How to lead a newsroom through digital transformation?

Interview with Michelle Holmes about her approach to newsroom leadership

Ingrid Cobben
Aug 5 · 8 min read
News Impact Academy 2018 in Barcelona

Can you imagine being an editor-in-chief and not having a login to the CMS? Michelle Holmes, Head of Partnerships at Alabama Media Group, took such dramatic measures to avoid spending time in things that could be done elsewhere. “I’ve learned that you have to let go of the details,” Michelle told the EJC in a phone interview.

Michelle Holmes, Head of Partnerships, Alabama Media Group

“The need to get up at a large view and think about where you’re headed is the function of leadership,” Michelle Holmes.

Ahead of our News Impact Academy on Newsroom Leadership, we turned to Michelle who joined us last year as a guest speaker — to share her experience of overseeing more than 100 journalists and leading a large organisation through digital transformation.

In 2012, the group cut the publication of their daily newspapers to only three times a week. That decision led to an angry community and company-wide job cuts. “It was time for a culture change,” said Michelle during her talk. “In the past six years, we have developed from a media group with lots of problems into a trusted media group that reaches various audiences.”

How would you describe your approach to leadership?
Gut level, energy-based with an eye toward excellence. I’d rather have one thing that is magnificent and dropping the ball on several mediocre things so it’s really encouraging the pursuit of excellence. And finally, it’s based on trying to foster a respectful and collaborative culture.

How do you determine the strategic direction for your organisation?
That’s the biggest question for us. It’s looking toward the society that’s forming, the power structures that are being dismantled and also the old ways that news organisations used to think about beats, think about coverage. Before we covered institutions, we didn’t cover movements.

“Increasingly, we’re seeing the opportunity to go where the heart, soul and passion of our audience is,” Michelle Holmes

How do you get the right team in place to do that?
For us, it has been looking outside the normal resumes. That means bringing in people from different fields, who can bring different perspectives. Journalism is now deeply into breathing its own fumes from running in circles with the same people with the same thoughts. One of the best ways is to infuse people with different ideas and different thinking into the mix, different backgrounds.

Michelle Holmes sharing her leadership strategy at the News Impact Academy

How important is diversity within in your newsroom?
Like most news organisations in America, we’ve done an abysmal job at this. Our hiring as an industry is nowhere near representative. We continue seeking to expand the diversity in our organisation. The nice thing is that the changing world we find ourselves in is going to press all of us to either do this or not survive. This is no longer a social cause. It is core to our future, core to our identity, core to our survival to bring a much more diverse set of voices, ideas, and people into creating modern journalism.

How has your own experience as a woman in a leadership role been?
Above all, I try to bring a heart-centred approach into the journalism I’m leading. Where there’s no passion, the capacity for impact is dramatically lessened. As a woman, I realise that such a heart-centred approach often comes with work that’s identified with “softer” traditionally female values: love, compassion, connection, laughter, empathy.

Of course, these are human values, not female-only values. But when a female leader brings these values into the workplace, that can be misinterpreted as weak, or less intellectually rigorous. When they bring them into a “serious” investigative and data-driven newsroom, standing for such values can doom a female leader altogether. I’ve perhaps over-compensated for this in my people leadership: I don’t bring cookies to work, I rarely socialise with my staff, I often appear far more serious than I feel inside.

What do you expect for the future of female leaders in the news industry?
The flatter, more collaborative work environment offers an alternative to this “aloof leader in charge” mentality. A move toward “collaborative” or “engaged” journalism, along with the many lessons of the #MeToo movement, the growing acceptance of gender fluidity (as well as the economic collapse of the industry that means the old ways no longer work) is beginning to shift newsrooms in ways that are incredibly hopeful for women leaders who want to lead while being authentically human. That’s a win for all of us.

How do you make sure everyone in the newsroom is on the same page?
One of the essential functions of leadership is to set a tone of respect, collaboration, the ability to expect that one’s ideas are heard. It’s always hard, but it’s always necessary. It’s not just necessary to make it more fun to be at work. We all love to have fun at work, but this isn’t about fun.

“This is about giving people a space where they feel like they can think bigger, even if it sounds crazy,” Michelle Holmes

If you have an organisation where there are certain ways that one behaves, it really inhibits people who are able to think of something that’s not in existence yet. That’s the culture that I want to foster. It has to happen at multiple levels.

How do you deal with people that are resistant to change?
It’s about creating opportunities and looking to match those resistant people with things they care about. If what they care about is in the broad range of what you do then find a way to plug them in there.

But at a certain point, you can’t make this kind of change if you’re unwilling to hold a line of certain standards of behaviour and respect. Then those people have a choice to make whether they want to remain in the organisation. It’s not just enough to be excellent at one part of one’s job. There have to be some serious conversations about it. If you’re miserable and you don’t like the future, why are you here? I’ve certainly had those conversations.

What activities can drive culture change?
The biggest driver of culture change can be as simple as a success. For example, a team’s ability to see that working collaboratively made something bigger than they could see themselves. Some of it is just happenstance when something really gels and it works, and it’s exciting and it came from this generative openness and when that works, that’s really the key.

What I’ve learned over the six years that I’ve worked in Alabama is these have been sequential small steps. It hasn’t been suddenly coming into this wild crazy new situation where everybody’s thinking and doing things differently. Not at all. I’ve failed at that attempt multiple times over my career, it’s just building on one success after another. And thinking about who you hire, and whether they look at the world in terms of possibilities instead of roadblocks.

Could you share an example of failure and the learning you took from it?
We launched ‘The Southern Girls Project’ in 2016, which I believed in strongly. It came up through the genesis of some of my women leaders in the news organisation. This was before the #MeToo movement, a couple of years before women’s issues really blew up.

Many of the people in the newsroom didn’t understand why we would be caring about the issues of teenage girls, and even younger. I put it in motion and then, for the most part, I stepped away, way too early.

When we put a new tender, it’s like planting a new plant. You have to be there and water it every day. You can’t just plant it and walk away and say well it will rain look at all the other plants that are living. Yes, but they’re established. So many of my failures are when I just walked away too early. And it’s not walking away from doing anything, but it’s continuing to look at what kind of support these people at the edges of the culture need.

Lastly, could you share one of your leadership wins?
One was in the creation of our video effort, which has now grown to be a really vital part of our company. I think my primary leadership win there was making it clear to everyone that this was valued and bringing in a manager who I gave full power to make changes and to grow this. That was a big moment of culture change.

The leadership part of it was: “There is no way this is not going to happen. We are going to change and grow from what we find, but this is here.”

Being able to give that manager the support that he needed was certainly a huge success for us as a company. Mostly, my leadership approach was to get out of the way of a talented person that I brought in and making it clear that he had my support to change the organisation.

Apply now for the News Impact Academy on newsroom leadership!
The News Impact Academy on leadership will take place in Copenhagen on 26/27 September. This hands-on training is based on design methods and will be led by Tran Ha, an experienced design and business strategy consultant, who also hosted last year’s edition in Barcelona.

Participants of the News Impact Academy, Newsroom Leadership edition in Barcelona on 25/26 September 2018

The programme is organised by the European Journalism Centre and powered by the Google News Initiative. It is free of charge but invite-only. We select 20 professionals from news organisations across Europe.

Location: Copenhagen
Dates: 26/27 September 2019

Apply here [deadline is 26 August]

European Journalism Centre

Interviews, insights and opportunities from the European Journalism Centre.

Thanks to Linda Vecvagare

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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