Leadership Report 2011- Conclusion

The challenge within: Fear and resistance to change in their organizations hampers news leaders

Beset by the demands of an ever-changing digital landscape, news leaders also have had to contend with fear of change and bureaucracy within their organizations.

Alarmingly, a number of KDMC leadership fellows returned to their newsrooms to see the crush of downsizing delay or kill their change initiatives. Or they had to deal with bosses who said they wanted change but were unwilling to push aside traditions or barriers so that change initiatives could go forward.

It is the nature of traditional news culture to resist change. And large organizations often become bureaucratic collections of fiefdoms.

The stars of the previous age of journalism see little benefit in changing. To them, digital is an annoyance or a threat rather than an opportunity. At the same time, the rightful stars of the new journalism - the early adopters and digital pioneers - often struggle to gain traction in traditional newsrooms.

These are widespread issues. But they do not get much airtime. Most leaders simply are not going to call out their organizations.

Michael Skoler said he became skeptical about the ability to effect change in large organizations when he worked at American Public Media, where he developed the innovative Public Insight Network.

Skoler said he wanted to work for a smaller organization like Public Radio International because he thought it could be made more adaptive.
“I came to PRI in order to affect things more directly, and here I don’t feel that I need to have a team off to the side,” Skoler said.

Christine Montgomery

Christine Montgomery had similar reasons for jumping from PBS.org to the Center for Public Integrity in 2011. She saw “the ability to have a more direct effect on the direction of the organization.”

Because PBS is “really a broadcast company at its core, digital isn’t the focal point for the organization,” Montgomery said. “There are some very dedicated and talented people who do digital there, but as a whole, it exists to produce great TV and then make something for digital audiences of that.”

“I thought it would be cool to be at a place where the only platform is digital, no more ‘stepchild’ status! And the opportunity to see what I can do in this sort of more pure environment.”

KDMC leadership fellows consistently cite two things their bosses do or should do to support their efforts on behalf of their organizations.

1. Give leaders “room to work,” as Melanie Sill put it. This means giving news leaders a degree of autonomy that enables them to take action that is consistent with broader strategy.

Skoler described an approach of “trust and verify.” “They should trust you but ask for communication to make sure that trust is warranted.”

2. Be willing to remove traditional hurdles and to push the organization to change, even when there is likely to be a backlash or other short-term pain.

This circles back to the issue of bureaucracy and the slow pace of change that is acceptable in many cultures.

For example, publishers and corporate executives need to reinforce that once a strategy is set, each discussion of tactics is not an opportunity to revisit and challenge the strategy. This needlessly slows the process and dilutes the effectiveness of the leader and the effort at hand.

In the same vein, bosses need to help get key constituencies in the larger organization on board rather than hanging back and leaving it to the leader who is the point person. If the boss says she wants a strategy implemented, she needs to put her internal credibility on the line to make that happen.

Defining success

Leadership fellows define success in a variety of ways. Some measure the depth of the journalism their organizations still produce, others revel in the increased interactivity and connection the Web can provide, still others focus on contributing to the very survival of their organizations.

John Yemma of The Christian Science Monitor and Jon Cooper of JRC describe long journeys from their aspirations of five years ago and those of today. Their comments underscore the challenges and rewards of taking calculated risks.

“Back then I would have defined success as editing powerful pieces that people took note of and that had impact,” Yemma said. “That is the essence of journalism, and I would love to live in that world.

“But now the vessel for doing that kind of journalism is fundamentally threatened, and so now success is to bring the Monitor to a steady state.”

Cooper has also changed his idea of success.

“I don’t think I knew what success was five years ago,” Cooper said. “I thought success was keeping my head down and getting through the day. There was no short-term, long-term or any kind of goal setting.

“Now success is maybe the AP announcing that our NY cluster swept all the digital awards for their circulation sizes. The organic training in newsrooms is a success. Also what’s tremendous is seeing the number of people who aren’t afraid to speak their mind.

“For instance, we rolled out a new website feature, and editors were questioning it. It was a hectic five, six days for me, but it made me so happy to know that we had people who felt that kind of ownership of their sites, that they cared so much. Seeing people share knowledge is great. There’s no metric for it, but I can see we’re succeeding at it.”

As journalism seeks to find a stable footing on turbulent terrain, we all have a stake in the success of news leaders who want to lead into the digital future.

Much of what they need to succeed must come from within themselves: intelligence, creativity, persistence, self-awareness and a hunger to keep learning.

They must use available resources: hard tools such as research and metrics and soft skills such as knowing when to lead and when to get out of the way.

Many of the harsh realities news leaders face cannot be changed. Revenue and resource reductions are likely to persist. Changes in technology and public use of media will outpace all but the most dynamic organizations. Leaders will simply burn out.

But it is equally clear that their organizations - new ones as well as the established ones - can do more to create more space for the creativity and passion these leaders bring to the task of providing communities with the news and information they need.

Organizations that do not create space for these vital leaders have much to lose. They will just fall farther and farther behind as the public moves to digital and social platforms. It’s also evident that if news organizations don’t do more, these dynamic, creative leaders are willing to find other organizations that will value their hard-won digital expertise.

Next >

Leadership Report 2011


Michele McLellan

This report was written by Michele McLellan, a journalist and consultant who works on projects that help foster a healthy local news ecosystem. As senior leadership consultant for [email protected], McLellan helped develop KDMC leadership programs in 2008-2011. She also blogs about key leadership best practices at Leadership 3.0.

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