Why strategy matters in a newsroom: It’s not just ‘what’, but also ‘how’ and ‘why’


Styli Charalambous is the CEO and co-founder of Daily Maverick, having joined the effort a few months before launch in 2009. Over the years, he has studied media models and news innovation efforts. He has also helped launch various projects and products within the Daily Maverick orbit.

What is a strategy and how much of a role should it play in a newsroom? As a management concept, strategy has been the subject of many books and consultants’ dreams. A nebulous concept that, despite two-day retreats and a mountain of yellow post-it notes, can feel like an annual box-ticking exercise. Like so many business concepts, without the proper direction and instruction, they can be easy to gloss over or their importance misconstrued. Getting strategy right is crucial to success; getting it wrong can be fatal.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

For startups, there is very rarely the luxury of time, let alone budget to indulge in strategic consultation to fine-tune the process. As a result, not many organisations get strategy right, let alone newsrooms where daily firefighting, physical or security threats and deadlines compete for the title of most pressing crisis in need of attention.

Strategy is the starting point for leadership to set the organisation or team off in the right direction. It lays the foundation for coherent team effort and creates a conducive environment for innovation to occur. Although innovation is the responsibility of leaders, woe to the organisation that relies solely on leadership for groundbreaking ideas. A clearly defined strategy helps create the playground for magic to happen.

And it’s not just we smaller operations at the bottom of Africa that struggle to make strategy a priority. In the 2014 New York Times Innovation Report, one of the key recommendations made to strengthen the newsroom was to appoint a strategy team, whose key responsibilities included keeping newsroom leaders abreast of the important but future-dated plans, trends and developments in the industry.

According to their honest reflection of the current state at the time: “Many newsroom leaders are so consumed with the demands of the daily report that they have little time to step back and think about long-term questions. … The team would keep newsroom leaders apprised of competitors’ strategies, changing technology and shifting reader behavior.” Because the New York Times had yet to fully develop its product and technology teams, this team was tasked with experimentation and co-ordinating projects across the organisation. Yet, when topics are critical to the optimal running of an organisation, it needs to be part of the job of newsroom leaders to be planning the direction of the editorial team’s efforts.

In his book Good Strategy, Bad Strategy, Richard Rhumelt laments what passes as strategy these days. Bad strategy is not only the absence of good strategy but that which actively destroys value. Fluffy visions, mission statements, goals, ambitions, catchphrases and templatised strategy work all contribute to the befuddled nature of it all. It’s a process that takes work, loads of it, to analyse situations, strengths, advantages, competitors, and environments. It takes a deep understanding of one’s business and industry to get it right.

“Good strategy is not just ‘what’ you are trying to do. It is also ‘why’ and ‘how’ you are doing it.”

According to Rhumelt, three characteristics are necessary to form the kernel of every good strategy:

A proper diagnosis of the challenge (“why”);

A guiding policy that seeks to address the challenge, by drawing on sources of advantage (“how”); and

A set of coherent actions to carry out the policy (“what”).

In the context of a newsroom, a challenge might be maximising the impact and reach of an editorial effort that could be faring better relative to potential competitors. A guiding policy could be the use of data-driven insights with a focus on audience needs.

And specific actions could be the introduction of product design thinking, supported by key metrics and reports in the newsroom.

With that strategy defined, specific goals can be set, resources allocated or acquired and the playing field for innovation mapped out.

Defining a strategy is akin to stating a hypothesis and bringing a scientific method into play when working on the edge of new frontiers. This is the organisation’s best guess (after thorough analysis) of how to magnify results in relation to the stated challenge – whatever the team chooses to focus resources on.

And, in the context of a newsroom, operating without a strategy means reacting to the news cycle rather than driving it. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.


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  • I am not sure if you include the entire business when you refer to the newsroom. If the word is all inclusive DM would be on the right track to up its game over the long term. It is not often that news outlets do this type of business exercise. A big bonus is that stratigising properly leads to a deep understanding of your business. If newsroom refers to the activities conducted by the journos, strategy per se would be a frustrating and useless exercise as the rest of the operation would not be in harmony with it. Anyhow, good luck with this. And don’t be too disappointed if beautiful plans don’t work. Any plan is better than no plan.