Leading in a Time of Change

Research on organizational change shows that its critically important for leaders to reflect on exactly what they reward and what they punish. Employees are closely attuned not only to what you SAY about change, about the future of news and what needs to be done in your newsroom, but also more explicitly what you do and how you do it. Indeed, researchers who study organizations are trained to look closely at leaders’ rewards and punishments as important indicators of what the “real” priorities in an organization are, regardless of what might be formally espoused.

By rewards I don’t necessarily mean raises or promotions or formal awards, although of course those count too. A important reward is also praise and even just attention, and people notice and become demoralized when these are lacking. For example, if someone on your staff puts together a video for your Website, can you respond yes when they stop you in the hallway to ask if you have seen it? They know you’ve read that front page. Do you spend most of YOUR time focused on the print paper, even as you give speeches about the importance of thinking Web first? What kinds of things deserve a newsroom-wide email of praise – the exceptional effort of your team in its election coverage (important, but pretty standard) or the creation of a new interactive component of the Website that lets readers contribute ideas? How do you run your news meetings — when do you talk about what you’ve got for the Website (if at all?) Who gets the floor at those meetings and what gets the most energy and discussion? (The news meeting, I would argue, remains largely perceived as the place where “the most important stuff” gets talked about.) What makes you stop by someone’s desk? Who on your staff haven’t you spoken to personally in awhile? What messages are you sending with your body language? Who do you exchange jokes with?

My research seems to indicate that many newsroom leaders are basically sitting back and waiting for the individuals that work for them to step up and take on the host of new challenges that await them. Knowing that risk-taking is important in times like these, leaders are actually often quite tolerant, as they should be, of mistakes made — the important metric is simply the willingness to jump right in without much prompting. This works out just fine for the self-confident and the self-starters. They will not only adjust but quickly figure out how writing for the Web helps their work in print, too. Those who are willing but require more guidance or structure to adapt to new responsibilities (and many people do) are often viewed as weak, and, while perhaps not overtly punished, essentially ignored or worked around.

In many ways, this makes sense when you think about a typical newsroom’s culture, where learning by DOING is more important than degrees attained, hand-holding is disdained, and rising through the ranks based primarily on experience and action. I still remember my first boss’ response when I went out to cover my first bank robbery (really my first true breaking news story of any kind) and briefly asked if he had any advice on my way out the door. “NO, JUST GO!” he yelled. The key to pleasing him was always to stop asking questions and just jump in and get dirty.

Indeed, leaders seem to be relatively unwilling or at least slow to spell out their expectations in the multimedia environment and, critically, to launch process changes that would make it easier and more clear to everyone what direction to paddle. As I’ve said before, its the weight of the still largely unchanged processes for putting out a newspaper that stifle people’s ability to do more online far more than a recalcitrant attitude. Most leaders say that this is because it is an uncertain time and they aren’t quite sure what their expectations should be. Fair enough. But if you want your newsroom to be more Web first, start thinking more specifically about how you can make that happen rather than just hoping it does.

Also — yes, it’s important to empower those below you rather than issuing specific edicts from on high. That’s just good management, and I applaud it. However, I think there may be a tendency among some news leaders to fall back a little bit too hard on this argument. While I don’t think it’s intentional, it may be somewhat of an excuse that is used to push responsibility for change downward.

I’ve been thinking about this for some time, and was thrilled this morning to also see it reflected in a post written a couple of days ago in Mindy McAdams blog, Teaching Online Journalism, which I just discovered…and I think she says it more eloquently than I just did. She notes that the same phenomenon in j-schools as well. Check this quote out:

“The dean, director or department chair says a lot about convergence and updating the curriculum, but then sits back and waits for the faculty to somehow magically transform themselves from worried, frightened people (or just plain overworked people with no spare time) into the innovators and early adopters who have already made the change. These are different types of people. The worried ones are not going to change into the other type. However, the worried ones are not the same as those crouching behind the barricades with a barber’s basin on their head.”

2 Comments

Filed under Research on Newsroom Change

2 responses to “Leading in a Time of Change

  1. JG

    Great points. There is also a danger in the inverse, however: You can have a leader who is TOO committed to the change (who reads only the Web site and neglects the core newspaper, who supports database analysts and rejects the reporters who got him/her to the dance, etc.) and leaves the past behind wholesale to embrace the future.

    The right leader has to coax the experienced Luddites through change while encouraging the young techies to understand the journalistic ropes. Instead, too many newspapers are buying out the experience and turning everything over to the technologists. While it makes for interesting Web designs, it doesn’t always lead to good journalism.

    How do you balance the two? I think the New York Times has gotten a lot of it right, with creative Web graphics that allows users to sift through mounds of information while keeping their smart, insightful journalists as guides through the Web’s information morass.

  2. changingnewsroom

    Yes…I think that there is an ever-increasing burden on us as educators to be sure that our students have a solid grounding in journalism as well as technology, especially as older reporters tend to take the buyouts and the opportunities for mentorship thus diminish.

    But in general, I think that you either have to push in one direction, or figure out a plan that allows you to push in two directions…it won’t just happen. Also, I think that ultimately, the Web is not just a technology, it’s fundamentally a way of doing journalism even BETTER, by allowing us to connect better with our readers, be more transparent, etc. etc. — so the conflict doesn’t have to be one of technology vs. journalism.

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