Catalyzing structural change in your newsroom
While journalists are often focused on the complex issues they’re reporting on, there’s a need to look at our newsrooms as complex systems themselves as we seek paths for sustainability. If we want to truly represent the people we serve, meet their information needs, and have them see value in our journalism, we must consider how our own structures, processes, and policies affect our ability to do so.
Who will benefit from this?
This section is geared for anyone in a newsroom who wants to facilitate conversations around how to address structural issues in the organization through an inclusive process.
It’s also important to consider who will be in the room and the power dynamics at play. For instance, it could be useful to run this twice, as some may not feel open to sharing in front of their supervisors.
What will I learn?
Understand how your newsroom operates as a complex system;
Establish shared goals around a particular initiative;
Surface the forces within the newsroom that enable or inhibit your stated goals;
Identify and develop concrete actions that can be taken across the newsroom to work toward structural change.
Variable (3 HRS - 2 DAYS)
Flip chart paper, sticky notes, markers, pens, & paper.
Part 1: Finding your North Star
In a news organization, there is rarely time to step back and reflect on internal goals. And as journalists, working against deadlines, we often don’t have the opportunity to imagine how we could do things differently. This exercise is intended to help surface some of these goals and identify a North Star for how you could achieve an internal, organizational goal you’re working on.
As a group, you should approach this session with a topic in mind. Some ideas are:
Strengthening collaboration within the newsroom;
Deepening engagement and participation with(in) your community;
Embedding diversity and equity into your newsroom culture;
Encouraging a culture of learning;
Bolstering communication processes.
This should be a topic that there is full consensus on and that everyone feels committed to. It will take 30-60 minutes and requires one piece of flip chart paper at the front of the room. Participants will need sticky notes, plain paper, and markers.
Step 1: Each participant folds a piece of paper in half. On one half of the paper, draw a picture – stick figures are fine! – of what it looks like when you, personally, are achieving your topic.
On the other half of the paper, draw a picture of what your organization looks like when it’s achieved it’s topic. Don’t overthink it! The idea here is to generate playful ideas.
For example, if you’re wanting to strengthen collaboration, you would draw:
Yourself at your best, most collaborative;
Your newsroom at its best, most collaborative.
Step 2: Each person shows and explains their drawings to the group. As each person shares out, a scribe in the group should capture key words and phrases on a flip chart.
Step 3: Looking at all of the key words and phrases captured, work as a group to develop 1-3 sentences that capture the most common ideas shared. These sentences should articulate some of the core attributes and characteristics you’re working toward – your North Star.
Keep this at the front of the room as you do the following exercises. In fact, keep it hanging in the newsroom to remind everyone of what you’re working toward.
Part 2: Mapping enablers & inhibitors
Mapping your newsroom as a system is a flexible, collaborative tool that can help you understand its structure. Similar to mind mapping, the goal is to visualize the forces that make up your organization and how they’re connected.
Room Setup: 3 sheets of flip chart paper posted side-by-side on a large, open wall
Step 1: Using sticky notes, each participant identifies the forces within your organization that either enable or inhibit the topic you’ve identified. So if your topic is to deepen community engagement and participation, you would ask:
What forces enable or inhibit community engagement and participation?
The goal here is to identify as many forces as possible – quantity over quality. Write one force per sticky note. Some forces could include: Openness to new ideas; diversity of staff; speed of news cycle.
Step 2: Each participant reads the forces they came up with and places them on the wall with the flip-chart paper. If people have duplicates, take note, as that can garner insight into their weight within the system.
Step 3: Once everyone has shared their forces, take a step back. Ask yourselves: Is anything missing? Add any additional forces on new sticky notes.
Step 4: In order to not get lost in the chaos, it’s important to organize your map. Take a few minutes to cluster the forces you've generated in line with what is called the S-A-T Model, which labels each force in one of three categories:
Structural: The physical working environment, institutions, and infrastructure (examples: physical space or management structure)
Attitudinal: The attitudes, worldviews, assumptions, and beliefs that affect how people think and behave (examples: a sense of job security; the mission of the organization)
Transactional: The key interactions that take place between stakeholders in the system (examples: a meeting that took place or disputes between employees)
As a group, identify if each force is structural, attitudinal, or transactional. Sometimes, forces will fall into multiple categories, so it’s useful to talk through how you’re thinking about each force and determine where it most strongly belongs.
Place structural forces on the left side of the flip chart paper, attitudinal in the middle, and transactional on the right. If you notice that one category has less than the others, try to populate it with forces you haven’t yet written down.
Try to keep the map as organized as possible. Here’s an example of what your board should look like now:
Step 5: These forces don’t exist in isolation. They are all influenced by one another to create your newsroom’s culture. Draw connections between the individual forces. Connect forces both within the S-A-T categories. Draw as many connections as you can.
The process of creating a chaos map can be a useful way to visualize the relationships at play in your organization. In order to get the most out of your map, here are some follow-up questions you could ask your group:
Looking at the S-A-T categories, was there one that you surfaced most or least? Why do you think that is? What does that say about the major enablers or inhibitors of your goal?
Were there any surprising connections you drew?
Which forces does your newsroom currently prioritize? Which ones haven’t been prioritized?
What forces have a lot of connections coming in and out? Why do you think those forces have so many connections?
Go Deeper: Creating Feedback Loops
Feedback loops are the patterns that drive systems. They are a series of forces that connect to one another in a cyclical way to form a loop and dictate how a system functions.
Here’s one example of a feedback loop that could be working within a newsroom:
Notice the + and - signs. These represent the way some forces increase or decrease other forces (in the case above, reporting silos decrease opportunities for collaboration). In identifying these loops – either by yourself or with other people – the goal is to develop an understanding of the cyclical nature of the system and how it sustains itself in its current form.
Step 1: Looking at the forces on your chaos map, pick one that you or your team thinks is important. This may be one that has come up time and again when talking about the issue, one that has lots of connections going in and out, or one that you feel a particular connection to.
Place that force on the top of your flip chart paper.
Step 2: Ask: What does that force cause? Try to find another force you’ve identified that answers that question. If you need to add new forces, that’s fine too. Keep asking that question until you’ve created a loop that feeds back around to the first force. Each loop should have about 3-6 forces.
If you get stuck, try working backwards. Starting with the first force, ask: What causes this?
Note: It may be useful here to refine the language you’ve used, in order to keep the forces neutral. For example, instead of saying “Lack of Diversity,” you could say “Diversity.” Keeping your forces value-neutral can help you see what happens when a particular force increases or decreases.
Step 3: Once you’ve created your loop, it’s time to label the relationship between each force. In the graphic above, notice how an increase in beat assignments hypothetically leads to increased siloing of reporters. Use “+” and “-” signs to indicate the relationships between each force.
Step 5: Take a step back and talk through your loop. Does it make sense? Are you able to talk through each connection? Is there something missing that’s crucial to this story? Once you’ve created the loop, do you see any clear ways to break the cycle?
Part 3: Identifying underlying assumptions
The reason it is so challenging to create organizational change is because it’s often driven by mental models – the individual and collective beliefs, assumptions, and worldviews that we hold about how things work.
One of the fundamental purposes of systems thinking is to uncover and challenge the mental models that keep systems from moving toward health. In your newsroom, surfacing these mental models can provide deeper insight into the how and why of internal practices, and how particular mental models can stifle or enable change across the newsroom. All participants should have a sticky note pad and a marker.
Step 1: Newsrooms are driven by what we see and understand, formed by our own experiences, worldviews, and assumptions. Let’s take a step back and take stock of the assumptions about our newsroom, which shape our own understanding and participation within it.
Take a look at the chaos map you've created of the forces that influence your topic. Write down 5 assumptions that you hold about the system. For example, if you’re trying to create a culture of diversity, perhaps you assume that there isn’t funding to bring in new hires. Write one assumption per sticky note.
Step 2: Now let’s go deeper. Besides assumptions and biases, there are deeply entrenched mental models that drive the system. These often manifest as worldviews or beliefs, and are essentially the mindsets that we collectively carry about how the world should work. For example:
“The speed of the news cycle makes changing internal processes too difficult.”
Looking at your map, write down at least 5 mental models that enable or inhibit your area of focus. One per sticky note.
Step 3: Individually share the mental models you’ve come up with, placing your sticky notes on the side of the chaos map.
A big part of systems thinking is having “mental flexibility” – the ability to rethink boundaries, to accept that things may not be as you conceive of them. In thinking about your organization, you and your colleagues have the power to inform, perpetuate, or disrupt these mental models. In addressing these seemingly normal ideas and practices, there can be an outsized impact on the newsroom at large.
Looking at the mental models you’ve surfaced, ask:
Who could we talk with to better understand whether our assumptions are true?
What actions, experiences or protocols in the newsrooms have informed these mental models?
Which mental models are particularly entrenched or problematic? Which forces have the ability to perpetuate these mental models?
Part 4: Changing course
You started this session identifying your North Star: the core characteristics of a newsroom that’s wanting to become more diverse, or collaborative, or whatever you decided on. This illuminated where you want your organization to go. You’ve also spent the last few hours talking about the problem, the reality you’re facing. You have point A and point B, now let’s spend some time figuring out how to get there. All participants should have two pieces of flip chart paper, side by side. Each person should have a sticky note pad and a marker.
Step 1: Start by posing the question: What would have to change in the way the newsroom, and you within it, operate now for your organization to realize its North Star?
Individually, participants should brainstorm ideas that can break current practices and meet your goals. First, think about the changes that you, personally, can make to work toward your North Star. Then, think of opportunities for bigger, organizational changes.
Generate as many ideas as you can. Write one idea per sticky note.
Step 2: Share-out. Individuals read aloud their ideas, place similar ideas near one another on an open wall.
Step 3: After everyone’s ideas have been shared and similar ones have been clustered together, the group can “vote” on their favorite ideas. This can be framed as the most plausible to act on right now or the most creative or ambitious: whatever feels useful to your group.
To vote, each person uses their marker to mark 2-3 ideas that they feel fits the voting criteria. After everyone has voted, discuss what the top ideas are and how to make those happen.