10 essential steps to change editorial to embrace digital

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Submitted By: asoloman
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The demands on editorial teams have never been greater. The days of over-stuffed newsrooms and large expense accounts are long gone. Instead, costs are being cut and digital enables an ever accelerating flow of information that readers and consumers increasingly expect over multiple channels and devices in real-time or within a short period. How can editorial teams reinvent themselves to thrive in this challenging environment?

When I first arrived as a foreign correspondent in Vietnam in 1992 there were just a handful of international telephone lines linking the country to the outside world. Calls needed to be booked, they were horrendously expensive and very poor quality (plus the communist spooks also listened in, you could hear clicks on the line and sometimes voices in the background).

By 1995, things hadn’t improved much. Telephone density in Vietnam was only 3.8 per 100 people, far lower that any other countries in the region. An experimental email bulletin board system was launched by a college in the capital Hanoi, but communications remained a massive challenge. On assignment I would disappear. It would sometimes be days before I was able to file a story, and as for transmitting photographs, forget it. Even by 1999 when mobile networks had begun to sprout up in the cities, vast swathes of Vietnam were uncovered and when working for Reuters with its never-ending deadlines I could frequently be found driving 20 or 30 miles to reach a telephone.

When you stop for a moment to consider the digital changes that have swept across the world, information has been freed. It is no longer constrained by geography, physical infrastructure or even politics.  In the same way as water will always find a way to flow down hill, information strains to be free. When considering traditional editorial operations, the days of being able to hold on to an exclusive while waiting for your print or publishing deadline have gone. You run the risk of being overtaken by someone else and of annoying your readers who expect to be quickly informed of important developments in their areas of interest.

But to do this takes change. Not just change in terms of function, but change in terms of attitude, expectation, skill sets, and organisation. Both publishing and editorial leaders need to drive change. It doesn’t matter whether you are the publisher of print or online and digital products, the same rules apply. This article is not concerned with aspects of defining business strategy, but it is focused on achieving business goals in a changed publishing environment.

When considering how to change editorial to be able to generate value for carefully defined customer needs, a thorough cross-functional business process needs to be followed. Editorial is not a separate entity (no matter how many editors would like it to be), it is an intrinsic part of the business and needs to be fully involved in business planning and execution.

The following is not an exhaustive list. As with a tree, there are many branches that could be explored, and let’s not forget change management is a highly complex process where the risks of getting it wrong can have a huge impact on the business overall. For example, not all staff — senior or junior — will sign up to the new vision and it will be necessary to consider how to reach the goals if significant barriers remain in place. But, I have direct experience of driving change within publishing businesses and while it can be like walking on eggshells, if publishers are to thrive in the digital world they need to tackle tough decisions fairly and decisively.

Here are 10 ways to drive editorial to change and embrace digital:

The first five are cross functional with involvement of all business departments, including editorial, which must be involved in agreeing business direction. Items 6 – 10 are for editorial with support from the business.

  1. Understand your customer, your reader, your viewer. In short, change isn’t just for change’s sake, it is for a clearly defined reason. Start from the perspective of understanding what role your products and published services play in the life of your customer. How can your services make your customer’s life easier? Build detailed customer personas and use them all the time.
  2. Determine what role you want to play for your customer and how this meets business objectives. This may sound odd when thinking about editorial change, but for someone who is paying for your services, they really don’t care how you are structured, they just want to get the value and information they need to make their lives better. This will be informed by understanding the customer personas. Get this piece right, and success in hitting business goals will follow.
  3. Think how your current portfolio of services meets the customer personas and their needs. Use data to understand what information your customers access and how they access it. What else needs to be done or could be done to improve the customer experience? This covers a potential multitude of opportunities, from different types of content (text, audio and video), different digital engagement platforms, social media integration and the critical paid subscription, free content or a freemium model where free content is tied to an action the customer needs to take.
  4. Formulate a vision. Make it outward facing, not inward. What is the value proposition for the customer and how will it benefit the business?
  5. Communicate the vision across the publishing business, with carefully constructed escalation from the top down to permeate through all layers with the goal of an all-inclusive approach.

    People sitting around a table in an office wearing gas masks

    No point hiding, editorial teams can change

  6. Review editorial roles. Assuming the editorial leaders are fully bought in to embracing not only changing business priorities, but also changing working practices, the hard work then begins. They need to review roles, responsibilities, workflows, resources and really importantly, skills, to understand how editorial staff can be trained, equipped and helped to work smarter without burning out under the burden of unrealistic expectation.
  7. Involve editorial staff in redefining their job profiles. If the discussion around organisation, responsibilities and the reasons why things need to change is opened up you will be surprised with how successful you can be. Change is unsettling, and many people will recognise good ideas but still fail to understand why they need to change. A top down dictated approach will not secure buy-in and support. Change needs to come from within, but it should be carefully nurtured to ensure the desired results are achieved.
  8. Define new guidelines and adhere to them. Involve team members in updating your Editorial Guidelines and in drafting a new Editorial Operations Manual that defines workflow, how things are done and the expectations placed on editorial team members. This should explain how each piece of content can be versioned and reversioned for multiple use across different products, platforms and services. “Generate Once Use Multiple Times” to avoid duplication of effort and deliver maximum value from every piece of content. Review the Style Guide so that it captures changes that may be needed to adapt output for different channels or platforms. For example, do you need to review headline policy to ensure headlines are not only optimised for a web presence, but how thy work on platforms such as Twitter?
  9. Plan, Communicate, Train, Implement and Enforce. There is no point expending all this effort if it counts for nothing, or ends up half-baked. Editorial staff need to adopt new ways of working. Find ways to make it fun, reward and recognise significant contributions to helping meet the goals and encourage innovation.
  10. Measure, review, tweak and don’t be afraid to change again. Change never stops, it is ongoing. Customer needs will continue to evolve, new markets and opportunities will emerge, technology will continue to make the previously impossible, possible, and staff skills will grow.

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