Nancy March starts unbolting the Pottstown Mercury

The point of Project Unbolt is not to wrench the four pilot newsrooms free from print culture and workflow. We want to unbolt all our newsrooms from print.

We decided to concentrate our attention initially on the four pilot newsrooms: New Haven Register, Berkshire Eagle, El Paso Times and the News-Herald in Willoughby, Ohio.

I was planning some specific steps to encourage other newsrooms to start their work in the next few weeks, but was delighted by an email yesterday from Nancy March, editor of The Mercury in Pottstown, Pa. She is already hard at work leading the Merc staff in unbolting.

Nancy March

Nancy March

Nancy is cluster editor for Pennsylvania, New Jersey and West Virginia, and she got a preview of plans for Project Unbolt last month at a meeting of Digital First Media senior editors in Pennsylvania. She didn’t wait for my blog posts announcing Project Unbolt to get her staff working on freeing their thinking and working from the newspaper factory.

Humbling as it might be, I can’t think of anything better for DFM than for the Merc (and several other newsrooms) to unbolt as swiftly as the newsrooms I’m working directly with. Or faster. We need a dozen Project Unbolt guerrilla pilot projects, unbolting by their own creativity, rather than waiting for me to share lessons from the formal pilot newsrooms. Or two dozen. Or more.

Here’s Nancy’s email, with a few comments interspersed from me and links inserted by me:

The discussion at our editors meeting inspired me to have one-on-one meetings with every staffer here in Pottstown. Now, that may seem like a no-brainer that every good editor should do every year, but we both know it slips between the cracks.

Buttry comment: Yes, it does too often slip between the cracks, but every editor should be talking individually (at length, not just in passing in the daily flow of work) with every staff member at least once a year, except perhaps in the largest newsrooms. I hope every DFM editor takes Project Unbolt as an opportunity for the kind of individual discussions Nancy is having with her staff.

The interviews were geared toward “three things you can do to unbolt” in the next six months, or three goals to be more digitally oriented.

Buttry: Again, a great move by Nancy. You can overwhelm staff if you give them too much change to undertake at once. Give people specific goals to work on right now. I would even encourage shorter timetables than six months, though (depending on the goal): Maybe three things to work on in the next three months, or here’s something to work on in February, then start working on this one in March.

We had great discussions, and it then created a new vocabulary in our newsroom.

If I start a conversation with a reporter about the progress of a story for print, they tell me I’m bolted with a definite “You’re busted!” attitude. We describe certain people as having too much “bolt-itude” and practices as “bolting” or “unbolting.” When they tell me what they “have working daily,” I correct them and say I want to know “what’s happening right now,” because we are a live news operation.

Buttry: A contrived name like Project Unbolt has buzzword potential, and you want culture change to move beyond buzzwords to action. But language is part of culture and changing a newsroom’s culture includes changing the language. I love that Merc staffers are talking about boltitude. 

I also love Nancy’s emphasis on “what’s happening now.” Thinking about our responsibility to be timely right now is a critical part of unbolting. I’d rather focus on culture change than on rebranding our core products, but if I could wave a magic wand and change our brand names (without all that rebranding work), I’d wipe print-cycle words such as daily, morning and evening out of the names of all of our products that still use them. That might be worth undertaking sometime at the brand level, but I’m delighted to see Nancy challenging daily thinking and talking at the newsroom level (and glad the Merc doesn’t have daily in its name).

Even as the leader of Project Unbolt, I find myself sometimes referring to one of our local news organizations as a “paper” or a “newspaper.” I am working hard on shifting that to “newsroom” if I’m talking about the journalists or “news organization” if my reference encompasses the products and/or the sales staff or other parts of the operation.

One more important part of that passage in Nancy’s note: Her staff’s willingness to “bust” her for her occasional lapses, and her acceptance of being busted. Leaders are making a difficult change, too, and a leader with the humility to laugh when staff members catch a slip-up is going to be more effective in leading the change.

This played out nicely last week during storm coverage when instead of planning end-coverage, we started with a discussion of how to best frame our live chat, how to best display coverage on mobile, how to best engage in social media — and then how we could adjust it as the day went on and as audience had changing needs for information based on their location and the progress of the storm. (First advance word on closings, then current traffic reports and forecasts, then shoveling tips, then photos of folks shoveling, then snow heroes, then impact on town budgets).

Beyond Pottstown, we’re working to unbolt as a group, too. We are creating a Pa.-wide team to tackle an education project that will have unbolted ongoing interests — not a once-and-done story but an ongoing, data-driven look at a trend like charter school reform or Common Core standards.

Next week, I have changed the monthly Pa. editors call to an in-person meeting led by me and Jim McClure to present some of your unbolting project points. Jim emailed out the survey today to editors to get the momentum started.

Buttry: I’ve developed a newsroom assessment form to help editors rate how close they are to the ideals of an unbolted newsroom. I used the form to start work with the four pilot newsrooms, and Jim, DFM’s East Regional Editor and editor of the York Daily Record, asked me if he could share the assessment with editors in his region. We’ll be asking all DFM editors to use the form to assess their newsrooms (and then start to work on raising scores) sometime in the next few weeks. But if you’d like to get your newsroom started, let me know and I’ll give you early access to the form.

ydr-twitter(By the way, the York Daily Record has deftly handled that daily issue by doing its digital branding around the initials that are its digital address: YDR. The D stands for daily, but that print word doesn’t stand out in the digital branding.)

Back to Nancy:

The phrase and the meaning behind it has kicked our digital reporting process up a notch. I’ll let you know some of our successes as we go forward. For now, just picture Evan branding me with a definite “You’re bolted!” when I mention “the paper,” and you’ve got the idea.

Buttry: Every newsroom needs an Evan Brandt, an outstanding veteran reporter who’s a skeptic but not a curmudgeon. Evan is a monthly DFMie winner and was a finalist for annual DFMies last year for staff blogger and mid-sized daily Journalist of the Year. He’s a union shop steward who’s not shy about challenging any BS ideas that come from on high. But if you show Evan how an idea will help us do better journalism, you have an enthusiastic leader in change. Someone who won’t be shy about telling the editor: “You’re bolted!”

Steve Buttry

By Steve Buttry

Steve Buttry is Digital Transformation Editor for Digital First Media. He oversees our efforts to transform newsroom operations and culture to more effectively pursue our digital goals. His duties include responsibility for social media and community engagement. He has visited most DFM newsrooms personally, leading workshops and coaching editors and other journalists in following the Digital First approach.

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