How Slack became Nine’s digital HQ and helped rewrite its culture story

"We’ve got large newsrooms full of hundreds of journalists, we’ve got major breaking news events. We need to bring different teams together, and Slack is an incredibly powerful tool to enable that."

Damian Cronan CITO , Nine

The relationship Damian Cronan has with email is a bit unusual. As Chief Information Technology Officer for Australia’s largest locally owned media company, Nine, he oversees IT operations for its biggest news and entertainment brands including the Nine Network, the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. Despite the fast-paced nature of his role, Damian only receives about 12 emails a day. “I will only check email twice a day,” saying he looks once in the morning and once in the evening, mainly for messages from people outside Nine. “All of my day to day interaction is done within Slack, and I’ve hardly sent an internal email in three years,” he says.

That’s been possible because, by using Slack, work at Nine has been transformed in a way that’s touched everything from news gathering and editing to the most important company announcements. “Slack is where the work is done,” says Cronan.

But it wasn’t always like this. Nine has more than 5,000 employees across the country, some working from capital city head offices, others working remotely, on the road or in the studio. It’s made up of different divisions, including radio, broadcast, print and digital, and has multiple subsidiary businesses, including Stan, Domain, Drive, Future Women and Pedestrian Group. Brought into the Nine family over time, each of those divisions still had their own histories, cultures and systems.

Home to some of the best journalists, entertainers and creative minds in the country, Nine had to write itself a new story about working together and building a shared culture, while retaining what makes each of its brands unique.  

Nine’s legacy of different systems

Slack has been part of that story. Work environments are increasingly complex, and a digital HQ that offers a free flow of information and brings people together in one place is simply the most efficient way to get work done.

But when the Nine Network, and Fairfax Media, a newspaper publisher, merged to form the new Nine  in 2018, each arm of the business was using different email systems and communications tools. Publishing was already using Slack, while Television and Corporate were mainly using email and Microsoft Teams. Everyone had their own way of doing things, and there was no clean way to communicate with the whole company at once. 

For Nine Publishing, Slack had been a revelation, helping it break news faster. Nine’s journalists need to be where the story is, but before Slack, connecting the right people to deliver the headlines was often difficult. Now Slack is used to loop in key people and “swarm” around rapidly breaking news. Everyone can see what resources are needed, where people need to be and what the angles are. It also means that team leaders can stay in the loop, even if they’re not immediately involved in a story. 

Grammar checks are also automated and corrections are crowdsourced in a Slack channel. There’s no one left off email chains, and much less friction. “It’s something you can’t do [with email]. You can’t have an email with 500 people on it responding to a news event,” Cronan says. 

A lot of what we do is respond to events of the day, and Slack is an incredibly powerful tool to enable that. What you can do in Slack is have everyone in one channel and then, if you need to, you might peel off and have secondary channels where you’ve got information or specific areas of focus.

Damian CronanCITO, Nine

 

How Slack sparked an enterprise-wide revolution at Nine

As Nine looked for ways to improve collaboration between teams, streamline workflows and enhance communication, the improvements seen firsthand in Publishing stood out. Because work can happen in parallel and people can use Slack to bring themselves up to speed, “tasks that used to take days are now taking no longer than 30 minutes”, Cronan says. 

In 2021, Nine rolled out Slack out across all departments as part of a major digital uplift. Slack’s ability to connect people from different parts of the business, as well as its work-from-anywhere flexibility and ability to play well with other systems, grabbed the company’s attention.

Nine relies on email far less since the change .“The number of emails sent on our internal platform is well, well down. It’s double-digit down. And that is continuing to drop,” Cronan says.

 And Slack doesn’t force one part of the business to conform to a cookie-cutter way of doing things. “Our teams produce different products and have different goals and outcomes. We can customise the platform to work with them, rather than having to change ourselves to fit the platform,” Cronan says.

“Slack is so embedded in everything. Our teams produce different products and have different goals and outcomes. We can customise the platform to work with them, rather than having to change ourselves to fit the platform.”

Damian CronanCITO, Nine

Cross-departmental collaboration: not just a buzzword 

Cronan says “collaboration” is a buzzword that’s starting to get a bit worn out. But at the same time, you notice it when it’s not happening.

Nine uses Slack channels—virtual spaces to share messages, workplace automations, digital tools and files—to bring together different groups.

“One of our most popular channels is one with all of the journalists plus technology in it,” Cronan says. “Sometimes you just want a simple answer to a simple question. In this channel, people can ask a question and someone out there knows the answer. There’s a quick interchange and then the issue is resolved.”

Half of the issues raised by journalists and editors are now sorted out in Slack, on the spot. Slack also makes it easier to escalate if the problem is more complex.

When the time came to migrate the entire company to Google Workspace, the channel that was set up to help people make the move later evolved into a self-supporting community of shared expertise. You can think of Slack as “a bit of WD-40 for your organisation. It smooths the edges, it frees up the flow of information”, Cronan says.  

How Slack helped build a culture

Nine is a company of many parts, and its subsidiary businesses like Pedestrian Group, Stan and Drive, also have their own unique identities and cultures. Their Slack workspaces help preserve that. But there are times when they need to collaborate with colleagues at Nine. That’s where Slack Connect, which delivers secure, seamless communication with people outside your company, comes in. “We set up channels where teams can engage without necessarily having to be part of the same Slack environment,” Cronan says. “And that gives them the freedom to operate and still have their cultural identity.” It’s another example of how Slack reduces friction.

But rolling out Slack across the organisation also aims to fundamentally change Nine’s culture to make it more inclusive. When it came to talking to the entire company, “cascaded comms,” handed down from management across two different email systems, just didn’t work. Slack has completely changed the story, Cronan says. “We have all-hands meetings where people can submit their questions to a Slack channel and have them answered by execs in real time. This has improved not just the way we communicate within the organisation, but also our workplace culture.”

“We have all-hands meetings where people can submit their questions to a Slack channel and have them answered by execs in real time. This has improved not just the way we communicate within the organisation, but also our workplace culture.”

Damian CronanCITO, Nine

Damian Cronan’s tips for getting started in Slack 

Whether you run a multinational organisation or a 20-person company, Slack will simplify your working processes. But Cronan says the story of Slack at Nine has been an evolving one, and he has learned lessons along the way.

Finally, it’s time to move on from the idea that Slack is just a messaging tool.

It’s so much more than that. Nine uses it for pretty much every function you can think of: rostering, swarming on breaking news, automating tasks and workflows, business updates, and reporting. Slack’s layout and categorisation make it easy to find information on different topics, rather than having to sift through a server or find decks hidden all over the place.

Change is hard—that’s just human nature. People get stuck in their habits and can be suspicious of systems that make big promises. So don’t expect widespread adoption to happen overnight. “Start small,” says Cronan. “Focus on the quick wins that will have an impact and will demonstrate Slack’s benefits.” When people see those benefits firsthand, Slack starts to write its own success story.