Le Temps Afrique and its agile origins

  • Jonas Vonlanthen

Gaël Hurlimann, one of Le Temps’s two editors-in-chief, spoke to us about Le Temps’s vision and how innovation is approached at the newspaper.

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In February we met Gaël Hurlimann, one of Le Temps’s two editors-in-chief. It was Tuesday 25 February – the day that the first reported case of COVID-19 in Switzerland was announced. Between two briefings to reorganise the following day’s edition, he spoke to us about Le Temps’s vision in a media environment that has been turned upside down. In the midst of a turbulent media landscape, we talked about how innovation is approached at the newspaper and in the Le Temps Afrique project.

Gaël Hurlimann also supervises Le Temps’s Digital Factory – a team incorporating various digital professions. ‘I have to juggle between two mindsets, sometimes it gets confusing’, he admits. ‘There's one that adapts to how digital natives work and another that operates in a very traditional, journalistic way’.

Journalism and the media industry as a whole have been turned upside down – what approach are you taking for Le Temps in this environment?

Making changes that are simple yet radical. First of all, we want to strengthen the Le Temps brand. It has to be defined in a clear, easily understandable way. The brand promise must be obvious. We are no longer defined by being a high-end newspaper. Instead, we consider ourselves to be a media source that takes an in-depth approach. What matters is not the channel we use, but how Le Temps views the world – what defines us on an editorial level.

Which brings me to my second point. We want to boost our ability to find new ways of telling stories. We have a whole range of tools at our disposal. Whilst a print journalist can tell a story in the form of an interview, report, commentary or analysis, an ‘agnostic’ journalist can opt for the form of a video, event, printed or interactive infographics, or something else entirely. The variety of formats used, is therefore much wider. The channel used depends on what you want to say.

So in a manner of speaking, you are becoming more agile?

We are increasingly taking a project-based approach. For example, the journalists that we call ‘Chefs de cause’ think about how to make an impact on the world and then find the best tool for the job, even if it is far from the traditional means – in the case of Le Temps’s, writing. In addition, the Digital Factory helps to reduce the technical load for these projects.

Our approach to innovation also includes establishing a laboratory mode. This is similar to agile methodology, using an iterative process and quickly testing ideas against reality.

Every journalist can suggest a new idea and have it go through multiple iterations without success being the be-all and end-all. During this testing process, journalists have access to developers, editors, designers and other people who will help them make their idea a reality. For our Brise-Glace podcast, we did five episodes and saw that it had huge potential, so then we defined its KPIs, funding model and workflow. It was time to move on from the prototyping stage and scale up the project.

Without this laboratory approach, we would have tried to build the entire workflow and marketing process during the first episode. We would have spent huge amounts of time creating specifications that would probably have ended up being wrong.

We are gradually replacing the idea of ‘I must fill predefined spaces in a particular section’ with the mindset of ‘I implement projects’.

It would make sense to create an ad-hoc team to tackle a subject such as the coronavirus. We are not yet fully able to do this. However, the ultimate aim is to ensure that we have this flexibility to systematically adapt our organisation to fit our news coverage.

How would you define innovation?

Innovation means not being afraid to try new things. It also means being transparent with our audience, asking them for feedback and listening to what they have to say. When we test ideas, we are brave enough to admit that things are not perfect.

Le Temps is also seeking to promote technological innovation. Whenever we develop a web-based tool, we put it on GitHub, in open-source format wherever possible. If the code is used by others, so much the better. Not only is it great advertisement for us but it also allows us to improve the tool further.

A few months ago, we started providing agile support to the Le Temps Afrique project – how is that going?

We started by thinking about Le Temps’s positioning and added value. We defined the scope of this project so that we could be very clear about our intentions. When the team was formed, we took the gamble of putting a journalist at the heart of a working group that would be working entirely using agile methods. This was a first for us.

The support provided by Liip has been fantastic, especially when it came to agile methodology. All of our doubts and uncertainties, particularly regarding a highly codified vocabulary and way of working, have been alleviated. This was because Liip was able to find the right ways and words to introduce these practices, while also tailoring them to the environment at Le Temps.

Liip delicately handled the introduction of certain elements of Holacracy and the agile methodology Scrum. You didn’t turn up with a ready-made toolbox, you created solutions to fit the context where they were going to be applied.

A few months later, what are the results?

We have just launched the Le Temps Afrique project. But first and foremost, we are happy with the team’s operations and working methods. We have discovered that bringing journalists from different sections together in a single project does work.

Therefore we would like to apply this approach to other projects – for example, all new podcast launches could be paired with coaching similar to what you set up for Le Temps Afrique. Eventually, we will be able to operate using just small (agile and self-organised) teams and a network of journalists who will combine forces to tackle a particular topic. And if we do continue in this direction, we would most likely be one of the first media companies to dare this approach.

And we are ready for the challenge because we have the best support! Thanks to Liip, we have been able to adopt a management style based on more agility and self-responsibility. I am pleased to see that our editorial staff are ready to try new things!

How would you describe your collaboration with Liip in three emojis?

👂 I had one major fear: That the support provided would boil down to a pre-set toolbox. But Liip managed to adapt the tools and vocabulary to us. This ability to listen and the finesse of the solutions provided were key factors in the project’s success.
Repetition and perseverance. We couldn't have done it without Liip. You provided us continued support, which has enabled us to gradually incorporate these new methods of working and self-management.
🧰🔧 🔨 Liip got us to a point where we were comfortable with the changes. The aim was to equip the journalists with the right tools to deal with this extremely dynamic environment.

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