News Leadership 3.0

April 09, 2008

Training for change: Donít forget the leadership

- Changing news environment raises the bar for newsroom leadership
- The Des Moines Register responds with a Leadership Institute
Are top editors in your newsroom meeting today’s leadership challenges? How can you help them?

In my work advising newsrooms over the past few years, I’ve been struck by the need for significant changes in leadership attitudes and styles of top news executives and newsroom managers. Amid the challenges and excitement of making sure their staffs learn new skills and new ways of thinking about their mission and their audiences, newsroom leaders often have to learn new skills and attitudes as well.

In the assembly-line world of the daily newspaper, the traditional top-down organizational model for the newsroom worked pretty well. But in a digital environment that requires collaboration and seeks constant adaptation and innovation, the cohesiveness of the top editors and their ability to communicate a shared vision consistently becomes a force in pushing the organization forward.

Jill Geisler at the Poynter Institute says a key role of a leader is to “Communicate a unifying vision for the team, but also deliver it personally to individuals, framed so they can clearly see and feel it. Use every opportunity to reinforce your message so it becomes part of the daily language and life of the organization.”

To do that most effectively, the leadership team has to be on message, not walking and talking in lock step, but showing how all the parts of the newsroom fit into a whole that shares values and wants to move in the same direction.

Carolyn Washburn, editor of the The Des Moines Register, is addressing the need for her editors to become change leaders with a Leadership Institute.

The Register was one of the first newspapers to convert to the Gannett Information Center model, which means everyone has print and online responsibilities. By early 2007, the newsroom had been reorganized.

“We had put new structure, new staff and lots of new tools in place - video gear, databases, etc. I decided that the next step was to more fully develop the editors as leaders. We would only be successful with new tools and structure if our editors fully engaged as continuous learners, as innovators, as strong managers and as leaders. We needed their leadership and smarts and creativity to DO something with all of that new stuff. Some of them already got that; others were good assembly line editors but not stepping up as leaders.”

With $25,000 from her publisher and the help of a consulting professor from nearby Drake University, Washburn put together a six-month training program that she describes as “a wonderful balance of practical and inspiring.” Washburn enrolled 18 people—about a dozen top editors from the newsroom and colleagues from other departments who work closely with the newsroom.

The program addressed topics including leadership and management (and the difference between the two), when to draw on different leadership styles, negotiating and holding staff accountable, dealing with conflict. You can read a summary of the curriculum, created by Dr. Tom Westbrook, of Learn Associates and a professor at Drake University, here.
The program wrapped up in March, and Washburn is seeing results.

“It has been excellent, giving everyone common vocabulary, prompting discussions about our personal and organizational values, learning to identify how “ready” our folks are to take on different kinds of work and how to manage to their level of readiness, how to lead for accountability,’’ Washburn said in an e-mail.

What a great list of competencies for today’s newsroom leaders (whatever their formal rank). I especially like the idea of instruction in how to assess and manage the readiness of the staff.

Of course, it doesn’t all end with one training program, even one as ambitious as Washburn’s. Washburn is already planning a similar program for the next tier of editors in her newsroom and looking for ways to keep the recently trained leadership group talking - and learning.

Are your expectations changing for your newsroom leaders? How? And how are you helping them learn to change?
Resources: Poynter’s Geisler effectively summarizes the role of the leader in a change environment in the handout “Rules of Change.” If you are thinking about new ways to understand the dynamic role of leadership in your newsroom, it’s a good place to start.


The program addressed topics including leadership and management (and the difference between the two), when to draw on different leadership styles, negotiating and holding staff accountable, dealing with conflict.

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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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