When The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s editor Julia D. Wallace announced a major newsroom reorganization and buyout offers in February, she made this pledge: “As we implement changes, we will boost our commitment to training.”
This promise was impressive because Atlanta was already doing more training with its newsroom staff than most news organizations in the country despite facing the same financial pressures as other major U.S. metros. This newspaper is also in a minority of U.S. news organizations that have increased midcareer staff training in recent years. Along with several other savvy newsroom leaders, Wallace realizes that strategic training can help news organizations cope with the competitive and financial quakes now rocking the industry.
As the news industry strives to become a dynamic competitor in a fierce information economy, good newsroom leadership requires finding an edge to distinguish their news products from the glut of other media offerings. Improving reporters’ and editors’ skills, while raising their energy level and spurring motivation, can mean the difference between a news organization successfully reinventing itself and one that doesn’t.
“We want people to perform new types of work, some of which is not yet defined. Offering training lowers the fear associated with changing job duties and roles and offers an incentive both for staff members and managers, as training promises to improve the work, ” says Melanie Sill, executive editor of the Raleigh News & Observer, where newsroom training has been significantly increased.
Wallace and Sill have learned the lessons of the business world: Successful companies regard training as an investment, not as an expense, andlowering the fear factor is just one of the return benefits of consistent and continuous training. In other industries and professions—whether for pharmaceutical salespeople, Starbucks baristas, or even lawyers—training is a vehicle for financial success. Companies that invest in their people and create environments that support innovation adapt better to changes in their markets. They also have highly satisfied employees and outperform their peers financially.
“It’s something the leaders in the best companies talk about all the time, says Amy Lyman, president of Great Places to Work Institute, which puts together Fortune magazine’s “100 Best Companies to Work For” list. “If you want people to be innovative, they need to have the smarts and the skills and the knowledge, but they also need to have the freedom, the comfort, and the support to try things that are new and may fail.”
That attitude is rare in the U.S. news industry, which trains only sporadically, relies mostly on training offered by nonprofit organizations, and inevitably cuts the training budget (if it has one) when revenues fall. On average, U.S. companies invest 2.3 percent of payroll on training, according to the American Society for Training & Development. In contrast, the newspaper industry invests less than one-fifth of that, 0.4 percent of payroll, according to an analysis by Inland Press.
Only a third of news organizations increased their training budgets in the past five years, according to a 2006 survey sponsored by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. About 30 percent have maintained training budgets in that time while 20 percent have cut them, according to the survey of 2,000 journalists and news executives conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International. One in 10 newsrooms provides no training at all.
Yet nine in 10 journalists say they need more training and nine in 10 news executives agree. The executives—typically among the more experienced and knowledgeable journalists—say they need more training themselves, particularly in management and new media. Lack of training is the top source of job dissatisfaction among journalists, ahead of pay and benefits.
The Value of Newsroom Training
News organizations that have increased training budgets tend to take a more sophisticated approach, the survey found. These organizations train their staffs with specific goals in mind, have a training coordinator, and receive higher-than-average feedback from their staffs for the training that is offered.
That finding echoes what we and other program directors in Knight’s $10 million Newsroom Training Initiative learned between 2003 and 2006. The initiative, which includes Tomorrow’s Workforce, The Learning Newsroom, and Poynter Institute’s News University, demonstrated in dozens of newsrooms that training linked to actionable goals and encouraged by forward-looking leadership drives innovation and audience appeal by improving newsroom culture and news content. The culture change is key to learning and reinvention, including development of print and digital content that is more engaging to audiences with links to many information sources.
Many of the newspapers, large and small, that were part of the Knight initiative found that an investment in training paid off. Among them:
- The Herald-Times in Bloomington, Indiana (circulation 29,000) participated in The Learning Newsroom project and designated a staff member to coordinate training just five hours a week. This training helped the newsroom become more adaptive and creative. Editor Bob Zaltsberg cites training as a factor in a 10 percent increase in single-copy sales of the newspaper and a robust drive to improve the Web site.
- The Waco Tribune-Herald (circulation 38,000), a Tomorrow’s Workforce partner, achieved a more constructive culture that helped the staff embrace online journalism quickly and enthusiastically. Editor Carlos Sanchez said increasing the training also resulted in a 40 percent decline in turnover, which had been a significant drain on money and management time.
- One year after boosting its training in 2005, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (circulation 350,000), another Tomorrow’s Workforce partner, doubled the number of beat watchdog stories to 90 per year and turned its front page from one dominated by standard institutional stories to one that featured more engaging story forms. Improved culture and communication at the paper help to drive the newsroom’s aggressive push onto its Web site. “The common understanding, the common language, the common sort of culture that you get from training everybody in the consistent way we have is a really big deal,” says Bert Roughton, managing editor/print at the Journal-Constitution.
- The Oregonian (circulation 310,000), working with Tomorrow’s Workforce, developed a staff-driven beat-reporting curriculum. “Our beat reporting has sharpened reporters’ sense of news and ability to mine daily and enterprise stories, says Editor Sandy Rowe. “We are, more than ever, holding people and institutions accountable through document-driven reporting.”
The lesson from successes such as these is a simple one: When editors understand how necessary training is to achieve their goals, they will find ways to make sure it gets accomplished. Mike Jenner, executive editor of the highly innovative Bakersfield Californian (circulation 61,000) shares this view. He and his staff, working with The Learning Newsroom, radically improved its newsroom culture while pushing more news content onto the Web. By mid-November 2006, the Californian staff had produced 600 online videos that led to 120,000 downloads. By comparison, a year earlier the staff had produced just six videos. “Our overall page views are up,” says Jenner. “Our posts and our comments are way up on our blogs. And downloads of our videos are through the stratosphere.”
For Jenner, training made the difference. “This is a different place than it was a year ago, two years ago,” Jenner says. “Training is really what’s gotten us where we are today.”
Michele McLellan, a 2002 Nieman Fellow, is founder and director of Tomorrow’s Workforce. Tim Porter is associate director. This article was adapted from their book “News, Improved: How America’s Newsrooms Are Learning to Change,” published by CQ Press in March 2007. For more information, go to www.newsimproved.org.