YDR Insider

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Can newsrooms help lead a digital first transformation throughout the community?

I received an intriguing tweet the other day.

@rparker717 @stevebuttry @jxpaton curious to know if you think that #digitalfirst could work as well in schools as it has for newspapers?

It came from Doug Walters, who describes himself on Twitter as “School administrator at @SYSCD and proud owner of @SusquehannaWeb.” The other two recipients of the message were Steve Buttry, Director of Community Engagement & Social Media for the York Daily Record’s parent company, Digital First Media, and John Paton, CEO of DFM.

I responded:

@dougrwalters As the dad of a cyber student, I say yes. Schools should be digital first! Textbooks are a waste of $$! @stevebuttry @jxpaton

I told Doug that I would be happy to answer any questions he had about the Digital First approach, and I encouraged him to read up on our thinking here, at YDR Insider.

Following is Doug’s thoughtful reply and my effort to respond to his intriguing questions. I’d love to hear from people throughout the community on this. How will digital first thinking shape businesses and government agencies? What are the risks and the benefits? How do you take the first step and how do you root out fear?

From: Doug Walters [douglasrwalters@gmail.com]
Sent: Wednesday, July 11, 2012 8:41 AM
To: Randy Parker
Subject: Digital First
First of all, I greatly appreciate your willingness to lend a hand with my research into “digital first”. Before I ask any questions, I think it might help if I explain why I am doing this:
I work at the Southern York County School District as a Transportation Coordinator. That said, I am involved in a lot more than just school buses. My first job with the district was in technology and my passion for innovation has landed me a seat on several administrative committees that guide the district’s technology initiatives. Last year I spearheaded an effort to establish a district Twitter account – which the board approved, and is working marvelously – and now I am in the process of reviewing that pilot program and making recommendations for how we can widen its scope.
Being a bit ambitious, I’d like to really push the envelope with my recommendations. I’d like to develop a plan to make our school district “digital first”. I think our district can be a pioneer in digital learning just as YDR has been a pioneer in digital journalism, which is why I tweeted to you and several other digitally-oriented journalists I’ve seen mentioned in your blog posts. It seems to me that many of the challenges facing the newspaper industry are also affecting schools – decreased revenue, antiquated processes, lack of innovation leading to decreased engagement, etc. I’m not sure if I can get everyone to buy into this, but I’d like to try!
I read through many of the posts on the YDR Insider blog, including the foundational documents. In doing so, I have identified numerous areas in our district’s classroom and administrative operations that could be greatly improved through the use of digital tools. For example:
  • live-streaming our board meetings and other administrative meetings
  • blogging for teachers and administrators – education best practices, staff and teacher Q&A, and commentary on what is going on around our schools
  • establishing pages on social media sites to control our district’s message and brand (Facebook, Wikipedia, etc.)
  • resetting job descriptions to include new “digital first” tasks and requirements
  • using the student-run newspaper as a gateway for new technology to enter the district
  • using social media to improve and expand our Digital Academy learning environment
So, based on all of that, I do have a few questions for you. Feel free to answer in as much or as little detail as you see fit.

When and why did you decide to make your organization “digital first”?

The York Daily Record has been evolving toward this philosophy for many years. When Digital First Media became our parent company in 2011, we found that we were already well ahead of the curve of the changes DFM advocated. We realized the potential value of such thinking as far back as 1996 when we launched ydr.com in the height of the awful blizzard that year. That was the night when the governor had banned all road travel in the state, preventing us from delivering the papers we had already printed. Undaunted, we launched a web site that some of our newsroom hobbyists had been tinkering with for months. We delivered all of our news in a digital format that night. Admittedly, the audience was tiny. But we could see its potential.

Since then, we have approached digital publication from a number of angles. But one trend has remained clear: The profitability of print publication will continue to decline and the potential profitability of digital publication will continue to increase. Also, online publication offers many more tools with which to serve the community with news and information. Far from fearing the advance of digital, we have hailed “the democratization of information.” These tools allow more people to find out what is happening and for them to contribute to the discourse and the reporting.

Did the change require modifications to your organization’s mission statement?


Our current mission statement was crafted in 2006 as part of a general long-range planning session. We knew that it was time to identify ourselves beyond the boundaries of a newspaper.


Was there any opposition to the decision? If so, how was it addressed? How did you get employees to buy in?


There are always occasional cranks or grumblers, but our newsroom has been blessed over the years with people see the value of new media and want to get involved. Not everyone, and not always. But usually and on most projects. Also, there always seems to be a core group who embrace new technology. These pioneers have helped show the rest how practical and valuable these tools can be. I would also say that change has been insisted upon, celebrated, and encouraged at all times by our top leaders. In fact, our top blogger is Editor Jim McClure. Through York Town Square, he has shown everyone on staff that new responsibilities can be folded into an ever-increasing workload.


How were guidelines and policies set?


We have based our current philosophies and guidelines on traditional values, while adapting them to new opportunities, risks and restrictions. We have rewritten our guidelines several times over the years, and are almost constantly collaborating on the best way to respond to unforeseeable situations.


How did you decide which digital platforms to use?


We are constantly evolving and searching for the newest tools.


How were employees trained to use them?


Self-training and experimenting are what get the pioneers off the ground. In some case, we hold workshops. For some things we write up “Best practices” and share them across the operation.


Are there any platforms that employees cannot use?




Can you explain what openness and transparency have to do with “digital first”?


We need our community to understand that we are making these changes so that we can continue to be their No. 1 source of news and information. These are not defensive moves. We are coming out swinging, intending to win. For too long, our industry has hunkered down and conveyed a sense of failure. We believe that we are serving more readers, more often and in more ways than ever before. That’s a good story, and one we should be proud to tell.


Have there been any “digital first” initiatives that didn’t work? If so, why didn’t they work?


That’s an important question. Successful organizations leave room for failure. So long as we learn from our mistakes and don’t keep making the same ones again again, we should not fear the occasional flop.


While I am sure we have a string of efforts that did not work, I’m not sure I can list them off the top of my head.


Commonly, though, digital platforms come and go and it’s important for us to keep moving forward quickly. Podcasts, for instance, were all the rage just a few years ago. We worked hard to get several podcasts up and running. Today you rarely hear people use that term. We still produce audio and video, but new technology has outpaced podcasting for most people. That’s not a failure. That’s just evolution.


Last year we tried to use an embedded Twitter widget, or twidget, on our home page. We hoped to use this to share breaking news and sell advertising. For a number of reasons, though, the twidget conflicted with our home page software and we had to give up on it. Disappointing, but no big deal. If we find a way to overcome the glitch, we’ll likely use the twidget. If not, we’ll look for other solutions.


We have tried for years to develop a more robust online events calendar or partner with someone who could. We have invested scores of man hours in researching and testing such technology, and still have not found anything worth using. This has been a frustrating effort, but we understand that others are in the same boat. Until we find something better, though we will continue to use what is available. In this case, sufficient is better than nothing.


Can you share any future plans?

Our chief goals are to grow audience and grow impact. Those are traditional newspaper goals, but we will go after them using any means possible.
We see the creation of high-quality professional journalism, the curation of all information relevant to our audience, and a sharp increase in community engagement as the foundations for this growth.
Based on your answers, I may have some follow-up questions!
Thanks again for all of your help.

Doug Walters