The Agile Newsroom

7 minute read

A while back I wrote a post about a visit to Medialaan and how impressed I was with how VTM Nieuws worked. I noticed similarities between our worlds and wondered if we could benefit to learn from each other. Some appointments were scheduled and I got to tag along for a day. I managed to capture the process and artifacts which left me quite impressed. So, how do they work? And where can we learn from them?

The first thing you notice when you walk into VTM Nieuws is the vast amount of open space. No meeting rooms apart from a few spacious personal offices. And yet it did not feel noisy, there was this calm atmosphere that set me right at ease. It could have been the time of day, but still I expected it to be a lot more hectic. This did not really change much during the day, sure people started walking around and talking to each other but I never got overwhelmed by it. That initial impression set the perfect mood for everything else I witnessed that day.

Planning

You’d think (at least I did) nothing gets planned much up front. The world is constantly changing and you couldn’t possibly know what you want to talk about tomorrow, let alone prepare something for next week. But no. There is careful planning which gets agreed upon by the person arranging the inflow and the chief-editor for the coming news broadcast. Stories can come from any medium so keeping an overview of everything is rather important. Know that this planning is never written in stone, even if they agree, everything can still change. The chief-editor can bring in new stories and remove others whenever he feels it’s important. This is a huge difference from the way we work where everything is agreed upon and then done. A sprint should be fixed in scope and not changed once started, here they expect things to change and everyone knows how to handle that.

It also happens stories are planned days or weeks up front. This can be either due to embargo’s or larger items which require a lot more work to cover which can’t be done in just 5 hours. To keep an overview of the inflow there are multiple people working on various streams. Think about Twitter, Reuters, other TV channels and newspapers. There’s a lot of communication between everyone to get the best possible list for two broadcasts each day. And yes, it gets quite hectic as facts change and stories evolve. This can either be in a positive or negative way.

You know how we estimate our work? We can say “For story X, I estimate 4 points”, but for news stories this works the other way around. The chief-editor tells you how long your item has to be within the broadcast, but this can change during the day depending on the evolution of stories and new inflow. The entire news broadcast is a puzzle that keeps changing and given that you only have about 30 minutes of airtime, everything needs to fit. And preferably you have a seamless transition between items. The day I witnessed was rather quiet, but even then it is in constant movement.

The thing I did notice, but take into account I was only there for one day, is how calm and organized people are. Everything seems streamlined to achieve the best possible result and everyone works towards the result, respecting the same values. I have nothing but respect for that.

Briefing

This is one of the artifacts we know best. It’s what we call retrospect and planning meeting. The meeting has a schedule too:

  • Run the numbers
  • Go through the planning
  • Discuss

At first they share the number of visitors on the site and app with everyone in the meeting. I didn’t hear anything about the amount of viewers, not sure if that’s possible on short notice. Going through the planning and discussing it is something I witnessed in awe. Once again, everyone seemed aligned and ready to rock. Maybe it’s my lack of insight but I only heard valid remarks. Let’s say I’m used to a more aggressive company culture, this seemed very friendly and efficient.

But the most remarkable thing was that the meeting is held in the open office space. Not a separate room. Whether this is by design or coincidence, I don’t know, but it seems to assist in having fluent meetings. I’m really tempted to try this to see if it could help stick to the point.

Focus on quality

Good old quality assurance. Since the start of the day I was looking for the people in charge of quality. This proved to be pointless, they weren’t there. NULL. Void. So how do they achieve the level of quality everyone comes to expect? First off people are in charge of their own quality, there’s no one looking over your shoulders or going through the stuff you deliver.

What really blew me away though was that they have a dedicated coach. It’s sort of what we know as Scrum Master but not quite the same. The coach can be used by everyone as a sparring partner in case of a problem. Say a journalist does not know how to tackle a certain news item, he can walk up to the coach to find a solution. The solution is not handed to him; the coach merely assists. It’s not only something for new people, everyone can get stuck in a while. During the debriefing, the coach can provide feedback and adjust where needed. Imagine you can talk to someone about a problem who is not your direct colleague but still very accessible. It means people can go on with their work and issues are offloaded to somewhere else. Not only does this increase productivity, it helps people grow in the company and effectively reduces the outflow.

During the entire day I witnessed a lot of willingness from everyone to aim for the best possible result. Maybe it’s the shorter time span compared to us, but it seemed there was a lot less arguing during the day.

Broadcast

Just before going live I had the opportunity to see a montage in action. I’m used to seeing people work fast on computers but it felt like another level when I watched just how fast some people can edit video. It was this fluent ballet of frames being thrown back and forth, cut and chopped to respect the time frame given by the chief-editor. Or, as reporters like to call it, “Kill your darlings”.

As soon as the broadcast starts, you’d expect everything to be ready but nothing could be further from the truth. Reporters on the scene get ready, some rehearse their lines, others don’t as the tension builds. The stories which aren’t ready are being followed up to check their status and see whether or not they need to intervene in case they have to deviate from the original plan. In their words, 2 minutes is an eternity. I’m not sure I could be that stress resistant.

The chief-editor follows everything and gives feedback to the crew in charge of everything you see on screen. As he basically has no idea what people are going to deliver, the level of trust between everyone must be the highest I have ever witnessed. In my case, I trust my team to deliver but I’m not yet convinced I could blindly allow them to go live. It’s sort of like continuous delivery, you trust that the work everyone delivers can go straight to production. And if needed, the chief-editor is there to adjust.

Challenges

We can’t deny present day newsrooms have quite the challenge ahead. There is a battle being fought to stay and be relevant which is getting harder and harder due to growing competition on all fronts. To be able to reach new generations and stay relevant within their world is something every media company struggles with. There are no easy answers here either, I’ve seen some interesting approaches but none that prove to be sustainable in the long run.

Being in this constant flow of a news broadcast every 6 hours makes it hard to focus on anything else out there. It’s difficult to push content to every platform in a form factor that suits each of those. It requires a specific approach to not end up spamming followers. Failing is easy given there are only a few companies who succeed in strengthening their brand through social media. But people expect you to be there, to interact and provide valuable content.

I loved the work they do on Instagram, so much that I decided to follow them. Something I hardly ever do. You can feel the people at VTM Nieuws want to stay relevant, and become relevant wherever they can. They realize this won’t be easy, but are ready to take that challenge. And given what I witnessed that day, I’m convinced they have all it takes to reach that.

From now on, whenever I watch the news, I don’t just see someone sitting on a chair in a studio. I see a whole team of great people working hard to give us the news broadcast we deserve. They are really there for us.

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