6 barriers to collaborative and innovative newsroom culture24 Jul 2023
In this article, I want to shed light on an underexposed topic in the newsroom: collaboration.
Sarah Faict is a seasoned professional with a decade of experience in Belgium’s media industry. Recently, she ventured into the realm of entrepreneurship, founding her own business called BUiLDR. As a changemaker, Sarah is dedicated to fostering collaborative company cultures that drive sustainable transformation. She remains actively engaged with newsrooms, equipping them with the necessary tools to navigate the rapidly evolving digital landscapes that news organisations must adapt to.
When I entered the media industry 10 years ago as a content and project marketer, the newsroom organization was still very siloed. As a result, I struggled to fit into the newsroom way of working. Of course, a lot has changed since, and yet, the challenges linked to the digital transformation of the newsroom haven’t diminished. On the contrary, given the faster-than-expected decline in newspaper readership.
In this article, I want to shed light on an underexposed topic in the newsroom: collaboration. After all, isn’t digitisation all about “breaking down silos”? Yet, newsrooms don’t seem to make this their top priority, and when they do, they lack effective tactics to achieve it.
A few months after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, when the ability to digitally transform and innovate became a matter of business survival, Accenture conducted a study (1) which showed that 75% of the 1,500 senior executives surveyed admitted that their different business units compete, rather than collaborate on digitisation. The cost companies pay for this lack of cross-functional collaboration is high. If a company invests in digital transformation to boost revenue growth and doesn’t see any results from those investments (in the Accenture study, 64% of the companies don’t), needless to say, the company is in a bad place.
The costs of internal competition (image: Accenture 2020)
So, if collaboration is at the heart of digital transformation and innovation, how to act on it in a newsroom? Working in the industry for 10 years, I’ve listed 6 barriers I still experience today in developing a truly collaborative environment. Addressing and understanding these barriers is an important first step in developing future-proof newsrooms where everyone can thrive and which serve our readers, communities, and democracies best.
1) The issue of directive leadership
Leadership in newsrooms often adopts a top-down, "demanding" style, primarily due to the need to achieve short-term results under tight deadlines. The time pressure frequently leaves little room for dialogue and team participation. This "order enforcing" can be off-putting, especially for younger generations.
However, the digitalisation of media has brought changes, including shifting deadlines to a 24/7 format, allowing for more advanced content preparation, as content can be adapted to multiple platforms. This alteration opens the door for a more participative leadership approach that emphasises autonomy support and fosters dialogue among team members.
To address the challenges of this demanding style and keep up with changes, editors need to be more committed to engaging in dialogue with their teams, providing both content and behavior-related feedback promptly. We should start transforming newsroom "management" toward a more inclusive, participatory newsroom "leadership" – if we want our newsrooms to be future-proof.
2) Flatter is better
The hierarchical structure of newsrooms, where old-school managers thrive, often limits career paths and discourages lateral promotion. Editors-in-chief may occupy their positions for extended periods of time, hindering opportunities for others to progress. The way to go is redesigning career paths and embracing a more horizontal organisational structure.
The hierarchical structure of newsrooms, where old-school managers thrive, often limits career paths and discourages lateral promotion (image generated by Midjourney)
3) Where the bleep are we heading?
What does digital transformation mean for newsrooms, why is it so important that we act now, and how can we hold everyone accountable for collaborating on this?
Answering these questions is a tough nut to crack for media boards worldwide, and the real challenge isn’t just that. Newsrooms often struggle with a lack of transparency, where decision-making processes and strategic goals remain obscured. So, start communicating by providing regular and transparent updates on the company’s direction and initiatives.
4) Breaking down the patriarchy
A prevailing patriarchal culture in newsrooms can seriously hamper effective collaboration efforts, particularly for entry-level young professionals. Seniority and traditional hierarchies are often praised in a way that forces newcomers to start at sub-zero levels. This isn't at all future-proof, as recent studies show that Millennials (I’m 37, so this is my generation) dislike bureaucracy and hierarchy (2). They're the first generation to be driven by purpose and passion (3).
– according to the Millennial Branding and Beyond.com survey (4).
It is time to actively promote diversity, equal opportunities, and a culture that values fresh perspectives, regardless of age or gender.
5) The digital skill gap is real
Introducing new technologies is a driver for digital transformation in newsrooms. The ability to use these tools effectively (e.g., a Data & Insights Dashboard) is a key enabler to accelerate transformation and improve collaboration across the organisation.
However, the most recent "Digimeter" study (5) (the go-to study in Flanders, Belgium, to assess digital maturity in the country) shows a skills gap, and not only among people of older age.
In 2022, the researchers found an average 6.3% drop in the number of 25-54-year-olds who say they find it easy to use new technologies. Given this, it isn’t far-stretched to say that newsroom employees may be reluctant to adopt new technologies or lack the confidence to explore them. We should start encouraging digital upskilling as a path to personal and fundamental company growth and never let the introduction of new technology be the goal in itself.
It is time to actively promote diversity and equal opportunities for everyone (image generated by Midjourney)
6) Time to rethink the business model
Journalism has a built-in bias towards the negative because bad things are sudden and newsworthy (a fire, a train crash, a war, an epidemic). In contrast, good things are gradual and boring (a drop in crime numbers, a spreading peace, a longevity rise). Chasing the “delusion of the day” every day presents a challenge when tackling complex issues of our time, like climate change or inequality.
A 2019 Reuters Study (6) shows that young people feel that news brands tend to exaggerate the negative with a number of facets, such as perceived unfairness in targeting people or perceived favouritism toward certain groups - even though they also strongly believe it’s a newsroom mission to report on what’s happening in the world.
Nevertheless, this can impact the mental well-being of journalists and readers alike (have you ever heard of the term "doomscrolling"?) (7). By rethinking the business model, focusing on long-term impact and fact-based journalism, emphasising data literacy in the newsroom, and fostering open-mindedness, newsrooms can create an environment that values diverse perspectives and positively impacts society.
Collaboration is fundamental to digital transformation and newsroom innovation. By removing barriers such as all too directive leadership, vertical hierarchical structures, limited transparency, a digital maturity gap and an outdated business model, newsrooms can cultivate a collaborative culture that fosters creativity, embraces diversity, and drives innovation.
Overcoming these barriers enables newsrooms to adapt to the digital era, engage readers effectively, and create meaningful journalism that positively impacts society.
(1) Raghav Narsalay, July 2020, Driving a digital transformation right now? Try this.
(2) Paknad, D, Getting to the Truth of What Motivates Millennials at Work.
(3) PWC, (2011). Annual CEO Report: Growth reimagined. Quote by Vineet Nayar, former Chief Executive Officer of HCL Technologies Ltd.
(4) Millennial Branding and Beyond.com, (2013), The Cost of Millennial Retention Study.
(5) Schuurman D. & Demarez L. (2022). Imec.Digimeter 2022.
(6) Robin Blades (March 2022). Protecting the news against bad news.
(7) Lucas Galan, Jordan Osserman, Tim Parker, Matt Taylor (2019). How Young People Consume News and The Implications For Mainstream Media. A report by Flamingo commissioned by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, Oxford University.