News Leadership 3.0

September 23, 2008

Leadership lessons

Key to culture change:
Top editors stop giving orders,
start modeling new practices

I recently posted a Q&A with Ken Tuck, Managing Editor of The Dothan Eagle. One of his comments stuck with me:

“When the staff saw the top editors running out the door to shoot video, they knew it was important. Seeing top editors learn how to edit video showed them how important multimedia was to this newsroom.”

I must say the idea of some of the top editors I know running out to shoot video is at once amusing and inspiring. Just as good editors have long tried to model fairness, authority and crack craft skills, why not model multimedia news gathering as a new arrow in the newsroom quiver?

In a larger sense, learning and modeling new leadership practices is key to transforming an organization. In other words, your newsroom is unlikely to change unless the top editor changes.

Libby Averyt, editor of the Corpus Christi Caller-Times, modeled this idea in 2006, when she made a decision not to go to her newsroom on the Sunday her staff broke the story that Vice President Dick Cheney had accidentally shot a fellow hunter.

I interviewed Averyt for “News, Improved,” and wrote:

“An old school response to a big story on a small paper would be for top editors to call in the whole staff, then rush to the paper to run the show. Instead, says editor Libby Averyt, on this Sunday in February the staff just went ahead and mapped out its Page One coverage and put the news online. Later the staff created a video demonstration firing the type of weapon Cheney used.
“Averyt learned of the shooting when she turned on her cell phone as she left a matinee of Woody Allen’s Film ‘Match Point.’ She called Managing Editor Shane Fitzgerald, who had been in touch with the newsroom and knew what the staff was planning. Averyt headed to an art exhibit; Fitzgerald decided he didn’t need to go into the newsroom either.
“Newsroom traditionalists may find this a startling and undesirable departure from the editor-as-commander approach. But Averyt saw it as an essential step toward the goal of developing a staff that seized the initiative. For the staff to step up, she and Fitzgerald had decided, they would need to step back. ‘They didn’t need me breathing down their necks,’ Averyt says.”

Standing back on a big breaking story sends a strong and highly visible message. It is not the only time to try new practices. Here area couple of examples in the day to day:

- The news executive bemoans the lack of fresh ideas coming out of newsroom discussions. Yet he leads the charge poking holes whenever someone broaches a new idea. Force of habit, no doubt. Result: Not matter what the leadership says, the staff sees skewering new ideas as preferred practice. Leadership challenge: Learn how to ask questions in a positive way that guides the best ideas to fruition or helps the person who had the idea discover for herself why it won’t work. Skills for leaders: Interviewing, coaching, patience.

- Staff members bring even the smallest decisions to the top editor. She rolls her eyes about it in private. But she buys into it in the moment by making the decision, often in full view of the newsroom. Message received: Push decisions up. Don’t take independent initiative. Leadership challenge: Engage staff members in discussions of each person’s role and who should be making different decisions. Be available for consultation without becoming a crutch. Focus on teaching staff to make decisions in context of the larger vision of the organization, not by second-guessing what the editor might decide. Skills for leaders: Coaching, patience, consistency.

Recognize a pattern? If so, change starts with at the top.

Have you pushed change in your newsroom by changing your own practices and approach to leadership? Please share your experiences 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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