February 08, 2006

Leadership: What Newsroom Leaders Need to Start - and Stop - Doing Now

As the editors of America's newspapers gathered for their annual convention last year, I wrote a piece chastising them for failing to focus their agenda on change [Read: ASNE Convention: Six Things that Should be on the Agenda] and offered a variety of alternative topics for discussion, one of which focused on leadership. I wrote:

Leadership in Uncertain Times: Change Must Come from the Top. ASNE members are journalists who became managers without learning how to lead. Leadership development is critical in an industry that must morph from defensive, production-oriented activities to constructive, collaborative innovation in order to compete. Arming newspaper editors with change management, communication, goal-setting, prioritization and other leadership skills is the most urgent training need in our newsrooms.

A year later - a horrible year for newspapers that saw circulation erode further and newsrooms lose more than 2,000 journalists - the agenda for the upcoming ASNE convention in Seattle looks much different.

The opening session is devoted to the search for a new business model for newspapers, something that is needed to pay for the journalism, and the next morning and part of the afternoon focus on innovation, community journalism and training as a tool for change.

Good, this is a start.

I dislike predictability and am not much of a fan of hubris either, but for a moment I'm going to give in to both. ASNE's agenda looks pretty much as I said it would in October when I wrote:

"I can guarantee that change, reinvention and innovation will be at the forefront of next year's ASNE convention. That's a beginning at least. What we need next is follow through." [Read: Rosen, Heyward and the Gang of Six]

A year ago, many newspaper editors were still in denial about the deteriorating relevance of their daily product. I doubt few continue to be today. In the above post I also wrote that "the demise of the news industry is all the rage and you can't scratch a news executive without uncovering a would-be change agent."

That newspapers are in crisis, confronted by irreversible changes in economics, demographics and technology, has finally permeated the culture of both the newsroom and the media company boardroom. The first step toward crisis resolution is awareness - and as an industry newspapers are finally there. The next step is imagining change, formulating a vision of a viable news organizations that preserve the principles of journalism. [Read: The Rise of the Norgs]

This brings us back to leadership (still not on the ASNE agenda). If we are going to reinvent newspapers - and we are - we must reinvent the leadership of newspapers. The traditional top-down, opaque, defensive style of management found in most newsrooms cannot foster a new future. It only oppresses those who want change, giving them two choices: Flee or be frustrated.

What type of leadership do newspapers need? Or better put: What qualities do the newsroom leaders of today need in order to build the news organization of tomorrow?

I'm going to answer with a series of starts and stops (circulation pun intended.)

What Newspaper Leaders Must Start Doing Today

 Start Pointing Ahead: Develop a vision for transformation. What will your news organization look like in 10 years? Five years? One year? From the vision, distill interim goals. Keep them simple. John Kotter, a Harvard professor and author, wrote:

"If you can't communicate the vision to someone in five minutes or less and get a reaction that signifies both understanding and interest, you are not yet done with this phase of the transformation process."

 Start Talking More: I once asked Julia Wallace, editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, one of the papers participating in the Tomorrow's Workforce project and a model for focused, strategic training, what she learned while discussing the paper's goals with her managers and staff. "The importance of over-communicating. The importance of committing yourself to it," she said. It is vital that newspaper leaders spend more time on the front lines than in the back office and use that time saying over and over again in as many ways possible: "This is where we're going. This is where we're going."

 Start Listening Even More: Your staff and managers know more than you do. Accept it. Learn from them. Listening to them will make you smarter and empower them, meaning they will be more engaged in reinvention because they will have helped shape it. Again, Julia Wallace: "It's about having good conversations, about how do we move forward, what does forward mean, talking about standards, talking about skill improvement and really working on it."

 Start Being Less Impatient: It took 50 years for newspapers to fall this far, you can't rebuild a news organization in a year or two. Envision long-term transformation. Define short-term wins that can lead to long-term victories.

 Start Being More Persistent: Another word for this is discipline. Don't give up. Don't abandon the long-term goal when inevitable short-term failures occur. Change is risky. Risk results in failure as often as success. Adapt, if necessary, and push on. Base rewards for staff and managers on effort and risk-taking rather than simply success.

 Start Crying Wolf - and Meaning It: The time is past for polite, euphemistic language about the need to change newspapers. Borrowing again from Kotter: "Executives underestimate how hard it can be to drive people out of their comfort zones." He uses the word "urgency." Exactly right. Convey urgency, convey the necessity of beginning to change today, convey the expectation, especially to senior managers, that change is mandatory, learning is a necessity and that those forestall either will find themselves out the door. The status quo can no longer be acceptable.

Vision. Communication. Patience. Persistence. Urgency. Leadership qualities that can enable reinvention. What others would you add?

What Newspaper Leaders Must Stop Doing Today

My colleague and overall wise woman Vicky Williams, director of the Learning Newsroom project, asked me as I was trying to think through some of these ideas: "What five things would you tell an editor you must do tomorrow?" Good question. Another way of posing the question, she said, is to ask: What should editors stop doing? (Thanks, Vickey) Some answers:

 Stop the Bullplop about Time: I have heard from countless newsroom managers - especially those "prisoners of the newsroom" doing time between senior management and staff - about the lack of time for training, for discussions with reporters, for conversations about goals, or for planning for the future. This is a feeble excuse based on a harried newsroom culture that values big investments in small matters rather continued investment in large matters, and on the perceived self-importance of senior managers. I like to tell top management: The paper comes out when you're on vacation or at ASNE, doesn't it? It comes out staffers take time off? It comes out during holiday periods when up to 20 percent of most newsrooms are gone? So take those percentages of time and devote them to staff improvement, product development and long-term change. What could possibly be more important these days than that? Lack of time? Sorry, that's a proxy for lack of will.

 Stop Using the First Amendment as an Anchor: The amendment refers to the "press," not to newspapers. And today "press" encompasses a much broader universe of media than it did in 1791. Yes, journalists have a civic responsibility. Yes, unfettered journalism is key to the function of an open society. But, no, the current format of newspapers and the current definitions of "news" are not the only means of fulfilling those obligations and providing that Fourth Estate role. It is the principles of journalism that are important, not the form in which they are practiced. We can keep the former intact and explode the latter.

 Stop Singing the Pay Your Dues Blues: As a fellow traveler in the Boomer generation it pains me to say this, but newsrooms are too old (average age 41 in 2003) and we need to make them younger. When an editor in a news meeting thinks putting the Stones or Bono on A-1 is part of the paper's young reader initiative, it's time for the clueless phone to ring. The Washington Post made a statement when it hired mid-20s techno-journalist Adrian Holovaty as editor of editorial innovation.

Attracting and retaining smart young people is an increasing problem for newspapers. The industry's trade association, NAA, stated in 2003 report, Preserving Talent, Part II (emphasis added):

" two themes recur: "We've got candidates for jobs, but we don't seem to be getting the cream of the crop any more," and "We keep losing the people we can't afford to lose."

And, the situation is getting worse:

"While turnover varies from newspaper department to department, in the industry overall it has climbed in recent years - from 13 percent reported in 1994 in the first "Preserving Talent" report - to around 20 percent reported by the Readership Institute findings in 2000."

Finally, despite the dismal salaries at most newspaper, the report says money "it is not the primary reason" young journalists leave newspapers and it urges news companies to focus on "non-monetary rewards that are of value to employees" and on "management practices that are proven to aid in retention."

In other words, newspaper might be better able to attract and keep bright young journalists - people who are not risk averse, people open to change, people with self-interest in the long-term build of a new news organization - if managers gave them more opportunity and more responsibility instead of telling them to queue up patiently until the current generation retires. The concept of paying your dues suggests joining a club, an obsolete metaphor in an age when anyone can build their own clubhouse.

(One idea on involving younger staff members in shaping the future of the paper: The Readership Institute has done plenty of good work about remaking newspapers around experiences that appeal to both older and younger readers. Form a group of young journalists to implement or enhance some of these ideas. Keep the geezers away. As we Boomers used to say: Don't trust anyone over 30!)

 Stop Thinking That Listening to Readers Dumbs Down the Paper: Is it too obvious to say that readers don't judge the newspaper they way journalists do? Readers put great weight on headlines; reporters dismiss them as secondary. Readers generally prefer shorter to longer, the opposite of most journalists. Readers don't care if editors have a half-dozen phrases for A-1 blurbs - teases, whips, reefers, etc.; readers see them as little "stories." Readers like summaries. Readers like good news. Readers like local news. Is it so hard to put more of all those things in the newspaper?

Is it too obvious to say that readers are the reason newspapers are published (remember that thing about an informed public) and newspapers are going to have to get better at informing them in ways of their choosing and not of ours.

 Stop Pretending that the "Newspaper" is about Paper: The New York Times already has more online than print readers. Eventually, other larger papers will follow, then the regionals. The shift of the news audience from static to digital products poses a difficult conundrum for news leaders: Capturing audience or capturing dollars. As magazine and web entrepreneur John Battelle told BusinessWeek:

"The business model that seems to justify the expense of producing quality journalism is the one that isn't growing, and the one that is growing -- the Internet -- isn't producing enough revenue to produce journalism of the same quality."

Journalism without audience is meaningless. If you think of leadership as a finite value - there are only so many hours in the work day, only so many true leaders - then in times when present journalism models are collapsing leadership must be invested in the digital future, even one that doesn't offer any more immediate reward than audience.

Digital leadership means aligning the vision for the newsroom with the attention of upper management and allocation of front-line resources. In other words, it's time for newspapers to put the money and the bodies where the future is - online.

 Stop Using Old Blueprints for New Resources: You've heard me ask many times: If you could rebuild your newsroom from scratch, given the same FTE and budget numbers you have today, what kind newspaper would you make? I said:

"Would you create the same beats, the same departments, the same production and decision-making processes? Would you fill the newsroom seats with the same people who are there now? Would you design the paper and its web site in the same formats?" [Read: Intentional Journalism]

Of course you wouldn't. As the newsroom leader, then, I must ask: Then why haven't you changed it? Every fundamental newsroom practice must be re-examined, beginning with the question: Why do we do things this way? And moving on to: What are the alternatives? What else is possible if we did less of this? Or more of this? Yes, those types of questions engender discomfort. No journalist wants to think that what they're doing doesn't have value. Change produces anxiety, but it is the role of leadership to guide employees through uncertainty and toward success. That's what the bigger paycheck is for - not because you can run an efficient meeting.

Prioritize change. Keep the principles, change the practices. Get younger. Readers first. Web now. Rebuild from scratch.

As an outsider, I have the luxury of speaking plainly. But even the newspaper industry insiders, using more politic language, underscore the need for more invigorating leadership. Here's Rick Rodriguez, editor of the Sacramento Bee and current president of ASNE writing in that organization's newsletter (emphasis added):

"The uncertainty in the industry, particularly for those editors whose companies are in play or face layoffs or cuts, is unsettling, daunting and, at times, downright discouraging. But it's also an exciting time, a time to innovate, to reevaluate and move in new directions. As editors, it's time for us to lead in ways that preserve the best of what we have done for generations while looking boldly ahead."

All true. Let's hurry up. I'm beginning to see the formations of next year's ASNE agenda.

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Posted by Tim Porter at February 8, 2006 01:22 PM

Tim: Great piece. We sing from the same sheet music. I would add one more necessary quality of Leadership to your list (perhaps you feel that it is a subset of what you have, but I feel it is important enough to stand on its own):


Courage to Risk
Courage to Challenge the status quo; to slay sacred cows
Courage to Dream
Courage to Lead
Courage to Listen
Courage to Collect real data/facts and then listen to what they tell us
Courage to Enter uncharted waters.

Posted by: Willy Burkhardt on February 8, 2006 02:23 PM

Great essay! yet one comment:

"New blood" can sometimes be people who make a career changes, who have enthusiasm for what they are doing. "New blood" and fresh ideas aren't necessarily province of a a particular age demographic, as you seem to indicate. Sometimes an "outsider" coming into an organization from a totally unrelated background, no matter what age, can invigorate things. More than ageism, a certain professional elitism pervades journalism and denies the value of mentoring--coupled with a not-so-sublte gender bias in the newsroom. These two factors could also be contributing to making the modern newsroom as sluggish as an ice-clogged Moscow river.

Posted by: Tish Grier on February 9, 2006 04:32 AM
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