Journalists’ identity as a barrier to tech adoption

As I mentioned last week, I’ll be speaking about the Future of Context at the Social Media Forum in Hamburg tomorrow. Bjoern Negelmann has been helping to frame the discussion ahead of the conference and, after our interview by email and blog, he’s posted a follow-up looking at possible evolution of Google’s Living Stories concept (in the original German and also in English via Google translate).

After outlining how he sees this working, Bjoern asks what’s standing in the way of the implementation of such a platform. As he points out, the technology exists. Why hasn’t anyone tried it? Part of the problem is that cash-strapped organisations aren’t prioritising this kind of work over other strategic goals. However, I also see other road blocks.

I responded:

You ask why such an approach hasn’t been implemented. The main reason is culture, and that is an issue not just for journalism but for many industries. New technologies often challenge not only existing roles but also existing organisational structures. That means that managers often assess new technology not in whether it delivers a better product or experience but whether it will undermine their authority.

Have you ever developed what you thought was an excellent social media strategy only to see it collapse due to lack of implementation by key managers? You can have the best technology and clear performance targets, and it still will fail without buy-in from key gatekeepers hidden within the organisation.

The other issue is really about professional identity. Journalists are very tribal, meaning that they have always been very sensitive about who is and isn’t a journalist. Economic uncertainty has only heightened this sensitivity. Many journalists still define themselves not only by their jobs but by very specific ways in which they do their jobs. Case in point, in the UK, a proper journalist must know shorthand or they aren’t a proper journalist. In the US, where I’m from, shorthand isn’t a requirement for journalism training. Although I can type faster than most people can do shorthand, I’m not really a proper journalist because I don’t know shorthand. It’s not difficult to implement technology in journalism organisations that doesn’t affect journalists’ roles, but it is devilishly difficult to implement technology that impacts how they do their jobs because it challenges their identity.

Discuss.

6 thoughts on “Journalists’ identity as a barrier to tech adoption

  1. One of the strategies for implementing change as set out in the book Switch by Chip Heath and Dan Heath is to make the change a part of one’s identity.

    If journalists identified themselves as professional, tech savvy, information sharers, they would jump at new tech ways to do that.

  2. “Have you ever developed what you thought was an excellent social media strategy only to see it collapse due to lack of implementation by key managers?”

    There are many reasons why key managers might not have implemented your social media strategy. Perhaps it was not as excellent as you thought.

  3. JD, certainly there are a lot of social media strategies that aren’t worth implementing. I used social media as an example because the comment was in response to a question about the Social Media Forum in Hamburg so relevant in that context.

    Let me put it another way. A former colleague once said that managers where we worked weren’t as interested in achieving change, which pretty much everyone agreed was needed, but rather on who owned the change. I’m not advocating change for the sake of change, but in terms of journalism organisations (the industry I work in), we’re really talking about change in order to survive. Not changing isn’t really an option. The lack of productive change in the industry has brought us to the point where we’re at now with thousands of journalists losing their jobs and not simply due to the recession.

  4. You’re absolutely right: identity and culture are key parts of what drives journalists – and what hold us back. The example of shorthand/non-shorthand in the UK and US is an excellent one.
    I think one reason for the persistence of culture (and hence traditions, even the bad ones) is that there’s not that much that really distinguishes journalists in one organization from another – or from the talented amateur, in many cases. So traditions, culture, argot, specific techniques become the methods of identifying ourselves.
    That’s not to say we don’t bring value; we do, often. But it’s hard to demonstrate that objectively, regularly. And we aren’t licensed. So this is the next best thing.
    But it does, as you say, get in the way of reinventing ourselves. The trick has to be to find a way to worm some of these new work habits/tools/techniques into a new part of our identity. Wish I knew how. But it’s happening at the edges of the industry.

  5. Thanks for the comment Reg,

    When I joined The Guardian a few years ago, I viewed myself as a bit of an internal evangelist in terms of new ways of working. I found it difficult to get traction, and instead of trying to turn the entire ship, I found the key journalists open to change and willing to embrace new methods. I gave them as much support as I could. One of those journalists, Matthew Weaver won an individual digital achievement award this year for his work covering the post-election violence in Iran. Journalists follow success, and by supporting journalists already heading in that direction, senior management then held them up as examples of successful digital journalists. (I took a buyout from The Guardian in March and now am working as a freelance journalist and digital strategist and also doing digital training for news organisations around the world.)

    With your senior position, I might suggest looking at John Paton and the Journal Register Company in the US. They are not only working on a pretty ambitious change programme (what they call the Ben Franklin Project), but they have also enacted a profit-sharing scheme if the group hits their growth targets. They seem to be achieving some success, and their goals are audacious. It requires a lot of buy-in throughout the organisation, but from the outside, I like how it’s been pitched.

    Thanks for the comment. I’ll be following your blog now, and hopefully, you can share some success as you grapple with these issues.

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