Leadership is a service: how to help your team find purpose and navigate change

Being an excellent journalist doesn’t automatically make you a good leader. Here are some tips on how to become one.

A conversation during the News Impact Summit in Berlin

Leading a newsroom in the modern media landscape is no easy feat and way too often media leaders are not well-prepared to guide their people through change.

At the last News Impact Summit of the year, hosted in Berlin on 3 December and powered by the Google News Initiative, we decided to tackle this issue head-on. We brought together experts from across Europe to discuss the key features that make a good newsroom manager in times of change and what are the most common mistakes we should avoid.

As beautifully underlined by Esther Alonso, membership and development director at eldiario.es:

“Change is not a process you sketch on a piece of paper and then just follow. It’s about working with humans.”

Most talks and conversations during the day highlighted the same. Change starts with people, and never really ends. Accepting and embracing these two key facts is the necessary first step, but there’s much more we should keep in mind.

Here’s a brief summary of the most valuable learnings we identified:

Listen. But for real

A recurring theme was the role of empathy in the workplace. Teresa Bücker, editor-in-chief of the online magazine Edition F, opened the day with a great deal of insights from her own personal experience in launching a new media and building a team from scratch. She explained that a good manager is the one who spends most of the time getting to know the team better, because “everyone is different and they might want something completely different from their job.”

“Change is exhausting,” added Anita Zielina, visiting fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, “and not everyone is naturally excited about it.” The role of a leader is to listen to the people that make up the team and find out how to make change more efficient and sustainable, but also fun.

Anita led many teams throughout her career at Stern, Der Standard, and NZZ, and will soon join the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY to develop a new programme that will train the next generation of news executives to address the demand for innovation and leadership in the industry. Too often, she argued, “leadership training is completely overlooked and rarely discussed in public in our industry.”

In a conversation with Anita, Blathnaid Healy of CNN Digital International added another layer to the importance of listening:

“As a leader, my role is to figure out what makes people in my team feel satisfied and where they find value in what they do.”

The goal is to create a work environment that suits different people with different needs and allows everyone in the team to contribute to the change, rather than just being subjected to it.

Reach out and build bridges

Being a leader is not only telling a team what to do. Many newsrooms are starting to recognise the need of creating leadership roles outside of the traditional teams, in order to establish connections and bridge departments, focusing on influence rather than control. Niddal Salah-Eldin has this kind of mission at WELT, as Director of Digital Innovation, and has no doubt in describing what makes her role so important: “I talk to more people than anyone else in the newsroom. You can’t sit in your own stew and expect magic to happen.”

On a similar note, Jane Barrett, global head of multimedia at Reuters, shared how her bridge role presents many challenges but also allows her to interact and find inspiration from colleagues working in different departments: “I find it fascinating working with product and sales teams to see how a deal is made.”

Too often, we get stuck in the daily grind and we forget to take the time to reach out and connect on a personal level with the people around us. “What’s on your mind? What do you need? How are things going?” Kustaw Bessems, chief digital editor at de Volkskrant, started approaching people in his team and around the newsroom with these questions and acknowledges that “at the beginning, they were a little weirded out. They couldn’t understand what I wanted from them and it took me a while to explain that I was just genuinely interested in what they had to say.”

We need new definitions of strength and leadership

Even the best leader is still a person, not a hero. Anita and Blathnaid discussed how we need to break the narrative that paints good leaders as always available, the first to be at the office and the last ones to leave: “That’s stupid. Being strong is raising your hand when you need help.”

And help is very often needed by newsroom people. In his research as part of this year’s News Impact Network, John Crowley addressed the issue of burnout in newsrooms with an in-depth survey that revealed a worrisome situation: over 50% of journalists said they were “overwhelmed” by information during their working day and wanted to “explore solutions” to make it more manageable.

Good managers must lead by example in showing how asking for help is not a sign of weakness, but they also need to offer to their team solutions to find the right balance and spot risks of burnout way before it materialises. Alex Entwistle of BBC Radio 5 Live has started by teaching himself and his team the importance of taking breaks and finding tricks and hacks to maintain some semblance of sanity: “Lunch away from the desk. Schedule short screen breaks. Switch out of ‘work mode’ when you are not at the office. A few small changes can make a big difference.”

From ‘I’ to ‘We’

“Leadership is a service to your team. Your role is to help others grow and become better.”

Reframing leadership as a service is key to fully comprehend what’s at stake while navigating uncertainty and complex situations that arise in the process of change, said Teresa Bücker in her opening talk. You won’t be around forever, so, in Anita’s words: “as a leader, the best thing you can do is to teach the people in your organisation how to feel comfortable with change and own it.”

Participants at work during a workshop in Berlin

With this spirit in mind, many speakers also talked about the power of collaboration. Jassim Ahmad, who is building an international community of people working in news product, explained that to accelerate innovation “we need to think differently about organisational connections: […] listen to your audience, mix your teams, collaborate with other organisations.”

Finally, we should never stop thinking outside the box to look out for new forms of collaboration. From co-mentorship to job-sharing, the opportunities are there to create more positive and flexible working conditions. The key to unlocking the full potential of collaboration? As Alexandra Großkurth, who job-shares at Google in the Global Product Partnerships team, put it: “Leave your ego at the door.”

Know Thy Self

Last but not least, good leaders have to remember that everyone is looking for meaning in their work. According to research quoted by Alexandra, meaning is not entirely correlated with the actual tasks that your job entails. It’s a multi-faceted quest that involves growth and development, flexibility and recognition, and it’s not always easy to identify what can point us in the right direction.

Wrapping up the day, Áine Kerr, chief operating officer of Kinzen, shared one useful tool to reflect on your current work situation and identify where change is needed to improve your balance and working conditions: the Purpose Venn Diagram:

What you love. What the world needs. What you get paid for. What your strengths are. The journey towards being a positive agent of change starts here. Find your purpose, communicate it transparently to yourself and the people around you, and put yourself at their service to help them find a purpose of their own.


The News Impact Summit in Berlin was the last edition of 2018. Through three Summits and five Academies, we discussed some of the most interesting developments and biggest challenges that define today’s media industry, from leadership to community engagement, membership models, new forms of collaboration and the role of design.

News Impact will be back in 2019 to keep bringing across Europe the conversation on innovation in journalism. Sign up to our newsletter to receive all the updates about the upcoming series of News Impact trainings and events.

Further reading and resources