What newsrooms learned.
As each team set about implementing table stakes for their own challenges, several common themes emerged:
Newsrooms needed to reorganize their workflows to better suit their audiences’ needs. Per Table Stake No. 3 (“produce and publish continuously to meet audience needs”), each of the four newsrooms recognized they weren’t going far enough to meet audiences where they are when they’re there. Participants shifted the focus and timing of news meetings, changed shifts and schedules and created new roles (like “real time” news desks) to address the problem. This was a key step toward the notion of digital first but print later and better. “I held fast to this belief that I did not want to let go of print and that somehow embracing digital meant that I was giving up on print,” said Courtnay Peifer, the Star- Tribune’s national editor. “But Table Stakes allowed me to see that it did not have to be ‘either/or.’ It could be ‘both/and.’ That was transformative for me because it removed a barrier that I had – and one that I think other journalists have – that a Sophie’s Choice was necessary and that embracing digital meant somehow contributing to the decline of print. It seems like any conversation about improving digitally immediately prompts questions about our commitment to print. It turns out that embracing digital can actually benefit print.” Peifer and team created a two-person daytime copy desk, with editors responsible for posting wire and emerging local stories, editing longer-term projects, assisting with social promotion, and helping print workflow with earlier starts on inside pages.
Participants needed to adopt tools better suited for digital workflow and efficiency. All four teams moved further away from memo-driven email and adopted – or began regularly using – Slack for more efficient real-time communication in the newsroom. (In Dallas, News staffers even use Slack to get notifications everyone can get behind: pizza or cake in the newsroom.) All four experimented with improvements to their CMS. In Philly, editors decided not to update their print CMS and instead moved most desks to work exclusively in the digital CMS. And the team in Minneapolis built storytelling tools to make it easier to deploy quizzes and interactives; Dallas hired a data journalism team that created tools for experimental storytelling, including ChartWerk for reporters to build and embed their own charts.
Newsrooms needed to do a better job testing – or at least workshopping – headlines. All four newsrooms took steps to craft headlines more appropriate to the medium. In Miami, the team worked with McClatchy to update their CMS to accommodate separate headlines for search (literal, specific, with the right keywords) and social (headline and share text that prompted interest without giving away too much). All four newsrooms use Slack or real-time meetings to workshop headlines in the moment. In Dallas, in a process dubbed “Headline Rodeo,” editors propose two or three headlines on a Slack channel, and a live meeting narrows in on the best options. They use emojis to raise questions, express approval, cast votes, etc.
Each participant found they had an opportunity to better utilize data and analytics. The four participants were at varying stages of moving from gut-driven decision-making to data-driven – or at least data-informed – decision-making. They had to make a conscious and concerted effort to customize and share data throughout the newsroom. Participants worked with the American Press Institute’s Metrics for News program to better tag and analyze reach and engagement of their stories. They used tools like Chartbeat, Parse.ly and Omniture and put them in the hands of a greater number of staffers. In Dallas, the team used Metrics for News’ ability to create an index that blends 13 metrics and “editors get regular progress reports that show where individual reporters are succeeding and where they need improvement.” In Philly, editors learned about the “mushy middle” — stories that are longer than dailies but not quite major enterprise. “These stories – which can take several days to report but aren’t full investigations or enterprise pieces – tended not to resonate with readers and may not always be worth the effort we put into them.”
Importantly, the project gives participants a sense of accountability they otherwise wouldn’t have. Each team spoke about the role of positive peer pressure: Participants are required to show up at each gathering with an update and the last thing they want to do was show up without making progress.
“I don’t think, without the framework of Table Stakes, we would’ve worked to complete it,” wrote the team in Dallas. “It focused us to keep plugging away at it.”
Further, the project connects newsrooms that have much in common but otherwise have no relationship. Participants now have an informal network of fellow newsroom leaders dealing with common issues.
2015-2019: Year by Year Growth.
Knight Foundation with Doug Smith designed the programme, named it “Table Stakes”, and agreed to oversee a pilot that would work with the Philadelphia Media Group (Inquirer, Daily News, philly.com), Dallas Morning News, Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald, and Minneapolis Star Tribune.
In February 2017, Knight and the Lenfest Institute for Journalism announced $4.8 million in funding to expand the project. Over the next three years, through the Knight-Lenfest Newsroom Initiative:
The team-based change management approach will be expanded to include — the Houston Chronicle, the Milwaukee Journal, the San Jose Mercury News, and the Seattle Times — and welcome back the Philadelphia Media Network.
The Poynter Local News Innovation Program will provide teaching for up to 20 local news organizations using its News University e-learning platform.
The Center for Innovation & Sustainability in Local Media at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill will coordinate a version of the Table Stakes program for regional news organizations in the Carolinas.
Major Metro Table Stakes: Five big city legacy news enterprises were chosen to participate in the 2d round of the major metro programme: Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Houston Chronicle, Bay Area News Group, Seattle Times – and Philadelphia chose to participate for another round. Each selected three performance challenges and used 2017 to make progress against them.
UNC Table Stakes: A University of North Carolina local table stakes programme was launched in April 2017. Eight North Carolina-based news enterprises participated: four legacy newspapers, North Carolina’s public television network, an ABC TV station, a magazine and a public radio station. Each selected and worked on one performance challenge.
Poynter Table Stakes: A more virtually-delivered table stakes programme was housed at The Poynter Institute began in May 2017. Unlike the other programmes, this one had in-person gatherings at the beginning and end but otherwise was conducted virtually. Twenty legacy newspaper enterprises participated, ranging in size from large-to-small.
In the summer of 2018, Knight Foundation asked to establish a ‘continuity’ programme for news enterprises that had participated in the major metro Table Stakes programmes. While it is challenge-centric, the programme is lighter in terms of resources and support – mostly aimed at using 2 to 3 in person gatherings and a number of webinars to help keep a focus on table stakes and challenge-centric change disciplines.
Major Metro Table Stakes: Four new big city legacy news enterprises were chosen to participate in the 3d round of the major metro programme: Omaha World Herald, Sacramento Bee, Detroit Free Press and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. They each used three performance challenges to make progress against closing gaps in table stakes as well as advancing strategic objectives.
UNC Table Stakes: In Spring 2018, UNC began a second round of its table stakes programme, opening it up to the southeast region of the US. The North Carolina public TV group chose to participate a second time along with 9 other news enterprises: five legacy newspapers, a college newspaper, West Virginia Public Broadcasting, and two nonprofit news enterprises. Each selected one performance challenge to use as the focal point for their participation.
Poynter Table Stakes: A second round of Poynter began in late Spring 2018. Fourteen news enterprises chose to participate: eight legacy newspapers and six public radio groups. Each selected one performance challenge as the focal point for participation.
ASU Local TV: Supported by Knight Foundation, a first round of table stakes for local TV kicked off in August 2018 at the Cronkite School of Arizona State University. Ten local TV stations are participating, each with a focus on one performance challenge.
Knight and Lenfest chose to both continue and expand the continuity programme. In addition to all former participants in the major metro table stakes programme, other Table Stakes alumni joined webinars and, when possible, in person gatherings.
Major Metro Table Stakes: Four new big city legacy news enterprises were chosen to participate in the 4th round of the major metro programme: Long Island Newsday (who had participated in the first round of Poynter and wanted to do more), Charlotte Observer, Indianapolis Star and Los Angeles Times. During their April gathering, outside experts from API, Lenfest, and elsewhere shared perspectives, tools, and approaches that are relevant to the performance challenges.
Other: ASU, UNC and Poynter are currently developing plans for additional rounds of their programmes. In addition, Knight and Lenfest are in discussions with major corporations who own multiple local newspapers about expanding table stakes throughout those companies. One of those companies sought this opportunity because their local newspaper groups who had participated in table stakes programmes all led the company in new digital subscriptions when compared to the newspaper groups who had not yet participated. The other company wants to spread table stakes throughout the company because, as a result of one of their groups participating, the entire company shifted focus from primarily ad-driven to primarily consumer driven revenues.