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5 Provocative Insights into the Digital Newsroom with Alan Soon

Alan Soon
Alan Soon

We recently caught up with Alan Soon, one of Asia’s leading experts in newsroom operations, digital transformation and the business of media. Apart from working as a Singapore-based consultant, Alan also distributes a newsletter through his website The Splice Newsroom.

Due to Alan’s expertise, particularly when it comes to newsroom operations, editorial workflow, and newsroom automation, we couldn’t help but think of how Superdesk seamlessly manages all of these tasks (and more!). Sourcefabric is always looking for ways to improve our newsroom software, and part of that process involves discussions with clients and industry experts alike in order to get feedback. This helps us to evaluate not only what Superdesk is already capable of, but also puts us in a position to anticipate and respond to developments in digital journalism.

We reached out to Alan in order get his insights on how newsrooms are changing and what challenges they currently face now and in the future. We also wanted to know what measures both we at Sourcefabric and potential clients can take regarding newsroom software in order to be well-prepared for such situations.

It’s become the case that many large technology companies, particularly those which began as social media channels, are now also news media companies for all intents and purposes. How can traditional media organisations re-establish themselves as the direct source of news, or must they accept that third parties will often be the main distributors of their work?

I think we need to start with a fundamental question: What’s the service that we provide our customer? It’s a basic business question, but you’d be surprised that many newsroom executives don’t have an answer for that. We think of our consumers as “audiences” – 18-35, male or female, etc. We’ve confused demographics with the actual needs and wants of a consumer.

If we’re going to survive, we need to learn how to serve a customer. 

When was the last time you saw the title “Chief Customer Experience Officer” in a newsroom? Who’s responsible for creating value for the news customer?

You’ve given examples in the past of how the media seems to be inflicting death by a thousand cuts onto itself. You identify the underlying issue as a lack of willingness to change. Do you think that is primarily a generational issue, cultural or something else?

I think it’s a lot of factors. The shift to digital was fast; the shift from desktop to mobile was even faster and more significant. It’s increasingly difficult for media executives to predict the next 2-3 years in the industry, let alone invest for the future. We’ve become increasingly short-sighted in our strategy.

We’re also married to this myth that we’ve created around the “craft” of what we do. We believe that only journalists are capable of telling a story, that we have a monopoly on truth. That stops us from trying new things.

We also seem to think that transforming the business is a matter of introducing new tools or dashboards. But the biggest hurdle is culture – how we get things done in a newsroom, and more importantly, how we stay nimble as the ground continues to shift.

You’ve also mentioned before that adding APIs on top of a newsroom is a way of adding value and becoming more useful. What do you think are the most important APIs to have, and which unmet needs are you still seeing in this regard?

For decades, we’ve been running newsrooms as standalone units in competition with each other. That doesn’t make sense in the digital space when we’re all largely competing for attention on social platforms. Newsrooms need to realise that we can’t maintain these costs for much longer.

Newsrooms need to think of how they can partner up better. What are shared services they can build together? Is there a way to build a centralised copy editing function shared across a handful of newsrooms? How can we build datasets around public information that can be centrally created but individually visualised across newsrooms?

We were especially intrigued by a point you made in one of your articles entitled “Two years of Splice: Here are some lessons we’ve learned about transforming newsrooms.” In this post, you wrote: “You’re only as good as your CMS. Find out: What would your journos do if the tools didn’t get in the way?” Could you say more about the future of the digital newsroom and what current CMS platforms and news software can and cannot do for a news organisation?

It really comes down to this: as a workflow tool, a CMS shapes how a team thinks about both the content it can create as well as what it looks like. There’s a fixed set of templates that either facilitate or get in the way of the creative process of storytelling. You’re ultimately asking people to paint within a very fixed canvas, so you need to understand the constraints of that workflow.

Newsrooms are operational beasts -- teams will find a way to work around inefficient tools just to get the job done. That often means that people won’t take the time to put in a feature request, a bug report or more importantly, to suggest ways to cut down the number of steps it takes to publish a story. Editorial teams end up accommodating issues that come up with their tools, which is sometimes not healthy.

So I’d think of it in these terms: How can you create a CMS that’s so straightforward that the onboarding process for a new editor could be as little as, let’s say, 2-3 hours? How can you cut down the time it takes to publish a new story in half? How can you reduce the number of redundant clicks by a quarter? How can you easily create new formats to better tell a story?

In that same post, you made the point: “You may have the best teams, workflows and tools. But if you don’t have the right culture and courage, you can’t get them there.” We then must ask you, what are some elements of an editorial culture that facilitate innovation and risk-taking?

First, teams need to feel like they can go out of the box to try new things. Newsrooms drive operational accuracy to reduce errors -- but that discipline can often stifle risk-taking. Editorial teams are also drilled on perfection. That often limits their ability to take the first step, without knowing what the end looks like. The concept of iteration is anathema to newsrooms. We’re driven to deliver perfection at the first go.

Second, look for ways to reduce workflow processes. Newsrooms create all sorts of rules to deliver operational perfection but these are terrible at managing people. Instead, we should be looking for ways to use processes only as a last resort. We should be building trust in our teams so that they are empowered to find ways to do things better and faster.

Third, we need to set the right benchmarks and milestones. Measure what you value and value what you measure. Many newsrooms set the wrong KPIs for staff performance that aren’t aligned to the company’s strategy. That gets in the way of risk taking and innovation. Leaders need to ask: What are we trading off to achieve the KPI we’re setting? What are our expectations and how do we incentivise them?

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