The Lean Newsroom Model

Over the past several years, we’ve combined our research findings with our experiences as journalists and managers to develop a framework for change. The Lean Newsroom Model is designed to help leaders think about change in a deeper, more meaningful way, beyond the fireworks of catchphrases and flashy, surface-level tactics.

Most forward-thinking organizations today have latched onto the importance of innovation. They’ve read Clay Christensen, they’ve reviewed lean-startup methodology, and they’ve adopted the language of disruption in their newsrooms.

Then the reality hits: Why can’t we become an innovative organization?

We argue it’s because many organizations throw out traditional strategy altogether and don’t understand themselves at the deeper cultural level. They blame their cultures instead of embracing them.

For any organization to effect meaningful change, leaders must understand the strengths and limits of their culture, and change within the context of that culture. You cannot become Pixar overnight.

Our model


Culture: Understanding for action

The foundation of our model is culture. Before creating a vision plan, before employing iterative processes, leaders must take the time to assess and understand the deeply embedded assumptions of their organizations. As organizational theorist Edgar Schein notes, you must understand how people have figured out how to accomplish their work in an efficient way that fits with their values and identities.

Looking at change from this perspective is difficult because culture change is a slow process and takes long-term commitment. But adding this dimension to your thinking can improve and strengthen change efforts.

What should you look for?

  • Shared assumptions: Culture is a shared phenomenon. Look at the organization as a whole. How does the group accomplish its work? What are the accepted best practices? What are the myths shared by employees that explain, “This is how we do things here”?
  • Sources of resistance: Most people naturally resist change, especially if they’ve become successful with their own methods of accomplishing work. Recognize what your organization sees as the roots of success; you will need to tap into those sentiments to avoid resistance.
  • Success creation: Once you understand what the organization cherishes and values, you should work to create new successes within those parameters. New successes will help nudge existing assumptions toward the type of organization you hope to become.

Strategy: Planning for action

Strategy is sometimes dismissed as too traditional, too slow to respond to the needs of the fast-moving digital marketplace. We see it as a critical cognitive bridge between culture and innovation. It keeps you rooted to avoid flitting toward every technological whim.

Yes, innovation is important. But conducting the hard work of traditional strategic analysis (as outlined by Harvard’s Michael Porter) will help you identify the competitive landscape and your role in it more clearly. It will provide a vision to prevent you from making knee-jerk reactions that may destroy the long-term value of your organization.

The key is making sure your mission is used as a guide for decision-making, not a noose to prevent action.

At this level, you should consider:

  • Competitive analysis: How competitive is the industry? What is your place within it? Have you created a unique value proposition to separate yourself from the competitive field?
  • Mission/goals: What are the ideals of the organization? What is the vision for the future?
  • Allocation of resources: Do your budgets and reward systems align with the organization you hope to be?

Innovation: Taking action

These days, innovation has seized all the attention when it comes to organizational change — and for good reason. It forces people out of their comfort zones. For many news organizations accustomed to setting the news agenda, it is uncomfortable and downright disruptive to think about what the audience wants and needs.

It is also the most immediately satisfying because these tactics can be applied right away. But we argue you cannot have long-term success with innovation without understanding your culture and laying the proper strategic foundation first.

Only then will the immediate, short-term gains of innovation last over the long term.

For news organizations wanting to embrace innovative thinking, we recommend several steps, including:

  • Audience analysis: The newsroom needs to step outside itself. What are the audience’s communication needs? How can we provide information to them in the form they want?
  • Circumstance-based strategy: This idea turns the “build it, and they will come” philosophy on its head. Building on the audience analysis, news organizations must consider the wheres and whens of consumption. What are the circumstances in which the audience uses your information and products?
  • Iterative processes: Innovation requires constant evaluation of success; news organizations can no longer rely solely on their intuition for new products. New story forms and journalism must be consistently tested and evaluated based upon audience response and engagement.