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Factories, workshops and labs

This post is written partly in response to What happens when a big news company makes a small bet on “slow innovation”?

Big, legacy newsrooms have diverse goals and obligations. It is useful to break it down into smaller parts to better understand it. The way I do so is using the metaphor of the Factory (🏭), the Workshop (🔨), and the Laboratory (⚗️), since they represent different mindsets and value different things.

🏭 The Factory

This is the part of the organisation responsible for what we traditionally think of as news. The goal of the factory is to achieve economies of scale and reliability. It’s how you build habits, trust and brand among your audience: by showing up every single day.

As such, the factory values

They are noble values, but they are also bad for experimentation. It’s like a car factory: incremental improvements to production efficiency are welcome, but completely reimagining the production lines is a costly, difficult, and unpalatable undertaking.

The challenge, however, is that technological progress means that radical change is unavoidable. You can’t incrementally improve a diesel truck assembly line into an electric car assembly line.

But what to change the factory line to? And how to do it? The factory mindset does not lend itself to coming up with answers to these questions.

🔨 The Workshop

Beyond the daily coverage of news, there are also stories that are more … artisanal in nature. These might be in-depth features, investigations, or visual / interactive stories. Teams that produce these stories operate more like workshops than factories.

The workshop has different goals from the factory. In the workshops, the goal is to produce outstanding pieces of journalism that stand out from the rest. Innovative new things (that work) are welcome as a means to that end.

As such, the workshop values:

Workshops differ from factories in being more project-based, more agile and more collaborative. As Special Projects editor, I have tried to delineate and codify how newsroom workshops should organise themselves, from writing about the need for project managers to producing the Special Projects Toolkit.

Still, most newsroom workshops are run like mini-factories. Or rather, since most departments are tasked with doing both 🏭 and 🔨 work, they tend to revert to a factory mentality even when they should be operating as a workshop.

⚗️ The Laboratory

So, how do you:

This is where the laboratory comes in. The laboratory collaborates with workshops to test new ideas in formats or delivery channels.

Unlike the workshop, the laboratory is not a production unit. It delivers prototypes that have the potential to be turned into templates, but does not become heavily involved that work, which require a more factory-like mindset of incremental and continuous improvements.

This is important, because it allows one small, central laboratory to collaborate with the multiple workshops that exist through the newsroom. This gives the laboratory the overview needed to figure out how the factory lines should be changed.

Without a laboratory, innovation will still occur in workshops, but they risk becoming quarantined within individual silos.

Ideally, a new idea is initially tested by ⚗️ + 🔨 working together. It shows promise, and is then taken over by 🔨 to try out in different types of situations. Success at this stage leads to growing demand for it, until eventually the 🏭 is changed to incorporate it.

There are many ideas that don’t (and shouldn’t) make it through that whole process. But that’s ok — you still get value out of it if the workshop can use it to do something impressive for one story.

Concluding thoughts

This is, of course, a highly idealised, abstract mental model. In reality there is a lot more overlap with people and teams performing multiple functions. But I think it is still a useful way of thinking about the structures needed for innovation to diffuse in a large organisation.

There is a central paradox to any change initiative: The new way of doing things only delivers its main benefits once all the pieces are in place, but you cannot change everything at once, and inertia always favours the old way.

Clarity in how 🏭, 🔨, and ⚗️ fit together, and the role that each plays in the newsroom’s success in navigating tumultous times, can ensure there is focus and sustained progress on the “No. 6 on the list” issues that Sam Ford and Federico Rodríguez Tarditi referred to in their article.

While I think the laboratory is crucial in providing a space and a way to challenge dominant assumptions and explore alternatives, the greatest effort should go towards the the most difficult aspect: the linkages between the three units.

How does an idea get from ⚗️ to all the 🔨s? What is the process of turning something used for a few stories made in a 🔨 into a template for the 🏭?

The answer to those questions will be unique to each organisation. Being able to answer them will be the difference between success and failure.

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