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For a More Agile Association, Look to Newsrooms

Author note: This article, written by John Tramontana, Christopher Urena and Aaron Wolowiec, originally appeared in Associations Now on April 30, 2018. 

Newsrooms are structured so that reporters can meet readers’ needs quickly. Likewise, associations can follow this model to more efficiently respond to their members’ needs. Three experts explain how to leave the telegram model behind and move toward an agile system.

We’ve all heard the accusations over the years: “Associations are too slow to change. They don’t know how to adapt. There’s too much red tape!”

It’s a narrative that, unfortunately, is often true. But what if you could change that narrative? What if you could make your association more nimble and ready to respond to members’ needs—or even industry developments—in real time? 

There’s a model that can get you there, and it’s used every day all over the world. It’s time for us to run associations like newsrooms. 

We know what you’re thinking: “What does a newsroom have to do with running an association?” 

The short answer? Everything. There is no business model more nimble and flexible than a newsroom. Journalists must be able to turn a story quickly and accurately. They must respond to the needs of their audience in real time. They don’t have the luxury to sit back and wait, or to not air the 6 o’clock news. The show must go on, as they say. And if the story changes five minutes before it’s set to air? The reporter, editor, and production team must adjust and get the latest news out regardless. 

Are associations willing to operate like that to be more responsive to members? Far too often, we get comfortable in what we do. We are hesitant to try something new or even to change direction when we’re too far into a project. For the newsroom model to work, we have to be willing to adjust and pivot when necessary. Our members not only want it, they expect it. 

The three of us presented on this concept at ASAE’s Great Ideas Conference this past March. Our talk, “Telegrams to Tweets: Delivering News at the Speed of Culture,” suggested ways for attendees to put a plan in motion that would bring this newsroom model to their associations. We want to get associations to leave the telegram model behind and move toward a system that allows for agility. 

For the newsroom model to work, we have to be willing to adjust and pivot when necessary. Our members not only want it, they expect it.

Newsrooms are successful for three main reasons: content, communication, and consistency. They have to deliver the content people want, or else the audience tunes out, ratings drop, and advertising revenue plummets. It’s no different for us. Are we producing quality content our members truly want?

Next, how’s your communication within the association? Is everyone on the same page? A newsroom model only works when we leave silos behind and adapt a systems-thinking approach. Try holding quick daily check-ins with other departments. The old cliché is true: the left hand needs to know what the right hand is doing. 

Finally, you must be consistent. The best way to do that is by making good habits through repetition. Know what your role is in the system, how it fits, and how it impacts others. Be sure to evaluate along the way in case improvements are necessary. A key to that evaluation process is delivering and receiving feedback. Are you honest with yourself and your colleagues? Are you holding each other accountable? Newsrooms rely on this every day. When a reporter misses a deadline, or gets scooped by a competitor, they’re held accountable. They evaluate to find out how things went wrong and work toward fixing it. 

It may sound a bit complicated, but it’s much easier than you think. Nearly every association job has a counterpart in a newsroom model. For example, let’s compare planning a conference or an event to a news program. Your meetings and expositions staff tend to manage the event, coordinate onsite staff, and oversee the quality of the conference. These responsibilities directly parallel a news director, who oversees the newscast, coordinates the staff, and manages the news department. 

Your chief learning officer or learning professional oversees format delivery, measures learner outcomes, and directs enterprise-wide content strategy. A news producer oversees multimedia used, measures views or hits, and develops and sequences the storyline, or newscast—again, pretty similar.

Finally, the communications and marketing folks are the anchors or reporters—they produce what the end user actually sees. They are the face of the newscast; they are the face of the conference through its materials, design, and messaging. Both gather and distribute information and tell the story. 

How it all comes together is the most crucial aspect of the process. The news team must talk to one another and have faith that others will do the job they’re supposed to do, when they’re supposed to do it. If you’re a reporter doing a live report in the field, you have to trust the photographer to frame the shot, the live truck operator to send the feed, the audio person to make sure your microphone is working, and so on. 

The keys to successfully mimicking a newsroom are trust, accountability, and feedback. You have to be able to trust your coworkers to do their jobs. We have to be able to relinquish control so the system can function properly. We have to hold ourselves and each other accountable. Ask yourself, “Can my colleagues rely on me?” We must also be prepared to hear criticisms of our work. Both positive and negative feedback are important for growth. We need to be able to talk to people openly and honestly. 

“The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” Aristotle may not have been a reporter, but he was pretty wise. That phrase still rings true today. Are we following his advice in service to our members?

Blog image courtesy of Martin Foskett,

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