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January's Great Idea of the Month: New Haven Register's Digital Ninja School

Monday, March 5, 2012   (0 Comments)
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Winner: New Haven (Conn.) Register

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 data journalism.


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).

Q. What were the steps in creating it?

A. Embracing the "demo, not memo” approach, we started building 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.

Q. 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 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.)

Q. Any results thus far?

A. We blog about results (how we’ve applied new skills to the job) at, 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.

Q. 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

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