Business of News: Publishers, There’s Still Time to Reinvent the Newsroom


A recent American Press Institute study of 59 newsrooms found that their social media teams operating the same way as they did a decade ago.

In other news, the sun rose today, and death and taxes are still certain.

I apologize for the flippancy. I honestly appreciate the documentation and validation provided by the API team that proves what those who observe the newspaper industry know: We are not changing rapidly enough to keep up with the opportunities.

There’s still time, but it will take a lot of work to convince newsrooms to change.

First, let’s understand the findings in the study by API:

  • By far, the top activity of the average social media team is posting links to their own content, mostly on Twitter and Facebook.
  • Newsrooms are not prepared in structure, training and resources to address urgent problems in journalism: the misinformation explosion and the decline of trust.
  • Newsrooms are not using social platforms as tools to understand communities and to bring audiences into news creation.

What’s getting in the way? No surprises here either, the study found:

  • There is no time or budget for training.
  • Newsrooms think about the number of “followers” and content referrals from platforms, instead of thinking about new content that would capture those followers and engage them.
  • The culture in too many newsrooms still favors traditional print reporting and the social media teams feel left out in the cold.

Culture change has always been a problem for newspapers (and many other industries as well). Despite many Cassandra warnings in the late 1990s that “We are not like the railroads who forgot they were in the transportation business; we know we are in the information business” not a lot changed. I was involved in many debates after the classified downturn of 2000 with some who said it was “cyclical not secular.” I lost that argument, but the industry suffered. We just never changed until classified websites had consumed a huge chunk of our revenue.

So, is there still time to change? Maybe. Sumantra Sengupta is the MBA program director at Cal Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks, Calif., who has consulted with dozens of companies in industries that needed a drastic change. He has four maxims for the newspaper business to follow if it truly wants to change.

  1. There is a bell curve with 10 percent of workers who want to change, 10 percent who won’t change and “the movable middle” of 80 percent waiting to see which way to shift. “The trick is to minimize the disruption caused by the 10 percent who won’t change and balance it with the good the good 10 percent will cause. The movable middle will go which way the wind is blowing.” The 10-80-10 has nothing to do with age, demographic, or sex.
  2. Why should I change? This is more complex than the obvious answer—“Because you might be out of business soon.” The emergence of “fake news” on social media platforms is a good point for rallying the troops and convincing them to change. Journalists are idealistic and keeping Americans safe from fake news is a way to inspire them. Winston Churchill rallied Britain from its darkest hour by convincing England that democracy and England were things worth saving.
  3. Build a risk/reward mechanism that rewards change. You must reward people who act with a sense of urgency, even if they try and fail. A culture that rewards complacency will never change.
  4. You must draw a strategic roadmap and timeline. People have to know how long and how many times the plan and the culture will be tweaked in order to reach the goal. And this plan must reach all the way through the organization. No one can believe, “If we just make this change we will have won.” No, it’s an ongoing thing and the communication has to come from up, from down and from sideways.

One might think that saving your jobs might be incentive enough to change, but Sengupta says it isn’t. “The good people in your organization are highly employable elsewhere…in some other industry.”

But there is hope for journalists because of that commitment, that idealist notion, Sengupta says: “If you can tap into their souls, you can win.”

So get tapping.

Tim Gallagher is president of The 20/20 Network, a public relations and strategic communications firm. He is a former Pulitzer Prize-winning editor and publisher at The Albuquerque Tribune and the Ventura County Star newspapers. Reach him at


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