Taking a leap of faith during a pandemic

How the Executive Program in News Innovation and Leadership encouraged this German journalist to find a job with more impact in 2020

Alex Droessler, left, listens as his Executive Program in News Innovation and leadership colleague Thierry Backes shares with the cohort during the Jan. 2020 residency at Newmark J-School. (Photo by Jessica Bal)

By Elise Czajkowski

When Alex Droessler applied for the Executive Program in News Innovation and Leadership at Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism in late 2019, he had been tasked by his bosses at German newspaper Neue Westfälische to help develop a neighborhood news startup called Lokalportal, in which the newspaper had heavily invested. The goal was to create a hybrid between a local news site and a social media platform, in the style of Nextdoor.

Droessler’s background was in journalism, and he says he was given little instruction other than to “please, make it work somehow.” Without training in product development or digital transformations, he says his four-person team would sometimes “accidentally run into something like design thinking,” but lacked key knowledge to keep building the platform.

At the time, he felt “there is something missing, you need to learn something more,” Droessler said in a recent interview via Zoom. Droessler was already a fan of the Executive Education program’s director Anita Zielina, and one of its professors, Jeff Jarvis, and saw it as the next step in developing his career as a newsroom leader.

He also knew from his time as a Fulbright Scholar at the Missouri School of Journalism that trends in American media — like news deserts and “vulture” corporate owners — were likely to hit Europe soon. “I always see the U.S. [as] maybe two or three years ahead of Germany,” he said. “So my fear is if we make similar mistakes, we’re going to get a similar situation. And I don’t want to have that.”

A few months into the program, COVID-19 hit Europe and America, upending daily life and demolishing media revenue. Neue Westfälische decided to shut down Lokalportal, which had failed to gain a substantial enough foothold or attract enough content partners. Looking to put his classroom learning to work in the real world, Droessler decided to leave for a smaller regional paper, Nordkurier.

“When we had our first talks, they already thought about audiences and serving audiences,” Doressler said. “Which, for me, from what I’ve learned in New York, was a good starting point. When you have the situation that a publisher doesn’t say, we are mass media, we want to sell content to masses, and [they] have an understanding that they serve specific or more specific audiences, that’s a good thing.”

Nordkurier is a 30-year-old newspaper based in the northeast of Germany, an area that is largely low-income and rural. As a result, reader revenue is not a sustainable option for the paper. Instead, the company has diversified its revenue streams; for instance, as well as delivering newspapers, Nordkurier also delivers packages. This diversity allowed for a more consistent income during the pandemic than advertising-dependent publications.

Part of the appeal of the new role for Droessler was that the smaller paper seemed eager to think about innovative products that serve audiences. “I wanted to have impact,” he said. “I want to influence the business and the products we do, the strategy. And here, I really have the feeling that I can do that.”

That drive, he said, came after one-on-one conversations with Zielina, who encouraged him to ask questions about the new role, such as whether the positions would allow him to keep learning, and whether it was the type of organization from which he wanted to take a paycheck. He also learned from strategy lessons with researcher Elizabeth Hansen about how to evaluate the strategic goals of Nordkurier to see if it was a good fit.

His time in the Executive Education program made him value the importance of good leadership and communication in bringing change to a news organization. “You can only win if you have the support of the people around you,” Droessler said. “And you cannot say, let’s do it this way, just because I say so. They have to understand. So digital transformation is a lot about culture, and cultural change.”

He also found value from learning from others in the program, especially as Lokalportal ended in the spring. The cohort, he says, helped him to “keep focused and to keep trying.”

And participating in the program during the pandemic, he says, was a welcome respite. “It was great to have this one slot per week to get out of the job, the crisis and so on, and to focus on something constructive,” he said. “And to think about how to solve problems with other people who share something with you. We were all in a similar boat.”

Despite the upheaval of this last year, Droessler remains an optimist about the future of the industry. “I do believe in the future of news somehow,” he said, “we just have to think radical enough to become more open minded.”

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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