Digital Ninja School Frequently Asked Questions
Q: What do you hope to accomplish with the new/enhanced skills outlined in this program?
A: The bottom line is we can’t accomplish a Digital First transformation of our newsrooms without them. We need widespread knowledge and practice of these skills in our newsrooms to survive. They cannot be the sole domain of a few digital specialists or higher-level staff members.
Q: What does a newsroom employee have to do to earn “a belt” under the program? And who decides that they’ve earned it?
A: Employees must show that they’ve completed training in a particular belt, including a number of “core requirements” for each one, plus a certain number of “electives.” The starting point will be an updated version of the “Digital Skills Assessment” undertaken by JRC earlier this year, and the aim would be to move them to “proficient” on that scale in the subcategories deemed most crucial to the area in question. They must demonstrate this knowledge to a panel that will include their immediate supervisor, their editor, the cluster editor and at least one non-cluster JRC or outside expert on that particular area. But the most significant aspect of the Digital Ninja School is that built into the program is an assessment method and advancement requirement tied to applying new skills to the job. In order to earn a belt, you must show a portfolio of how these skills were applied to your job. In order to earn a second belt, you must show a portfolio of the new skills, plus show that you are still using the skills learned while earning the first belt. And so on. We believe this will distinguish the program from many other training initiatives because it will ingrain the skill set into day-to-day performance, and as long as the employee continues through the rest of the Digital Ninja School, will make those skills stick. (By the time you are on your fifth belt, you have been using the skills learned with the first two belts in your day-to-day for a long time. It becomes habit. It becomes part of who you are as an employee.)
Q: What kind of training will be available to employees in each skill set area?
A: Two things will drive an employee’s progress in the Digital Ninja School. In part, it will be self-directed and reliant upon the individual’s motivation to gain new skills and/or reap the financial rewards attached to the program. It will also be driven by editors and supervisors who are focused on having these five skill areas incorporated into everyone’s performance anyway. The Digital Ninja School website includes links to webinars, study materials, blog posts and other training resources on numerous subcategories within each of the five skill areas in the program. An employee aiming to earn a belt in social media can start there, on their own, and start trying to apply what they learn to their job. The website also includes testimonials on how employees have applied these skills in particular circumstances, and through subject and person tagging, the result is individual digital portfolios plus other employees having the ability to click on a particular topic (for example, using “Storify” to curate social media content) and see numerous examples of how their own colleagues used the skill in a real-life setting. Also available to employees are the company’s access to Lynda.Com, JRC webinars and boot camp sessions, in-person training opportunities in the Torrington newsroom classroom, and in-person workshops with Steve Buttry and others. We will schedule some of that in-person training based on demand from Digital Ninja School students, based on which belts the majority of employees are pursuing first. We have also structured the program so that one-on-one mentorship is possible (… the Digital Ninja School website shows a public portfolio of examples from colleagues so you can seek someone out and say, “show me how you did that”). We are also exploring partnerships with organizations such as Poynter that could lead to access to a significant amount of additional training materials and webinars.
Q: How will employees have time to complete training? How long will it take an employee who is dedicated to it to complete the entire program?
A: We are establishing a formal and documented backup system (in most cases, just formalizing what already exists) so that employees know that someone else is available to cover for their regular duties while they participate in training. It is critical that employees and supervisors understand that training for hourly employees happens “on the clock,” carved out of their 40-hour or 37.5-hour work week and not in addition to it. Because of the strong “apply it to the job” element of this program, we see a far greater incentive for supervisors to free employees up for training. And because of the financial incentive involved and the clear road map, we see a far greater incentive for employees to request that and work with colleagues to make time for it. As for how long it will take to complete, this is an extremely rigorous program. Only the most aggressive and apt employees will be able to complete the Digital Ninja School in a year’s time. Few will be able to earn a belt in less then several months’ time, because of the training required, but also because of the requirement that one show a portfolio of how it is applied to the job, which itself takes time to compile.
Q: How much will the program cost?
A: Per employee, the Digital Ninja School will cost $2,000 for each person who successfully completes the entire training program and earns a “black belt” – half of which comes with earning the fifth and final belt. Employees will receive $100 for earning the first belt (white), $200 for the second (yellow), $300 for the third (orange), $400 for the fourth (green) and $1,000 for the fifth and final belt (black).
Q: How can we control and/or budget for the cost of this program when employees can control how much is paid out by how successful they are in completing training?
A: There are two answers. First, and most simple, we can cap the total budgeted amount and make clear to employees that there is a “first come, first served” pool of money that could run out before the end of the year. However, we are structuring the requirements for earning a belt, and our system of measurement, such that the more employees take advantage of and are successful in the program, the bigger the return on investment for the company. Bonus money is tied to demonstrating that you are using these skills on the job, and when these skills are applied, we expect a measurable and monetizable corresponding increase in web traffic and audience engagement. So, if this program were so successful that we were pushing up against the budgeted payout before the end of 2012, the cap might seem silly because of the benefit we are seeing to the business.
Q: How much would it cost to scale this program to the rest of the company?
A: It’s a pilot program. Let’s see how it works and what the ROI is before gauging that. Depending on ROI and how it changes the business, the value the company places on this training could change significantly.
Q: How will you measure the return on investment of this program and its impact on the business? And how will successful implementation of the Digital Ninja School differentiate Connecticut from newsroom operations that do not have a similar program?
A: The foundation of the Digital Ninja School’s structure, assessment and advancement requirements is applying skills to the job (see above). This means that for every bonus level incentive we pay out, we are gaining a significant presence in social media, or blogging, or video production, or data journalism projects. That means growth in monthly unique visitors, page views, SMS subscribers, video inventory, brand engagement. Growth in all of these things are key JRC business goals and are measurable and monetizable. As part of the Digital Ninja School rollout, we will also be launching a “Personal Metrics” scorecard that measures an individual newsroom employee’s impact on page views, video views, social media engagement, etc. Evaluation of this scorecard will be included in consideration for advancement within the program. Metrics in these areas are a clear and easy measuring stick in determining the impact of this program vs. a cluster that is not participating. And “Personal Metrics” is a measurement initiative that, unlike the Digital Ninja School, could be rolled out companywide at little cost.
Q: Should we be concerned about pay inequity if this program is implemented in Connecticut but not the rest of the company?
A: First of all, it’s a pilot program. The pilot itself, in part, is whether paying employees financial rewards for completing training and acquiring skills will work as an overall rapid acceleration of our Digital First transformation in the newsroom. If it works, it has potential to be expanded to the rest of the company and benefit newsroom employees across the company. Second, there is widespread pay inequity already, between clusters, within clusters, within newsrooms. Third, the program does not call for pay grade adjustments, which would have more potential to create inequity if isolated to one property or cluster. Rather, it calls for one-time bonus payments in increments of $100, $200, $300, $400 and $1,000 based on concrete results in an employee’s performance, a system already used in advertising departments throughout the company in a far less structured way.
Q: Should we wait and try to launch it across the entire company instead of in just one cluster?
A: Launching in just one cluster allows us to move quickly at a time when we are significantly behind in equipping the majority of our newsroom staff with the basic digital skills needed to compete. It allows us to contain cost until we can demonstrate the ROI on such a rigorous and structured program and on the concept of rewarding employees for completing training and acquiring new skills. And it will help us measure the program’s success in contrast to newsrooms or clusters that are taking a different approach (i.e., the current system of offering more and more training but with little over-arching structure).
Q: Could we implement the program or accomplish the same thing without providing employees financial incentives for completing training? The assumption being that they would benefit from increased job skills and career opportunity.
A: A handful of highly motivated newsroom employees – let’s say 10 percent – might be serious about completing this program without financial incentive. We need to train the 90 percent. These aren’t skill sets that we expect only a handful of highly specialized, higher-level employees to master. They are the skills that need to become commonplace in the newsroom of tomorrow (which needs to be the newsroom of today). The 90 percent have a natural and understandable resistance and inertia against leaving their comfort zone and learning an entirely new set of skills. On top of that, they’re looking at more than three years without a raise. They’re feeling like there is no time in their day or room in their brain with shrinking staffs to do it. And they’re looking at past training that wasn’t connected strongly enough to how it applies to the job and how it benefits their career. And even for the highly motivated, attention to the program would last only until the pressure, distraction or disillusionment of their day-to-day workload intervenes. This is the most intensive, rigorous and structured training program ever undertaken in a Journal Register Company newsroom. It will not be possible without the financial incentive element.
Q: Why provide financial reward for learning these skills and not other (say, non-digital) skills that are valuable to a newsroom? What about the reporter who has incredible investigative reporting skills, or wins an award for good writing, but won’t learn, or isn’t good, at social media or blogging?
A: Very simple. These skills are a huge priority in the company’s Digital First transformation, and we need them broadly applied to newsroom staff, not resting solely with a few digital specialists, editors or higher-level employees. We need the reporter who does the investigative piece or wins the writing award to learn these skills just as much as we need the “digital native” right out of college to learn them.
Q: What if we produce a bunch of Digital Ninja School “black belts” who suddenly have a skill set beyond the opportunities and pay scale that we’re ready to offer them? Aren’t we just creating an environment where our most talented and recently-trained will leave us to work somewhere else?
A: That’s a self-defeating rationale, because take it to the extreme, and we should not only stop all training, but actively encourage a baseline of mediocrity that will keep employees achievements below the level where they might be sought by anyone else. The answer, instead, is to grow the business and create an organizational structure where we keep our strongest employees challenged, we have a clear path for them to move up in the organization, and we have a pay structure that is competitive and merit-based. Until we catch up to that ideal, however, we still benefit from a rapid acceleration of training and acquisition of digital skills in our employees. If some employees graduate from this program and go on to much bigger and more lucrative jobs at other companies, Journal Register Company will very quickly become known as a great company to start your career. But more importantly, the Digital Ninja School is built on a system where you have to apply new skills to your job in order to advance – we will be monetizing the byproduct of employees’ learning.
Q: Shouldn’t we be establishing a system of pay grades tied to skill level instead of one-time bonuses for completion of training and acquisition of skills?
A: In terms of bigger picture Human Resources strategy for the company, sure. In relation to this program, no. First of all, we need to acquire these skills very quickly in order to accomplish our business goals over the next year, and we couldn’t implement a new pay system that quickly even if we had agreed on one and had the funding for it. But also, that pay grade system wouldn’t necessarily be built under the same framework as the five digital skill set areas outlined in the Digital Ninja School. They are skills that all newsroom employees need to learn, not skills that should necessarily be used to differentiate pay grades.