May 16, 2006

At Last - Leadership

The pixels were barely dry one of First Draft's last pre-hiatus posts - one about the continuing lack of forward-looking leadership in the newspaper industry - when events did what events always do to that which remains static - made its point out of date.

My response to those events is equally behind the times because I wanted to let a sleeping blog lie for a bit longer, but as I think about how critical leadership is to change I couldn't let this thought go, even at the risk of appearing to be slower off the news than a wire service feature story.

Before this year's ASNE convention (a fading memory for most, I'm sure), I applauded the group's inclusion of panels on innovation and change, subjects it all but ignored the previous year, but pointed out that assembled editors were still not focusing on the one thing that is not only necessary for reinvention of newspapers in a digital age but is also their primary job: Leadership.

I wrote:

"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."

As it turned out, someone at ASNE was thinking exactly as I was - Dave Zeeck, editor of the Tacoma News Tribune and incoming ASNE president. Zeeck spoke to the convention on its last day, after I had already flown home to San Francisco. Zeeck said he is "not spending another minute of my life worrying about the future of newspapers," that it is the news that matter, the journalism, not the platform. [Read: There's Nothing Left but the Journalism.] And, said Zeeck, the future of news will depend greatly on how it is shaped - or ignored - by today's newsroom managers. He said (emphasis added):

"Our choice couldn't be clearer. We can be swept along by a tide of change - a blizzard of technology, news as a commodity, multiplying competitors, the pressures of Wall Street and limited resources.

"Or we can take who we are - experienced journalists, critical thinkers, people of integrity, skilled at asking good questions and analyzing data - and exert our energies and our talents to craft the best outcomes that we can imagine and deliver.

"Merely riding the current of change, complaining all the while, is a path that leads only to cynicism and failure. It's seductively self-indulgent, but it's just plain wrong.

"The alternative is choosing to act. That's leadership. And it's what these times demand."

Zeeck outlined a leadership agenda, one I think makes a great deal of sense and can used as a foundation for change in newsrooms large and small. Among the bullet points:

 Leadership on quality: "We must give readers leadership that produces more journalism worthy of the First Amendment."

 Leadership on transparency - inside and outside the newsroom: "It means keeping our word, and correcting our mistakes. It means protecting and living by the values we hold sacred."

 Leadership on connecting to community: "�talk to your community - regularly and honestly. We owe them frank discussion of our strengths and limitations, our aspirations and our failures."

Telling, of course, is not teaching; and, talking certainly is not doing. The current crop of newspaper editors must learn a new set of leadership skills. That means investment in professional development and likely a culling out of those who can't make the transition from a role of managing the past to inventing an uncertain future. Still, Zeeck's call to action - frankly, in my view, a call for the end of the managerial status quo and a reinvigoration of the aging upper rungs of the newsroom hierarchy - is significant because he is, for the coming year at least, the visible voice of the traditional press and at last this voice, which has spent two decades speaking plaintively outward about changes in demographics, the rise of technology and the loss of readership, is speaking in the right direction - inward, to those being paid to produce quality journalism in difficult circumstances.

I hear Zeeck saying: It's your job, it's our job. It's time to exchange complaceny for urgency. In his words: "We didn't ask for these times, but they're the ones we're given. � Let's get to work."

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Posted by Tim Porter at May 16, 2006 08:42 PM

I agree, but I think you stop short. If you want your new ideas to be repeatable and sustainable, you need to think about changing the way that we OWN news organizations. Today's news media is dominated by publicly traded corporations, and the goals of such organizations will always be in conflict with the goals of quality journalism.

This is not to say that there is no place for corporate-owned media, but it suggests instead that adding other forms of media ownership could change the competitive balance. For-profit ownership cares about quality only when lack of quality hurts the bottom line. If you add new media organizations that are dedicated first to improving coverage, you'll raise the competitive bar and perhaps force the for-profits to invest in their products again.

Innovation will only be a priority among publicly traded corporations when their directors see a direct connection to profits and stock value. And even though circulation is dropping, media companies still remain wildly profitable. Hence, innovation is a cost, not a benefit.

To make truly innovative change stick, one must change the incentives within the system.

Posted by: daniel on May 18, 2006 07:37 AM
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