January's Great Idea of the Month: New Haven Register's Digital Ninja School
Monday, March 5, 2012
Winner: New Haven
Winner’s representative: Matt DeRienzo, Connecticut Group editor, Journal Register Co.
Why New Haven won: "Digital
Ninja School," a comprehensive, structured approach to digital skills
training, using a martial arts-style belt system to get the entire newsroom
immersed in five areas — digital publishing, social media, blogging, video and
Q. What prompted you to
create this innovation?
A. Every newsroom staff member, at every level, has a
whole new set of skills to learn in order for us to make the transition from a
print newsroom to a digital newsroom. We realized that this gap in knowledge
and skills would prevent us from making that transition. It’s been said,
"there’s never a good time for training,” even more true with newsroom
resources that have shrank over the years. So we had to find a way to make it
happen, with a sense of urgency. We felt it had to be comprehensive (all the
basics we feel staff need to know — hence the five "belts” we chose — and the
entire staff participating). It had to be far more structured than past
attempts at training. It had to address the key question of staff not having
time to train. And it had to get the staff’s attention in a big way (why we
picked such a hokey name, and more importantly, why we attached financial
rewards to successfully participating).
What were the steps in creating it?
A. Embracing the "demo, not memo” approach, we started
building DigitalNinjaSchool.com in WordPress last year, so that when it came
time to pitch the program to corporate folks, we could show them instead of
trying to explain the concept. This was important in part because the website
itself is a key vehicle of the program … it includes hundreds of links to
training resources for each of our five categories so that learning can be
somewhat self-directed. And the centerpiece of the site is a blog that details
how our staff are using new skills on the job. Through tagging, that blog
creates an online portfolio of each student’s work, as well as real-life
examples of how to apply the training on a specific topic. We were asking the
company to do something pretty unusual — commit a lot of money (up to $2,000
per staff member) during tight financial times for the newspaper industry to a
new, untested training program, with the money not going to professional
trainers, but rather to staff members themselves. So it was important that we
could demonstrate everything up front. That included determining what skills we
felt employees need to have (digital publishing, social media, blogging, video,
data journalism) and assessing our employees’ starting skill level in each. We
spent a lot of time on aggregating training resources and providing tons of
documentation on the website on how the process would work. This included
thinking through how employees would be freed up to spend time on training, how
we’d provide that training (a combination of self-directed learning, webinars, in-person
workshops and one-on-one mentorship) and how we’d determine when an employee
has earned a belt. We wrote three separate FAQs geared toward employees,
supervising editors and corporate staff and HR themselves.
How did you introduce or promoteit to your audience?
A. The entire structure of the Digital Ninja School —
how staff members earn belts and receive cash bonuses as reward — is built
around applying new skills to your job. This program wasn’t introduced to our
local audience, but the fruits of the program are seen by our audience every
day as we use the new tools we are learning about to improve our journalism.
However, we built DigitalNinjaSchool.com as a public website so that the rest
of our company (this is a pilot project only for Connecticut newsroom
employees) and journalists from outside the company could benefit from the
training resources we’ve aggregated, the on-the-job examples we are writing
about, and even the structure itself. (We’ve heard from some journalists outside
the company who are attempting to "put themselves through” the Ninja School.)
Any results thus far?
A. We blog about results (how we’ve applied new skills to the job) at
DigitalNinjaSchool.com, and a core requirement of each of our "belts” is metrics.
We want staff to understand how what they do impacts audience growth, page
views, social media engagement, etc. In January and February alone, our
Connecticut newsroom employees grew their presence on Twitter by 10,000
followers. They figured out how a reporter’s live tweets from an important
court appearance could be fashioned by an editor back at the office into a
real-time-updated breaking news story on the web. They did what was basically
live TV from a protest march against police racial profiling, a staff
photographer rigging his new company-supplied iPhone to a harness and
conducting interviews with marchers as they walked. They created a Facebook
page for adult missing persons cases in Connecticut as part of a series of
reporting on police incompetence by the paper’s investigative editor that
families started using as a place to organize themselves. It was part of what
led Connecticut State Police to announce recently the formation of a special
unit to handle missing persons cases.
What would you recommend to other media wanted to do a similar project?
A. Invest time, if you haven’t already, in
understanding your company’s business model and digital advertising goals. Be
brutally honest with yourself and your superiors about how far you have to go
to deliver the audience, page views and engagement needed to help the "business
side” achieve those goals. Be realistic about the obstacles facing you (i.e.,
staff time and motivation) and what it will take to overcome them. Develop a
plan that focuses heavily on metrics and return on investment, and it will be a
much easier sell. And for sure, start by utilizing everything already available
to you for free — you can start with the training resources we have aggregated
and are posting on DigitalNinjaSchool.com.