Having a great news product with amazing reporters and incorporating all the best technologies and evolutions sounds like a successful news media company. And it could be, as long as that company is also making money.
The people responsible for making sure the business is turning a profit are really everyone in a news organisation, but no one is held accountable to that as much as news leaders.
During the recent INMA Newsroom Innovation Master Class, media leaders discussed some challenges facing the current media landscape and shared insights into the skills and strategies required to overcome them.
Niketa Patel knows about leadership. She’s currently senior director of executive programmes at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY, but has spent her career at local newspapers and TV stations, Network TV like CBS, ABC and CNN, as well as several years at Twitter including during the Trump administration.
Now, she’s teaching leadership classes and workshops and shared her newsroom leadership philosophy, saying it’s crucial for news leaders to be forward thinking and to be able to meet this moment in our news society.
“Today’s newsroom leaders need to be authentic, charismatic, confident, decisive, inclusive, fair, but firm, really good communicators which we are often not, and, of course, problem solvers,” Patel said. “News leaders also need to have business acumen. I can’t stress this enough.”
Whether the title is editor-in-chief, head of product, or anything in between, Patel said having business acumen will help leaders be strong visionaries and help them to be able to lead their companies into profitability.
“Leaders also need to take ownership for their decisions and have integrity as well,” Patel said. “I also firmly believe that empathetic leadership styles are highly critical to the future of journalism.”
Social media distribution
The transition to digital and a fragmented number of distribution points on social media creates a tremendous challenge for traditional media companies.
Part of the problem lies in shifting mentality, said Zach Leonard, global chief operation officer at The Independent. While print’s 24-hour cycle involves planning and packaging, digital is more about being timely.
“It’s a wholly different way of thinking,” he said. “And sadly, it is generational.”
It’s also critical, he added, noting, “Change is the reality. If you’re not willing to change, you’re not going to survive.”
Part of that change means giving the customer exactly what they want, said William Lewis, co-founder of The News Movement and incoming CEO of The Washington Post. In the past, newspapers had to guess what their customers were looking for, but today’s data-rich environment has changed that. However, the new challenge in this environment is becoming a master of all platforms.
“Even within what you think is one product, which is social, doing TikTok is very different to doing Snap,” he said. “So it’s a very technical challenge about how you set up and how you motivate and how you incentivise.”
Those factors all circle back to giving the customer what they want: “If you reward, delight, and surprise the customer on a daily basis, only good things can follow,” Lewis said.
Embracing and leveraging AI
As much as things have changed for the news media industry in recent years, AI will cause even more change at a rapid pace. And as scary and unknown as it may seem right now, Patel said this moment offers an opportunity for the news media industry to reclaim its power.
“I’m glad to see a lot of leaders being part of these larger efforts and conversations regarding regulation and forming guidelines and partnerships when it comes to the ethics of AI, when it comes to copyright, business ramifications, etc.,” she said. “We did give our relationships up with our audiences to platforms, now it’s time to reclaim that and get some of those relationships and that power back.”
Regardless of the size of the newsroom, Patel said, all leaders should be thinking about AI and creating guidelines for its use — including the need for a human touch.
“Make sure you always have that human layer involved; your editors, your journalists, because that's the only way we’re going to have [audience] trust when we are automating stories and headlines and all kinds of things,” Patel said. “Humans in the loop, that has to be the constant.”
For media leaders working to encourage an embrace of AI across an organisation, Jane Barrett, global editor for media news strategy at Reuters News Agency, said it’s critical to communicate a clear vision and provide structured processes for change.
“When I did multimedia transformation, I really hit soft sand,” Barrett said. “I realised you can’t change people, habits … through force of personality alone. You can’t be the positive tornado that whips in and tells everyone, ‘It’s going to be fantastic!’ You need tools and techniques, good management; you need structure.”