Five Questions for Robyn Tomlin of The Dallas Morning News
5/24/2016
Newsroom reorganization put readers' interests and behaviors at the center
Tuesday, May 24, 2016
by:

Section: Leadership


Robyn Tomlin



'Five Questions' is a new feature of asne.org that offers insight into leadership in action. In this installment, Robyn Tomlin, Vice President and Managing Editor of The Dallas Morning News, talks about the News' digitally-focused newsroom reorganization that led to more than 130 staff members moving to new roles.

The only thing scarier than an aggressive plan for the future is not having one.


A lot of people talk about newsroom ‘strategy.’ We’re really talking about a series of choices based on serving a rapidly evolving audience for local news. What choices are reflected in your new approach to serving readers?
 
The primary choice we made was to focus intensely on readers’ interests and behaviors. We adopted a Quartz-like “obsessions” model where we challenge each writer to consider the things readers are passionate about and the phenomena affecting their lives and focus on telling stories that truly resonate. That’s easier said than done. This approach moves us away from focusing on institutions and forces us to consider the problems readers are looking to solve. We also created an Audience team charged with helping us understand what our digital metrics are telling us and on helping us improve the way we deliver our work across platforms and social channels. 
 
There are two different ways to begin the process of newsroom change: ‘Hard’ changes, such as newsroom structure and organization, and ‘soft’ changes, focused on thinking and action. The Dallas Morning News team chose to focus on hard changes first. Why did you choose that approach?
 
Actually, we’ve been trying to do both. When Mike Wilson arrived as editor a little more than a year ago, he came with a mandate for change. After getting to know the team, he invited 23 people from different corners of the newsroom to spend several months building a plan for the future. He charged them to “Be bold,” and they were. Working with consultants from Empirical Media, they outlined a pretty dramatic staff reorganization focused on meeting readers where they are and shifting workflows to be truly “digital first.” There was a strong sense that a major structural change was needed to accomplish our mission and position the team to help us grow our audience. We didn’t just shuffle the deck. We’re changing the way we think about and present stories, the way we plan, the way we communicate and how we measure success. That entails a lot of “softer” cultural shifts that will continue to evolve over the next year. We’re also beginning to explore a move to a new building where we can design the physical space to support both greater creativity and collaboration. 
 
Describe the process. What worked and what would you approach differently in the future based on this experience?
 
As I mentioned, Mike set up an inclusive transformation process. This involved three working groups focused on our content, internal capabilities and the way we are organized. The teams solicited input from and communicated with the whole newsroom throughout the process. At the same time, the company offered buyouts to a number of senior staff members and 34 accepted. It was hard to say goodbye to talented, experienced journalists, but this gave us flexibility to hire some new folks with different skills. 
 
Once the plan was delivered, Mike and I spent about six weeks reviewing the proposed org chart and making adjustments. We re-worked the budget to make sure it would support all roles in the plan. We then announced a revised org chart and launched an app that gave all staffers the ability to review every job description and select and order roles they sought to fill. We guaranteed every staffer would get an interview for their first choice – and possibly for others. It took us about 10 weeks to complete the interviews with all 290 people and make the selections. Once that was all announced, we started transitioning people into their new roles. We’re now moving people around to sit with their teams.
 
We debated whether to just automatically slot people who were doing well into equivalent roles. We worried that opening up every job would have a paralyzing effect on the room. While it did create an incredible amount of anxiety, it turned out to be one of the best things we did. We got to learn about people’s aspirations and to really think about how to best position people to help us succeed. In the end, nearly half the staff – 130 people – ended up in different roles. While it’s only been a few weeks since the changes, we’re already seeing some wonderful results. We’ve also hired some really talented new people with strong digital skills to fill roles where we didn’t have a natural fit on staff. 
 
How did your team balance the need to bring in new skills with the need for quality control, institutional memory and core reporting and leadership skills?
 
The team that created the plan spent a lot of time outlining the key skills needed for each role in the newsroom – and we used that as a roadmap to many of the decisions we made. We knew most people would need some training and support to learn new skills, and we’re committed to providing that. We started this process with a terrific team of people who care deeply about the quality of the work we do and the service we provide in the community. We’ve tried to be careful to preserve the things that have worked well for us. While a lot of people are in different roles, every team also has many veterans who remained where they were. We ended up with some wonderful cross-pollination across departments, which is healthy.
 
You are relatively new to the Dallas Morning News. What did the process teach you about the team you are now a part of leading?
 
I came to The News in early September, shortly after the team had delivered their plan to Mike. It was definitely challenging to walk in the door and almost immediately ask everyone on staff to reapply for roles in the newsroom. They didn’t know me. They were really just getting to know Mike. The process created a lot of anxiety, but it also gave every staffer the opportunity to make a pitch for the assignments that were most interesting to them. We had young reporters interviewing for jobs on the investigative team and copy editors telling us why we needed to have them on the Audience team. It was a great opportunity to learn about the career aspirations of our talented team members. There were a lot of surprises. The biggest thing that I learned was just how dedicated everyone here is to finding a path to success. While not everyone loved every aspect of the plan, there was a universal appreciation and respect for the fact that their colleagues had been involved in creating it and an excitement about the future. The only thing scarier than an aggressive plan for the future is not having one. 
 
How will you measure success?
 
We’re focused on growing local visitors and our overall visitors to DallasNews.com. We have a host of other metrics we think are valuable, but ultimately our mission is to grow the size and engagement of our digital audience. 
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