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

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.

By Elise Czajkowski

This is the second of four posts in our “Visions 2021” series. We are continuing to focus on newsroom leadership in this post.

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.

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

What has to change in media leadership in 2021?

Michelle Young — Instructor, Entrepreneurial Journalism Creators Program

In order to survive, media companies must accept that the traditional advertising model is irrevocably broken. There is no miracle that will come, as technology will only further divide the spoils and the readers. Companies must devise new models and think of their activities beyond the production of content. Most importantly, they must think of what business activities enable them to stay true to their original mission without sacrificing integrity or brand equity. In the end, consumers will reward them for this.

Marcus Brauchli — Coach, Executive Program in News Innovation and Leadership

Let’s start by changing the public conception of “media.” It’s an insidious shorthand that compresses, conflates and confuses. The New York Times and CNN aren’t the same as the Epoch Times and OANN.

The “media” label contributes to the wrong notion that all are variants of the same thing, a ludicrous equivalence that obscures critical differences in approach and purpose. Technology empowers journalistic imposters, including by treating them alike and assigning them equivalent standing on mass-market platforms. Political actors are only too happy to play along: Both liberal and conservative groups have started creating “astroturf” local media outlets designed to manipulate citizens — the diametrical opposite of what journalism does.

So, in 2021, journalism leaders need to reframe and repossess the distinction between journalism and whatever random, soulless thing “media” is. That could involve public-service campaigns that showcase what news is and does in our society, much as the Times did with its excellent Truth campaign.

It may require bolder public stances by the managers and owners of news companies against the self-serving, society-damaging behavior of some tech companies, an approach News Corp. has taken. And it means exposing how laws and policies have undermined journalism institutions in the U.S., as the News Media Alliance has done. This shouldn’t be a campaign against new voices, alternative viewpoints or other forms of journalism. It should be a campaign for journalism and the very special place it needs to hold in a democracy.

Jan Schaffer — Coach, Entrepreneurial Journalism Creators Program

While news leaders have achieved some progress in 2020, they need to focus more determinedly on developing new conventions for defining what is a worthy news story. This will mean moving away from journalism on autopilot that generally defines almost any kind of conflict as “news” at the expense of explanatory journalism or deep-dives into issues. They have started moving in this direction by increasingly showing a willingness to label remarks from newsmakers as “lies” or “racist” when they are, or refusing to air news conferences built on misinformation.

They also need to create new kinds of real estate for false statements, campaign rhetoric or propaganda emanating from elected, party officials or advocacy groups that are untrue or unverifiable. News leaders should build on-the-record reporting “zones” (perhaps the bottom of page A-3 or below the first screen of type online) that are the designated repositories to chronicle official remarks for the record and for future historical study. But journalists should avoid breathlessly amplifying bad assertions or numbing the public to misinformation on Page One or other prime journalism spaces.

Both would deliver different value propositions to news consumers. And, of course, at the core of any media entrepreneur’s mission is finding the right job to be done, the value proposition designed to target their startup’s audience.

By Alexandra Borchardt — Coach, Executive Program in News Innovation and Leadership

2021 will be a year of severe cost-cutting in the industry. Media leaders should embrace this as an opportunity for implementing change. Do away with old-style hierarchies that tend to control the wrong things. Delegate responsibility to small, responsive teams that are able to serve different audiences and their needs. If done wholeheartedly, this will inevitably lead to more diversity. The most important role of leadership, then, is to enable an inclusive culture where this diversity can thrive.

Nancy Wang and Jeff Mignon — Instructors, Entrepreneurial Journalism Creators Program

We see two fundamental evolutions that leaders in media need to embrace.

Network economy: The economic structure evolved from a linear, predictable structure with key nodes — media brands broadcasting assets — to a network with millions of nodes distributing information. This network economy is more about facilitating the creation and the distribution of various content types than owning distribution assets such as TV channels, magazines, radio stations or digital assets, what some call the “uberisation” of the economy. Media companies need to transform into network organizations to foster creativity, reduce the risk exposure, and fit into this new network economic paradigm.

Agile structure for anti-fragility: 2020 exposed the uncertainty in which we live. COVID was the revealer, but this uncertainty has been building up for years. We are in a complex world and a complex economy. You don’t manage companies when facing complexity the same way we have been managing up to now. Taylorism is dead; welcome to the age of agility.

The old fashion pyramidal structure is not going to work anymore. Media leaders need to embrace agility all the way from the top to the bottom. They need to experiment with very short cycles and very often. Speed is key. Continuous testing is key. Nobody has the answer to the media challenge that we are facing. There is only one way to get this answer: entering a continuous experiment cycle. The more tries, the more chance to find new sources of revenue. Agility is key to build anti-fragility.

Jeremy Caplan — Director of the Entrepreneurial Journalism Creators Program, Newmark Graduate School of Journalism

Media leaders will be well-served by letting user needs — rather than platform features — drive research and development bets.

The rapid pace of tech change makes it challenging for small news orgs — or even global news companies — to keep up with giant tech and social media companies that spend a huge amount annually on research and development. What keeps some news leaders up at night is uncertainty about where to make their big bets. With little room for error, they have to figure out where they should take big risks on new platforms and tech, and which developments they should wait on. Some place their faith in tech.

Those that bet big on iPad publications — remember those? — or on VR as a driver of news storytelling, or on moving heavily to distribution channels like Facebook Instant Articles or Twitter’s Periscope or Facebook Live generally found that massive efforts to move forward on those fronts didn’t improve their core business sustainability.

That doesn’t mean those experiments weren’t useful, or that those platforms don’t have value. It means that the initial hopes some news leaders had that these new channels of distribution could make a big impact on their bottom lines over the long run hasn’t played out that way.

The broader lesson is that news leaders will benefit in 2021 from looking ever more closely at their existing users’ expressed interests, needs and curiosities, as well as those of potential users. Initiating new experiments and offerings based on these consumer behaviors and needs, rather than on a new platform feature set, is likely to yield more user engagement in 2021.

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.



Training journalists and media leaders to navigate the intersections of product, editorial, business, and technology.

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