How successful media startups manage growth

Legacy publications can learn a few things from Upworthy and Storyful

Illustrations by Roxanne Palmer

It’s an established fact that newsrooms must rapidly change in order to survive in the new journalism ecosystem. As a result, staffing policies shift, workflows are disrupted, and leadership turns over. While journalism organizations can learn a lot from the technology sector, there are still huge risks, especially for non-management members of the workforce.

Take for example Advance Publications, the owner of both the Cleveland Plain Dealer and Northeast Ohio Media Group. After a summer of tough layoffs at the Plain Dealer, the newly created and non-unionized Northeast Ohio Media Group made a number of speedy hires directly from the Plain Dealer‘s newsroom, bringing the total number of union staff below a contractually agreed upon number.*

In the last several weeks, the Los Angeles Times also embodied this tension, announcing some controversial moves as part of an ongoing effort to realign the organization to a digital-first mentality.

In the pro column, the outlet announced the hire of digital strategist Nicco Mele as Deputy Publisher, a significant symbolic investment. In the cons, the Times also announced the elimination of bankable sick and vacation days. The decision was overturned within a matter of days following confusion and upset. Unlimited personal days is a strategy many technology organizations use: Employees can take the time they need as long as the work gets done. But for the Times, that meant if you’ve been at the organization for 25 years and have been banking 5 weeks of vacation a year, tough luck. No more vacation payouts. In this case, too, an attempted overhaul for a new media age fell flat in the face of legacy structures.

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On the other end of the media spectrum, relative newcomer Upworthy, a mega curator of “stuff that matters,” has an unlimited time off policy that works. Managers make it clear that “unlimited” isn’t code for “never take vacation” by checking in with team members if they take fewer than 5 days off per quarter. “There are all of these life events that have a really natural part in the rhythm of your workplace and it’s important to calculate those in … in order for people to be happy in a 20 year career down the road,” Managing Editor Victoria Fine says.

According to Jill Geisler, senior faculty of Leadership and Management Programs at The Poynter Institute, “conflicting philosophies” make it difficult for older outlets to institute workplace structures that are normal for digital startups. “In innovation, it’s ‘fail fast,'” she says. “In traditional journalism, it’s ‘don’t make mistakes.'”

Geisler, who also contributes to CJR, specializes in leadership strategies for media organizations and says that it’s all a recipe for staff exhaustion. “The people who are are in the middle … are leading today’s content and tomorrow’s innovation,” Geisler says. “And they’re doing it with fewer resources than ever before, but with a lot of heart.”

Despite the challenges, legacy publications looking to restructure–which is pretty much all of them–can still learn lessons from the technology space.

Upworthy, and Storyful, two relatively new media organizations, are taking on the challenge of a hybrid tech-journalism organizational model. Yes, they are both digital-first companies, and they’re growing rather than reallocating, but their approaches to staffing structure and team-building offer powerful lessons for traditional media.

Upworthy is inspired by holocratic structures, in which many staff share similar skillsets and can be assigned to a variety of teams depending on organizational goals. Storyful, a four-year-old media organization that verifies and licenses social content, is experimenting with agile organizational structures, which prioritize flexibility, quick iteration to solve problems, and teams that collaborate across departments.

Storyful was recently acquired by NewsCorp and has a global staff. It’s also growing quickly and is hiring 30 people to build an R&D center at its Dublin office.

“Our structure right now doesn’t look anything like any other newsroom I’ve worked in,” says Mandy Jenkins, Storyful’s open news editor. “We have a managing editor and lead editors for news and creative that handle management and overall operations. But because we are a 24-7 operation, our remaining structure is very much built around a real-time mentality.”

This transition point comes for most growing startups: If the organization is a success, staffing needs will surge. The trick is making it through that surge without losing the talent that’s been with the organization from the very beginning.

“Until pretty recently, Storyful was a startup with a fairly small staff and a relatively flat structure,” Jenkins says. “The staff has more than doubled in size over the last year, so we’ve had to rebuild our structure to make that more manageable. And we’ll keep tweaking it to get it right.” Storyful is working with graduate students at New York University’s Studio20 to document this process and ultimately share best practices regarding organizational optimization with other newsrooms.

Rapid expansion and the resulting staff changes were a core concern for Upworthy as well. Fine joined the company about six months after it started, when there were just six full-time editorial staffers.

“The first year was insanity,” she says, “primarily because our traffic growth was unheard of.” Upworthy’s editorial strategy had to shift quickly so that they could hire new staff to keep up with traffic demands. (I’ve worked with Upworthy to syndicate content.) According to Fine, there were two key concerns while planning for this growth spurt: managing distributed staff with an asynchronous schedule and managing a publishing process that was grounded in testing and analysis rather than traditional top-down content strategy. Upworthy now has 27 full-time and 16 part-time editorial team members.

In order to develop the current structure, Fine had to look away from journalism. “I wish I could say that I had seen [our model] work in other editorial operations and said ‘Well, that’s what I want to do.'” Instead, Fine’s research “migrated into tech structures.” She ultimately created a hybrid journalism-tech model for content production that prioritizes training and staff empowerment over editorial hierarchy. Fine’s strategy is designed to play up what she calls the most important asset a team member can have: an ability to ask “open questions” and think of multiple solutions.

Here’s how the model works: Once hired, all editorial team members undergo a rigorous monthlong training. There are three components to the training: “brand values,” technical or analytical training, and curation or framing strategies. Once the training is completed, editorial team members publish content autonomously with just a copy edit and fact check. “We teach you to make right decisions and trust you,” Fine says.

In order to implement structural shifts successfully, Geisler recommends that legacy media leaders get clear on priorities and crisply communicate. “What’s most important on that list of things [staff are] going to do? How much time should they be taking away to work on a committee that is looking at innovation? How much time should they be taking to develop new content for the legacy property?”

As a testament to the success of their training-first approach, Fine notes that Upworthy recently shifted from a video-first content strategy to focus on more multimedia content. They completed the strategy transition in one day. “The team immediately snapped to it and just ran with it,” she says. “To see 43 people do that in a single day…it was pretty cool to see that work.”

*A sentence that erroneously referred to a lawsuit against Advance Publications has been deleted; no such lawsuit was filed.

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Erin Polgreen is the cofounder of Symbolia, a magazine that mixes comic books and journalism. She regularly consults with media outlets and foundations on innovation. Follow her on Twitter @erinpolgreen