Communication units have learned a lot in recent years about leveraging social media, but if they really want to supercharge their messaging they should adopt the best behaviours of modern newsrooms.
Newsrooms have the attributes, processes and energy that power content for ultimate audience engagement.
Over 30 years, I’ve run or worked in dozens of newsrooms in Australia and New Zealand - the biggest and smallest. I’ve also seen how exceptional operations like The Sun and The Guardian in London, and the Chicago Tribune and Boston Globe have operated. Each of those newsrooms have a personality and idiosyncrasies that exude their target market.
Like any organisation, no one newsroom does everything superbly.
But here’s 10 traits of newsrooms, compiled from the best of the best, that comms teams could use as a checklist when considering how to better position themselves.
1. Newsrooms have a sense of urgency
Sort of the bleeding obvious, but those in a non-media environment could benefit from instilling a deadline-driven environment. Sure, big projects need time to be formed and delivered. But consider a multi-speed approach, with one layer about getting well-targeted bites of content to specific audiences when it’s most beneficial. Secure quick daily wins.
2. Newsrooms are organised for chaos
Newspapers are superb at this. Indeed, many of them have spent 150 years or more refining the process - that is, systemising the gathering, creating, production and distribution of information. Today, traditional newsrooms are re-engineering their processes around digital delivery. The same principle applies - nail day-to-day operational processes. That then provides the bandwidth to respond to crises or opportunities that arise. Journalists thrive on the big news. But it doesn’t all come together - in print or digital - without a set way of working. Even the most fluid of digital newsrooms tend to conference regularly, perhaps very informally. They have benchmarks around what content they need to deliver, to whom and when. The lesson for comms teams? Be a strategically driven operation where great decisions can still be made under pressure. Reflect on recent epic communication fails. Usually it was a case of a comms team being caught off-guard in a crisis and then scampering to recover.
3. Newsrooms excel at storytelling
Successful news operations know what constitutes a story. Intimately. In today’s information economy, that means using an array of media assets and platforms. So a story could be put online pronto, developed on the web throughout the day, spark conversation on the outlet’s social media assets and then be wrapped up for tomorrow’s print. Don’t misunderstand this for a scattergun approach. Rather, it is driven with clinical precision. Being story focused demands being production light with minimal intervention between creating and publishing. Those organisations that do this well immediately see the fruits of their labour.
4. Newsrooms are idea factories
Amazing ideas can come from anywhere - and no one person or one process produces all of them. Believe me, I’ve been to, or even worse run, plenty of news conferences where idea creation was suffocated because the boss thought they knew best. (Remind me to tell you about the story of one of my best front pages - conceived in a photographer’s toilet.) Similarly, communication teams should scout far and wide for the thinking and creativity required.
5. Newsrooms are tech-ed up
I remember working in a newsroom a couple of decades ago when the boss wouldn’t let us use the internet. Hey, I was even in one not too long ago where journalists weren’t permitted to use the company wifi for fear they’d drain the data for personal use of social media. Anyone purporting to be in the communications business should be kitted up with the tools they need for the job - smart phones, the right messaging apps, an enabling work environment, not to mention trained up with the commensurate skills. Fitting out the office with a distinctly digital look need not break the capex budget either. One of the most empowering installations I’ve seen is of an affordable digital display erected in a small country newsroom. It showed real-time web analytics - and it mesmerised and motivated the editor and his team.
6. Newsrooms don’t get scooped
The beauty of those aforementioned analytics is that they set benchmarks. Journalists hate being scooped - and anyone working in corporate or other areas of comms should be as passionate about their patch and not allowing competitors getting an edge.
7. Newsrooms know how to mobilise
Sometimes us journalists can literally rush into a story without thinking. Long before the days of occupational, health and safety requirements, at least a couple of times I dashed to bushfires to be caught in the middle. The point: it is important to get to the heart of a yarn but what the best newsrooms do well today is understand how to use their resources. They know their audiences, they know the stories they need to cover and they know how best to deploy their people and equipment to cover them. That can involve battlefield-type logistics. Other times it is an intuitive feel for what is required for a quick turnaround and result. In a world of competing digital interests, communication professionals need to be absolutely clear what they mobilise, where, when and how.
We could well add an eighth point - newsrooms are darn fun.
Busy, chaotic, stressful (check out the clip above from The Paper). Newsrooms are not always pleasant places. I’ve worked in some that more resemble a library than what I’ve described. Others have bordered on the frightening given their big personalities. I’m re-traumatised thinking about one old-school sub-editor who terrorised his staff.
However, the best newsrooms are amazing places of creativity, collegiality and conversation. Most journalists aspire to changing the world - maybe just their tiny part of it. When it’s a good day and they get to do that, the sense of satisfaction is palpable.
The newsroom can be a magical place.
In an environment sometimes accused of rating style over substance, the content marketing and communications industry could well pay attention.
Newsrooms, fundamentally, provide them with a ready-made template for total content control.
* Stuart Howie is Director of Flame Tree Media. We set up best-practice public relations functions for companies and causes. Flame Tree deploys its own SMART Newsroom approach for both non-media and media clients in Australia and New Zealand.
Stuart Howie is a Canberra-based communications consultant. He has worked with organisations, private and public, in Australia and New Zealand, helping them to discover, shape and tell their stories. He is the author of The DIY Newsroom, which won Social Media Book of the Year at the Australian Business Book Awards. Stuart has worked in media, publishing and communications for more than 30 years as an executive, editor and strategist.