Failures of Leadership: If Only YOU Would Just Let Go Of The Past…

The following quote from a recent speech given by Media News Group CEO Dean Singleton (posted by Jon Fine of Business Week here) exemplifies the attitude many leaders are taking toward change, even though most would not express it quite this directly or harshly:

Too many whining editors, reporters and newspaper unions continue to bark at the dark, thinking their barks will make the night go away. They fondly remember the past as if it will suddenly re-appear and the staffing in newsrooms will suddenly begin to grow again.

Well, as a former journalist, I also wish for the past, but it’s not coming back. The printed space allocated to news and newsroom staffing levels will continue to decline, so it’s time to get over it and move to a print model that matches the reality of a changing business.

Folks, it is easy to place the blame on recalcitrant individuals clinging to the past. Doing so serves the (possibly unconscious) needs of news leaders by simultaneously reinforcing their own status as the ones who do “get it” while also conveniently shifting responsibility to others for the lack of success many have had thus far in adapting to the changing environment.

Yes, there are a few people out there “barking at the dark,” here and there, but every profession has its crazies. However, what researchers call “survival anxiety” — a critical ingredient for meaningful change because it breaks down the natural human resistance to change — is explosively high in newsrooms today. People may feel nostalgia for the past and even believe that it was a better way of doing things, but my experience suggests that virtually nobody is still under the illusion that they can continue to do things the way they are always done.

I feel like I see this tired argument — if only “they” would just get it already — all over the journalism trade press. One of my professors who studies organizations says that to an outsider, it certain seems like news organizations have a “macho” culture; while those aren’t the words that would have come to mind for me, I have to say it did give me pause. Maybe he is right. I certainly do hear a lot of complaints about “whining” from upper-level managers.

And it’s not only newsroom leaders — even some online media experts I really respect have a tendency toward the same arrogance (with the exception of Steve Yelvington, who wrote about the same issues here). What is often missing from these diatribes is a)a coherent strategy or vision for exactly what change means and how it will be managed b)any on-the-ground guidance for staffers who are struggling to figure out what Web-first really means in their day-to-day lives. It’s all well and good to say “we need to do more multimedia” and “we need to embrace immediacy,” but what kinds of advice are leaders giving middle managers and staffers about how to execute that? For example, how do you fit in time for reporting, the one skill that is as necessary now as it ever was, when you are producing a much higher volume of content? Online tools can enhance reporting by making research and contacting diverse sources quicker and easier, but any journalism pro worth his or her salt will tell you that there is no substitute for going out of the building and talking to people, face to face. We need to help reporters and photographers find practical ways to balance their workload in ways that produce the best journalism possible, rather than just bemoaning so-called Luddites.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that many of the reporters and photographers I’ve interviewed are, in fact, desperate to develop new skills for the online world. The self-starters and the risk-takers have already seized that bull by the horns on their own, but others with more structured learning styles or who need more coaching along the way are fearful they are being left behind. Instead of haranguing people, try listening to them — and going beyond your usual go-to people you know have already embraced the Web — you’d be surprised how many people have some really interesting ideas for how their jobs could change, if only someone in a leadership role could help them develop a plan for making it happen.

2 Comments

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2 responses to “Failures of Leadership: If Only YOU Would Just Let Go Of The Past…

  1. Rob Weir

    Carrie, you’re right on in a lot of your thinking. What many managers forget is that even if they “get it,” they have to have buy-in from their staffs — and I mean line editors and reporters in their newsrooms. Change imposed from above will fail unless your mid-level managers buy in, and get their staffs to buy in.

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