President’s Letter: Let’s stop calling it unprecedented times and consider a future beyond survival

By on May 20, 2020

Many of us are in survival mode, trying to figure out how to do journalism in these “challenging, uncertain, unprecedented times.” Today, let’s stop calling it unprecedented and consider a future beyond survival. As real as the day-to-day challenges are, we can’t afford to limit our focus to the immediate crises. We need to solve for the next era, not just the next normal.

ONA is all about bringing people together to share resources and imagine what’s possible. As a community, we’re known for driving innovation with a combination of level-headedness and optimism. I’d like to share a glimpse into the ideas for reimagining journalism that emerged from recent connections with ONA board members, staff and our community-at-large. There’s no such thing as “going back to normal” beyond this crisis. Let’s embrace these possibilities that journalism can become.

Reimagine the way newsrooms work

We can’t build a stronger news ecosystem without a close internal look at how newsrooms work now — and could work.

New playbooks for distributed and hybrid newsrooms. Many newsrooms had little notice to vacate their buildings and switch to a distributed work environment, not knowing when they might be back. The quirks and pains of remote work are top of mind for everyone. Still, distributed teams are demonstrating that we can do good journalism from anywhere, even while spread out. They are also developing preparedness for future disruptions.

Fergus Bell, Founder & CEO of Fathm, shared his timely work on the Distributed Newsroom Playbook: “The playbook was designed to help newsrooms kick start the creative thinking process that will help them run innovative, creative, diverse and sustainable operations in a setting where our industry could look remarkably different.”

Distributed work isn’t easy. And it’s not for everyone nor for every team. But being forced into it is teaching us that working together in one physical space isn’t the only way. Different, hybrid models are emerging. The newsrooms that will thrive are embracing this unexpected opportunity to evaluate how and where they work, and will take care to design an environment that helps their staff be most successful.

Workforce diversity. We know that diversity in all journalism roles, including newsroom leadership, contributes varied and critical perspectives that lead to better and more innovative newsgathering. With the sudden move to remote work, more newsrooms are recognizing the benefit of access to diverse talent in different locations around the world. Within the U.S. for example, there’s a strong case to be made for sitting in “off-coast” locations like Kansas City, Kan. or Albuquerque instead of clustered around New York City or Los Angeles. Moving forward, we will see even more champions of diversity in many forms, including location, gender identity, economic status, physical ability, sexual orientation and cultural, racial and ethnic backgrounds.

Leading with empathy and intention. Leaders are taking this moment as an opportunity to reassess how we approach the way we manage, whether it’s projects, people or both.

“We have to be intentional about over communicating, collaborating and offering transparency in how the way we work is changing,” said Charo Henríquez, Senior Editor, Digital Transition Strategy, at The New York Times. “We have to listen to what our teammates need and try to move our work forward at the same time as we take care of those around us. We have to learn to identify the skills or strengths in our teams that we might have overlooked before, but that are key in this new landscape. Lastly, we must be open to recalibrate how we measure success and take a hard look at what we praise and recognize as our core values during this time and going forward.”

Rethinking how we support careers in journalism. “Everything we know about the way we network, interview for jobs and think about our careers has changed,” said Rubina Madan Fillion, Director of Audience for The New York Times Opinion.

Many of us are coming to terms with the reality that there may not be stable newsrooms jobs for the foreseeable future. We need career support with instability in mind, including resources for mental health, personal finance management and navigating layoffs; communities for networking and outreach; and frank conversations about moving in and out of journalism. For early-career journalists, we need to imbue their training with more emphasis on entrepreneurship, freelancing, analytics, multi-platform skills and innovation in audience engagement.

Reimagine relationships with our audience and communities

We must recognize the uniqueness of our audiences. The coronavirus is impacting communities in different ways and highlighting the need for our industry to institutionalize audience segmentation. Newsrooms are tapping into opportunities to expand coverage by identifying the unique needs of each audience segment — or community — then serving those needs by delivering news and analysis that’s most relevant to their daily lives.

“Historically, journalism organizations have viewed their audiences as an amorphous mass — but that no longer cuts it,” said media consultant Anita Li. “Black communities account for a disproportionate number of coronavirus-related deaths in America; people of East Asian descent are increasingly being targeted for hate crimes; rural and remote communities can’t easily access COVID-19 test kits. The list goes on. Each of these unique communities are facing unique challenges, and it’s up to us to ensure that we’re addressing those challenges in our coverage. How successful we are in serving audience segments will determine not only how impactful our journalism is, but also the financial health of our industry, going forward. Quality news coverage that serves audience needs will likely generate revenue from these very audiences.”

Innovating engagement with community events, reader callouts and accessibility. Live events gained traction in recent years as a way for newsrooms to engage their communities while also diversifying revenue streams. Now a few months into physical distancing, we are rethinking ways to get together. “Because almost everyone is new to virtual events, there’s no playbook to follow,” said Rodney Gibbs, Executive Director of the Revenue Lab at the Texas Tribune. “Yet, innovative newsrooms big and small are starting to find clever ways to go beyond out-of-the-box Zooms to actually expand membership and earn sponsorship dollars with little more than a few laptops and thoughtful content.”

We see opportunities for newsrooms to share knowledge and good practices for virtual events, with considerations for accessibility, safety, engagement and technical innovation. It will also become commonplace for newsrooms to think about their audience as sources directly contributing to coverage, not only consumers. The reporting process will be more transparent and accessible, and there will be more emphasis on journalists connecting people to specific resources and to each other.

Reimagine journalism funding models

Commercial, nonprofit, public, and philanthropic support work together. At ONA, our work serves individual journalists while also interfacing with a range of organizations across the industry: just-launched news products, local media outlets, international news, technology platforms and more. We have a bird’s eye view of different revenue models and can see that when it comes to sustainability, the key word is diversification. We also recognize many organizations might not be aware of all the different models, and there is a real need for education on the options at play and emerging.

“Let’s stop trying to recreate a one-size-fits all revenue model for journalism,” said Irving Washington, Executive Director/CEO. “Reimagining the business of journalism will require industry-wide support for true revenue diversity, including options for philanthropic, public, commercial and government support for newsrooms of all sizes.”

Reimagine collaboration as essential to journalism

We see a lot of talk about the concept of collaboration. Now is the time to make the practice commonplace.

Collaborations often take root and work best when there is a strong driver to rally around, an event that people can’t ignore. A global pandemic is one. The U.S. Presidential election is another. We fully expect to see more newsrooms developing partnerships with other news and related organizations this year. We will also see more robust approaches to demonstrating the results and impact of collaborative journalism.

At ONA, we’re planning a number of initiatives designed to get us closer to these possibilities for journalism. Our efforts will focus on two types of resources: meaningful connections to peers and access to ideas for doing your best work. We’re here to help you succeed in finding new and better ways to serve your audience and community.

ONA Executive Director/CEO Irving Washington will share more details by email tomorrow about our plans, including an update on ONA20.

Shazna Nessa
ONA Board President
Global Head of Visuals, The Wall Street Journal