Newspaper Leaders: Stick It Out Or Step Down?

I’m in the final throes of wrestling my dissertation out of my head and onto the page, not to mention teaching, serving on various committees and all the other frantic doings of a new professor, but I couldn’t resist commenting on the question posed by David Westphal on who should lead the digital transformation in a piece he wrote in the resurrected Online Journalism Review.

Westphal is a senior fellow at USC Annenberg Journalism School’s Center on Communication Leadership and until recently the Washington bureau chief of McClatchy.  His piece came on the heels of the departure of Steven Smith as editor of the Spokane Spokesman-Review, a paper I admired for its robust and creative embrace of transparency.

Westphal wonders if editors deeply invested in print-centered culture and routines are the best people to lead their changing newsrooms, or if this task would be best given to younger folks who have less to lose.

My own research and the literature developed among scholars of organizational change doesn’t answer this question directly, but it offers some insight.

First and foremost, I should say that this literature warns against saying that any particular leader or staff member is “the problem.” All too often, systemic factors are at work and it may turn out that the sense that “if only we could get rid of THAT guy (or woman)” proves to be a red herring.  Individual personalities and leadership style of top editors are indeed important factors in organizational effectiveness, but this is something that has to be carefully evaluated on a case-by-case basis and can often be improved through executive coaching and the like.

Although editors have clearly read the writing on the wall and have the best of intentions in moving their newsrooms into the future, it is true that unconsciously they may resist the kinds of changes that undermine their authority and the skill set that took them to the top of their profession.  The Web’s need for immediacy tends to push decision-making authority down, and figuring out what goes on 1A – the most powerful job in the newsroom – is no longer as relevant as it once was.  This strikes at the very core of top editors’ professional competence. Not to mention that for better or worse, it is so easy to measure the response of readers to individual stories online that these metrics are increasingly driving the prominence of stories on newspaper Web sites.  There is still clearly a place for seasoned journalistic judgment in any media, but the hierarchical structure of the newsroom is no longer as effective as it once was.

For example, here’s a question – how many newsrooms that talk about being “Web first” really do put the Web first at the traditional morning and afternoon news meetings?  I think that many do – but what was the time gap between the time when top newsroom leaders started encouraging their staff to embrace the Web site and the time when they changed this most fundamental of newspaper rituals, which arguably is the one thing they have the most control over?  (Staff members can “work-around” other directives, but that news meeting is often still run by the editor or managing editor.) This is a big opportunity to set the tone for the entire staff, telegraphing what is important and what will be rewarded, and in many cases, I suspect it was missed for quite some time.  What else is being missed?

It may sound a little wishy-washy to talk about editors’ “unconscious” resistance to change, but the research shows that this can be a powerful thing because it does have such a profound effect on what they reward and what they pay attention to in the thousands of small interactions an editor has over the course of a day – much more impactful in the long run than sweeping pronoucements made at staff gatherings.

In my view, I’d prefer frankly to see most editors stick it out.  I think that those journalism values that Westphal references via a quote from former Plain Dealer editor Doug Clifton – “powerful, meaningful reporting, urgency, passion” are as important now as ever – we just have to figure out how to deliver them in a way that works better for new media.  However, I’d also like to see more senior leaders – obviously this is somewhat self-serving – bring in more researchers with knowledge of leadership and its impact on organizational change, as well as those studying audiences’ news needs online.  It’s time to learn a lesson from other businesses around the globe – we don’t have to figure this thing out all alone.  Sometimes research really IS practical.

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1 Comment

Filed under Real Live Changing Newsrooms, Research on Newsroom Change

One response to “Newspaper Leaders: Stick It Out Or Step Down?

  1. Sarah Bolton

    I do agree that the editor’s of these papers should stay on and try to adapt to these changing times. However, as someone who has worked in an organization (not a newspaper) where the CEO was very resistant to online endeavors, I have to say that as an employee is the situation you described above, it can be really tough. In this organization I worked for, basically, if we wanted to move forward with anything online (I was in the marketing department there), we just did it and often suffered the consequences.
    I wonder if it’s going to take some passionate journalists to go out on a limb at their workplaces and fight for the Internet. I’m just not sure editors are going to change on their own, without some persuading.

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