The Toilet Paper

How to stimulate creativity and innovation in distributed journalistic teams

Psychological safety and good use of technology can make journalists more creative and innovative.

A remote worker shakes hands with an office worker
Everything is better when we stick together

Communication technologies like Teams and Slack enable journalists to work together despite geographical or temporal differences. They have been reported to facilitate knowledge sharing and open discussions, and lower hierarchies.

At the same time, communication technologies are a threat to traditional media organisations, which are facing a loss of audiences and increasing competition with digital giants like Google and Facebook. Media organisations that wish to survive will have to be creative and innovative.

This study looks at two journalistic teams that collaborate using communication technologies.

Both teams are part of a Finnish media corporation.

The first team is a feature team that produces a renowned weekend-style section for its client newspapers once a week. Stories are published both in print and online, but their primary focus is print. Four of its members work at the same physical location, while two work remotely.

The second team is a news team that produces daily national and regional news for print and online. Its eight members are located in different newsrooms across the country such that no more than two members are ever in the same physical newsroom at any given time.

By observing team meetings and interviewing journalists, we learn more about the factors that enable and constraint creative work and innovation in these two journalistic teams.

Idea sharing and development


Habits and goals related to idea sharing and development shaped how the teams produce creative work.

  • Time and space for idea sharing and development: The feature team does not have a clear, dedicated time for ideation. Their bi-weekly meetings function as formal, highly structured round-ups, where journalists update each other on ongoing and upcoming projects. Ideation is often postponed until a later time, when face-to-face discussions are possible.

    Conversely, the news team devotes time to ideation in their daily morning meetings as well as separate ideation meetings. These meetings involve lengthy discussions about daily politics, personal anecdotes, and brainstorming.

  • Tangible goals as drivers of new ideas: The news team is relatively young, and was initially tasked with producing stories that would garner attention. Some journalists felt that this spurred their creative thinking, while others believed it limited their ability to cover interesting topics. In the end, the goal was changed to approaching stories with a human-interest mindset. In either case, the goal was tangible and measurable.

    This is not the case for the feature team, which has a more ambiguous goal for creative work. Its members simply understand that being part of the team requires something called “hypercreativity”, which basically means that one needs to be more creative than other outlets.

Psychologically safe communication climate


A psychologically safe communication climate (PSCC) enables team members to engage in interpersonal risk-taking, e.g. to say what they think without fear of rejection or humiliation. PSCC has been positively associated with knowledge and information sharing, as well as innovative behaviour in dispersed teams.

  • Open communication: A psychologically safe communication climate is present in both teams.

    Members of the feature team who are located in the same newsroom often have face-to-face discussions over lunch or coffee that lead to ideas, which often make it into the final publication.

    The news team has developed similar habits on Slack as one would find in a physical newsroom: journalists say “good morning” as they start their day and “goodbye” as they leave. The bulk of communications is handled through Slack. Phones are only used during emergencies. Slack is also commonly used for off-topic conversations, which further bolstered PSCC.

  • Technology as a source of uncertainty: Most journalists in the feature team see technology as a barrier for creative work and innovation. Each journalist has their own channel, where others can contribute to ideas and provide feedback. Journalists are hesitant to give feedback in such channels, as they feel that written feedback is too easily misunderstood. This hesitancy to give feedback also affects the development of work practices and discussions of group norms, as neither are done in this team.

    In the news team on the other hand these discussions do happen. The team has worked together twice to come up with guidelines to improve their working practices: once when the editor brought up a quality issue and once when journalists themselves felt they needed clear directions.

Team characteristics


Team characteristics can shape idea sharing and development.

  • Geographical dispersion: The unequal dispersion of the feature team has given rise to a local clique within the team. Within this clique story ideas are discussed and fine-tuned during breaks, something which is thought to be impossible on Slack. The two remote workers on the other hand feel somewhat disconnected from the rest and believe that they have fewer opportunities to communicate. Members feel closest to colleagues whom they share offices with.

    The geographic distribution of the news team forces members to actively collaborate through technology. As a result, all journalists except one identify a remote colleague as their closest colleague rather than someone who works in the same office.

  • Team histories: The news team is barely two years old. In therefore does not have a history to lean on, which makes it agile in its work.

    The feature team has over 20 years of history, a recognisable brand, and external expectations that have been formed and cemented over time. Developing the team’s editorial processes in such an environment proves to be difficult.



Dispersed teams should try to:

  1. actively share ideas, develop working practices, and set tangible goals

  2. foster a psychologically safe communication climate