David Skok

David Skok: Managing Digital Disruption in a Traditional Newsroom: Putting Theory into Practice

April 14, 2015 — David Skok, newly-promoted managing editor for digital of The Boston Globe, discussed the Globe’s approach to digital strategy and organizational culture.

As a Nieman Fellow in 2012, Skok took a class from Harvard Business School’s Clayton Christensen. They later co-authored a report, applying Christensen’s theory of disruptive innovation – which says that low-end products can improve over time to displace established competitors – to journalism.

Skok also found inspiration in Christensen’s framework for organizational culture, describing how a media outlet’s resources, processes, and priorities are key to thriving in the digital era.

“As newspapers were disrupted by Craigslist and other things, yes, there were technological reasons for why this happened. But it would be incredibly naive and arrogant of us as legacy publishers to suggest that we weren’t also responsible for our own demise, in our structures, in our cultures, in our processes that we have in our newsrooms,” said Skok.

When Skok, Andrew Perlmutter and others joined the Globe, they began the “unsexy work” of looking at the outlet’s culture and structure to make it a “user-centric, digital organization.”

“The challenge is, on the Internet, I can write the best lede or nut graf for a story in the world, but if you can’t read it on your phone within 0.1 seconds, it’s irrelevant, it’s invisible, and it doesn’t exist,” said Skok. “If you’re going to be a digital product-driven organization, the user experience has to be the first and foremost [priority].”

Over the past 15 months, the Globe underwent significant restructuring to break down silos, said Skok. Now, every Monday, Skok and the heads of product, engineering, editorial, design, sales and circulation gather to discuss weekly priorities for BostonGlobe.com. Engineers, product managers and designers sit in the newsroom and use agile/lean web development principles, with an emphasis on decision making guided by user experience, producer experience and data. The newsroom is also “moving toward an 18 hour to 24 hour cycle” as opposed to being structured around the print cycle for the next day’s newspaper.

In addition to the news of the day that readers expect, the Globe has invested in longer and shorter formats as well. “Digital first” or “bloggy” content covers the trends of the day, adding unique “context and depth to the conversation.” The Globe recently hired three digital-first reporters, two of whom will focus primarily on politics. The Globe also invested in investigative reporting at a time when other outlets were cutting back, said Skok. These stories provide the “ultimate user engagement,” and the Globe is experimenting with release schedules and other ways to maximize the exposure of in-depth pieces.

Skok also stressed the importance of investing not only in staff, but in technology. “There’s a great need to have a content management system that allows for the flexibility that reporters need and want to do their jobs. Whether it’s improving the content management system, getting better analytics….improving the resources that we give our people ultimately will help us as well.”

Regarding the Globe’s economic sustainability and future growth, Skok is optimistic. “If we create good user experiences and good producer experiences, ultimately the journalism will be better…the customer experience will be better, and that will drive more revenue in terms of advertising and subscriptions.” He added that high-quality, compelling stories are also more likely to be shared on social media, and “if people are sharing your stuff, it’s ultimately going to grow traffic and grow business.”

Hear Skok discuss the Globe’s use of analytics, optimization for mobile and social platforms and more in the full audio recording above.

Article and photo by Nilagia McCoy of the Shorenstein Center.