News Leadership 3.0

November 11, 2008

Getting past “mixed messages” in the newsroom

Traditional newsrooms aren’t built for collaboration, but they can achieve it. Jill Geisler identifies four barriers to collaboration.

Newsrooms need collaboration more than ever. The assembly line model of print production must give way to a more dynamic, multitasking organization. Increasingly, too, cutbacks dictate efficiencies.

Jill Geisler has a terrific post at Poynter Online about four obstacles to collaboration she has observed in newsrooms (and many other organizations). Her list: Distance, Dominance, Dissonance and Discomfort.

Each plays strongly in organizational resistance to more collaboration. Geisler concludes:

“Distance, dominance, dissonance and discomfort translate into: I don’t see or hear you, I’m on a different level than you, I have different marching orders and I don’t really know you or understand what you do.

“All this can kill collaboration.”

For leaders who seek more collaboration in their newsrooms, I would focus in particular on Geisler’s third obstacle: Dissonance: “I have different marching orders than you.”

In my experience, dissonance in the message or “mixed messages” from leaders holds organizations back—and adoption of clearer, more consistent message is one of the ways leaders can unleash tremendous potential that’s just waiting for clear direction.

Mixed messages occur when:
—Staff members hear different priorities from a top editor. Who hasn’t met the editor or managing editor who jumps from problem to fresh idea and back to another problem, leaving staff members scratching their heads about their direction.
—Staff members hear different priorities from different editors in the leadership group. Or the leaders recite the same priorities but reward only their favorite ones. Of course each editor has her area of focus, but it’s important for each leader to embrace and foster the big picture for the staff. So breaking news on the Web may be job one for the ME/online. But it mustn’t diminish her respect for print enterprise—and the time it takes to produce it.
—Mid-level editors do not fully understand the priorities of the leadership group. In the world of the frontline editor, urgency and importance tend to blend. Without clear direction from the top, important priorities—acting on them and communicating them to the staff—will give way

What’s the solution? There’s no quick fix. But more attention to communication is a challenging and effective way to improve collaboration in your organization.

First, talk with the senior leadership group in the newsroom. Come to a consensus about three or four top goals for the newsroom—Call it “What we’re all working on together right now.” It may be more breaking news for the Web, more local focus in print and online, tighter storytelling for time-challenged users. Work together to figure out how each senior editor will emphasize these priorities and keep them fresh in her areas of responsibility.

Second, discuss the priorities with frontline editors. That’s different from telling them a set of rules. Get their views: What do these editors think about the priorities (and let them process any resistance)? How will they play out in their daily work? How to best communicate them? What does the staff need from the leadership to reach the goals?

Third, put together multidisciplinary groups of staff members to discuss the priorities and get to know how they affect the work of colleagues. Encourage them to brainstorm together and learn from each other what practices may accomplish the goals. Breaking down newsroom silos is a route to collaboration—especially if the leadership is clear about what the collaboration is supposed to produce.

What are your tips for fostering collaboration? Please share your ideas 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.

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