transition to engage their audiences in a deeper way.

We spoke to Alexandra Borchardt and Lyndsey Jones, two coaches in the Table Stakes Europe programme, about different strategies that help transformation projects succeed. We discussed why it’s not enough for publishers to become “digital-first”, the reasons that cause many transformation projects to fail, and why internal communication is key to spreading cultural change within the organisation.

This is a shortened version of the interview in WAN-IFRA’s recent report “Change agents: Using audience needs to unlock digital transformation”. Read more about the report and download it for free HERE.

WAN-IFRA: In terms of transformation projects, most news publishers have at least started their journey to becoming “digital-first.” But in Table Stakes Europe, the aim is to help participants become both “digital AND audiences-first.” How is that different?

Lyndsey Jones: A “digital-first” newsroom might publish their content online, but they’re not necessarily thinking about peak audiences or deadlines for online publication. They’re not really planning their content. That’s what sets them apart from an “audiences-first” newsroom.

If you are “audiences-first,” you might be planning up to 60 percent of your content because you’re really thinking about your targeted audiences. You are looking at what times people are coming to your site and when they are searching for a particular type of content.

More crucially, an “audiences-first” newsroom also thinks about how to tell each story to engage its audience. It’s not just, “Let’s put our content online,” it’s thinking about whether to tell the story through video or even just a graphic. It’s no longer necessarily just text.

Alexandra Borchardt: The fundamental difference in the digital world is that before, people used to have to go to a news organisation – grab a newspaper, switch on the TV – to get information. But in the digital world, audiences’ expectations and consumption habits have completely changed. Now news organisations have to find people where they are.

You need to be “digital-first” first because otherwise you can’t serve people on diverse digital platforms. And then you have to figure out which platforms different audiences use, at what time of day, and what their needs are.

If you are “audiences-first,” audiences become your centres of attention, and you try to figure out what their needs are and how you can serve them.

Let’s say I want to encourage a more audience-focused mindset in my newsroom. How should I get started?

Jones: In terms of Table Stakes, it’s about setting up a mini-publisher team that’s dedicated to a specific audience. The team can be very small: a reporter, perhaps a news editor, and someone from product development or IT. This team could, for example, work on a newsletter for a specific audience.

You must also start your news conference with an audience analytics person who gives a breakdown of your top 10 stories of the day online, why one story performed really well, and maybe why another one didn’t perform so well. You look at what’s working and what’s not working to start that debate in your newsroom, as well as having your mini-publishing team experimenting on a topic idea with a specific audience in mind.

Data is very important here. You should use data to decide on your new audiences and topic ideas they might be interested in. Data also helps with affecting change in the company more broadly, in terms of the messaging to the wider newsroom.

Borchardt: You really should use data, but it can also serve as a brilliant excuse. I’ve seen that with many teams: “Oh, we can’t get started, we don’t have all the data yet…”

I strongly advise to get started anyway. The starting point can be as simple as discussing the concept of different audiences with your newsroom and seeing what people have to offer. There may be “hidden gems” in every newsroom – people who are attached to a particular audience and have ideas about how to serve their needs and interests.

It doesn’t have to be a huge effort. The Reach team I coached last year developed a newsletter for the Muslim community in Birmingham. It was developed by one person, a trainee, who was connected to the community and felt she had a good grasp of their needs. She started this newsletter and it became a major success. Obviously, Reach is the biggest regional news group in the UK, so she could rely on a big machine internally, but it was just one person driving the effort. [You can read more about the newsletter in our case study.]

Are there common pain points that cause transformation projects to stall (or fail)? And how can these be avoided?

Borchardt: One mistake is to make it too complicated, analysing everything, making plans for a huge change. And then the disappointment is tremendous when things don’t work out. What’s really important is to just get going, start experimenting, and start small if you have to.

In terms of audiences, my advice is to start with more than one audience. If you focus on just one and it doesn’t work, then everyone will be frustrated. Start with two or even three, and then you have something to compare.

Jones: I agree: get going, experiment, but then, crucially, review and monitor what you’re doing. Because a common mistake that I see is that projects just run and run, particularly if it’s led by someone whose idea it was, and they can’t let it go.

It’s all very well to get off the ground quickly, but it’s also important to stop doing something that’s not working. If after 12 weeks something’s not working, start closing it down.

What about internal resistance – how do you deal with colleagues or managers who are reluctant or even hostile to change?

Borchardt: Some teams spend too much time and effort trying to convince top leadership. Instead, they should just go ahead, experiment, get some data, have some success – and then go to top leadership and say, “Look, this works, can we explore this further?”

Also, as they say, it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than for permission! That’s important advice, because sometimes leadership resistance is mostly in your head, and it may turn out that the leadership isn’t really resisting.

Jones: There’s a couple of things to think about when it comes to office politics. Number one, if your leadership team doesn’t buy into what you want to do, you have to come up with a strategy in terms of how you’re going to persuade and influence them. If you’re not the person who can do that, you have to work out who their advisor is. I call them consiglieres – you need to get the consigliere to buy in to the change, and they will convince the senior management.

Number two, if your colleagues are resisting, it can be terrible but generally speaking you’ve got to communicate. You have to send emails, and you have to hold meetings. Individual meetings, team meetings, departmental meetings, perhaps a whole town hall.

You absolutely have to keep repeating, and just because you’ve had a meeting and you’ve said your message, it doesn’t mean that they’ve heard it. So you have to follow meetings up with emails where your message is really clear. And keep doing it.

Do you have advice on how to share successes from smaller experiments, so that they’re seen more widely in the company?

Jones: Most news organisations have a news conference, and you want to be presenting your results at that meeting. Then, if there is an internal email from the editor-in-chief, or some other internal newsletter, get it in there.

You need to promote yourself. It’s about promoting your team, if you’re a team leader, or it’s about promoting your personal brand, if it’s just you. No one else is going to do it for you.

Borchardt: It’s also good to celebrate success stories. Some teams have a “win board” for this. Obviously, the newsroom needs to become data savvy at some point, and sooner or later people need to be able to read and interpret data themselves.

It’s a bit of a cliché now to hear that newsrooms need to be ready for constant evolution – “change is the new normal.” How difficult is it to actually encourage this mindset in the newsroom?

Jones: Let’s not forget that you’re dealing with people. And change is exhausting. People find it overwhelming to think that you have to keep up with the change, you have to keep adapting. Because if you don’t, you’ll be left behind and eventually become irrelevant.

There is an onus on everybody these days to keep retraining, re-skilling, look at where your company’s going, look at the trends. You’re always future-proofing your skills.

Borchardt: Maybe it’s a consolation for some, but it’s the same in every industry, so there’s really no escaping it. But the good news is that these new skills come in handy in many different jobs, so it makes you much more employable.

When Lyndsey and I started out as journalists, it felt like, “This is what I can do, and I can’t really do much else.” Now journalists need to have so many different skills. Data, knowing how to drive change, maybe leadership skills, knowing about user needs, customer research… All skills that you can easily use in a lot of different places.

Finally, many newsrooms are grappling with the implications of generative AI. How do you think GenAI will impact publishers’ transformation processes?

Jones: Three main areas will be affected: production, news gathering and distribution. Large language models are either being used or show potential for usage in streamlining of workflows to create more efficiencies; increasing personalisation and interaction with users; translation; topic ideation; content creation and production such as articles, bullet lists, news summaries and headline ideas; text correction; aiding research or search; text creation, such as blog posts; image generation including animating content and transcribing interviews.

But the biggest challenge to newsrooms is how they can spot fake news before publication. What processes are in place to check if the story they are being pitched is true and accurate? Having a human in the fact-checking process will be vital to protect the brand’s reputation for truth and accuracy.

Borchardt: You absolutely need a strategy for where to use AI, how to use it and how not to use it, and what you want to achieve with it. Because the temptation will be to create a tremendous amount of new stuff just because it’s possible. If you don’t have a strategy, you could end up flooding the market with new products, new text, new videos that no one really needs. And that will contribute to people getting even more tired of the news.


This interview is an extract from WAN-IFRA’s report “Change agents: Using audience needs to unlock digital transformation,” which includes case studies that highlight successful strategies news publishers used to accelerate digital transformation in the newsroom and promote an audience-centric mindset among their colleagues.

The report is based on the 2023 round of Table Stakes Europe, a WAN-IFRA programme in partnership with the Google News Initiative, in which 24 news publishers undertook specific change management initiatives to address key challenges in their digital transformation journeys.

The report is available free for download in English, French, German and Spanish.

Download the report in your preferred language HERE.

The post Interview: Why focusing on audiences helps newsroom transformation succeed appeared first on WAN-IFRA.