Two Lessons From ‘Science’s Digital Transformation

This article: A Digital Transformation for Science in the Columbia Journalism Review, illustrates a couple of important aspects of the digital-first movement in magazine-land.

  1. Individual contributors: If you want your job to continue, you need to stay relevant.
  2. Managers: When you inevitably have to lay people off, TALK to your staff about it as soon as it happens.

The gist of the article:
To reach out to a new generation of scientists, Science (correctly) wanted to become a digital-first media company. They brought in someone who had run a transition at Nat Geo, and they moved forward with it.

One obstacle was something that I have struggled with as well — how to integrate the art staff into a digital first workflow. Science ended up letting two art people and two production people go because they didn’t have the skills.

Management didn’t tell staff about it early enough — eventually they did in an email, but not before one key contributor protested in an open letter that he published on his blog. As a result of the letter, the editor and digital officer met with staff in person to discuss the layoffs, and then informed the press about the future of the magazine (collateral damage from the blog post).

Let’s look at my two lessons.

Second lesson first: Managers must communicate with their staff
The situation at Science is a common one in any organization trying to bring about change: some people embrace it, some go along for the ride, and some push back. It is not always clear who is doing what. A large part of change management is communicating heavily — both with individuals and groups — on strategic direction, tactics, and their opinion of how to get there.

I had to lay people off in three waves within a single year recently (as did my colleagues — the layoffs were companywide). Each time, I immediately gathered the staff and explained what happened, why it happened, what it meant going forward, and I asked for questions, comments, and concerns. Each time I allowed them to take the rest of the day off if they felt they needed to.

It is important to put devastating news like this into the context of the big picture. In our case the reasons were strictly financial. The layoffs allowed the franchise to get on the right side of the revenue line. In the case of Science, it was reportedly a skill-set decision.

The questions I got from staff were along the lines of ‘Who is going to do the work that these people did?’ and ‘Are we safe?’ My answers were along the lines of ‘We are in the process of eliminating a lot of busywork from our workflow, so we are gaining some efficiency there, we will also have to reprioritize exactly what we do — how many things are we doing right now that really do not need to be done?’ and ‘The company is moving this way and we are doing it fast. I will help you gain the skills you need if you want to gain them.’

At Science, they will bring in new art people and production people to move the digital-first workflow forward, so the layoffs should not represent a whole lot more work for remaining staff — at least not in the long term.

First lesson, second: Remain relevant
The fact that these folks were laid off due to skill set deficiencies is troubling and it surprises me: as people who make our living in the media, we have seen digital publishing coming for a long time. I built my first website in 1996, which is almost 20 years ago. Ten years later, as a magazine editor, I knew that I would need to learn about blogging, so I started a blog (familyroadtrippers.blogspot.com) to learn what it was, how to do it, what worked, why, and how to use the software. It surprises me how many print editors do not even know what WordPress is (one of the editors I laid off didn’t know).

Art people, I think, are even more vulnerable because the natural workflow of websites hasn’t really included art direction due to tiny web budgets. But they are the missing piece in many digital-first transformations. Digital first does not mean turning InDesign files into digital magazines. It means embracing responsive web design, mobile app design, video, AND digital magazines.

Take responsibility for your career
If you are in print media, and you do not want to get laid off when the digital-first transition comes to your company, ask yourself what you can do to hone your skills so that you are an asset to the company rather than a drag on it.

Editors, learn how to break stories and develop them on the web. Twitter and Facebook are not gimmicks that only children use. Stop writing in Word. Learn HTML.

Art directors, learn about After Effects. Learn how to make those graphics interactive. Learn about UI design and learn basic CSS. Think about how you’d translate that feature story if it were video. Think about how animation would make your drawings more valuable to ‘readers.’

Laying people off sucks almost as much as getting laid off sucks (ask me how I know this). I do not know the people who were laid off at Science, or what their skill sets are, so I do not know for sure, but if the Columbia Journalism Review got their reporting right, it appears that there could have been an alternative. 

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