FEATURE 

Tea & biscuits?

Consultation takes many forms. Sometimes it doesn’t happen at all, sometimes it’s occasional and sometimes it’s mere dressing for a decision already taken. But, more positively, in some companies it is an ongoing deeply ingrained process, where there is a genuine desire to pool resources and benefit from colleagues’ experiences. Martin Cloake sat in on one such session, at RBI.

By Martin Cloake

There can’t be anyone who doubts the media industry is changing, but the question of how to manage and interpret developments in a time of arguably unprecedented change is one of the most important facing us. Many of the arguments are based on theory and assumption, and I’ve put my own into the mix in previous issues of this magazine. So, when I heard about an innovative approach being adopted at Reed Business Information, I wanted to find out more.

Elevenses

Since March 2009, the company has run a series of weekly sessions – called Elevenses, because they start at, er, 11 o’clock – in which any staff member can pitch up and contribute to discussion on a given element of the business. Sessions have included use of Twitter as a journalism tool, the application of Google pipes or using polls online.

This may not sound that innovative, but what I liked about the idea when I first saw it, was that it seemed a genuine attempt at creating space to think and to experiment, rather than to sell potentially unpopular and unworkable solutions to a sceptical workforce. (Incidentally, I picked up on this when Reed’s Martin Couzins mentioned it on his Twitter feed – a fact I would have used to illustrate just one way Twitter can be used as a journalistic tool had I been at that particular session. Whatever the medium, looking for leads is still looking for leads.) It’s also refreshingly uncomplicated, the company’s head of blogging, Adam Tinworth, describing that first session – on his blog – as “No PowerPoints. No lectures. Just people chatting with people.”

Structure of sessions

On the morning I turned up at RBI’s offices in Sutton, a prominent notice in the foyer announced that the day’s session was “organising editorial teams”. Usually the sessions are focussed on specific ways of developing skills and working practices, so this was something a little different. I met the company’s editorial development director, Karl Schneider, to get some background. “These sessions are always on a topic of interest to journalists, but it’s open to all,” he told me.

“We usually set a couple of people up to make brief contributions, and then we throw it open. There’s no big presentation, and we keep contributions short. The aim is to pull together ideas and experience and learning from around the business. Some run more like that than others. In the Twitter session, there was no one person who was the fount of all knowledge about Twitter, but there were lots of people who had done really useful things with it.”

Some may question the need for so much talking. As well as Elevenses, there are also a regular series of Brain Food events, dedicated to the dreaded ‘blue-sky thinking’. After all, shouldn’t management just manage?

“The industry is changing and that old model of ‘someone has the answer and we communicate it to everyone and then roll it out’ doesn’t work anymore,” said Schneider. “You need a mechanism to allow all those bits of experience and learning to come together to form an answer.”

It all sounded good in principle, but how does a session work in practice? As it’s ideas and general principles that are the focus of this feature, I haven’t named specific magazines or people. Instead, I’ve tried to give an idea of what was covered.

The session kicked off by looking at how one magazine reorganised its team, and immediately confronted a key point of tension – that for ‘change’ or ‘restructuring’, people often hear ‘cost-cutting’. While stressing the need to be commercially aware, the opening contributor said that the primary aim of her team’s restructure was to do things in the way they needed to be done to take account of changing readership habits. The emphasis had been on “how do we get information to the reader in as many ways as we need to and can do?” she said.

On the beat

This team had decided to base its new structure on a ‘beat’ basis, with journalists covering particular topics, rather than dividing teams into news and features. They gather information and create content, while channel editors are responsible for how each beat is covered in print, online and elsewhere. A head of content then oversees the whole picture. The fact that the head of content was also the web editor prompted some discussion, especially as the head of print position in the structure seemed unclear. One journalist asked, “Does anyone still want the word ‘print’ in their job title?”, prompting another to ask, “Why do some people insist on seeing print as a dirty word?” A microcosm of current industry debate.

But what became clear from this strand of the discussion was that it was a change in emphasis, rather than a rejection of a platform, that was being grappled with. Reed has moved to an online first model, but everyone seemed certain a print editor would still need to have considerable call on resources. One person mentioned that subscriptions to the print version of his magazine came largely from the website, which carried most of the print, so both channels of delivery complimented each other, and others reported evidence of high online traffic driving a growth in print sales.

What several people mentioned as key, and this is something they found out through error rather than trial, was the need to involve production staff as fully as content creators in any changes. All agreed, too, that it seemed an obvious requirement in hindsight. This in turn helps set minimum standards for content delivery, minimises unnecessary work, and also makes it easier for staff to feel confident about saying they have too much work.

Experimentation encouraged

It was encouraging to hear the importance of creating an environment where people could say ‘no’ being stressed. One of the common complaints about the move to multimedia newsrooms is that it means individuals are asked to do more in the same time for the same reward. What’s starting to emerge at Reed is the need to ask if all the tasks are required, and Schneider was keen to emphasise that there was nothing wrong with doing fewer things better.

Whether this noble and progressive aspiration is shared by those at the very top of the organisation may be a contentious point though. The session included several questions about why re-organisations had tended to result in voluntary redundancies, something which seemed to indicate a failure to persuade staff of the case for change. The need to retain accumulated staff experience exercised minds for a significant part of the session.

Selling change

On the question of selling change, the idea of introducing work shadowing was introduced, so that staff considering change would see how others were coping with change in practice and be better able to decide on how they needed to change themselves. What this needed was the courage for the organisation to accept that, up to a point, it’s OK to get it wrong – because it cannot be proper experimentation without this proviso.

Inevitably, the old chestnut of subbing came up, with the discussion showing just what can be gained from these gatherings. One journalist ventured the opinion that, “If it’s not subbed, it’s not journalism.” Another disagreed, saying Today’s John Humphreys would disagree that his unsubbed comments were not proper journalism. Another asked how you applied style to brands read by international audiences – for example, do you use English English or American English spellings? As the discussion ended, it seemed to have moved towards considering what process was needed to make particular material work in particular circumstances, rather than a simplistic argument over a function.

Much of the discussion, of course, relates to the business publishing model. Reed has more chance of getting people to pay for its specialist content than, I would argue, Rupert Murdoch has of getting them to pay for news, and so this gives the company strategy to move primarily online some commercial substance. Schneider takes the view that print will “probably end up like vinyl, people still buy it but the action is in digital sphere”, but also says that any practical consideration of the short to medium term has to include print.

I left encouraged by what I’d seen. Sure, there is room for cynicism about some aspects of the process, but this seems to me to be an attempt to genuinely consult, to learn and to understand that managing change isn’t primarily about asserting control. As Schneider says, “Very little comes from one person having an idea. It’s about extracting general lessons from little pockets of experience. Our focus on beats, for example, came about through seeing Farmer’s Weekly and Flight were going in that direction.”

What came across most strongly was an enthusiasm to engage and a willingness to create better ways of doing the job, using the many new opportunities available. And all based on a respect for the jobs people do combined with a sense of commercial reality. Schneider says the aim is “for everyone to come out knowing more than they did when they came in.” That seems eminently sensible.