News media employees must reflect communities to be relevant

By Brie Logsdon


Nashville, Tennessee, United States


If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”

That quote by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa was referenced often by now-retired New York Times Chairman Arthur Salzberger Jr., and it helped light the media company’s path to transformation.

“It speaks to the importance of the leadership at the very top being visionary,” said Stephen Dunbar-Johnson during his presentation as part of the Leadership and Transformation Opportunities Master Class in January (future INMA Master Classes can be found here). Dunbar-Johnson, president, international at The New York Times, offered an inside view of how the media giant has adjusted to the changing digital world.

Stephen Dunbar-Johnson of The New York Times shared transformation advice at the INMA Master Class.
Stephen Dunbar-Johnson of The New York Times shared transformation advice at the INMA Master Class.

The New York Times tries to reflect its audience

As newsrooms adapt to a changing world, they have to test new products and means of delivery and remain focused on having people with the right skills in the right place. That doesn’t refer just to the stakeholders at the executive table, but to every employee at every desk. Part of that will mean recognising the imperative of diversity and inclusion.

“To … build our readers, we need to reflect who our readers are around the world. In order to make the right decisions we need to not only be working cross-departmentally but need to have a diverse group of people sitting around the table.”

That includes looping in Generations X and Y, who often have more to teach than they’re given credit for.

“You get better decision-making that way,” Dunbar-Johnson said. “And it gives agency to the young generation of folks that are so important to our future.”

Dunbar-Johnson acknowledged not all team members that fit in an analog world will transition to digital: “But once you recognise with clarity where you need to be, and go back and see what kind of people you need, it becomes easier.”

Leading during a pandemic

Lucy Kueng, strategic advisor and research fellow at Reuters Institute, said leaders must recognise the need for change at all levels of the company and fill skill gaps to position companies for transformation. This is an especially challenging task at the moment.

“The leadership challenge is so difficult right now,” she said. “We are in a situation where we have the COVID crisis sitting on top of some major structural shifts.” 

These three shifts that were already happening before the pandemic hit are:

  • Digital transformation fundamentally altering news media industry and organisations.

  • The need to understand Generations Y and Z.

  • The increasing imperative around diversity and inclusion needs.

Calibre of leadership will determine how well one masters each and all of these shifts, including COVID-19.

Kueng said one leadership style does not solve mastery of these shifts, and leadership challenges differ massively by level (from top executive to lower management).

  • Top management is a very complex role, requiring a much broader leadership profile.

  • Just under that level, the top team needs to be cohesive and high performing. Attention should be paid to whether an organisation has the right seats at this top table and the right people in those seats.

  • Middle management requires serious leadership right now that can turn strategy into action and give feedback and performance management.

  • At lower management levels, Gens Y and Z are demanding different management and leadership styles.

Financial Times creates community among employees

The best media leaders facilitate transformation by empowering staff at all levels. In terms of skills, Tara Lajumoke, managing director at FT Strategies, believes leaders need to hire, integrate, train people who help move the company forward. This is about looking outside the news industry to find the right people.

Financial Times has hired from Netflix, BBC, theatre, and even further sectors to fill out their capabilities. It is critical to communicate the advantages of working for your company or you may lose key talent, Lajumoke said: “I think there will be a war for talent.” 

Financial Times has created a set of empowered, cross-functional teams called FT Missions to have everyone across the company working on the same North Star goals. These teams are broken into three sections — acquire, retain, transform — and include people with a variety of skills and opinions across all areas of the organisation.

Tara Lajumoke of FT Strategies described how teams and North Star goals go together.
Tara Lajumoke of FT Strategies described how teams and North Star goals go together.

“I think this is the future,” Lajumoke said. “I think this is how leaders are going to have to start operating, beyond the departmental functional units across the organisation, across complex problems and goals.”

These goals cannot be achieved without hiring and fostering the best, diverse talent. Financial Times recognises a desire for more diverse content and expects to see an even greater demand for diverse propositions moving forward. This expectation brings an opportunity to reach wider audiences, Lajumoke said. 

“I think diversity in content is a great strategic opportunity, not only to make progress from a societal lens but also from a business perspective,” she said.

To fill this need, Financial Times is evaluating its content and its staff to ensure it properly reflects society. To address inclusion in the workplace, FT has employee-run networks to connect individuals and provide a sense of community and culture. The company also tries to incorporate and amplify everyone’s individual voice — not just in underrepresented groups, but people in positions of power, too.

“Think about all types of diversity, but also how to enlist active commitments from those outside those visible and less visible diverse groups,” Lajumoke said. “Do you have allies? Do you have sponsors and advocates who join these underrepresented groups in projects or debates and work as hard to create a more inclusive workplace?”

Stuff hires employees with disabilities

Diversity and inclusion are at the heart of what may be a lofty goal at New Zealand’s Stuff: Make trust the company’s North Star. 

“At the heart of our journey to becoming a more diverse workplace was the human dimension,” Annamarie Jamieson, Stuff’s people and culture director, said.

In New Zealand, the employment rate for disabled people is less than one-third than it is for non-disabled people. Jamieson shared the photos and stories of four ambitious, talented people who should have been blossoming but were sidelined from job opportunities because they are disabled. With the launch of the Creative Spirit programme, Stuff flipped its thinking and redefined normal. 

The journey began with a series of nagging problems: Mail was often late, kitchens were messy, the receptionist could never take a break. Tasks were being ignored, and the solution was to hire someone specifically for them. One job became two, and two became eight, Jamieson said. Now a full-fledged programme, Creative Spirit pairs eager, young people with disabilities with the perfect job.

This is where trust and equity come into play, Jamieson said. Stuff provides employees with disabilities the same conditions and opportunities as everyone else in the company, offering real jobs for real pay to people willing to learn and work.

Staff at Stuff use sign language, New Zealand’s third national language, to order coffee at the onsite coffee shop run by a deaf barista.
Staff at Stuff use sign language, New Zealand’s third national language, to order coffee at the onsite coffee shop run by a deaf barista.

Thinking more broadly about the business makes it clear how beneficial efforts toward diversity and inclusion are as a whole. To start this journey, a news media company should peel the layers back on its workforce and be honest about how fair and equitable it is.

“If you want to accurately reflect external communities, you need to be intentional about reflecting them internally,” Jamieson said.

Stuff is just getting started on its journey, but Jamieson offered some advice to those about to begin or currently on their own diversity journeys: 

  • Measure and actively manage

  • Be honest and reflective

  • Be authentic and brave

Jamieson stressed the importance of honesty: “I think everyone knows internally when they’re not being honest about the workforce they’re supporting.” 

About Brie Logsdon

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