Stage 2: The Rocky Period
The honeymoon period ends when the pressure of making changes tips teams into stress and conflict—especially intergroup stress and conflict. You should expect some degree of a rocky period as teams across the organization start to figure out what has to change in order to work together in a new way, with a new set of people, a new brand, and new products in the mix.
It is important to keep in mind that rocky periods which bring along significant cultural conflict can be incredibly draining to everyone. Confessed one newsroom leader in the study: “I think a lot about how hard this acquisition has been. It has been so draining, and so difficult just to move the needle a millimeter.”
Nearly all the stations in the study went through a rocky period where differences in workflow, culture, and even vision came to the fore. Some stations’ “troubles” were relatively mild, others’ were very acute. We saw three types of conflict in merger rocky periods which you should be aware of.
(1) Cultural conflict. This kind of conflict stems from different backgrounds, orientations, ways of working, and ways of seeing the world. In bringing together a public media organization with a digital news organization, some degree of cultural conflict is inevitable. The next section of this chapter will dive deep into some of the common cultural disconnects so you know how to spot them. Cultural conflict looks like: judgements about the other group’s way of doing things, disagreements about values and tone, conflicting routines and deadlines, even disagreements about how much meeting time is appropriate.
Cultural conflict can also manifest as a concern among staff about identity: which identity is most important, or fearing the loss of an identity. This is very common in acquisition and merger situations, especially when adopting a new brand is part of the process. For example, two newsrooms in the study had to address explicit staff concerns about the potential loss of credibility in the adoption of a new brand. Explained one newsroom leader:
“The overwhelming sentiment in the newsroom was, “I didn’t come to work [at the acquired newsroom], I’m working for NPR. NPR is the brand that people respect, it’s what gets me calls, it’s why I develop sources, how I get call backs. No one’s going to respond to me if I use this new brand.”
(2) Strategic conflict. This kind of conflict can arise when there are unclear (or not widely shared) goals or disconnects in resources versus stated priorities. The previous chapter on Setting Up for Success articulates the preventative measures you can take to minimize post-acquisition strategic conflict. But because the media landscape—not to mention many station’s operations—are so complex, strategic conflict can be hard to avoid. Resource decisions and resource constraints can also prompt strategic conflict by shedding light on the disconnects between aspirations and support.
(3) Cultural and Strategic Conflict. Cultural conflict entwined with strategic conflict can be a particularly toxic recipe for a rocky period. When different teams hold different understandings of what constitutes success and disagree on how to get there, the integration process can grind to a halt. And conflicts can compound and escalate.
The ability to spot cultural conflict—while it won’t guarantee your teams won’t suffer from it—should help to prepare your leaders and staff for the rocky period. The next section will take a deep dive into the different news and organizational cultures that public media and independent digital newsrooms swim in. Get to know these peculiarities and taken-for-granted ways of working so you can help teams de-personalize cultural conflict when it happens.
By far the most difficult stumbling blocks in any post-acquisition merger process are about culture. Culture is a broad term that encompasses concrete actions and routines; and more ephemeral things like language, values, and ways of thinking. In general, any part of thinking, being, and doing that is taken-for-granted in a group is about culture.
From a leadership perspective, one of the most important issues to tend to in a post-acquisition merger process is the inevitable cultural clashes that will occur between teams that come from different organizations. Though there are some factors that mitigate against culture clashes (more on that below), what will help most of all is to understand the basic attributes of the cultures you are bringing together. Making culture explicit, especially during periods of cultural conflict, is a good way to diffuse tensions and help orient teams toward constructive problem-solving, rather than destructive finger-pointing.
With that in mind, here are the common cultural types that emerged in the research. We offer these as starting points for cultural reflection. Your organization probably has its own unique set of values, practices, and orientations. Adding to or amending these lists will help you prepare to tackle the cultural challenges that come with post-acquisition merger processes.
Public Media Culture
Public media culture in radio and television is deeply steeped in its broadcast roots and its membership model. Because most of the stations that have undertaken mergers thus far have been radio (or dual licensee) stations, this list reflects more of the public radio culture than public television. But similarities, particularly around institutional conservatism, certainly apply to all. This list of cultural attributes comes from the study of merger stations and from our previous studies of public broadcasting.
Craft-focused, production-driven. The independent producers who helped shape the early years of public radio and television left an indelible mark on the culture of public broadcasting. The attention to craft and attunement to production processes are salient cultural features of public broadcasting newsrooms. Reporters and editors who are used to working in a fast-paced digital or print environment will likely be confused by the time and attention to detail that many public media reporters, editors, and producers devote to a story or series. This can be a huge source of cultural conflict in merging newsrooms.
Story-driven (radio). Similar to the attention to craft, public radio professionals in particular prize the art of “storytelling.” Story-telling refers to narrative arcs and to the quality of sound (or visuals) that accompany a story. Public radio stories on their best day are “driveway moments” in which the listener is transported to another space and time listening to an audio tale. While “stories” in public radio can have journalistic elements, they are often not the same form, content, or structure as print or digital news “stories.” The differences in meaning also entail differences in decision-making, editing, and workflow—all of which can become a source of cultural conflict in a post-acquisition merger process.
“On the air and off the mind.” Broadcast media are ephemeral media. A story or segment airs, is listened to or viewed synchronously, and then disappears. Stations and broadcast media producers engage in an enormous amount of highly structured, highly routinized work, to produce a 24-hour local broadcast service. The daily grind of this work often leads to an “on the air and off the mind” mentality, in which media goes onto the air, and then producers quickly shift their attention to the next day’s (or week’s) work. Print and digital media work differently: a newsroom publishes and rather than disappearing, that content circulates (particularly on the internet) and can grow in audience and importance over time. Particularly with the rise in importance of social media distribution, a digital text story may require care and feeding over time, post publication, that broadcast newsrooms are not used to providing. This difference in orientation can also be a source of cultural conflict.
Launching things but not feeding them over time. The ephemeral nature of broadcast has nurtured a related cultural pattern in stations around initiatives and projects: launching things but not feeding them over time. Stations can and do mobilize considerable resources and attention to pull off major new initiatives and projects. But many stations struggle to institutionalize changes by re-assessing, shifting, and resourcing initiatives and projects over time. When it comes to newsroom acquisitions, the risk is that a station and digital newsroom devote considerable time and attention to the transaction process, and even to the honeymoon phase, but the merger processes themselves can lose internal visibility and priority as leadership turns their attention to other issues. This is a source not just of cultural conflict, but of strategic risk for an acquisition.
Matrix and meeting madness. Public media organizations, especially large ones, can have complex structures and a range of specialities. Public media also tends to have a culture of consensus decision-making, meaning many stakeholders are consulted but authorization for final decisions is often weak. The combination of complexity and consensus can lead to matrix decision-making processes that are very meeting heavy. This kind of consensus-seeking and bias towards meetings can be a jarring source of cultural conflict for digital newsroom leaders new to public media.
Polished, risk-averse, conservative. Public media organizations, by virtue of their age and their mission to serve a wide swath of the “public,” tend to be risk-averse and conservative. And because their brands are often well-recognized and well-respected in their communities, public media culture tends to prize a certain quality of polish and completeness in content and communications. For digital newsrooms coming from a start-up environment where the ethos has been to test and iterate, the public media risk-aversion, conservatism, and polish can generate culture clashes.
Broadcast versus digital wars. Public media, especially in radio, is now more than two decades into its “digital transformation.” Yet even as public media stations have increasingly trained their own digital talent and built out digital products, the digital teams of many stations have often been under-resourced, under-leveraged, and under-appreciated compared to their broadcast colleagues. This ongoing baseline cultural tension between digital teams and broadcast teams inside stations is the backdrop for digital newsroom acquisitions. This means many digital newsrooms will be entering station cultures in which “broadcast versus digital” has a long history and its own set of meanings and connotations. Those underlying tensions can be confusing and add an extra layer of cultural turmoil in a post-acquisition merger process.
Playing for the long haul. Public media stations, especially those that have reached a certain scale and heft, have become very skilled at playing for the long haul. Stations run capital campaigns that paint visions of the future and draw on a history of past service, broadcast shows develop loyal followings and air for years (think of your local station’s Car Talk reruns!), successful general managers can serve for decades; station board members can similarly serve for decades. Much in the public media culture and practice lends itself to long-term thinking and planning. While institutional stability can be a source of reassurance to digital newsrooms, the long time cycles and slow pace of public media can also be disorienting and difficult to navigate.
Values-driven. Public media culture is deeply values driven. Most public media professionals joined the institution because they profess a belief in the values that public media stands for. In 2000, the Public Media Program Directors Association sought to articulate those values, especially as they relate to programming. The values they uncovered fell into three categories: Qualities of the Mind (including love of lifelong learning, substance, and accuracy), Qualities of the Heart (including a belief in civil discourse, humor, and focus on public life and culture), and Qualities of Craft (including pacing, attention to detail, and a human voice).
Many public media professionals still carry small cards around that list these values. For digital news professionals that have had their training in other settings — newspapers or digital start-ups — the focus on values and mission can be both inspiring and a little puzzling. The values-driven culture of public media is not quite the same as a journalism culture. And bridging those value differences—and coming up with a new hybrid of both—is the difficult cultural work of a post-acquisition merger process.
Digital News Cultures
Digital news culture comes in a variety of flavors, reflecting the types of digital newsrooms that have emerged since internet media took off in the early aughts. Understanding the cultural type (or types) of the digital newsroom in an acquisition is important for being able to anticipate some of the cultural challenges and culture clashes a post-merger acquisition will bring.
This section outlines two types of digital news cultures. One type takes its cues from the early internet bloggers who found a freedom and range of expression in internet publishing that was not available under traditional institutional brands. Another cultural type takes its cues from traditional newspaper journalism. Especially as the newspaper industry has shrunk and many veteran reporters and editors lost their jobs, a new breed of digital newsroom was born that draws on the traditional culture and publishing cycles of print news.
Some common cultural attributes of digital newsrooms
Fast-paced – get it up, get it out. Digital newsrooms of the more blog-type are used to producing short, regular stories. Digital newsrooms of newspaper origin are used to producing stories of varying length on deadline. Both of these publishing styles are faster-paced and more regular than most public media digital newsrooms. In fact, perhaps the most important cultural difference between public media newsrooms and digital newsrooms (both blog and newspaper) is the metabolism rate. Public media newsrooms tend to produce less and more slowly than independent digital newsrooms.
Fact-focused, analysis-focused. Digital news professionals tend to be fact-focused and analysis-focused. The typical “who, what, when, where” basics of the news format are the orienting principles. This orientation can stand in stark contrast to the public media focus on narrative storytelling, craft, and quality production.
Staff wear many hats. In small digital newsrooms, staff by necessity often wear many hats. A reporter may also run the newsroom’s social media account, for example. Or the executive editor may also manage the fundraising. Though managing multiple roles isn’t easy, small digital newsroom professionals often take pride in their many responsibilities and are able to translate learnings and insights across disciplines in a way that is more difficult in large, complex media organizations.
Scrappy, entrepreneurial. Because many small digital newsrooms are often young, they usually retain a scrappy and entrepreneurial spirit. The desire to create a sustainable enterprise—and the willingness to innovate and keep trying new things in service of that goal—are hallmarks of entrepreneurial leaders in news. The scrappiness and entrepreneurship can become a cultural clash with the more polished, risk-averse, and conservative bent of public media.
Unique cultural attributes: Blogging origins
There are a handful of cultural attributes that are unique to blog-oriented as opposed to newspaper-oriented small digital newsrooms which are worth keeping in mind, since each can also lead to cultural misunderstandings.
“Voice-y” — silly, irreverent, funny at times. The freedom of the blog format gave many early bloggers the opportunity to hone a silly, funny, or irreverent voice. This kind of distinctive voice is a powerful way to build a loyal digital audience. Digital newsrooms that have blog-type culture are often built around either a set of writer personalities or a distinctive editorial voice. Because public media culture tends to embody “the establishment” in the minds of many audience members and public media professionals themselves, this kind of distinctive editorial voice can represent a cultural stretch in a post-acquisition merger process.
Audience-driven. The focus on audience building in the blogging culture (which is now extended in many ways to the indie newsletter culture) generally attunes digital newsroom professionals to the behaviors of their audience in a more precise way than in public media. This appears not just in attention to audience metrics (like reach and page views) but in editorial sensibility around what kinds of stories will resonate and why. Public media newsrooms have much to learn from this audience attunement, but it can also become a culture clash when the default audience assumptions different groups hold are not made explicit.
Comfortable with metrics and product. Because the blogging culture was native to the internet, newsrooms with this kind of background tend to be more comfortable with metrics and digital product practices than both public media newsrooms and legacy print newsrooms. This can be a real advantage in a public media environment, but can also be a source of discomfort because public media newsrooms are generally not set up to have close contact with either product practices or digital metrics.
Unique cultural attributes: Newspaper origins
Beats and editing are important. For small digital newsrooms with newspaper origins, the structure of beats and cycles of editing can be very important. Depending on the new public media station home, this can be a welcome fit or a mismatch. As public media newsrooms have hired newspaper editors into leadership positions, those newsrooms have evolved their own beat structures and editing lines. The acquisition of a small digital newsroom with newspaper origins can strengthen this orientation.
Single-deadline driven. Digital newsrooms with strong newspaper origins tend to orient to a single deadline (often end of the day), a habit from print production deadlines. Broadcast newsrooms are deadline-driven too, though usually with more regular deadlines throughout the day to reflect the rhythms of broadcast. Depending on the publishing cycle and frequency that a combined newsroom wants to design for, ironing out deadlines and related workflows can also prompt cultural conflict.
Occupation-driven. Newspaper journalism has a strong set of occupational norms which help give shape to its distinctive culture of journalism. Traditional occupational values like objectivity, neutrality, and public service can be deeply embedded in a digital newsroom with newspaper origins. As discussed above, the clash between public media values and the occupational values of newspaper journalism can become another source of cultural conflict in a post-acquisition merger process.
Common Channels of Cultural Conflict
So now you have a sense of what cultural values and practices might crash up against each other in an integration process. But how will those frictions show up? What should you and your editorial leads be on the lookout for?
Being aware of the channels where cultural conflict is likely to flare up can help you and your managers be on the lookout for trouble brewing. An important step towards quelling cultural conflict is about making competing values, styles, and orientations explicit to warring sides. You don’t want to litigate cultural conflict on a case-by-case basis, but helping all sides see how and why tensions are rising is the first important step towards navigating through a rocky period to culture change.
Use this list as a way to spot the cultural conflicts brewing in a post-acquisition newsroom.
Which media leads for which story. Digital newsroom staff and public media newsroom staff may have different ideas about what kinds of media (broadcast or digital) should lead a story.
How much and what kind of detail a story needs. Digital newsroom staff and public media staff are often used to working in different media. Assumptions around how much and what kind of detail a story needs can become a channel of misunderstanding for professionals with different media backgrounds.
Different news values. Public media and digital newsroom professionals may approach story ideas and coverage areas with different “news values” — different sensibilities around what makes for an interesting and important story.
Style and language. Style guidelines can differ between public media and digital newsrooms, including questions of acceptable language.
Different default deadlines. Journalists that come from public media versus digital newsrooms will also be used to working on different default deadlines. Broadcast journalists working in public media newsrooms, depending on the frequency of newscasts and timing of news segments, can be used to working over a number of days to produce stories. Digital newsroom journalists may be more used to producing frequent stories that are posted as they are ready, depending on their newsrooms’ publishing schedule.
Different default assumptions about the audience. One of the most important potential channels of cultural conflict is different ideas of the audience held by public media versus digital newsrooms. A digital newsroom may come into public media with a well-honed idea of what audience it serves. While that audience may overlap with the public media audience, it may not. Making explicit different ideas of the audience will go a long way towards sorting through potential cultural differences.
Getting through the Rocky Period
Some level of conflict will be the understandable result of all the complexities involved in bringing two entities together. But what are the paths through a rocky period? What helped merger stations in our study through the rocky period was a combination of turnover, new leadership, and early wins.
Welcome and take advantage of staff turnover. Many post-acquisition merger processes, because they demand new ways of working from teams across the organization, will prompt some staff to decide they want to leave. Maybe a veteran radio reporter doesn’t really want to practice his craft in a multi-media newsroom. Maybe a digital editor isn’t ready to handle the complexity of working across different deadlines in different media. Maybe a radio sponsorship professional would rather just sell radio spots. In the wake of an acquisition, individuals can make their own choices about whether where the ship is heading is somewhere they want to go. And the departure of people with one set of skills and outlook is a golden opportunity to bring in new people with different skills and different outlooks.
In many of the merger stations we studied, turnover of key personnel (on both the station side and the digital newsroom side) who had difficulty adjusting to the changes required to make “one newsroom” was hugely important in resolving cultural conflict. One or two toxic mid-level leaders can absolutely prolong “the troubles.” Removing the toxicity and bringing in new people with fresh thinking can help unblock the processes necessary for successful post-acquisition integration.
Welcome and empower new leadership. It is common in a merger situation, especially one experiencing cultural rockiness, for existing leadership to feel by turns overwhelmed and protective. Defensive feelings are par for the course in the midst of rough cultural terrain, but such a stance at the leadership level can work against integration. Sometimes leaders can get so overwhelmed that they leave during a post-acquisition merger process.
While turnover of staff can be stressful for everyone, turnover of leadership often prompts a deeper sense of unease and fear of drift. If your rocky period involves the departure of leaders in the station or the acquired newsroom, don’t despair. Leadership turnover is one of the magic ingredients for moving through a post-acquisition rocky period. The departure of someone from a leadership role presents a huge opportunity to bring in a new person who has the energy and enthusiasm for building something new.
In particular, bringing in new editorial leadership during a post-acquisition merger process can help reset cultural expectations and calm intergroup tensions. We observed in a number of stations in the study that new editorial leadership arriving shortly before or after an acquisition made a huge difference for the cultural and strategic progress in the newsroom.
That said, new leaders will also likely find that they need to do some clean-up work in people and processes to help the newsroom get a new footing and establish a new culture. Communicating to new leaders that this is part of their mandate will help set them up for success. We observed that the new editorial leaders in the study who felt empowered to make personnel and process changes were able to make substantive progress on integration goals that had been otherwise stuck.
Create small, visible wins. In the depths of a rocky period, it might be hard to see clear to the other side. Another helpful change strategy for getting through the rocky period is creating visible wins that help illustrate for everyone the benefits that integration and collaboration can deliver. It can help to focus on producing one cross-platform project or story with those who are willing and able to champion the integration. Then make sure to communicate to the rest of the organization what success looks like.
For example, NJ Spotlight worked with the NJTV team early in their integration process to put together a special multi-platform project on New Jersey farmland. The resulting website and video series was a source of pride for everyone involved and showed the possibilities of what the teams could produce together. That spirit continued with collaborative projects around the ensuing elections and especially the COVID pandemic, including a “COVID Hub” of all their collective reporting.
For all of the newsrooms in the study, we observed that digital success built on itself and helped cement culture change post-acquisition. Seeing positive results of changes in editorial and publishing strategy can help everyone in the newsroom to see a new path forward. For example Kevin Dale at Colorado Public Radio noticed that as their web traffic has grown and their stories are reaching a larger audience, his reporters have become more and more interested and motivated by their digital publishing work.
“As we have seen our web traffic grow, they’re getting it more and more. Now most of the reporters, if they get beat on a story by another outlet, they’re beating themselves up more than I ever would. It’s more like what I’m used to in the newsroom. Instead of when I first got there I would have to ask everyone, ‘Okay, how did we get beat on this story?’ Because they wouldn’t even really know how they got beat. That just doesn’t happen anymore. So, that culture probably was the toughest thing to overcome. But the great thing is, is they all wanted it. They just needed help getting there.”
Edit, edit, edit. The process of culture change in a newsroom will require investing in editing and training in order to support people in taking up new ways of working. Any new workflow, shift in editorial tone or process, or new method of reporting will require repeated practice and a fair amount of editing.
For radio reporters in particular who need to learn a new digital reporting workflow as part of an integration process, editing support is crucial. And so is encouragement to work more quickly with stories that work well for the web. The reverse is also true — digital reporters coming into public media will take some training and support to work in broadcast media. Skill development takes time, and it’s rare for reporters to be able to seamlessly transition to another medium in a short time period.
Designate an integration czar. In the crush of competing goals and priorities, it can be easy for leadership to lose attention to the progress of a merger. But this is a huge mistake, especially in the rocky period. Consider designating a mid-level leader to be responsible for helping shepherd the integration daily, especially in the newsroom. Having someone who is responsible for integration-related work like spotting and working through cultural friction, documenting new processes, translating vision, and helping advocate for new resources will help you power through a rocky period. Some stations named an “integration task force” for this purpose. While these bodies can be helpful for planning and checking, they don’t substitute for someone who’s full time responsibility is helping a merger move forward.
Says Kristen Muller of KPCC: “I think what I learned from the acquisition is that someone needs to be driving towards the goal every day, and articulating what it means for people, and being clear about what success looks like.”