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The Telegraph’s Michelle Brister: Why bridge roles are essential in media organisations

If news organisations continue to do everything the way we’ve always done things, there might not be a future in news, warns Michelle Brister, head of audience development at The Telegraph. You need people who are versatile and thrive on solving problems, bridging roles and spanning divides between departments, Michelle tells Adri Kotze.

At the risk of sounding like a dinosaur, I must confess that I started in a newsroom when “ads” were not only sitting on a different floor – everyone in the department was positively the enemy. (Oh, how the chief sub would curse them if a full-page advertisement was cancelled or added at the last minute!) We deemed advertorial copy beneath our lofty principles, and “marketing” was a nebulous and mysterious, if well-dressed, department.

It was “us” and “them”.

We answered only to the news editor and complained if we had to report outside our beats. Yes, we thought print was invincible. (Cue much ironic laughter.)

Of course, anyone still in the industry can no longer do only one job. We have had to adapt over and over, learn new skills, and assume different and more roles and responsibilities. We do events, become social media whizzes and analytics experts, save money, make money, shoot video while podcasting and somersaulting backwards, write newsletters, embrace AI pretending it won’t take our jobs, break exclusives AND do explainers and in-depth features but package them concisely for the TikTok generation.

One of the main changes, though, is that we interact differently with our audience – and this is truly a good thing. The time of printing articles on paper and publishing a few hand-selected reader letters, effectively talking at the audience, is over. In a competitive, grim media landscape, we now know we must put audiences first from every angle, no matter how trite that may sound.

And to do that, teams and departments must work together and have the same purpose. There can no longer be any “us and them” between editorial and commercial.

The question is how to get people across an organisation to share this single focus, collaborate, and deliver on time as digital transformation speeds up.

Michelle Brister, head of audience development at The Telegraph, says bridge roles are essential in media organisations.

“In times that are quite challenging and tricky, you need people who are really versatile and can figure out who to solve problems, who enjoy looking for a new way to solve a problem,” Michelle explains.

Michelle is one of our speakers at Mx3 Barcelona on 12-13 March, where she will talk about Authentic voices: Growing trust and engagement through building journalist profiles. Meet her and others there. View the agenda, speakers and partners, and purchase your tickets here:

Spanning divides

Bridge roles are nothing new. Frederica Cherubini, then head of knowledge sharing at Condé Nast International, wrote about the rise of bridge roles in news organisations in a Nieman Lab Prediction for 2018. She forecasted that roles connecting departments and specialities and translating mindsets would play an ever more important part in companies pushing forward their digital development.

But whereas bridge roles evolved organically in the past, Michelle says, they now require specific skills and are recognised and valued for their impact.

“People have been creating bridges for a while. In the past, it was quite informal. These roles were performed by individuals who traditionally had one role, but they noticed they needed to collaborate to get the job done and took the initiative. Then they noticed that collaboration and bringing people together is important and they suddenly go, ‘Oh, that’s what I am, I’m a bridge’.“

Many different roles can be bridges, but they generally span the divide between departments and break down silos.

“They can be really varied. They tend to be hybrid roles and promote multidisciplinary ways of working.

“In my experience, they seem to be positions that think a lot about the user. For example, audience tends to involve data, [and] product. It’s often about problem-solving and helping to facilitate change.”

Typically, bridges would consider the reader experience and work with audience, product, data, and design.

As a bridge, Michelle explains, you either have a foot in each camp or you are “in the middle”, helping two parties.

In audience, for example, which is Michelle’s background, you “can’t do your job well if you are operating as an island”.


Michelle refers to a Dmitry Shiskin talk in which the digital transformation specialist, who is widely credited with “inventing” bridge roles at the BBC World Service, noted that you don’t hire a bridge for their expertise, but rather their attitude and ability to “go beyond”.

“That’s exactly right. [At the Telegraph], we’ve recently hired people in more junior roles who perhaps haven’t had the experience in that area, but we recognised that they have the curiosity and hunger that make them a good fit for a bridge role. And we’ve been proven right. They’ve been very successful.”

You want people who are “product thinkers”, Michelle explains.

“That means you can think strategically and consider the benefit to the business beyond your own department. You have to have good communication skills and be good at collaboration because you are working at the intersection of lots of people.

“You need to find ways of speaking the same language as everyone and translating between people. Understanding how people work is crucial. Storytelling is really key. You need to bring people on a journey with you.”

At The Telegraph, they have been getting the wider team, especially less experienced people, to work across the organisation. This includes training, shadowing, and working on different projects so that they meet people in different departments and understand how to collaborate from an early point in their careers.

“They also benefit from skills and data, understanding the evidence and how to present it, learning to project manage and how to deal with different stakeholders.

“You need to be entrepreneurial and determined because there’s not usually a clear-cut process.”


It may be exciting in a bridge role as you could be a trailblazer, Michelle says, but it can also be a bit lonely as you’re often not doing exactly the same job as anyone else. Sometimes, there is not a clear career progression route.

Often, you are joining the dots and being the catalyst for change, but the positive outcome isn’t often your own. “All your best work is behind the scenes, and if you’ve done your job really well it’s almost like you were never there. It’s still very satisfying but sometimes it’s [a question of] how do you show that this role is valuable and track the progress that you’ve made.”


It all sounds obvious, but, as always, the devil is in the detail (and preparation).

Michelle says alignment is crucial.

“You have to spend the time getting all the fundamentals right. You need to make sure you’re all on the same page and you have the same goals in mind. And for that, data is your best friend.

“But you also need to be talking to other people, sharing your ideas, understanding how other people work and what their language is and what their problems are. And I think that point is really crucial, because if you can understand what their problems are and solve them, they [can] get on board with the changes that you proposing.”

Prioritisation, too, is key – and frameworks are helpful for that, like a matrix with effort against impact.

“They also really help with communicating what you’re doing to multiple stakeholders and getting buy-in on the best way forward,” Michelle explains. “You can’t ever forget that you really need senior leadership on board to make progress, so having those points of kind of communicating upwards are really important.”.

Bridge roles in 2024

In the Nieman Lab predictions for this year, Shiskin wrote that generalist times are over. “User needs models will further align your organisation as everyone will be able to use the model — editorial, product, sales, data disciplines.”

In a bleak media landscape, Michelle says bridge roles are essential.

“In times that are challenging and quite tricky, you need people who are really versatile and who can figure out how to solve problems and who kind of thrive on looking for a new way to solve a problem. If news organisations just continue to do everything the way that we’ve always done them, there possibly might not be a future in news.

“We always have to keep adapting and continue to think what might be the next challenge over the horizon,” she warns.

With AI being the next big thing, you can’t “just sit there and go, okay, well, maybe it won’t affect things”. You need to figure out how to use it to your advantage, she says, and to compete not only against other publishers, but also against all the other people who are fighting for readers’ attention.

*Watch Michelle talk on bridge roles here: