A better understanding of how we define work culture and what we need to do to improve it
Last year, I pitched RJI that I would develop a resource to help news organizations “build healthy work cultures.” As I began doing background interviews, I realized that I needed to refocus the work. “Healthy work culture” was too subjective. With this ambiguous framing, the conversations focused on one or two elements of organizational culture that stood out to who I was talking with. As a result, interviews were illuminating, but they also lacked cohesion.
After a few conversations, I realized that I had identified a need across the industry: We need to define work culture and the elements of positive culture.
My project needed to better educate people around the elements of work culture and how those show up differently before we could talk more broadly about how to make changes.
Along with adding context on what organizational culture is, I realized I needed to reframe the problem I was addressing. Instead of talking to people about “healthy” work culture — which is vague and can be interpreted in wildly different ways — I needed to better define what I was discussing with folks.
Reframing the conversation on work culture
Since October, I have been focused on exploring “How might we help leaders at news organizations foster more transparent, accountable and caring cultures in their growing organizations?”
This definition, shifting from “healthy” to “transparent, accountable, and caring” provides a more actionable framing around culture.
- Transparent speaks to how management is done, including how leadership shares information about the business, upcoming projects and how they see staff roles developing over time.
- Accountable speaks to expectations of staff and how dependable they are with colleagues and deadlines.
- Care speaks to the ethos of the organization overall, how management and staff behaviors fit together and how mindful colleagues are of each other’s needs.
When I work with newsrooms on strategy work, I encourage them to use an organization’s mission to inform what activities the organization should invest in. An organization’s values guide our thinking on how they should approach new projects, hiring and business strategy. We explore what the audience needs to inform product design. In the course of our work together, new information about those needs sometimes shifts the work that the organization would like to start doing, or leave behind.
Anchoring into the values guiding my project led me to a renewed understanding of what newsrooms need. It also shifted what I’ve designed in meaningful ways. At first, I thought I would create a video series that celebrated new ways of working together, but I soon realized that wasn’t what people wanted.
Responding to news leaders’ needs
It was important to me that the final product featured a range of leaders, from different backgrounds, who have done the work to make news organizations that feel good to work in. I know that many people have benefited from LION’s News Entrepreneur Academy, which hosts a library of training videos featuring news leaders. I was also inspired by the online events during the pandemic and how people were more open to webinars and online training than in the past.
As I started talking to people, I realized that videos weren’t the right answer right now. Interviewees told me they didn’t want to watch something that told them what to do or something that felt like a compulsory training video. They wanted access to tools that could tell them where to start or what to implement next.
More importantly, I learned that my task wasn’t to just find the people who have figured out how to make great work cultures and give them a voice. Even news leaders who were recommended to me as people who were “good on culture” were looking for more resources. They weren’t ready to be seen in a video as a definitive voice when they still felt they were working things out at their own organizations. Many asked to speak off the record.
These conversations demonstrated to me how vulnerable it can be to talk about work culture when people have such different experiences in different parts of organizations. Some of the most thoughtful people I spoke to didn’t want to be the spokesperson for good culture because they were actively considering their role in the work and how they could continue to change. The work is ongoing.
An actionable email course
In March, I’ll launch an email course for news leaders who want to build or improve their work culture. I’ve created a newsletter that guides readers through new ways of thinking about how culture shows up in organizations. You can sign up here to be notified when it’s live.
This email course focuses on frameworks, tactics and examples that demonstrate what other people have done to positively shape their work culture. It includes a set of mini-case studies of news organizations. In addition to looking at what’s working in journalism, the course also draws on frameworks from human resources and entrepreneurship that center transparency, accountability, and care. Readers will identify frameworks that are actionable within their own work culture. Prompts and templates will help leaders make changes.
This training is informed by interviews with over a dozen newsrooms; meetings with three organizations that offer newsrooms training and financial support; survey data from over 100 individuals who work in news; and numerous conversations with journalism colleagues.
Early in the process, I created a set of values to guide my research, writing and product design work. As my thinking has evolved over time, I’ve returned to them. These have helped me define what I’m creating, who it’s for and how I relate to the people I’m hoping to reach.
- This project will validate the experience of news entrepreneurs and journalism workers by sharing common needs of the target audiences
- This project will broaden the conversation about culture in journalism beyond “burnout” and “bad bosses” by anchoring into frameworks from outside our industry
- This project will identify news leaders who are investing in building new cultures by calling them into the research and reporting process
- This project will demonstrate that organizations don’t need to do things the way they’ve always been done in news by highlighting solutions and positive work cultures
And then based on the feedback that I heard from people working in various roles in different newsrooms, I created the below design principles that spoke to their needs and organizations. These have guided the development of the course, including the arc of the course and learning goals.
- The product will be a low-time commitment learning experience with clear guidance on tactics to implement
- This product will reflect a range of experiences by centering voices of diverse news leaders and organizations
- The product will give leadership teams at startups a place to start on culture work by sharing tactics that worked for other early-stage groups
- The product will be relevant to those in legacy organizations who can shape culture, especially intrapreneurs building new teams, projects or products
Together, the values and the design principles have given me a more clear understanding of the audience that I’m building this for and what will be most useful to help them make positive changes.