Think Tank

Interview with Ezra Eeman, Change Director at Mediahuis nv

Mediahuis is a newspaper and magazine publishing, distribution, printing, TV, radio and online media company with assets spread  across Ireland, Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, and Holland. With some 35 newsrooms at the heart of that beast, there is a constant process of adaptation and evolution, which makes the role of Change Director somewhere between ringmaster and magician.  We talked to Ezra Eeman about what’s involved in that magic act, starting with the title itself.

“Change Director, yes that’s still the official title. It’s a title that comes with, I would say maybe some question marks. The company I work for,  Mediahuis, is in the midst of a big transformation. And rather than calling it a Transformation Director, they call it a Change Director. I’m somewhat of a bridge figure between the newsrooms, which we have quite a lot of, and our centralised technology organisation. It means I have to think about the kind of system, tools, and technologies as well as the processes that these newsrooms might need for the future.”

Ezra is on record describing his role as “a bit of a blessing, a bit of a curse” so we asked him how that curse/blessing balance was going.

“I would say it’s shifted more to a blessing than a curse. But if you come into a company, a company with over 5000 people in different newsrooms and countries, with a title that says ‘change’ …there are bound to be some question marks.”

So what are those questions, what are the answers, and above all what is the best way to get those stakeholders on board? 

“The key thing is ‘what is the change about? What do we really want to do?’ There is an opportunity, and there is a willingness to think about the future and look for opportunities of scale, which is where I come in. Once people start seeing the practicalities and the kind of tangible benefits that you can actually have by connecting the dots,then that change becomes tangible. And then there’s a real conversation. There’s still friction, because you have to give up things from the past and go to new ways of working, of thinking. But as long as you make that picture of the future tangible enough, I would say that leaves space to collaborate.

“If you come into a company, a company with over 5000 people in different newsrooms and countries, with a title that says ‘change’… there are bound to be some question marks.”

Metrics that matter

Key to getting that all important buy-in from the newsroom is the issue of metrics, or more precisely not simply the measurements but translating those into values that matter for all involved.

“Certainly in the case of some of our newsrooms, which were still very much print centric, not so much that they were not living in the digital reality, but they felt the print product was at least the most valuable one. That’s where they felt their work was most honoured. Because if you’re featured on the front page of a newspaper, that really feels like there is value.”

Moving people on to a better understanding of new values seems to start with the concept of measuring attention itself.

“Once you start showing them the numbers: the actual traffic that they’re getting, like that it’s much more on mobile phones, and increasingly, even the revenue is coming from digital destinations. If you bring that to them in a very tangible way they start to understand that that’s maybe where they have to put their effort and that the patterns there are completely different from what they used to work for. 

So that’s one thing; bringing that data into the newsroom in a way that makes sense for journalists: not just for people that look at the number of sales or data crunchers.”

“Bringing that data into the newsroom in a way that makes sense for journalists: not just for people that look at the number of sales or data crunchers.”

Questions to ask/answer

“Make it about ‘who’s reading my article? Where are they coming from? Where are they consuming this? Is it on a mobile phone? Are your articles really structured the right way? What’s the completion time of these articles? Where do they stop reading? Could we change the way we structure them? Do we need new tools for our storytelling? Do we need different publication times? Do we have to rethink our workflows? Are we starting at the right time? Should we start at nine o’clock or at six o’clock at seven o’clock was the peak of our traffic? 

There are so many discussions that you can have with the newsroom based on their work and how to best interrelate with their audiences. They are interested in their craft, but they’re also interested in who’s reading them. And I think that’s where you can make the connection.

So how do you spread the word about the metrics that matter?

“We have 35 newsrooms at this moment, and they don’t necessarily all have the same kind of practice for sharing data. But we are converging on a few metrics that we think are important to bring to the newsroom, one of which is attention time. Because attention time is something we clearly understand and it has a correlation with value: attention is actually worth a lot. And if people pay attention to your news, it means they attach a certain value to it: much more so than just if they click.  The time they invest in your journalism, and in your news is something that a newsroom can relate to. Plus they can work with it, they can break it down and see where the attention comes from and how people go from one article to another. Then they can look at how to broaden that attention, deepen that attention, enhance the frequency around it. There’s a lot of things that you can pull away from there. But it starts with clear attention metrics that work in newsrooms and well as boardrooms.”

How to track the data that matters

“We’re currently rolling out a company transformation and we have a unified approach to data; we have our own data tracker and data analytics suite that we’re rolling out across those titles. So from the moment they get on the Mediahuis stack, they get the same kind of dashboards, the same kind of data capabilities. Then again how they work with the data is up to them. That’s not something that we try to shape too much. We help them to structure reports. But then how they work with it in the newsroom, how they translate that to their journalists; that’s really something that we want to keep very much local.”

Who demands the most access to the Change Director?

“I’m talking to the newsroom. Which means mainly to the editor in chief, or the digital leaders of the newsroom. Sometimes there’s a deputy editor, or there’s a digital publisher. And then on the other side there are our product teams and our product leaders. There are the domain managers that steer all our products and applications, as well as the editorial technology teams that maintain our editorial platforms and make choices for the future for our platforms as well.”

What are the biggest challenges?

“I would say our main challenge is to make sure that things are scalable, and we can maintain them. That they’re fast, and they’re reliable. That they’re very well interconnected and integrated. None of which is a given in a growing company. When you enter a market and acquire new brands they don’t have the same technology, or the same approach. So we still have a very fragmented landscape. We’re trying to consolidate that and make that work better together.”

And the necessary comprises?

The other side of which is that newsrooms are looking for local flexibility, they’re looking to keep a core journalistic identity which connects with their audiences. From their perspective that means solutions they know, and they’re familiar with. So to try and bridge that we say ‘okay, well, I think there’s at least 80% of the things that you want to do that you can achieve with our common stack. And then there’s 20%, where we need to have flexibility on the front end in terms of visualising your brand, or in terms of having a certain storytelling experience, which you can add on top of the platform. And that’s the balance: flexibility versus centralization”

The visual dimension

Coming from a world of film and documentaries it is unsurprising that Ezra is keen to promote a more visual way of working. So how does that translate to the newsroom?

“Some of our newsrooms are very eager, very digital, and screen first, and for me a mobile screen is a visual surface that you try to serve as best you can. The legacy of printed news is that design and writing were very much separated. In converged newsrooms, you have to think about how do I break up and enrich my narrative so that it works on a mobile screen? That’s very hard to do if you completely separate design and storytelling, from the writing itself. They need to be better interconnected, which doesn’t mean that the journalists have to be able to design every element of his story, but at least be thinking from the beginning of story creation about what elements are needed here, or whether something more powerful here would explain a point better. 

And that’s the kind of storytelling approach that I like to bring to newsrooms,

I feel that my audio visual background really helps me to do much more thinking in story blocks and in story elements that are modular, which works well for mobile, rather than thinking of news article layout.

“My role is much more connecting the right people and the right practices, rather than preaching: because preaching doesn’t work.”

My role is much more connecting the right people and the right practices, rather than preaching: because preaching doesn’t work. They have to feel they’re kind of inventing and reinventing themselves.”

Sharing the learnings

“There are a few communities that we’ve handpicked to exchange with the centre. So we have communities of experts, and we have dedicated moments where we bring them together. My dream is to have a good knowledge hub and a consistent way to document best practices in a way that is easy to read and easy to translate to your own experience. So that’s a kind of playbook with the idea not so much that you have to do exactly the same, but rather understand how, and why, things have worked.”

Is data helping drive newsletters?

“Our Belgian base brands from early on have been building a good database of contacts, and from there we started newsletters very early, and are quite successful. At least 15% of the traffic is coming from the newsletters which is quite high if you benchmark it. That’s a practice that we feel our other brands can learn from: how we did that, and how that approach might scale. 

It starts with daily newsletters, and then it builds on to more specific ones. Some are for subscribers, some are for our open newsletters. Once you start building that practice of newsletters, you can really see if you need another more tailored one to address either an audience that you didn’t have yet, or to super-serve an audience that you really want to bring together. 

We don’t have so many niche newsletters. We do have some we’re expanding and personalising among our regional and local newsletters.”

“They have to feel they’re kind of inventing and reinventing themselves.”

Podcasting, broadcasting

“Podcasting and audio are a big part of strategy for some of our brands. Like NRC in the Netherlands where I would say they’re one of the biggest podcasts makers, at least in terms of audience. It’s not necessarily a play for all of our brands. It doesn’t make sense for very small brands to have a big podcast operation. I would say that’s something that we’re currently reevaluating. 

“There was a moment where video was more important in the company. But it was at the moment where everybody still wanted to make TV, you know, like everybody was building a TV studio in the newsroom. And that just doesn’t work; the cost of running it is too high.”

What you’re seeing now is a whole class of social videos which are lean, mean, and quickly made, which are more personality driven, and authentic. Now that’s something you can adopt as a newsroom and we have one of our regional brands in Antwerp now has a lot of success with videos. They’re one of the first of our brands in our portfolio that’s really expanding their video strategy and making these kinds of social videos. We’re going to see how that works and if we want to expand that to other brands. We have these brands that take a lead on a new kind of distribution or a new format. From which we look to see if that could work as well for some of our other brands.”

Artificial Intelligence

“One of the main conversations I am having with our newsrooms is about how, really, will artificial intelligence influence them.”

There’s an incredibly rapid acceleration of AI tooling within newsrooms. And it’s not just about automation: it’s about augmenting your writing. It’s about automating parts of the publication. It might change how we make a newspaper, it might change how we publish and change our homepage, because part of that could be automated. So in that relationship, you have to understand how we want to work with AI? How do we determine its role in creativity? What editorial values are attached to it? How does it change our journalism? There are a lot of things that we need to have a conversation about, and that’s certainly an area that I’d like to discuss further with our newsrooms. I need to understand how they feel about it, and how far they want to go with it. What questions do they have around it? And how do we go about it in an ethical way?

For example it could be that you design a few rules, including the value attached to certain pieces, as well as how well is it read, and by whom which could work really well in creating a service. So you have to define a set of rules that will determine how your articles are displayed. Then you could say these pages, or these zones in our website, or app, from here on they will be curated and populated by an algorithm rather than by a person. That’s currently not yet happening, but it is entirely possible. 

The applications are out there to build our newspaper. Do we still have to design and place every article on a page ourselves in future? Or do we set the parameters and say ‘now please design 80% of my newspaper and I’ll do the rest myself’. 

Showcase: some notable successes

Ezra is the first to point out that he has only been in the saddle for a year and a half and will be judged based on long term changes over the years to come, but aside from his work on the new CMS (from Siebel) he feels one of his biggest successes is in changing the internal narrative.

“One thing we have instilled is working mobile first, and having more formats, and across the group that’s really exploded. Last year I saw a ton of experiments with new storytelling approaches and while specific examples are local there is a central narrative about how everybody is trying to explore, and how they are making a more visual story format.”

Some of those examples:

Amongst the examples Ezra himself points to are 

NRC’s experiment on what happens when you leave a square metre of your garden untouched for a year. By crowdsourcing the information collection the newsroom managed to turn an ecological question into a community issue.

 Belgian title created a purely data based story with real world impact with this study of air-quality.

“Across all of our titles we encourage ‘mobile first’ writing and storytelling. This means ensuring flow, rhythm & enrichment in articles like these two from our regional titles in the Netherlands”

Less easy to showcase are the advances Mediahuis is making in looking at how to better harvest and exploit data in the newsrooms, and the use of AI for automation and optimisation.

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