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"There is a lot of information about what needs to change in news organisations and a lot of people are willing to make those changes, but they still don't end up happening", says Jeff Sonderman, deputy director at The American Press Institute (API).

This is the problem the API has tried to address in its latest two reports published today, discussing the link between culture and innovation in newsrooms.

The first, 'A Culture-based Strategy for Creating Innovation in News Organisations', funded through a Knight Foundation grant, takes a "human-centered design approach to studying newsroom innovation and dynamics" and the factors that enable or stifle this process.

A team of experts led by Laura Cochran and Reggie Murphy spoke with entry level and senior employees from a variety of news organisations.

Hopefully, news organisations will have an 'aha!' moment when they realise why their effort to do a certain thing didn't workJeff Sonderman, The American Press Institute
"One of the things that come out in this report is that people who come to work everyday in a news organisation are still people", Sonderman said.

Based on the interviews, Cochran and Murphy identified common challenges faced by staff, such as building collaboration, trust and relationships, and constructed models and workflows to deal with them.


Sonderman said the key finding of this research is that innovation, from the adoption of news tools and business models to finding new ways to tell stories, is a product of culture.

An innovative culture, described in the report as a "shared set of expectations, values, motivations and purposes" can be achieved in three steps: establishing a common goal that unites the organisation, coordinating all teams towards a set of priorities, and driving the process through change and improvement.


The structure of a news organisation, both physical and administrative, is reflected in how people interact which each other, forming groups with shared values and motivations.

The report refers to these groups as "tribes" which, according to Sonderman, are "hugely powerful in shaping the overall culture and dynamics within the organisation".

Tribes are formed not only by reporters but also by web producers or sales representatives, and the challenge is "empowering them to work with each other", he said, despite of factors like workplace competition.

The research also stresses the importance of uniting different groups by identifying a shared mission and how people in each group can contribute to it, according to their strengths.


In a news organisation, a process is a regular occurrence that supports its structure and creates a culture, such as daily editorial meetings or e-mail communication.

Some innovation-building processes identified in this report facilitate collaboration between groups through open newsrooms and virtual spaces easily accessible to people, such as using Slack to coordinate work.

The API is looking at ways of putting these recommendations into practice, by employing dedicated staff to go inside news organisations and help them understand where they got stuck and how to overcome this.

The best practices for innovation within news organisations

For the second report, API commissioned BuzzFeed Canada editor and founder of Emergent.info Craig Silverman to interview people at leading news organisations such as Vox, Medium and NPR. The aim was to find out how they approach innovation by "changing the way they operate, communicate and organise themselves".

For instance, Vox Media sets and adapts its priorities in a by-weekly meeting, adjusting them to ensure they are "headed in the right direction", according to Trei Brundrett, the company's chief product officer.

On the other hand, publishing platform Medium follows a unique organisational approach called Holocracy. Defined by senior editor Kate Lee as a "culture of autonomy without accountability", it was implemented to empower both individuals and teams inside the organisation.

The API research applies to newsrooms of all sizes and Sonderman encouraged people to read both reports "with an open mind, thinking about how the dynamics and examples included relate to their own experience".

"Hopefully, news organisations will have an 'aha!' moment when they realise why their effort to do a certain thing didn't work and where they got stuck," Sonderman concluded, "as well as understand what needs to be accounted for in order to make deep transformation happen."

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