Five lessons on the most pressing challenges for newsroom leaders

Design tools from the News Impact Academy to foster innovation in your team

Ingrid Cobben
Oct 15 · 7 min read
Participants at the News Impact Academy on newsroom leadership in Copenhagen on 26/27 September 2019

Newsrooms are still largely driven by the on-going, underlying sense of urgency that came with the digital age of news production. But leaders need time to reflect if they want to build a powerful editorial strategy, run a newsroom successfully, and create a space where ideas can flourish.

That’s exactly what we invited our participants to do at the News Impact Academy in Copenhagen, led by Design Strategist Tran Ha. She applies design thinking to a newsroom environment to provide our 19 participants with the tools they need to tackle their most pressing challenges.

These are the main takeaways for newsroom leaders:

1. How to drive innovation in your newsroom

Strong leadership is often associated with revolutionary ideas, but innovation doesn’t have to be bright and shiny. It happens by introducing small changes on a daily basis. “We would all love to come up with that one idea that no-one has ever thought about, but in reality, most ideas already exist,” said Tran.

To be innovative you need to look at the problem that everyone else is looking at, but frame it in a way so that you can actually take action on it. Put effort into finding the right questions instead of rushing into solutions. “We’re just not looking at needs and opportunities in the right way,” said Tran.

This approach forces you to take a step back and spend a lot of time in the problem sphere. “It will feel uncomfortable and messy,” she said. But when you listen to people — your team or your audience — you’ll find out where the friction point is, which allows you to identify the need.

Once you have a solution for this need in mind, set up a small experiment that allows you to back out quickly if it’s not working; e.g. a weekly debrief, daily team-lunch, an internal newsletter. If your prototype catches on, build upon it, turn small innovations into habits so they stick and real change happens.

Participants working on a prototype as part of a design thinking exercise

2. How to lead a team while managing the day-to-day

Leadership can be a lonely path, so it’s important to build a network of people who really understand your challenges, for example, the difference between leadership and management. “Leading is about giving a vision and managing means achieving that vision,” said one participant.

Our default mode tends to be managing, according to Tran, which is when you’re focusing on tasks. “But the hardest work is the strategy,” she added, “that’s why people don’t do it. A lot of leaders are not good at leadership, because they are focusing on tasks,” Tran said.

On a daily basis, it’s coming and going between managing and leading, putting out fires, thinking long-term, micro-managing, and giving autonomy. In a busy environment, where you have to get things done, you need to know when you can take time to focus on your leadership.

You can switch to leadership mode when…

  • you or your team are stuck and you don’t know how to get it done
  • the team is out of alignment
  • you have a high profile project, you want to get it right, and the answer is not so straight forward
  • you can take time to reflect

3. How to motivate staff

“Autonomy and freedom are the best drivers for creativity,” said Jakob Nielsen, one of our guest speakers at the News Impact Academy. He is the Editor-in-Chief of Altinget, one of Denmark’s most innovative newsrooms, who produce a slow version of political news, primarily for B-to-B subscribers.

Christina Andreasen, Deputy Managing Editor at Berlingske and Jakob Nielsen, Editor-in-Chief at Altinget in conversation

Jakob’s leadership strategy is all about trust. You have to be clear about goals and red lines while giving people freedom and ownership, according to him. “My team can experiment and if they fail that’s fine, I’m not on their backs,” he said. “Give people freedom!”

For example, his team is encouraged to apply for external funding to set up new projects— a creative competitive process that brings good energy to the newsroom. This allowed Altinget to become the leader in robot journalism in Denmark and enabled them to bring in new skills through such projects.

4. How to lead multi-disciplinary teams

Jakob’s collaboration with project managers made him realise that you can do great things when you’re open to change. “For 15 years I’ve been working with people that did what I did [produce stories], then for the first time I got to work with people doing stuff I didn’t know anything about,” he said.

Many newsrooms are hiring programmers, graphic designers and other people with skill-sets that are fairly new to journalism. “Developers and designers think very differently,” said one participant. De-marginalising these new roles within the newsroom is key to bringing innovation to journalism.

“If you only work with people that do what you do, you’ll end up with the same answer,” said one participant.

5. How to deal with resistance to change

A (remote) discussion with Anita Zielina about change management on 27 September 2019

You’ll always have people who are resistant to change, according to Anita Zielina, director of innovation and leadership at Craig Newmark J-School at CUNY, who led our discussion on change management. “What makes it so hard is that human beings, in general, are change-averse,” she said.

“People who are excited about change tend to forget that not everyone sees it that way”, Anita Zielina, director of innovation and leadership at Craig Newmark J-School at CUNY

Anita recommends leaders to focus their attention on caring for change-makers instead of spending time with the resistant ones. “Your stars are valuable allies who will drive the rest of the people and make others feel excited about change,” she said.

The best way to support your change-makers is to create as much freedom as possible, help them in their careers, and show them your plans, according to Anita. “Let them have fun and keep the negative energy away,” she said, “try to battle the fights on culture so that they don’t have to do it.”

Change projects need constant direction and active prioritising, according to Anita. “They’re like a plant that needs watering every day,” she said. Ideas become successful only when people talk about it every day to point the way and the light at the end of the tunnel.

“You want people to ask questions and discuss ideas so don’t be afraid to over-communicate,” she said, “when you sound like a broken record, you may still have people who will ask: Excuse me, why are we doing this?” But when the energy levels come up and things start to grow and scale, you’ll know you’re on the right track.


Join the News Impact Academy!

Our programme is meant for media professionals from legacy news organisations in Europe. We offer two-day trainings during which we strongly encourage innovative thinking by providing a space for collaboration, knowledge-sharing, innovation, shared frustration, and idea-generation.

Each edition gathers professionals in specific job roles as participants often face similar challenges in different countries. Many work with limited resources, but come up with new ideas that don’t necessarily require large monetary investments — rather, a different way of thinking.

Roundtable discussions at the News Impact Academy in Copenhagen on 27 September 2019

We’ve noticed an urgent need for gender balance among leaders in news organisations in Europe, as well as an urgent need for leadership training in the news industry.

Editors-in-chief are often selected because of their excellent journalistic skills — rather than leadership skills — yet professional development training is rarely provided. Our newsroom leadership editions aim to fill that gap.

This programme is a collaboration with the Google News Initiative. It’s one of many projects organised by the European Journalism Centre as part of our 2019 mission to build resilience into journalism to ensure the future of independent quality journalism in Europe.

If you’d like to join the News Impact Academy, sign up for our newsletter to get notified when next year’s opportunities come up.


European Journalism Centre

Interviews, insights and opportunities from the European Journalism Centre.

Thanks to Vera Penêda

Ingrid Cobben

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Journalist 😁👍🏼 #Storytelling #AudienceEngagement #BusinessModels #Diversity #DesignThinking #Localisation #ConstructiveJournalism #Community

European Journalism Centre

Interviews, insights and opportunities from the European Journalism Centre.

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