News Leadership 3.0

February 04, 2009

Future think: Five roles for newsroom leaders

Today’s newsroom leader is Journalist, Downsizer, Bottomliner, Networker and Future Builder

Steve Outing has an insightful column describing “The All-Digital Newsroom of the Not-So-Distant Future.”  This newsroom provides news to its community after the print presses stop

The post got me thinking about the vital tasks of editors in today’s newsroom, only one of which is building a dynamic online newsroom. I think many editors in news(paper)  organizations must think with longing of the idea of being an online start up. It seems a lot simpler than being a newsroom leader in today’s transition with its multiple roles and wrenching choices.

Here are some thoughts on the roles of these editors during a tricky transition (The list is a work in progress so please add your ideas):

1. Journalist. This still tops the list. For example, in naming Marty Kaiser its Editor of the Year, Editor & Publisher pointed to the Big J Journalism Kaiser’s Journal-Sentinel newsroom produced last year amidst financial troubles, including two buyout programs in one year. “Kaiser is leading the newspaper through the rough waters menacing all big city dailies by emphasizing ... journalism, of all things,” E&P said.

2. Down sizer. I am thinking here primarily about the soul-sucking work of managing staff reductions, deciding who goes and who stays, prioritizing jobs of a dwindling staff and motivating demoralized survivors. I have spoken in the past year to editors who delayed innovation initiatives because they had to go through this process. Economics and the legacy of old decisions will force each established news organization to find its level, and each editor then will be forced to decide whether he or she can help the organization more by staying or by going.  For those who stay, the relentless threat of what the next round of bad financial news will bring and when the hammer will fall is undermines newsrooms and distracts editors.

3. Bottom-liner. It’s all about more money and lower costs. Redesign print (Tribune) to sell more papers or cut print deliveries to save paper and gas (many, notably the Detroit newspapers). Raise subscription or street prices. Charge for online content, or maybe not. Cut travel, cut training, cut corners. Many of these moves constitute experimentation, and it’s a necessity. But the moves are largely reactive, short term stop gaps rather than true innovation.

Howard Weaver, now retired from McClatchy, offers insight into this challenge at the corporate level.

“This is an ugly time ... Despite both the sloganeering (“Innovate your way out of this!”) and recriminations (“Greedy corporate bastards ruined our business.”) economic reality means there is relatively little to be done in the short term but optimize chances for survival. This chiefly involves the distinctly unglamorous activities of paying down debts, cutting expenses and maximizing revenues.

“No matter what the mutterjarvisdoctor chorus chants on the sidelines, the hard work of ensuring tomorrow’s public service journalism is being done today in the bloody trenches of established news companies who have shouldered the burden of building a lasting foundation while sustaining a critical mass of talent and mission-driven performance.”

4. Networker. The friendly but fierce competitions among newspapers are giving way to content sharing agreements.  And that’s just a start. The Web offers - indeed demands - that lone wolf news organizations network and collaborate with their users, link to other news gatherers and look for new ways to foster journalism for their communities. Which brings us to ...

5. Future Builder. This may be the road less traveled in today’s besieged newsrooms but it’s by far as important and foundational as #1.

That’s where Outing’s column comes in.

Outing sees an organization with a news staff that is half to a third its peak size, and, within that number, more techies. Sad to say, I think he’s in the ballpark on the numbers.

He sees a younger (but not entirely young) staff of multimedia journalists who blog and create and draw upon communities of interest on social networks and promote their work on the networks, as well. He sees light at the end of the tunnel.

“It’s a sad reality of the media transition period we’re experiencing that many people will suffer on the way to developing sustainable new business models to support local news coverage.

“Surviving journalists who get the jobs in the reinvented news operation will likely include the most popular columnists and the “star” reporters (those who do the best and most watchdog and investigative journalism, since that will be a key strength of the new news product). Among reporters, it’s likely that if more than one person is covering a beat (city hall, the local NFL team, etc.), someone will be cut.

“What will it take to get one of the remaining jobs in the all-digital newsroom? Certainly an understanding of, and probably enthusiasm for, new forms of media and storytelling. The transformed newsroom will be filled with multi-functional journalists who are comfortable carrying around a digital camera and tiny video camera; who make it part of their routine to record audio for possible use in podcasts or multimedia project sound clips; who are regular users of social networks and understand how to leverage them to communicate with and attract new readers, and share some personal information about themselves as well as promote their work; and who are comfortable and willing to put in the time to engage and communicate with their readers or viewers, including participating in reader comment threads accompanying their stories.”

Outing offers the kind of vision that editors must keep in front of themselves and their staffs every day as they do journalism, downsize, raise revenue and cut costs, and reach out to the networks. Build the newsroom (and the journalists) of the future. Your vision for your newsroom may be different. But the important thing is that preparing to succeed after the transition is paramount.

Training is part of the equation. Certainly clear communication is another. Inculcating a learning ethnic that reflects that change will be constant and unstoppable also matters.

What’s your formula for building the future in your newsroom? How are you balancing managing the challenges of transition with leading to the future?

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

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