News Leadership 3.0

December 17, 2009

Six lessons from the Sandy Rowe School of Leadership

“When standing, stand. When sitting, sit. But above all, don’t wobble” and other wisdom from one of journalism’s great leaders

I count Sandy Rowe, editor of The Oregonian, among my closest friends. Along the way, she also has been my boss, my mentor, and the person who most shaped my understanding of leadership.

Sandy leaves The Oregonian next week after more 16 years in Portland and three decades leading newsrooms. Happily, this doesn’t mean she’s leaving journalism or leadership. But it’s an occasion for celebrating the strong, graceful leadership Sandy Rowe exemplifies.

A few of the many lessons:

1. Listen, and listen well.

I remember when Sandy first arrived at The Oregonian in 1993.  She scheduled one-on-one interviews with pretty much everyone in the newsroom staff.  When my turn came, I was struck at how intently she listened. No fidgeting, no looking around or peeking at the clock. Total focus. Eye contact. No speeches. Lots of questions, many of them gently challenging.

I was astonished. A new forty-something editor who had just crossed the continent to take over a flailing, demanding newsroom in a strange town. Total focus. My 15-minute interview turned into an hour-plus conversation.

I left vowing to learn how to listen and focus that well. I’m still working on it, and every time I come up short I revisit that day.

I am not the only person who learned from Sandy. I rarely attend a journalism conference or visit a newsroom when someone doesn’t mention getting a favor from Sandy, having a helpful conversation with her or praising the mentoring she provided.

Sandy changed my view of the role of the leader at its core. She showed me that leadership was mostly about teaching and learning and hardly at all about telling.

2. Let others lead.

In announcing her departure as editor, Sandy told her staff that all the leadership The Oregonian needs for the future is in the newsroom. I think she meant not only an exceptional executive team with Peter Bhatia as the new editor, but the leadership of every journalist on the staff as well.
Jacqui Banaszynski, Knight Chair in Editing at the Missouri School of journalism who worked with Sandy in Portland, says developing others was Sandy’s mission.

“Sandy is one of those rare editors who takes leadership as seriously as she does journalism. She doesn’t just wing it. She studies leadership, thinks about it and is conscious in her practice of it.  She doesn’t cherry-pick the parts of the job she loves, and fob off the parts she doesn’t.  She is a gifted line editor but usually resisted the temptation to take over a story.  She believed it was her job to create a newsroom that best let others do their jobs - not to do it for them.  And she took responsibility for her job, every day and in every action. 

“That’s probably why, in announcing her retirement, she noted that her greatest pride came from building The Oregonian’s staff into one of the finest in the country.  She put her energy into hiring and supporting the best journalists she could, and then in standing behind them as they did the best journalism they could. 

“She often told me that good leadership is selfless; I saw her live that belief again and again - most recently when she decided to leave a newsroom she loves so others could stay.”

3. Make the tough calls. No matter how much the leader listens, she has to make a decision or let someone else decide.

Janet Coats, editor of the Tampa Tribune (also departing the newsroom this month) and another of the legions Sandy has mentored, tells this story about Sandy and decisiveness:

“The best lesson of the many Sandy gave me came as she was departing from Norfolk for Portland. I was a newly minted deputy managing editor then, just 30 years old and in over my head. I inherited Sandy’s desk when she moved, and she taped a note inside the desk drawer. It read: ‘When standing, stand. When sitting, sit. But above all, don’t wobble.’

“That note is still taped inside my desk drawer today, as it has been in Wichita, in Sarasota, at Poynter, finally in Tampa. I have looked at it every day of my professional life, and it has been my mantra through the last 16 years of crazy, fun, difficult, tumultuous days running newsrooms. Know what is important. Be decisive. Don’t wobble. Sandy never, ever wobbled. I don’t know if I could claim the same, but her advice has helped me stand up more times than I can count.”

4. Stand up for readers.

Sandy has served tirelessly on just about every important journalism board you can think of, including chairing the Pulitzer Prize board and the Knight Foundation Journalism Advisory Committee.  As president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, Sandy focused on core journalism values and credibility, among them improving connections with readers.

Deborah Howell, longtime bureau chief of the Newhouse News Service and now a Newhouse consultant, cited Sandy’s leadership in creating the ASNE Credibility Project in the 1990s.

“To me, Sandy’s leadership was national, not just at the O. When she was president of ASNE, she gave a fantastic speech and led the charge for editors to be more responsible, to get closer to readers, for newspapers to be more credible. I think her emphasis on creditability is one of the stars in her crown.  She stressed the importance of accuracy and fairness in everything small to large, that readers care about it all and that journalists cannot ever sluff off. Her convention and that speech and her leadership got editors’ attention and made a difference.”

5. Know your talents and how to use them.

Geneva Overholser, director of the journalism school at the USC Annenberg School for Journalism and Communication, says Sandy has a wide range of talents and knows when to use each.

“She is unparalleled at combining what might seem disparate skills. For example, she’s great at engaging and listening to others, yet just as great at making tough final calls with dispatch. She never forgets the fundamentals, yet leads toward innovation with gusto. And, for all her whip-smart intelligence and her no-nonsense leadership, she is among the warmest and most generous and gracious friends on the planet.”

6. Own the vision.

Sandy has high standards and sets challenging goals. She relentlessly articulates a vision and then helps others figure out how to implement it. In seeking experimentation, she accepts mistakes.

Banasyznski tells this story:

“When I first met Sandy, I noticed a card on her bulletin board. It was a cutout of Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion from the “Wizard of Oz.” After working for Sandy for awhile, I realized that she has the ability to see far down the road, past the nasty forest and the winged monkeys and the poppy fields that slow most of us down or make us turn back, and keep her eye on Oz.  She has the self-discipline and sense of purpose that allows her to keep moving forward and not be distracted by the obstacles and unhappiness of the moment as she builds to the future.

“She also has the wisdom to know that no one gets very far alone.  She surrounds herself with smart people and challenges them to be as smart as they can, even when they disagree with her or move beyond her control.

“I expect that kind of leadership is lonely.  Too few leaders have the ability to make the tough decisions and stick with them when they aren’t immediately understood or popular, or when they don’t produce immediate results.  Those leaders often piss people off - but they are the kind who smart people come to trust and want to follow. They are the kind who make a difference that lasts.

Sandy is that kind of leader.”

For all my sadness that she is leaving The Oregonian, I’m looking forward to seeing what Sandy does next. Whatever it is, Sandy Rowe will lead.

November 17, 2009

Culture change 101

For news executives who find their staffs are still resistant new ideas and practices, here are three steps to start making change

I’ve been interested to learn in recent conversations with editors that at least some of the change-resistance that plagued many newsrooms a decade ago seems to have survived in today’s industry tumult. The topic came up again in questions Monday when I was on a panel at the ASNE Ethics and Values Forum at the Reynolds Journalism Institute, where I am a fellow this year.

Here are three tips I gave editors seeking change:
1. Keep your list of goals and priorities short, perhaps three or four items. Longer lists tend to translate into “everything is a priority,” which in effect means “nothing is a priority.” Once you’ve got your goals, use them to prioritize and explain what you want your staff to do. If you want something done that doesn’t really serve the goals, then don’t ask for it. Example: You personally would like to see more stories about the city council. But your priority is for your organization is to cover more non-institutional news. So stop asking questions about what the city council did.
2. Assume that people who resist change are doing so because they are afraid of the unknown. That’s often true. Even if it isn’t (and someone is just plain stubborn), you’ll get better results than if you go head to head. If people are afraid, a little empathy and some training that allows them to try the new thing in a safe zone, will help.
3. Keep the discussion of new practices and ideas very specific. Journalists often veer into abstract either-or debates about change. These seldom go anywhere.  Remember when newsrooms used to debate whether the Web would cheapen their journalism? A better discussion is how a specific story was (or wasn’t) well told on the Web.

Culture change takes time, often years. These tips will get your organization started. What are your tips for fostering culture change?

October 12, 2009

Civic engagement 2.0

As digital media change the way people engage with civic issues and causes, can traditional journalists take part and help the public conversation go well? I will use a Reynolds Journalism Institute fellowship to find out.

(This is a revised version of a draft posted earlier. There is new material throughout.)

I spend a lot of time these days talking with local foundations and nonprofit organizations that want to help fill information gaps in their communities. They’re building Web sites designed to engage their communities in news and information (often with funding from the Knight Foundation, which contracts with me to coach these start ups.). These enthusiastic conversations make a heartening counterpoint to the wrenching struggles of established news organizations.

imageThe optimism is not the most important difference, however. The biggest difference is this: Journalists are out to do good journalism. These community start ups put civic engagement first.

At its heart, journalism is about fostering civic engagement by providing news and information that empowers people to act as citizens in a democracy. At least, that’s what we mainstream journalists tell ourselves.

In traditional media, the journalism generally doesn’t look like that. For example, one recent study showed that more than half the coverage of the health care debate focused on political battles and less than 10 percent focused on policy.  That wasn’t exactly a surprise. “We don’t learn,” I wrote recently as I passed the a link to the information along on Twitter. In reply, Jay Rosen nailed it with this admonition: “Face it, @michelemclellan. If 55% of health care coverage is about the politics that’s a statement by our journalists: ‘this is what we do.’ “

Competitiveness, craft imperatives, professional goals and now, the revenue free fall—all important issues— trump the civic. When journalists gather in newsrooms, bars and at conferences, they talk about craft practices, tell war stories, and the shiny bright hopes for a scoop or job stability.

It is the rare conventional journalist - certainly never me in nearly 30 years in newspapers - who walks into the newsroom on any given day and asked “What can I do to engage my community in civic affairs?” “How can I help make the debate go better?” I wonder how journalism, its place in the hearts of citizens, and public debate itself—might be different if journalists had come to work each day with that goal in mind.

This may be changing. As traditional news organizations falter, new practitioners of journalism are emerging: Citizens, foundations and other donors who are experimenting with models of news and information that put civic engagement is front and center as a priority. At the same time, the Web and social media make some forms of civic engagement easier and more accessible—activities like ratings, commenting, earning points for action.

None of this leaves traditional news organizations out in the cold. I’ve championed the idea that big local news organizations partner with community news start ups rather than treating them like more competition. I was thrilled to see that J-Lab, with Knight Foundation funding, is sponsoring several of these partnerships. I think finding the right mix of craft skills and reach of the traditional organization with the energy and fresh approaches of non-professionals will be important to the future media landscape.

All of this brings me to the fellowship I have just begun at the Reynolds Journalism Institute at the Missouri School of Journalism. I’m calling my project “Civic engagement 2.0.”

Journalism must recapture its credibility and relevance if it has any hope of providing value to the public. To do this, it is critical that journalists adopt new practices that foster the civic debate we keep telling the public we are all about. The tools are emerging—social networks in particular can transport news and information that engages people in discussion and problem-solving. News organizations - some led by non-professionals and foundations, social activists, politicians, and even marketers are discovering creative ways to engage people online..

Digital media and emerging citizen-led news and information services promise to promote civic engagement in ways traditional media failed to do. But I think there is an important role that journalists can play and I want to catalog and foster tools and practices to help journalists take part in and add value to civic discussions online. I also want to work with journalists and citizens to create new ways to engage online. I’m convinced that the ability to engage and foster community is a strategy that journalism must pursue for the long term even if it cannot be readily monetized today.

Let’s consider three important traditional roles of journalists and the opportunity to recapture them online:
(Note: This list of roles borrows heavily from my friend and RJI colleague Michael Skoler.)

1. Journalism surfaces issues of public concern. The Web offers journalists the opportunity to tap into conversations where important issues first surface. Pre-Web we used to call these “listening posts” where people gathered informally to discuss their concerns. Journalists rarely spent time in these these places, instead opting to listen more regularly to institutional voices and their framing of the issues.

2. Journalism provides facts and options that give citizens shared knowledge. The Web liberates information from print and enables wider sharing and discussion than ever before. Social networking tools in particular enable people to share information.

3. Journalism informs civic debate and solutions on issues of public concern. This brings it full circle; the journalist surfaces the issue and then helps guide the discussion toward solutions. It is a critical role for a trusted journalist, and one that seems to be slipping away in the 24/7 news cycle, if it ever really was being performed. Accomplishing this will take more then technology, it will require a shift in attitude or at least priorities. Some will complain that what I’m talking about sounds like advocacy journalism. But I am not talking about journalists expounding opinions. I am talking about what Jacqui Banaszynski, a friend and RJI fellow, calls “invested journalism,” which I see as a commitment to helping the community understand issue, see options and find a good path. For this, journalists may need to look to emerging citizen-led news organizations, social activists and even political causes for new tools and rules of engagement.

This all sounds very philosophical. But what I hope to produce are tools and best practices that journalists and other news providers can use to foster civic engagement in digital spaces, whether it’s on their own Web sites, in social spaces or all around the Web. I think much of this already exists and I’d like to help gather practitioners, learn from them and help spread the word.

For now, I have these questions (and I hope you will comment and feel free to make suggestions or ask more questions):
Is this the best way to be looking at this issue?
What best practices exist and who is developing them?
Do some of these practices exist outside journalism? Should I see if they can be adapted?
What is most missing in terms of tools and best practices that can help journalists engage in civic discourse online?

July 22, 2009

The dance of change

USC Annenberg professor Patti Riley offers leaders good advice on leading change in their news organizations

Patti Riley had a lot of good advice for news and revenue executives who gathered this week for Knight Digital Media Center’s “Using Social Media to Build Audience” conference in Los Angeles. Riley, a professor in USC Annenberg’s School for Communication, has studied change in news organizations. Her findings are especially resonant with me because they are so similar to what my team saw when we worked with newsrooms to develop training programs that would foster change in attitudes while raising skills.

Riley has identified four tactics that successful change leaders use:

1. They Inject speed into any process, emphasizing that faster is better
2. They create structures that foster cross functional teams
3. They develop networks and communicate widely
4. They engineer success. They get quick wins and they trumpet them.

Urgency. Collaboration. Networks. Small victories.

Riley says it’s important for leaders to be up front about what’s going on, even in the midst of layoffs and downsizing. “We tell everybody the data, the goals and the consequences of not meeting those goals,” Riley said. “We make sure people have every opportunity to contribute to it being otherwise.”

“Help them understand how much they need to move out of Pot A into Pot B so that they still have even a chance of being around in 5 years” and avoid being the frog in the pot who doesn’t notice how much it’s heating up, Riley said.

Carlos Sanchez, editor of the Waco Tribune-Herald, asked Riley about the problem of setting priorities in such a pressure-cooker environment. “A lot of priorities is no priorities,” Sanchez said.

Riley said it’s helpful to think of the goals or direction of the organization as an umbrella under which important activities must take place.

“Use the umbrella theme - this is our big vision, this is where we’re going.  Any time you add new elements—training in multimedia for example—show how these things exist in order to support the big umbrella theme. That will keep people focused on ‘This is where we’re trying to go.’  It’s got to fit together with that larger point.”

Riley also pointed to what I think is one of the biggest challenges for newsrooms: Stopping doing things that can no longer be priorities. “If you can’t figure out how (an activity) ultimately supports that final point, don’t do it,” she said. “There are unlimited needs in organizations and limited time and people.”

What’s your formula for setting priorities and advancing change in your organization? Please share your tips in the comments.

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Exploring innovation, transformation and leadership in a new ecosystem of news, by journalist and change advocate Michele McLellan.

Get in touch with Michele at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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