editor on the verge

Online musings from the newsroom and beyond . . . by Yoni Greenbaum

editor on the verge header image 2

Newsroom leaders, change or step aside

January 4th, 2008 · 16 Comments

Effective organizational change requires a strong leader — a leader who does not just embrace the message of change but models it. The problem facing the newspaper industry is that too many newspaper leaders do neither. So more than just change, what our newspapers need are revolutions.

How can we expect editors to be agents of change when they hearken back to the editorial approach of the past and personally reject the technologies we need to embrace? We have editors leading newspapers who reject text messaging, can’t open email attachments and don’t use the Internet outside of work; editors who continue to design a printed newspaper that they want to read, regardless of their readership (readership’s needs?readership’s opinions?); editors who choose the dinosaur employee over the gazelle; editors who quite simply claim that they get “it”, but really don’t. These are editors who have a voice but no vision.

Recently Steve Outing, Mindy McAdams, Alfred Hermida and others have written about the need for varying degrees of change.

Steve wrote:

“I urge you to focus on cultural change within your newsroom.”

Mindy went to the next level writing:

“It’s too late for incremental change. It’s too late to be cautious and timid. The time has come to be bold.”

And Alfred summed up the ideas by saying that what we need is a “fundamental shift in the mindset of journalists.”

While they are all right and their suggestions are good ones, I believe that Steve, Mindy and Alfred are echoing themes that we have heard before. And even more so, I believe that none of them have gone far enough.

It is no wonder that many newsrooms are suffering and find themselves stuck somewhere in the throes of change. Even corporate continued improvement efforts will find themselves stymied in these environments by leaders who say one thing, but do another confuse their employees, muddy the waters, encourage dissent and inhibit change. All too often, blame for the state of affairs and the lack of progress is placed on line employees such as reporters and desk editors.

This needs to end. Change must occur and, I believe, it must occur at the top of our organizations.

We can no longer afford senior editors who require passionate blog posts and magazine articles to give them direction and motivation. We can no longer afford to lose aggressive, young employees who flee our newsrooms frustrated with poor salaries, stagnation and lack of direction. We can no longer afford to say that this must be the year of change and hope for the best.

Increasingly we talk about the skills we expect from new hires. I believe it is time to outline the skills we expect from our newsroom leaders. Can we afford senior editors who are still questioning the need to provide content across multiple platforms? Can we afford senior editors who don’t grasp the basic technologies that we need to use and have no desire to learn? What is the message to employees when the editor doesn’t blog or read blogs? When the editor doesn’t use text messaging? When an editor doesn’t know what a news reader is? Or what a smart phone is?

If I was a publisher, corporate officer or even an employee, I would want an editor who is active online; who blogs and uses Facebook and MySpace; who has a digital camera and knows how use it and how to upload those images; who has a cell phone that use beyond just work emergencies; who knows how to identify Flash applet on a website; who knows that Ruby on Rails is not a MySpace band; who uses a newsreader; I could go on, but the point is the old skill set of paying their dues and being a wordsmith and possibly an amateur accountant just does not cut it anymore, honestly it hasn’t cut it for a long time.

Yes there are some senior editors out there who get “it.” Those who are positive change agents in their newsrooms, they blog, they get into their communities and into their newsrooms. These are editors who break the rules, throw away the script and dare to be different. These are types of leaders we need if newspapers are not just going to survive but thrive.

The culture of blaming the reader or the staff has to end. It’s time for someone to take responsibility and frankly if they won’t, then it’s time to point fingers. Simple put, at some newspapers, it’s time for a revolution.

We need to put our newsroom leaders on notice. They need to know that their employees, publishers and corporate officers will no longer stand by and watch their newspapers crumble, their industry collapse and livelihoods disappear. These leaders need to recognize that their employees have a vision and a voice. Their thoughts and hopes are outlined in blogs, in forums and in the comments that they write.

Newsroom leaders need to be told “the time for change is now and it needs to start with you.”

If it takes a revolution, so be it.

Tags: Best Practices · Industry · Innovation · Leadership

16 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Marc Matteo // Jan 5, 2008 at 12:52 am

    Well, there is a fundamental difference in knowing that change needs to happen (let alone knowing what specific changes to actually make) and having the political capital to make them.

    I’ve seen a lot of new leaders come into a less than optimal situations all bright eyed and bushy tailed only to find that they just couldn’t get their ideas through. They meant well and their ideas were good, it just didn’t happen.

    In my experience newsrooms today are way beyond “less than optimal” so to say they require “bold leadership” is an understatement.

    But here’s the rub: bold leaders don’t come cheap. I’m talking the type A+ people, the type to *really* get things done. The types who will command top salaries and expect to get it.

    (insert that needle scratching across a record sound here)

    Er, command top salary?!? Well, um, we really can’t afford that. We need to “do more with less”. Will you accept “less” for a salary? No? Oh, then we’ll settle for Mr. Alsoran here, thanks for calling.

  • 2 Pat Thornton // Jan 5, 2008 at 1:47 am

    Yoni,

    This is an excellent post. In most fields, the people at the top are held the most accountable. If the employees below them are not performing, it is assumed because the people at the top are not managing well enough. And then they get fired.

    This doesn’t seem to be the case at many newspapers. Often the reporters and lower-level people are blamed for not “getting it” or doing enough, but where is the leadership from the top? The problem, as I see it, is that most top editors don’t get the Web. How can you lead something you don’t understand?

    You can’t. In any other industry, we would never let glib people lead others. Would you have a football coach who didn’t know football or who had never played at even the high school level? Of course not. That’s silly.

    Look at why the Washington Post is so successful. Rob Curley is one of their highest ranking employees (one of 7 VPs in the company) and he is only 35. Rob leads a team of talented, knowledgeable and, perhaps most important, young journalists and developers who build really cool products.

    All the top editors at my paper are old. And then never really seem to care what I think about the Web or how to improve our product or get more users, despite the fact that I eat, sleep and breathe the Web.

    But hey, what do I know?

  • 3 Yoni Greenbaum // Jan 5, 2008 at 6:38 pm

    @Marc – I don’t disagree that good leaders don’t come cheap, neither do good employees (especially web employees), that’s why I’ve argues that newspapers need to think more like pure-play businesses and make those hard decisions and expensive hires. I can’t imagine a serious web business saying, “oh we’ll train the receptionist to do e-mail marketing.”

    @Pat – Thanks. I actually think you know quite a lot and that there are many others just like you. It’s my hope that this piece will inspire more conversations in our newsrooms about the directions we are going and especially who is leading us there. I know there are those who argue that the time for talking has past and now is the time for doing. My goal is just that, get people doing even if it’s not the easiest thing to do.

  • 4 Newsgal // Jan 6, 2008 at 10:19 am

    No way, newspapers are right on target Yoni. The digital revolution first requires cutting back on your news gathering operation (great local content magically appears out of nowhere, didn’t you know?), offering early retirement buyouts to all those antiquated 55-year-olds (so long!) and making damn sure if your newspaper arrives soaking wet you will never, ever get to talk to real human being. But all this could be solved, as Outing bizarrely suggested in his piece, by giving every mailroom worker their own blog. Oh wait, their jobs were eliminated last week…

  • 5 John Robinson // Jan 6, 2008 at 12:44 pm

    Thanks for the link. You’re right, and I speak as an editor of a newspaper put up for sale just last week and may be out on his butt as soon as it’s sold.

    We’re held up as an innovative paper, but we haven’t gone far enough. It comes down to leadership, money and guts. (As a 55-year-old, I don’t want to face the idea that I’m too old.) We need more of those three things.

    As you state, it’s more than understanding technology. It’s about listening to the audience and going where they are, instead of expecting them to come where you are.

  • 6 Mark Dykeman // Jan 6, 2008 at 3:00 pm

    It seems like quite a pickle. Good news doesn’t come cheap and I expect local news can be quite expensive when you look at it in the aggregate across an entire country. However, when I say that good news doesn’t come cheap, that doesn’t mean that the line workers, the journalists and publishing teams, are seeing that money at a personal level.

    I suspect that being a proactive, visionary, and driven new era newsroom leader would be pretty daunting because few people seem to be finding out how to publish news lucratively, ethically, and with high quality content in an era when consumers expect virtually all content to be free or else paid by advertisers with bottomless pockets (and where are they?)

    Good luck with the revolution, Yoni. Many of us are watching with interest and anticipation.

  • 7 links for 2008-01-06 : James Mitchell // Jan 6, 2008 at 3:22 pm

    [...] Newsroom leaders, change or step aside We need to put our newsroom leaders on notice. They need to know that their employees, publishers and corporate officers will no longer stand by and watch their newspapers crumble, their industry collapse and livelihoods disappear. (tags: newspapers future technology) [...]

  • 8 Journalism At The Crossroads: Change Or Die - Publishing 2.0 // Jan 6, 2008 at 6:58 pm

    [...] a great post from Yoni Greenbaum that argues change needs to start at the top: Newsroom leaders, change or step aside We can no longer afford senior editors who require passionate blog posts and magazine articles to [...]

  • 9 Craig McGill // Jan 6, 2008 at 8:24 pm

    Yoni, I understand your frustrations, but from your point seems to be that editors need to be experts in all areas to be editors (AKA It takes a thief to catch a thief or a criminal to be a crime reporter) and I slightly disagree. Perhaps we’re more enlightened here in the UK but up to Ruby On Rails and blogging (as in writing one) I would say most of the editors here use these materials – personally even though their papers may not have facilities involving them.

    What a good editor should do is what a good editor always does: hire people who can do this stuff and let them get on with it.

    The real danger is that editors don’t have the budgets to let them do this.

    I remember five years ago working at one of the UK’s largest – 3 million plus sales a day – newspapers and I couldn’t convince the powers that be of what they should be doing (and I was willing to do the extra work for nothing) and now you have more people frustrated like that.

    But if we have people doing all this stuff, when will the reporters/editors find time for the old-fashioned work of going out and meeting people and representing the paper publicly?

  • 10 Yoni Greenbaum // Jan 6, 2008 at 10:11 pm

    @John – No problem on the link. We all need a little recognition some times. You raise a great point, too many newspapers still act like they’re the only game in town and that they have a monopoly on the news and control of the readers. “Listening to the audience and going where they are,” amen to that!

  • 11 Show your editor some love and win free coffee | editor on the verge // Jan 7, 2008 at 6:01 am

    [...] some of the feedback that I received to my “Newsroom leaders, change or step aside” post, readers noted that surely there must be senior editors who could be role models for [...]

  • 12 Mel Taylor // Jan 7, 2008 at 12:13 pm

    yoni,

    i have been reading with great interest about the topic of culture change. (outing, mc adams, etc.)
    i thought you did a great job summing up the issues as well.

    my 2 cents ?

    as you know…i try to look at all interactive initiatives thru the filter of ROI and revenue.

    the time is quickly approaching when culture change will mandated, and will be strictly adhered to due to unavoidable finanacial considerations. meaning: all job descriptions and compensation will increasingly be tied to web.

    publishers and top execs/owners will no longer ‘ask’ their middle managers to change the culture.

    instead, these middle managers will have strict guidelines to follow, or they will be terminated.

    in order to keep their jobs, some middle managers will finally get religion…..others would rather take a buy out.

    Q: what will cause this dramatic shift in top down pressure on middle managers?
    A: when a critical tipping point is reached: a mix of print rev loss, circ decline, and online share loss to outsiders.

    while the play book of how to change culture is still being written, it is, without a doubt, being written.

    soon, it will become much clearer of who is doing it right….from wrong.

    just watch. in 2008, we will see even more resources ($$ and human) be re-deployed toward web.

    Mel Taylor
    267-625-5313
    Online Revenue Strategy for Local Media
    http://www.MelTaylorMedia.com

  • 13 Ryan Mercer // Jan 7, 2008 at 9:47 pm

    Hi all,
    Yoni, fantastic post. But I think there is also a huge responsibility for middle managers, reporters and photographers to do whatever they can (Something I think you’ve raised in previous posts), especially if their top managers won’t. In the end, it is our newsroom they are screwing up by not aggressively moving forward and it is our jobs they will loose. So, I highly suggest not going quietly. Start your own YouTube or Facebook or Myspace sites and start sharing links of your online content to anyone who will look at them. Maybe ask for permission, but maybe not, especially if no one upstairs seems to care. DO WHAT EVER YOU CAN to start breaking out with whatever resources you can find. But I think placing sole responsibility on your senior management to find a way and save everyone is asking for a slow death march. Especially if your newsroom is like many; not cooperative. I agree that senior managers who aren’t towing the line need to be cut loose, absolutely. But what then…if the newsroom left behind is chronically out of shape and flailing, no talented editor in their right mind will take it on, big money or not.
    And there is a selfish reason as well, if you need one. How will you ever get a better job by not developing these skills if things go south?

  • 14 Tahoe Journalism » J-School angst // Jan 11, 2008 at 2:12 am

    [...] edit questions from editor on the verge, Yoni Greenbaum: Can we afford senior editors [professors] who are still questioning the need to provide content [...]

  • 15 Wenalway // Jan 28, 2008 at 2:00 pm

    We have to cast aside the design-based approach. It’s been a colossal failure in too many ways.

    The pseudoeditors of presentation and the design dolts need to be fired. Today. Then they should be replaced with real editors who understand content.

    Only then can newspapers move forward, if it isn’t already too late. The visual vermin already have left a wake of destruction.

  • 16 Kevin Anderson // Feb 8, 2008 at 1:25 pm

    Another cultural change has got to be leadership for change as opposed to a focus on ownership of change. I have seen too many organisations paralysed because the focus is not on achieving change but on who owns the change, which manager or department or division will own the future. That mindset ensures paralysis and failure.

Leave a Comment