Technology: Disruptor but not Solution

disruptionA month ago, the New York Times Internal Report on digital innovation which candidly analyzed its struggles to adjust to the digital world was leaked.  The Times is not alone, as the industry of journalism and any other “content industry” (e.g. music, television) is trying to keep up with the onslaught of digital disruptions. As newsrooms try to pivot and reinvent themselves, often shedding staid ranks of writers and editors and hiring coders and programmers in the process, it is tempting to obsess on the “what” at the expense of the “how.” Focusing on the “what” means focusing on content: What is the right strategy for newsrooms to go digital? What’s the right content for a digital platform?  “What” questions are important, but “how” a newsroom maneuvers through uncertainty and layoffs – how it cultivates a culture of resiliency and trust – is even more important, especially in a time of crisis.

Ironically, none other than an editor at Digital First Media, a management company specializing in digital newspapers, raises this exact point, cautioning against the illusion that weathering through the crises of journalism is simply a matter of “hiring a technology team.” In “Newsrooms need HR specialists, not just technologists, in top leadership,” Matt DeRienzo writes in Nieman Lab that “If we can’t change people, if we can’t recruit effectively, if we can’t make training and learning a part of the culture, and if we don’t have managers and a workforce who can roll with constant change, ‘putting the digital people in charge’ won’t get us there.” The constant change, the shrinking workforce, the trauma that comes with regular coverage of violence, and the lack of diversity in newsrooms, he writes, all pose real questions of how to cultivate the right human dynamics in a newsroom.

The journalism industry is experiencing the need for simultaneous resiliency and growth, and it is certainly not alone in facing this double imperative, as last year’s World Economic Forum’s theme was “Resilient Dynamism.” As Dov wrote on the WEF blog last year,

…we can’t think of resiliency as something that’s required on occasion. Today, it’s a state of being. We don’t have 10-year cycles so we have to escape the mindset that now is the time to pull down our sails, batten down the hatches, wait out the storm and then set sail when economic conditions improve. Storms are hitting us every 10 weeks, and likely will continue to do so. We need to learn – for the first time – to sail with sails up in a storm. We need to build the institutional and individual capacity for simultaneous resiliency and growth.

The only things that do double-duty in protecting an organization from crises while propelling it forward at the same time are values. Shared values bind people together in crisis, especially when job security is uncertain; without this crucial human glue, people become afraid to take necessary risks in case they make a mistake. This is precisely the problem that Derienzo identifies:

A significant portion of your newsroom is hiding from you. They’re not openly resisting the push toward “digital first,” or even disagreeing with it. They simply don’t know how to proactively step out of their comfort zone. And they won’t, unless and until newsroom leaders engage in a one-on-one process that includes an explanation of both the big picture and specific tactics, discussion of performance and counseling on how this affects their personal career path.

Shared values also enable people to create value and stimulate growth. When people know the values that their company stands for and will recognize, they feel safe to take chances, to experiment and innovate, so long as their behaviors are oriented towards the company’s values.

Derienzo highlights specifically the value of individual care, declaring that “the best way to bring newsroom staff out of hiding is to engage them in a very personal dialogue about how your organization’s needs and priorities mesh with their own performance and career path.” In other words, leaders cannot see their employees just as resources that fill a current need, but as sources of human energy that need to be nurtured, unleashed, and aligned with organizational trajectories.

This is not a technological challenge, but a human one: How will you enlist someone to change his or her job description? How will you cultivate trust in the midst of job insecurity? These are perennial leadership questions, but they are especially important in a time of crisis and uncertainty, and in an age where technological forces have caused so much disruption that organizations need to build institutional and individual capacity for both resiliency and growth.

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