How newsrooms can make a successful transition in the digital age

As managing editor of a Chinese independent investigative media organization, I’ve been thinking about how to drive innovation both in content and on the business side, and how to launch a good idea inside an organization rapidly and successfully.

I’ve been deeply impressed by the vibrant innovation climate at Stanford and in Silicon Valley. Through attending seminars, conferences and workshops, I have observed many initiatives from new media ventures and new platforms to new tools to arm journalism. The value of journalism is still strong even as the industry is facing the challenge of a broken business model and how to learn more about the behavior of its audience online.

The influence of democracy on the internet may be underestimated as a factor in changing audience’s behavior, with the audience becoming the online content producers. Social media gives everyone the equal right to post his or her opinion or story online. As Fukuyama pointed in his Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law class: without rules, democracy cannot bring stability. That’s the issue we face with the internet, which is still fairly young and is at times, chaos rules. That strengthens my belief in the value of the professional journalist in the digital age. High-tech companies are accelerating the use of artificial intelligence to handle big data and robots are producing simple news stories. What journalists can offer is professional storytelling, vetting information to ensure its accuracy and create nuanced analysis of complicated issues. The role of the journalist could become even more significant in a complex world. Newsrooms need to develop new, nimble cultures to support innovation and quality journalism, to easily distribute content on different devices and deliver information while interacting with their audiences.

Meanwhile, innovation experiments are continuing in traditional mainstream media. The New York Times is experimenting with virtual reality for news; The Washington Post is succeeding in rapidly increasing its online subscriptions, and The Economist is trying creative ways to generate revenue through offering services in video, global forecasting and more. These organizations represent the top quality in journalism. I learned from a case study in a Stanford’s business school class how The New York Times changed its paywall strategy three times to meet demands — and other news organizations followed suit. I met an editor of The New York Times’ digital content team after she spoke on a panel hosted by Stanford’s Communication Department for the 125th Stanford celebration event.

My concern is also how to create a culture in a media organization that can inspire employees. Initially, I thought about whether we should adopt a “partner culture” model, such as exists in law firms, or in investment banking. In those organizations, the most valuable property is human resources, not capital. But unlike those models, journalism works best when it is not profit driven. There’s an opportunity now to invite journalists to become shareholders in new media organizations, which would make journalists care more about the audience experience than they may currently. That could be one of the keys to a successful transformation of media.

I’m attracted by the work culture at high-tech companies like Google. I’m curious about the lack of bureaucratic hierarchy, the inspirational teamwork model and how the engineers self-management system runs so well. I wonder if these mechanisms could also work in a newsroom by encouraging efficient team work, a learning culture and continual individual improvement. The model allows employees to make day-to-day decisions without asking permission, speeds up the pace of iteration and creates a respectful work environment. The culture is similar to some newsrooms, but may need to be adapted given the new platforms, new tools and new storytelling styles required in the digital age.

How can traditional media keep its influence in the digital transition? It’s not only in the digital access to all its products, but what value experienced journalists and news organizations can provide in a noisy media environment. It’s time to drop the elements that do not fit the digital age. However, journalistic storytelling can continually be improved.

It’s time to increase the investment for innovation in media organizations and not shrink from the challenge. It’s time to think about what’s the function and advantage of journalism in this noisy media space, and think about what should be changed or kept. Media organizations could set up a committee to advocate innovation, set aside a new fund to invest and brainstorm, employ creative approaches such as design thinking and implement good ideas. My year at Stanford has encouraged me to pursue a new path of exploration and inspired me to try new things I’ve never done before. I’ve learned to not worry too much about restrictions or barriers to innovation, and spurred me to focus on ideas for the business side of journalism that I never touched before.