Table Stakes Cohort 5: Who’s on your bus?

Editor’s note: The UNC-Knight Table Stakes program brings together news organizations based in the Southeast, and provides them with coaching, training and tools to tackle their biggest sustainability challenges. The fifth cohort of UNC-Knight Table Stakes wrapped up in December.

By Erica Beshears Perel, CISLM Director

The Staunton News-Leader’s representation of their bus, as rendered by Storytelling and Watchdog Coach Jeff Schwaner’s very talented wife, Mary Schwaner.

The question “Who is on your bus?” has long been part of the Table Stakes and performance-driven change frameworks, but in many ways, it defined UNC-Knight Table Stakes cohort 5.

In September, three-fourths through the year-long program, the coaching team wanted to revisit the people and politics of change: How can teams bring more staff, more stakeholders, more power to bear on their challenges?

Instead of charts or matrices, the teams used their hands: Each drew their bus, using paper, scissors, crayons, markers and crafting supplies. Part art therapy, part leadership development, the results were telling:

  • At one legacy newsroom, rocked that year by corporate restructuring, the bus had no one at the wheel.
  • At another, a group of early-career journalists depicted themselves on a bus with a great vision of change, while their coworkers watched them from the bus stop. Again, no one was driving.
  • A news entrepreneur drew his bus as a version of the Magic School Bus – but one without many passengers. He desperately needed a co-pilot and enough funding to launch into the stratosphere.
  • Another fledgling operation turned its bus into a train and focused attention on carefully laying track in the direction they wanted to head.
  • Another newsroom’s bus showed important community members they’d formed relationships on the bus with them. Others were waiting at stops ahead on the journey. The team leads were in the driver’s seat, taking ownership of the newsroom’s challenges and successes.

The bus makes a great visual analogy for organizational change efforts: Buses take a team of people on a journey. Someone has to drive. Folks climb off and on. Internal and external factors can speed or slow the journey, and sometimes, the bus – the engine of change – breaks down.

Those September drawings facilitated hard questions and needed conversations between teams and coaches and helped set the course for the end of the program and beyond. For the December wrap-up session, we asked each team to revisit their bus, and almost all the buses had repairs, drivers or a clearer path ahead.

The bus exercise resonated so strongly with Cohort 5, which wrapped up Dec. 1, because 2022 was a challenging year for people who work in newsrooms.

  • Between corporate restructuring or cuts, as well as the end of the Great Resignation, our teams saw more job changes in key roles than is typical of a Table Stakes year. This provided opportunities but also required some big resets mid-challenge, including two teams who couldn’t finish the program.
  • The midterm election coverage added a layer of stress for journalists, as tightly-staffed newsrooms sought to cover politics in a way that promoted access to accurate, fact-based information about voting and candidates in a polarized environment.
  • Human Resources issues, such as hiring, retention, talent development and pay, emerged as priorities alongside digital transformation.
The team at the Montgomery Advertiser learned important insights about rural Alabama.

Despite the challenges of the year, and the looming recession that could make the work of local journalists harder, the wins and the progress experienced by teams in Table Stakes matter. They reveal a path forward for local news that highlights the importance of high-functioning teams, operational competence and helping all journalists connect strategy, outcomes and impact to their work.

Historically, journalists have been trained to be tacticians who cover beats, meet deadlines and fill the news hole, according to business models and news values determined decades ago. The Table Stakes program has been successful for moving journalists beyond activities. The UNC program specifically has used momentum and early wins to help small teams access the tools and frameworks in a flexible way.

Les High has finished Table Stakes twice now. As publisher of the family-owned Whiteville News Reporter, High was part of the first year of Table Stakes at UNC. The News Reporter’s North Star, famously, was “don’t go out of business.” It didn’t. High stabilized the newspaper, headquartered in rural southeastern North Carolina, and in 2021 sold it to his editor. He started a new venture, the nonprofit Border Belt Independent that aims to fill local news gaps in four high-poverty counties. The BBI North Star, for Table Stakes Cohort 5, was “Be known and be a force for good.”

In his post-program assessment, he reflected on the concept of DVP, which helps participants understand that organizational change requires dissatisfaction, shared vision and clear process.

“I told Charlie (Baum) that I remember DVP as much as anything from Cohort 1,” he wrote. “There’s an initial negative reaction to the word ‘dissatisfaction,’ but ultimately, problems get solved because people aren’t happy with the way things are. Understanding that is the first rung in taking on and conquering a challenge. The other tools get you across the finish line.”

Outcome Wins

The team at the Montgomery Advertiser learned important insights about rural Alabama.

Despite the challenging year the teams in the program saw important performance outcomes, as captured in an end-of-program survey/assessment:

  • Border Belt Independent creeped ever closer towards its North Star with a 465 percent increase in Facebook engagement and a steadily growing email list with a 30 percent open rate. “We tripled our audience, and I think we can do it again,” High wrote in his post-program assessment.
  • The Fayetteville Observer had a North Star that could fit many legacy newsrooms: “We will strive to earn the trust of Black residents, who we’ve neglected in the past, by providing essential news, content and experiences that are worth paying for and useful in their lives.” Through mobile newsrooms, relationship building and targeted content, the newsroom saw significant increases in subscriptions (50 percent) and social media engagement (47 percent) in three minority communities. It also forged a critical partnership with the radio station that serves the Black community, which invited Opinion Editor Myron Pitts on the air to share election coverage.
  • The Staunton News-Leader wanted community members, rather than officials, to drive its government coverage and hypothesized it would lead to subscription gains. During the year, the team flipped the citizen:official source ratio on We the People coverage, and saw a 36 percent increase in digital subscriptions coming from its government coverage. Beyond that, the approach also provided leads for the paper’s investigation into city council representation.
  • The Montgomery Advertiser gained important insights about how to cover rural, poor areas without strong broadband access when it started covering rural Alabama and the Black Belt in a meaningful way. A typical paywall strategy didn’t work. But when the paywall came down, they learned that rural Alabamans were hungry for news and shared important stories through informal networks, such as emails by local influencers. And they learned rural stories do well across the readership area.
  • Substantial Magazine’s Greg Hedgepeth put a number on the money he needed to earn in order to stay in business and started building new revenue opportunities to get there. Near the end of the program, Substantial received a $100,000 grant to get the team to it’s revenue goals.
  • Louisville Public Media created a multi-platform distribution system to make sure its 2022 voter guide reached Black Louisvillians, including direct mail of 7,200 copies, outdoor billboards and targeted digital advertising.
  • Black Girl Times, the editorial project of the Mississippi nonprofit The Lighthouse that serves Black women, weathered staff changes to see significant growth. They looked to serve new target audiences within their target audience, such as older Black women or queer folks. Over the year, their newsletter list tripled, and they doubled their newsletter output, while settling at a 30 percent open rate.
  • The Current, a startup that serves coastal Georgia and Savannah, experienced growth in its second year: 12 percent more original content, two new weekly newsletters and a 10 percent increase in newsletter audience, powered by two new FTEs. And as the program ended, they planned to reach a hard-to-reach target audience, younger members of underserved communities – with a text-based news delivery.

Among the six teams with a team lead who completed the end-of-program assessment:

  • All six teams reported asking their audiences about their needs
  • Five teams reported growing digital audience and digital subscribers/members
  • Five reported participating in a collaboration
  • Four reported receiving a grant
  • Three reported growing total revenue
  • Three added staff

Cohort 5 was coached by a high-performing but deeply empathetic group of coaches: Head Coach/Program Director Charlie Baum and Coaches Felecia Henderson, Chrissy Beck, Nation Hahn and Alesha Williams Boyd. The cohort also received instruction in special topic areas from Tim Griggs of Blue Engine Collaborative, Cierra Hinton, Lizzy Hazeltine, Fran Scarlett and the Maynard Institute.

Training and personal development

I will go from worrying about outside forces to focusing on the things that are within my control.

Someone who’s been on a road with one driver to a new road where everyone gets a chance to drive somewhere fun and useful.

From a revenue-focused worker bee to a multi-faceted strategic, product and operations-focused leader of a team.

From “unsure of where I fit in this challenge” to “knowing the tools I can leverage to help move the needle” (I copied and pasted this to my desktop for when I forget!)

-Participants reflected on their personal journeys in the program.

While the program was created to transform an industry and entire newsrooms, UNC-Knight Table Stakes is also a leadership development program for the team members. At UNC, this is especially true for leaders of small or rural teams who don’t go to conferences or have no corporate training budget. It’s been a lifeline connecting those journalists to the larger journalism community and resources and has armed them with tools and frameworks to serve them wherever their careers go.

“Both in my professional and personal, I plan to use the various tools and overall knowledge gained to advance my position in life, at work and for my overall organization,” wrote Substantial President Greg Hedgepeth. “I have already used and incorporated a number of the concepts and teachings in my daily work.”

The concept of focusing on outcomes versus activities when setting goals, using a framework known in the program as RAOOI, resonated as a key tool.

“RAOOI is one tool that has become very meaningful to me,” Montgomery Advertiser reporter Hadley Hitson wrote. “Over the first two meetings where it was constantly being brought up, I didn’t get the differences, and I didn’t get why they mattered. However, as we started honing in on our goals and organizing them with RAOOI, it clicked. Earlier today, our team even reworked a proposed activity to better fit our desired output, outcome and impact!”

Beth Hutson, news director of the Fayetteville Observer, shared a similar evolution: “I was resistant to RAOOI at first because it seemed too complicated to actually be useful. I was totally wrong. It really helps put goals and possible impacts into perspective. It also helps you see whether your goals are specific enough, achievable or worth devoting time to in the first place.”