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Former El Colombiano publisher reflects on leadership lessons learned

By Mauricio Romero

Bogota, Colombia


During a recent INMA Webinar, Martha Ortiz, former publisher of El Colombiano, shared 13 experiences equivalent to the number of years during which she was part of the media group. El Colombiano owns the most important regional newspaper in the country, the second largest newspaper in Colombia.

Ortiz, now a media consultant, quoted a phrase from Jeff Bezos: “We can’t be on survival mode. You have to be in growth mode — meaning it is necessary to take time to plan and have a sense of purpose in daily work, which may, in turn, prevent some media from “committing suicide should they make bad decisions.

Martha Ortiz, former publisher of El Colombiano, looks back at what she learned during her years at the media company.
Martha Ortiz, former publisher of El Colombiano, looks back at what she learned during her years at the media company.

Ortiz shared three pieces of strategic advice:

1. Sense of purpose: The long-time journalist pointed out that without a sense of purpose, there is no direction nor inspiration. And a purposeless company may not be able to put up with the accelerated pace that characterises a media outlet. All employees should understand the purpose so they commit to it with a strong conviction.

“Purpose is the point of departure and arrival, Ortiz said.

Managers must be effective at communicating the message to their employees.

2. Carefully defined objectives: Ortiz suggests objectives be chosen well, which means not trying to control everything. Too many projects at the same time can get out of hand.

Ortiz experienced several transformations at El Colombiano in which external consultants were hired — a process that, according to Ortiz, works only if the company’s team gets involved and challenges what the consultants advise: “You shouldn’t swallow it whole, she warned.

In this debate, team members should question without being negative, always valuing the company’s experience: “No one knows the company more than we do, Ortiz said.

Ortiz calls for the flexibility of managers in the midst of a volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world, in which value’s ideal mix should include relevance and originality.

3. Corporate culture: A media company’s culture must come from positive leaders and permeate the entire company. This culture is a combination of habits, practices, and attitudes of the entire team towards the companys daily life.

Ortiz warns about negative leaders within a company and describes them as “dangerous, because sooner or later their attitude makes a dent in other key members of the team.

She also emphasised the need for managers to educate shareholders on the fact that a media company is not like any other, given its “semi-public” nature and constant innovation. Additionally, owners should not think of their company as a corner store that can be used to obtain personal favours.

Ortiz said media leaders must focus on exponential growth vs. linear growth.
Ortiz said media leaders must focus on exponential growth vs. linear growth.

As for the board of directors, Ortiz believes that this body should be turned into committees dedicated to serving the company — not just a group that meets for a few hours a month to read texts and check balance sheets.

Ortiz also touched on these topics:

Leadership: Media leaders must focus teams on learning, unlearning, and relearning, as well as creating moments of non-formal learning and dedicating time to think and create. Ortiz worries that the most prominent leaders in the media industry today are no longer available in the market and universities are not forming new leaders, either.

Definitions: It is essential that everyone in the company understands the same concepts. You should define and agree on what each word means. There must be coherence between what is said and what is done.

Essentialism: In the midst of such a busy schedule, companies must differentiate the vital from the trivial and not let the day-to-day consume the teams.

Data and KPIs: Data is as valuable as gold, but more important is what the company does with it and how it is measured through KPIs, since “we can control what we can measure,” Ortiz said. There should be a mix of quantitative and qualitative data, and media companies should avoid sharing this data with third parties: “If you deliver the data, you give away the client,” she said.

Audience: Ortiz emphasised the need for media companies to revolve around the customer, not the shareholders, the board, or the journalists’ ego. It is good to know the audience, not only from the data standpoint, but from an anthropological perspective. Media companies should offer audiences a sense of belonging.

User experience: Media companies should keep consistency between the image of a media outlet and what it offers. Mistakes should be avoided, since audiences can be unforgiving. The points of contact with the audience can be reasons to attract or frustrate audiences. Therefore, teams should take care of those contacts so customers have the best possible user experience.

Community: Subscriptions, memberships, and donations make up the medias sense of community. The company should be able to make its community feel emotions.

Technology: Media companies have become technology companies, but they should watch for exclusionary technical language. “We should evangelise and integrate members from different areas. We should offer audiences something they cant do for themselves, Ortiz said.

Break the rules: A trial and learning (not error) process should be applied, as well as learning quickly and being protagonists of the company’s own destiny.

About Mauricio Romero

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