2021 Visions: What has to change in Media Leadership? Part I

Instructors and coaches working with the Professional Development and Executive Education programs at the Newmark J-School share what they hope to see in newsroom leadership in 2021.

Brainstorming by Leni Kauffman.

By Elise Czajkowski

For many in the media, 2020 was a year of extraordinary hardships, difficult conversations and small glimmers of hope. At the Newmark J-School, our professional education programs aim to help journalists tackle the challenges in the industry.

Newsrooms leaders in our Executive Program in News Innovation and Leadership focused on building the tools needed to drive change in their organizations.

Independent producers in the Entrepreneurial Journalism Creators Program focused on launching and growing their own projects into sustainable models.

Journalists in our Product Immersion for Small Newsrooms program focused on developing audience-centric products that both met audience needs and brought in new revenue for their outlets.

Still, there’s much work to be done to restore the struggling news industry.

In this series, we asked members of the Newmark J-School community what they hope to see in newsroom leadership, media entrepreneurship and product development in the new year.

This is the first of four posts in this series. First, we’ll focus on leadership.

Here are the other posts in the “Visions 2021” series:

What has to change in media leadership in 2021?

Mandy Jenkins — Coach, Product Immersion for Small Newsrooms

In 2021, media leaders need to recalibrate their expectations for a post-COVID world. We cannot expect everyone to go back to the way things were before the pandemic. We must acknowledge that some changes are here to stay (and that’s a good thing).

After nearly a year of working remotely, many employees will not want to or be able to go back to the office full-time. We have all found new ways to balance work and life, and leaders have also had to become more empathetic and flexible to accommodate those arrangements. We’ve gotten used to seeing kids and pets pop in to Zoom meetings or scheduling calls around naptime. We’ve seen one another’s real lives, sometimes for the first time, and it has brought us closer in some ways.

Once we “get back to normal,” leaders need to keep this approach to keep their teams happy and healthy. Partially or fully remote work could be the preferred norm for current employees and new hires, and flexible work schedules will be the biggest benefit a workplace can offer. There is definitely still a need for teams to come together in person, but it doesn’t need to be every day.

We have proven it can be done, now let’s prove we can lead organizations that are more inclusive and family-friendly all of the time, not just when emergencies dictate it.

Jenny Choi — Director of Equity Initiatives, Newmark Graduate School of Journalism

Reprioritizing decision-making on everything: from recruiting, retaining and advancing talent to editorial, all undergirded by how a budget is crafted across the organization.

Melissa DiPento — Educational Program Coordinator, Newmark Graduate School of Journalism

We must continue to hold our leaders accountable when it comes to racial equity in newsrooms. When the coverage about the unjust killings of Black and Brown people in the U.S. begins to fade, that’s when true leadership is exposed. It’s in these moments when the spotlight is off that reveals one’s true commitment to change.

In 2021, I see young and emerging newsroom leaders stepping up and re-centering conversations about news strategy, funding and hiring with equity at the forefront. Journalists who understand and model this will become leaders.

The same has always held true: Newsrooms that do not reflect the communities they serve — from identity, class, race and ethnicity, to lived experiences and shared values — cannot authentically establish a level of connection with them.

The clock has run out for excuses. We are going to witness our “pillars of truth” erode if we can’t build this level of trust and connection with our communities.

Most importantly, advocating for diversity in newsrooms is needed to provide opportunities for people from historically marginalized groups to create journalism and connect with the communities they know deeply and are a part of. It’s also the only strategy that I believe will keep newsrooms in business in the future.

We know journalism has a trust issue, and to begin to make up for that, newsroom leaders must be transparent about historical racism in the media, past transgressions and journalistic misdoings, hire and more importantly, promote journalists from a variety of backgrounds and lived experiences, and truly consider equity at every decision-making opportunity.

The journalists who lead with equity, empathy and understanding will reshape the industry. Those who are resistant to dismantling institutional norms and traditions will be left behind.

Styli Charalambous — Instructor, Product Immersion for Small Newsrooms

Stop blaming the demise of media on external factors only. The failure to innovate is a failure of leadership.

Andrew Losowsky — Instructor, Product Immersion for Small Newsrooms + Lenfest Constellation News Leadership Initiative

Media leadership has to be representative of the communities they serve. It’s long overdue, and the current gap is hurting us every single day.

Mariano Blejman —Instructor, Product Immersion for Small Newsrooms

Exchange an army scheme for a team scheme. The big media, at least in Latin America, got used to working as an army for years, with an omnipresent owner overseeing a command line to reach from the highest spheres to the last line of the platoon. Editors controlled each stage of the production process, and had the power to decide what the public should know and what not.

We are entering 2021 and there are still traces of that cultural conception. Leaders in the media industry cannot control the speed with which news is distributed, but teams can work to curate, organize, make visible and add value to the generated content. Industry leaders can’t put pressure on commercial business like they once did, but cross-functional teams can add value by segmenting audiences and delivering that kind of monetization to big brands. Industry leaders may try to decide the price people pay for content, but teams can help better understand data-driven decision making.

Industry leaders don’t even generate the content they post anymore. Media companies do not control breaking news anymore. Media companies do not control the audience anymore. Media companies do not control monetization anymore. The media are not in the middle. Industry leaders need to understand what value they add, how they build teams, how they improve processes and how they use data to make decisions. Some rank and file soldiers often have very good data to contribute in times of uncertainty. It will be good to start listening to them.

Anita Zielina — Director of the Executive Program in News Innovation and Leadership, Newmark Graduate School of Journalism

Media leadership, increasingly, means: Navigating constant uncertainty; managing at the intersections of product, editorial, business and technology; translating and collaborating; listening to audiences and employees needs; radically reconstructing the mission and vision for the journalism we are passionate about.

The media leaders who know how to do all this are here already, and 2021 has to become the year we finally hand them the key to the C-Level.

We are lucky to have a smart, passionate, diverse, extremely well educated and digitally experienced generation of mid-career leaders who are ready to take the next step. Their roles thrive at intersections, they are experts in managing change, and empathy, equity and creativity are not just afterthoughts for them.

They are here to stay, and they are many. 2021, all of us need to push harder to make sure these leaders can take on more responsibility (and get the money, recognition and seat at the table that should be connected to this responsibility!) in our news organizations. We need to prevent legacy roles from being automatically re-filled with legacy people.

Many of these emerging leaders have career trajectories that al headhunter might call “untraditional”, a word often spoken with plenty of scepticism and disdain. Managing Editor AI & News Automation? VP of Product Publishing? Director of Audience Innovation? Most of these roles did not exist 10 years ago, and a new generation filled them with life and meaning — often against tough pushback from legacy parts of the organization.

Let’s be clear what we are facing if we don’t finally let these people co-steer our organizations: We will be worsening a dire, and maybe deadly, talent crisis for the media industry. The changemakers, the disruptors, the creators, the collaborators — they are going to move on to other industries where they get the permission to implement real change and create value. We will be left with business, and leadership, as usual. And “as usual” simply won’t cut it in these unprecedented times for journalism.

Ariel Zirulnick — Instructor, Entrepreneurial Journalism Creators Program

I want to see newsroom leaders looking beyond the journalism industry for inspiration. Journalism is competing with everything that commands audience members’ attention, not just, or even primarily, other newsrooms. Analogous spaces are developing products, building communities and achieving digital transformation more successfully than we are. Newsroom leaders need to spend less time measuring themselves against each other and more time studying and emulating analogous spaces. I want to see them ask gamers for advice on designing online communities, observe how grassroots organizers and churches offer volunteer opportunities that match people’s motivations for participating and partner with influencers to amplify their work.

This is especially imperative for local newsrooms, who will struggle to keep the readers they gained during the pandemic if they don’t quickly figure out how they will be useful beyond this emergency moment. Other journalists will not have the answers they need, but local community stakeholders will. Newsroom leaders need to use their institutional weight to convene small business owners, grassroots organizers, social service providers, restaurateurs, movement lawyers, museum directors, religious leaders, artists, neighborhood association members, music venue owners, parent-teacher association members and other engaged locals. They should ask these stakeholders what will help their community get back on its feet and make meaningful room for that kind of journalism in their editorial agendas.

Elise Czajkowski is a writer/editor who regularly writes about the Newmark Graduate School of Journalism’s executive and professional education programs. Based in New York, she was previously a Tow Knight Fellow in Entrepreneurial Journalism at the Newmark J-School. She launched a non-profit called Sidewalk News, which uses outdoor advertising to distribute local news.

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