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How do you (re)focus a news organisation?

A success story and a three-step change model to guide the transformation of your newsroom

You can be excused for missing a recent media acquisition: Canva, an Australian graphic design platform, acquired Flourish, a London-based data visualisation platform. The goal was to expand its suite of design tools.

Canva is one of the world’s most valuable private software companies with more than 75 million monthly active users. On the other hand, Flourish has more than 800,000 users including several news media organisations like the BBC, Condé Nast, FT and others.

Like many successful technology companies, Canva has a classic origin story. Melanie Perkins, a young entrepreneur, saw an early need for a tool to easily create designs (logos, cards, presentations, slides and others) for the early social media age.

While teaching other students to use design tools from Adobe and Microsoft she realised those platforms are hard to learn. In reality, most just need a few features they are using over and over.

After testing her idea on an online school yearbook design business, Perkins (still a teenager at the time) with her co-founders started building Canva. The company is now worth more than $40 billion – a testament to the power of effectively solving simple problems. 

You might say that, no matter what you do, your newsroom will never grow into a billion-dollar business. But I think the bigger takeaway is how a small startup could – with the right strategy – successfully take on giants like Adobe and Microsoft.

A swiss army knife for all things visual for any newsroom

Before I go on my original thought, let me just explain why Flourish and Canva make sense and how especially small newsrooms can benefit.

I used to test out new tools, platforms and apps for my newsroom on a monthly basis. Not so many years ago, there seemed to be so many new ones, heck, I still follow these two newsletters for this reason to keep tabs on new ones: Journalist’s Toolbox and Tools for Reporters.

The problem with trying out new and new tools and apps for your work aimlessly, just to do it, brings chaos. You should pick one or two and stick with them.

A few years ago, we settled on Flourish as our main data visualisation platform. It had the templates we were looking for and the team kept on adding new ones that were the right fit for a news organisation.

With Flourish being acquired by Canva I realised this way small and mid-sized newsrooms can have one platform they could use for building and storing – charts, graphics for socials, presentations, videos, marketing materials (like banner ads), print templates and more.

The idea Perkins had when creating Canva was to make a tool for everyone.

I work in a fairly big newsroom with graphic designers at my disposal although they are usually busy and you have to think ahead when you want a task done.

Every year there are news events that occur repeatedly and you want to have special graphics for the website and social media. We used to create new visuals each year but then wanted to have some continuity so the job was only to change the year or one word or something rudimentary.

If I had the template let’s say in Canva or somewhere similar (Adobe Spark, GoDaddy Studio, etc.), I and anyone else from the newsroom could go, make the small adjustments, download the final visual and use it.

This is just a small change in how things are done within newsrooms that could help.

I bring it up because with Flourish is already used by many newsrooms and Canva less so it might be a good time to consider it (I don’t have data for this, just my feeling and my experience from talking to small newsrooms).

Three pillars of focus: Culture, Data, Strategy

Whenever you read of successful case studies of newsrooms that pulled ahead, three things get repeated: 1) The newsroom has built a unique culture, be it openness to change, innovation or focus on certain topics. 2) The newsroom uses data in a smart way, like choosing which stories to paywall and how to display them or better understanding your audience. 3) The newsroom follows a clear strategy the leaders have laid out and everyone knows what are the goals for today or in 2027.

Last year, Vox, the American news and opinion website owned by Vox Media revamped its editorial strategy to redefine what ‘Voxxy’ means.

The new editor-in-chief, Swati Sharma, came to Vox from The Atlantic and with the founders gone felt it would make sense to have internally a clear understanding of what does the site stand for and what’s the mission.

With the team of editors, they came up with six types of stories the news outlet does best. Those six types now guide all future stories.

It’s not enough to have a clear mission statement (explaining the news, in the case of Vox) but having a clear strategy laid out for everyone to see and be guided by is great for focusing on future stories and also for differentiation.

In December, INMA (International News Media Association) held a media subscriptions town hall event. The moderator, Greg Piechota, a researcher-in-residence, stressed after a presentation something that has stuck with me and I strongly agree.

One of the best investments any newsroom can do is to invest in understanding data, meaning rather than hiring an extra reporter or editor maybe consider having a data analyst.

If past successes of newsrooms that hit their goals show us anything is that they had a good understanding of their audience.

Sure, you are building an audience, a community, but you are also trying to convert as many  subscribers or members as possible.

Going about it without a deeper knowledge is like walking blindfold in a crowd and asking the wrong people for help.

Finally, to have everyone in the newsroom on board they need to understand what’s happening (transparency also in terms of the business), what are the goals the organisation is aiming to achieve and how is it planning on hitting those goals.

For some, a goal is a certain number in the future, like NY Times’ plan to have 15 million subscribers in five years. For others, there is a target revenue, like The Atlantic’s CEO Nicholas Thompson explained in a recent interview they are trying to get to $50m in reader revenue.

Personally, I think the number of subscribers is a better metric to understand for any newsroom, revenue targets are for management whose job it is to articulate clearly to the newsroom what does it mean in terms of goals they should focus on.

Yes, Thompson had a good argument that you could easily get to any number with discounts and free trials. But the “name of the game” is attracting and retaining (!) paying supporters.

Nothing I mentioned above is easy to do or can be done quickly. As always it comes down to good planning and execution of that plan.

David Tvrdon

This piece was originally published in The Fix and is re-published with permission.