Phillip Smith

Input requested: A 7-step framework for modern-day reporting organizations

I have a framework that I’d like to share with you. I’m sharing it with you early in the process, in the open-source spirit of “release early and release often,” with the hope that you can help me improve it.

Put simply, it’s a seven-step framework to help people think about how to build and run a modern-day reporting organization. It’s a prioritized approach to work through the strategic and tactical questions that I believe will need to be at the heart of every successful journalism enterprise of today and tomorrow. Here are the steps:

A 7-step framework for modern-day reporting organizations

Although I’ve used the term steps, this is actually a cycle of continuous innovation, not a one-shot deal or single-pass through the steps.

I believe that continuous innovation is a necessary skill for all **successful journalism enterprises to master. It’s necessary because media companies, large and small, are in a period of particularly aggressive disruption: people’s expectations of journalism organizations are changing rapidly, and that’s in large part due to technical advances from platforms and a handful of highly-innovative media companies. The media organizations that are going to thrive in this environment will need to disrupt their own products continuously to continue to earn the ongoing relationship with customers.

I believe this is true because I’ve been observing and researching the following:

Which brings us back to this seven-step framework for thinking about building and running modern-day reporting organizations:

A 7-step framework for modern-day reporting organizations

Each stage can be divided into two sets of decisions to be made:

  • Strategy: The big-picture questions that help us to understand this new environment and how to navigate it successfully

  • Tactics: Specific forms of action, such as training or tools, that drive toward the larger strategic goal

Put together, these represent a lot of strategic and tactical decisions. Don’t panic. These decisions don’t need to be made all at once. However, I believe that a growing journalism enterprise will need to have all of these questions on the roadmap to be successful, both in terms of meeting current customers’ needs, as well as building a path to the customers of tomorrow.

Here’s where I need your help:

  • Can you help me think through what’s missing from the lists of questions below?

  • And can you share examples of journalism initiatives have tackled these effectively?

Perhaps, working together, we can define a framework – as well as case studies – for thinking about a modern-day reporting organization that can be shared with the enterprising journalists who are building the media ecosystem of tomorrow. God knows they will need a map to find their way.

Please add your contributions in the comments below, or feel free to send them to me directly in one of the usual places.


Strategic questions Tactics & tools
  • How can you create a welcoming environment for readers to engage with reporting, and how will you encourage them to contribute their voices?
  • What role should listening have (or play) in shaping editorial decisions?
  • How might listening (to community members, readers, sources, etc) help to improve the journalism product?
  • How might listening get captured, summarized, and fed back into the decision-making process?
  • Training & incentives for reporting staff to engage with users
  • Letters to the Editor
  • Polls, surveys, and forms
  • Events
  • Email, phone, voicemail, social channels
  • Ground Source
  • Hearken
  • Coral Project
  • SecureDrop

Example of Listen in action: HuffPost is taking its reporters on a “listening tour,” seeking stories, new readers, data, and solidarity


Strategic questions Tactics & tools
  • To paraphrase to Stephen Berry, "all reporting should be investigative reporting;" How might that ethos be introduced to all of the editorial products?
  • Rob Wijnberg of De Correspondent often states that he reports on “the climate, not the weather,” meaning he focuses on the larger context and not the day-to-day. Thinking about that, you might ask: What environmental forces are impacting your readers/customers/users the most?
  • How are the issues you cover part of a larger complex system? How do the variables in that system influence each other? What is the larger context that the issue exists within?
  • Telephone, email, shoe leather
  • Public records searches
  • Internet sleuthing (whois, social, etc.)
  • Network mapping
  • Scrapers, ETL processes
  • Data dumps, leaks, etc.
  • DocumentCloud
  • Tabula
  • Alerts from audio/video/text feeds

Examples of Investigate in action:


Strategic questions Tactics & tools
  • What editorial product(s) might solve a painful problem for customers? Or what existing product are they engaging with most?
  • Where are customers engaging with the editorial products? (If not your own, then competitors.)
  • When are customers engaging with the editorial products?
  • On which devices are they engaging with the editorial products?
  • Given the above, what might be some opportunities to introduce products that aim to make customers smarter?
  • Web scheduling, budgeting, and planning
  • New story formats (explainer, live, scrollytelling, etc.)
  • User-friendly, searchable databases
  • Responsive graphs, charts, etc.
  • Data-driven interactives
  • Multi-format video, images, audio, etc.

Example of Create in action: By mass-texting local residents, Outlier Media connects low-income news consumers to useful, personalized data


Strategic questions Tactics & tools
  • If you plan to publish regularly (or already do), it’s unlikely that customers will see everything you publish. How can their chances of seeing relevant or timely information be increased?
  • How can customers be reached "where they are," and pulled back to editorial products?
  • How is publishing part of a “build, measure, learn” process in which learning is a key outcome?
  • Last but not least, how can the above be undertaken without appearing “creepy” to customers?
  • Push notifications, alerts & newsletters
  • Personalization, targeting & re-engagement
  • A/B testing
  • Publishing/promotion on social platforms
  • Embeddable widgets

Examples of Publish in action:

(NOTE: Some team members can head back to the Listen stage right here, as shown in the flow.)

Ask & Earn

Strategic questions Tactics & tools
  • What is "the offer" to people engaging with the editorial products?
  • What is the value proposition? What value is this editorial creating for customers?
  • What will motivate casual visitors to become paying customers?
  • In what novel ways can the business model and editorial product work together to build a sustainable enterprise?
  • Paywall/subscriptions: Piano, Pico, etc.
  • Members: Memberful, Patreon, etc.
  • Crowdfunding: Kickstarter, IndieGoGo, etc.
  • Donations: Stripe, Paypal, etc.
  • Events & workshops

Examples of Ask & Earn: How Swedish tabloid Aftonbladet reached 250,000 digital subscribers


Strategic questions Tactics & tools
  • How is customer learning prioritized and captured across the enterprise?
  • If a problem is found, do you have a path to understand why it’s happening?
  • Are the right metrics being prioritized? Do they keep everyone focused on a shared larger goal? What is the "north star" metric?
  • Interviews with customers
  • Customer service reports
  • Event-based emailed surveys
  • Cohort-based analytic reports
  • Experiments & testing

Example of Learn in action: I’m still searching, do you know of a journalism enterprise that prioritizes learning?


Strategic questions Tactics & tools
  • How can the same editorial experience be scaled for the next 10x jump in customers?
  • How to grow from a "concierge" service to self-service? From “Wizard of Oz,” to intelligent agents?
  • How can repetitive tasks be automated (or eliminated)?
  • Standardized processes
  • Marketing automation & personalization
  • CRMs, sales force automation, etc.
  • Predictive analytics
  • Investigative dashboards & story radar
  • Some automated story writing

Examples of Automate in action:

Behind all of this, like any enterprise, there will need to be business-side concerns like administration, accounting, payroll, legal, and so on. For that reason, I’ve left them out of the prioritized concerns above.

As always, I welcome your contributions in the comments below, or feel free to send them to me directly in one of the usual places.

Follow me on Medium, Twitter, or sign-up for my newsletter to receive updates as this framework evolves.

Many thanks in advance for your help on this,


As part of this JSK Fellowship, I’m working to improve the amount of “thinking out loud” that I do. This post is part of that effort and it works like this: I throw out some roughly formulated ideas that I’ve been considering, and you provide me with input to make them better. In the process, we’ll learn from each other, and you will be the first to try the resulting output: a product, an event, a course, etc. If that sounds good, you should consider following me to receive updates.


Hi, I'm Phillip Smith, a veteran digital publishing consultant, online advocacy specialist, and strategic convener. If you enjoyed reading this, find me on Twitter and I'll keep you updated.


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