No beer was served at the early morning orientation meeting in the Nordjyske newspaper newsroom in November 2002. As things turned out that day, the absence of beer was one of the smaller changes to emerge from this gathering of the 250 staff members at the newspaper. As I walked into the room as the new newsroom editor, the reporters knew something else was about to happen. And it did.
At our first gathering, I asked if we could set two goals to work on together: It should be fun to be a reporter at Nordjyske, and together we should do good journalism.
Arms crossed, the reporters nodded to me in silence. Through the years they had built a reputation of being the heaviest union-controlled newsroom in Denmark and the one with the most strikes in the history of the Danish press. But now circulation was dropping like a piano thrown from a penthouse, and distrust and endless meetings about rules, procedures and contracts dominated daily life in the newsroom. Most of the reporters did their job, but not much more than that.
"The problem is that everybody wants progress but nobody wants change," I told them. "If we want to keep our jobs, we have to develop ourselves and the way we work with journalism. But the consequence of progress is change; we have to do something else than we are used to doing and that brings with itinsecurity. We get through it together, if we dare." I then told them that in 10 months our regional newspaper, now slipping into a deep crisis, would become the most ambitious media house in Europe. "It will be tough," I reminded them, "but when we’ve made it, we’ll have a future in which it will be fun going to work every morning and a newspaper in which we will make good stories."
Overhead, as I spoke, was a headline from my PowerPoint. It read: "Just do it!" Borrowed from Nike, it spoke to our tradition of a people not prone to talking so much about things but really meaning what little we say.
We had a choice, I explained. Either we could do as every other media company was doing and stick with what we’ve always done. (And then, please, could the reporters by the window do the rest of us the favor of jumping out the window, so we didn’t have to fire anyone like they did in so many other newsrooms?) Or we could do something else.
We needed to stop talking about crises and insecurity and the need for someone to do something. We should do it. Change. Believe in the future. We should try something new by moving toward a totally media integrated newsroom. And learn while we do it. Having this destination would put us on a path with neither tracks nor pavement since nowhere else were journalists working in the same newsroom for several media at the same time. Yet the future I told them about—the one that would happen within 10 months—would find them working at new desks, with new colleagues and perhaps new editors, meeting new deadlines, using new tools, working new hours, and doing all of this with new media.
Leaving the meeting, an experienced reporter lowered his voice and told his colleague, "That guy might become a stress factor …."
Launching the Plan
During the preceding weeks, a group of editors and brave reporters had worked on a plan for how Nordjyske could avoid the fate of other Danish newspapers, where layoffs, depression and budget cuts were part of the daily routine. With this plan in mind, my job as newsroom leader was to explain two critical things to the staff as a way of getting them to buy into the need for change:
What is the situation now? (Why is the toilet on fire, as we say in Danish, because if you don’t feel the heat, why move?)
What is the goal? And why will our situation be better then than it is today? When people don’t share the vision of a better tomorrow, why change?
As the reporters and editors took seats in our big conference room they could hear the words of Fleetwood Mac’s "Don’t Stop" playing from big loudspeakers:
Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow
Don’t stop it’ll soon be here
It’ll be better than before
Yesterday’s gone, yesterday’s gone
From a big screen at one end of the room an insisting signal from an SMS-message took over, and a mobile phone in oversize showed the text: "Media revolution broken out in Northern Jutland. Hear more on your radio." Then the morning host at the local radio station "ANR Hit FM" faded the music and, in a voice only excited radio hosts use, announced:
"We interrupt with breaking news. Media revolution has broken out in Northern Jutland. Media melt together, and journalists, who previously only have worked for one medium, are now getting the opportunity to tell their stories on radio, on TV, on the Web, on mobile phones, and in both free papers and the traditional morning newspaper. It is the first time a media house goes all the way in the so-called media convergence. The goal is to do better stories for readers, listeners and viewers. See more on your TV. And the weather forecast for Northern Jutland is windy with the possibility of later clear sky and a lot more sun. My name is Katrine Schousboe."
Then the news anchor from a TV station from a small, daughter-company in our city, that for years had produced a not very popular newscast, could be heard. Dressed in jacket and a tie, this anchor introduced a story about this impending media revolution using television at its best: It showed faces and feelings in pictures from a small local bureau in which reporters and photographers had experienced media integration for about a year. "In the beginning it was hard and confusing, but later it was actually quite fun," the news anchor said.
He then introduced other taped interviews with some of the journalists whowere now sitting in the conference room. Some said they were worried about this new direction. Others indicated that they would never work in television and had difficulty understanding what all of this talk of change was about. And some reporters from the working group explained why they believed that, in time, it could be great fun working in a media integrated newsroom:
"The goal is to do better stories. Making sharper priorities and using different media platforms to tell that part of the story at which that medium is best. And by sitting closely together in a newsroom without walls with colleagues with the same beats and interests, we can share ideas, sources, research and thereby produce more and improve the total quality of our work."
The TV-anchor ended his portion of the show with these words:
"This morning the staff at Nordjyske meets to be informed about the plans. And right now a special edition of the newspaper is being distributed to the reporters. There they can read more about the plan and get perspectives and background material on media integration and the ambitious project that will change the media picture in Denmark."
The lights went up, and the working group distributed the tabloid, "Nordjyske Media," while Fleetwood Mac’s refrain, "Yesterday’s gone," filled the air again.
Under the headline "No more excuses—here we go" the front page story appeared below a picture of Nordjyske with threatening darks cloud hanging over it. The story read in part:
"This is a bid on a future which does not come by itself. But it is a bid that will make it more fun to go to work. It is a bid that will create useful media. Stories that talk to both brain and heart. People in center. Respect for our customers. And—this is not the project of Ulrik Haagerup. Not alone at least. We have done our best. Because the salary has to come from somewhere. But mostly because we believe in the future. Hell, yes!"
The paper explained the plan in 16 pages—clearly showing that the printed paper was not dead but very useful if we use it to do what it is best at: overview, reflection and stopping time.
"Any questions?" I asked.
There weren’t any.
The meeting was finished in 22 minutes, making it the shortest informational meeting in the history of Nordjyske. Our future had begun, as different lyrics of Fleetwood Mac escorted the quite silent reporters back to work:
If you wake up and don’t want to smile
If it takes more than a little while
Open your eyes and look at the day.
You’ll see things in a different way.
Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow ….
Making It Work
So how did our plan work out? In short: It works.
Ten months later nearly the entire staff had changed jobs, offices, deadlines, editors, tools and colleagues. As we launched a new, more focused newspaper and added a free commuter paper aimed at younger readers in the big cities, in our community we introduced a regional version of CNN "Headline News." These instant updates as part of local TV-news became an instant success. Within six months from our launch, we had more paid subscribers to 24Nordjyske, our cable TV station that broadcasts regional new s 24 hours a day, than we had on our newspaper, which dates back to 1767.
Our 250 reporters—no, we didn’t fire anyone—are no longer organized into groups with the task to fill certain pages or sections in a newspaper. They work together in a matrix organization, all under the same editor in chief, and each with the same basic task of telling good stories to people in Northern Jutland using the media best suited to the telling.
We made it voluntary for newspaper reporters to work for radio or TV, or vice versa. We had to since their union contract did not specify anything about working for any other media than the one for which they were employed. In the beginning, nobody dared doing anything new. But when we stopped focusing on results and instead applauded the courage of the few reporters willing to try something new, suddenly more and more got the guts to take a chance at failure. Many realized it is not that difficult to do TV, nor is it that difficult for a radio reporter to write for the paper. And the work with the Web, many found easy. Of course they all learned, in time, that to become skilled and good at this would require training, and we had such an ongoing program in place.
Now, in 2006, reporters at Nordjyske don’t feel as though they work for any one medium. What they do know is that they work for people in Northern Jutland, and by using all of the various media platforms their stories can reach 97 percent of people in our area of half a million inhabitants. And they now believe us when we told them that the media integration effort is a journalistic project—not a cost-cutting initiative. In fact, this was and is a survival strategy, while also providing a more satisfying and fun life for reporters.
When a bridge collapsed over a freeway in May 2006, our print competitor published the news the next morning with the headline "One died, whenbridged collapsed." The problem was that the accident happened more than 20 hours earlier, and the "news" was no longer news. When such an event is this important to so many people in the area, it makes sense to use the fastest media first to deliver word of it: We were able to send out an alert on mobile phones only minutes after the accident to warn drivers. Then we stopped playing music on our local radio station to tell listeners to get off the road. The story then appeared on our Web site, and live broadcasting began from the scene on 24Nordjyske.
What the newspaper brought readers the next morning was what print media does best—an overview of what had happened; perspective on the accident, and answers to the questions "Why?" and "What now?"
Our reporters also know by now that media convergence is not about them doing every story for every media every time. When would they have time to do research and reporting on stories if they spent all of their time repeating the same story in all these different media? At its best, journalism ought to be about telling important, relevant and original stories to people when they want them in the form they want them. In any given week every reporter at Nordjyske does stories for two, three or four different media.
And what these reporters are doing has brought them fame. Each week visitors from media companies from throughout the world come by to talk with them about their work in what the World Association of Newspapers now refers to as the most integrated media house in the world. In two years we’ve had so many visitors come through our newsroom that this summer we launched the first news helicopter in Denmark—paid for by the fees we have charged to tell people in the news media about the change process.
What we tell them is that the most important thing about media convergence is not expensive technology, yearlong training, or the right organizational chart—though all of that sure helps. The crucial obstacle is the mental one we impose on ourselves in sticking with the belief that our job is to print ink on paper and deliver it by the help of small boys in shorts before 7 a.m.. This change can be a hard one for journalists to make; it means realizing our task is to serve people in our community by telling them useful and entertaining stories through whatever technology they want to use.
The good old days are gone. Back then the business model was that we gave them what we wanted them to have, when we wanted them to have it, and how we wanted to give it to them. On top of that, we asked them to pay one year in advance before we made money on them, once more, by selling access to them to advertisers. Those were the days!
Now people have alternatives to the daily newspaper, which they turn to at such a rapid pace that we have difficulty keeping up. And this is creating the most dramatic paradigm shift that we’ve seen in centuries.
We tell visitors, too, that successful media convergence demands that one remember what Charles Darwin said. He did not say that the strongest survive, which so many journalists and newspaper editors wrongly attribute to him. Darwin explained that the species that are the best at adapting to change will survive. It won’t necessarily be the biggest news organization (remember the dinosaurs), nor the newspaper that now has the highest circulation or has the editors and reporters earning the highest salary. It will be the news entity that learns how to adapt fast to the changing media habits of those it serves, and newspapers have been notoriously slow in doing this.
A fellow newspaper editor gave a speech recently at an international conference. He started out by saying that his time was now so full of consultants that he had learned that he is not allowed to use the word "problems" anymore. They are now supposed to be called "options." So he ended his remarks by saying, "So let me conclude that we newspaper people are up to our neck in options."
He was more right than we like to realize. That is why the push from being a remote regional Danish newspaper in crisis to be named the leading media house in the world is a good story in an industry in which the tales of success are so few. But as they say in Northern Jutland: Stop just talking about it. Just do it!
Ulrik Haagerup is editor in chief of Nordjyske Media in Aalborg, Denmark.