Taking Staff Deeper Into the Digital Universe

Joe Grimm is the visiting journalist at MSU and recently led a webinar for the SNA Foundation that discussed ways in which suburban and community newspaper editors and newsroom leaders can help their staff advance deeper into multi-media publishing. Access the archived recording of Leading Multimedia Teams: Taking Newsroom Staff Deeper Into The Digital World

In his work with journalism students at Michigan State University, Joe Grimm sees it all. From curious and adventurous to completely abashed at the thought of asking subjects any sort of question, let alone impertinent & nosy ones, these kids run the gamut. Despite that, Grimm’s melting pot of undergrads often surprise him by the work they are producing in the digital space and he points to these self-taught projects as good examples of what can be done with contemporary leadership.

One of the early valuable lessons that Grimm imparted in a recent SNA Foundation-sponsored webinar about newsroom leadership was that his students are learning because he tries to make it safe for them to make a mistake and dangerous if they don’t try. That pearl of wisdom speaks volumes about culture, an element that is as important as any single thing you can do to motivate and lead your newsroom into trying and testing new ideas.

He was also quick to remind the webinar audience that his students are producing some pretty cool digital work, complete with maps, graphs, photo icons et al, despite no technical training in these areas. He finds that the students who have some talent for this work are mostly self-taught, use very basic or free software, much from open source sites, and share what they’re learning with their classmates.

Bust Myths

Many stereotypical myths about who can and who can’t “do digital” are still overly pervasive in newsrooms and Grimm says you need to bust them in your thinking and your environment.

  1. Only the younger generation is good at digital innovations. Baloney! Digital is for everyone and all staffers can contribute. While it’s true that no two staffers will have equal skill or enthusiasm for the work, age is not a factor.
  2. The corollary myth is that younger staffers, the digital natives, find technology to be easy and second nature. Not true. Among his student body, Grimm finds that about a third are “naturally” good at this work, about a third don’t like it and resist, about a third are eager to experiment but lack “natural” talent.
  3. It’s a bad economy and the cyclical nature of economy means things will ultimately be all better again. “This is irresponsible thinking,” says Grimm who added that time is of the essence in marking your place in your community’s digital space. From where you are starting is immaterial says Grimm; get moving on your path to the digital future and get moving now.

Adapt Your Style

Perspective and open mindedness are the keys to making your job as a newsroom leader easier. Grimm points to a couple of real-life experiences that helped him grasp this and ultimately enhanced his own newsroom leadership and results. (Until recently Grimm was the Staff Development Editor at The Free Press in Detroit.)

In the burgeoning days of the Internet, well before it was a common tool for research, Grimm’s son came home from school with an assignment to do a report on Coca Cola. Sonny boy asked Dad to take him to the library so he could do his background research. Grimm Sr. scoffed at the idea and told his child that the library wasn’t likely to have any useful books about Coca-Cola to which Grimm Jr. replied that he wasn’t seeking a book; rather, he wanted to use the library computer to access the Internet to see if he could find come useful data.

Grimm Sr.’s ‘aha moment’ came in retrospect when he realized that his son was sort of grasping at straws when he wanted to go to the library. The parallel in your newsroom, says Grimm, is that your staff can often find tools to help them with their work, many of which are free or very low cost. Grimm says your role is not to lead them to these tools or sites but rather to get out of the way and encourage staff to grasp at their own straws.

Another life experience taught Grimm the value of perspective. He and a companion were traveling in Europe and parked their rental car in an unfamiliar big city. Despite each having similar digital cameras in their pockets, Grimm scrambled for paper and pencil to write the location of their parked car so they could find it at the end of their sightseeing. His companion snapped a couple of shots of identifiable landmarks surrounding the car to lead his way back.

“Although I had identical technology as my traveling companion, I thought about our problem in a different way,” says Grimm who urges editors to listen while they lead and to remember that there are often other perspectives about the same issue that can indeed be a better solution to the situation.

Listen and Lead

“You’ve all probably had the experience where top brass comes back from a seminar all fired up and charges the newsroom with the task to change the once and for all into the ‘new media’ leader for your community,” says Grimm. Don’t do that to your staff.

Instead…be leaders by listening with sincere enthusiasm to the ideas that bubble up. Nothing kills an idea quicker than a yawn. Have time for staffers who want to share thoughts on new initiatives. Don’t answer with “let me think about that” — get ideas out into the general discussion and be open to things that are different. “We often confuse ethics with culture,” says Grimm. “A big problem we have with some ideas is that they are different. Follow the paths even if you don’t know for sure where they will lead.”

Put an end to meetings where only managers are involved in the decision making process on new initiatives to try. Involve all and do it with urgency.

Asked what limits an editor should put on staff when testing and trying new things, Grimm suggested a reverse viewpoint. He espouses looking at this work from the perspective of what limits can be removed instead of what limits should apply.

Time is often the biggest constraint to new initiatives. When testing something new, carve out some time for your staff to develop and test the idea and talk to them at regular intervals along the way so you can make adjustments to the time allotment as needed.

Financial limits are very real and staff needs to know that you want them to look for expeditious and inexpensive approaches.

Finally, Grimm says it’s time to stop being overly cautious. “Let’s not be so afraid about making mistakes. We have made ourselves a very mistake-averse industry,” says Grimm. “I think every great success comes after some failure.”

Keys to Success

Grimm ran down a short list that has long lasting impact.

  1. Tap your in-house experts, regardless of position. If they’ve got special skills, like social media or Google maps, for example, have them conduct orientation and training sessions.
  2. Mentoring works in all directions. Veterans to rookies, rookies to veterans and peer to peer. It’s all about sharing skills. His students at MSU constantly share with each other and these lessons are often the most valuable.
  3. See gold in a good mistake — lessons are worth the mistake. Reward for trying and encourage staff to try the next new thing, whatever that might be.
  4. Rapid prototyping. Grimm looks back to the ‘old’ way editors would redesign their newspaper and chuckles at the idiocy. “We’d spend months developing prototypes that would affect change that would be least objectionable to readers. What’s the point if nobody notices? And why spend so much time?” Stop agonizing. Try things. If they don’t work, abandon and try the next thing.
  5. Use ready made tools — they’re cheap, if not free, on the web — use them.

Getting The Most Out Of Your Creatives

It’s not necessary to treat every member of your staff the same way, according to Grimm.

Give ’em

  • Flexible hours
  • Sweet equipment & software
  • Freedom to create
  • Credit
  • Room to have fun

Your team likely consists of some who are more inclined to be creative digitally and some who are not so your job is to tap those who can make the greater contribution to your current needs.

One of the things you can do is to allow for flexible hours. Loosen up on the structured schedule. Let people work their hours when they are most productive rather than you think they will be most productive. You’ll get better results. Let them stay longer when they’re deep into a story or project; cut them loose earlier another day.

Also, this helps with website updating work. For instance, you might let a staffer spend an hour at night from home posting web updates and then leave Fridays at noon to make up.

Another is to proudly give credit to those who are trying new ideas. You may not be able to put some extra bucks in their pocket but you can sure make sure everyone knows who deserves the credit.

Listen to Joe

Joe Grimm’s entire webinar, Leading Multimedia Teams: Taking Newsroom Staff Deeper Into The Digital World, was recorded and is archived.

Joe’s webinar relates to the SNA Foundation sponsored e-course entitled Leading An Online Newsroom: What You Need to Know. This free learning tool is professionally produced by the NewsU division of the Poynter Institute, is self-paced and is accessible atwww.newsu.org/LeadingOnlineNewsroom

Other e-courses in the series are:
Innovation At Work: Making New Ideas Succeed
Build and Engage Local Audiences Online
Layout-Driven Editing: A Seminar Snapshot

Gratitude to the folks at the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation for a generous grant than enables the SNA Foundation to make the e-learning courses and related webinars FREE to users.