If digital talent in newsrooms equals younger hires (and it does), why aren’t media companies making them?


Younger talent needed in the newsroom to help build the future of digital first media, mobile, and digital media.
Younger talent needed in the newsroom to help build the future of digital first media, mobile, and digital media.

Anette Novak wrote this week in her INMA blog that media companies claim to be “digital first,” yet they don’t hire like it. Her words struck a chord with me, echoing what I hear and see in my travels around the world interacting with news publishers.

My two big observations about today’s newsrooms are this:

  • The talent pool for digital-first editorial leadership is shallow. 
  • We need to get younger – fast – if we are to adapt to the changes in how people consume news.

In the past three years, I have heard an odd confession by CEOs of major publishing companies: They are having difficulty filling their top editorial leadership positions with what they perceive as ideal candidates. 

The reasons for this are three-fold:                 

  1. Digital leaders for print newsrooms: They are seeking digitally savvy editorial leaders for newsrooms that, despite the polite “digital-first” talk to the contrary, remain stuck in a print world. 

  2. Massive personnel changes needed: The ideal candidates know that changing tradition-bound newsrooms will require heavy re-training or layoffs of personnel who can’t change and hirings of personnel who can.

  3. Too long doing the wrong dance: The road from the No. 2 job (managing editor) to the No. 1 editorial job (executive editor) requires an apprenticeship of up to a decade and a cultural dance that requires building newsroom credibility to advance. 

In other words, the ideal candidates think the task is too arduous, the wounds may not heal on his or her watch, and the process takes too long.

Publishers are seeking long-distance digital masochists while the ideal candidates just want to be editors who can make an impact now. 

Publishers are seeking pied pipers, change agents, or consultants. The ideal candidates want to change the world or build a community.

Would you take that job?

If you want to lead a news organisation that produces great journalism or builds and molds great audiences, why not connect with one of the growing number of digital outlets that are changing the world? 

The purpose of this post is not to answer the question, but to challenge managements outside of the newsroom to: 

  • Come up with differentiating answers. What is your sales pitch to the 30-something ideal editorial candidate with tons of employment options if your legacy brand no longer has the pull it once did?
  • Take off the gloves and plow the way for newsrooms to become digital first – from personnel to processes to physical structure to social media to a healthy obsession with metrics to ecosystems based on how people consume news and information. 

Most publishers love their newsrooms, despite the natural inclination of journalists and editors to question ownership’s commitment to their cause. Yet with that love has developed a passive/aggressive relationship that often discourages transparency in communication.

In normal times, the publisher wants nothing more than to leave his or her newsroom alone and encourage journalistic excellence. And the newsroom expects nothing less. Yet that is no longer acceptable if digital first is to be more than a catchphrase.

Hiring consultants or creating official reports or whatever other svelte workaround can be dreamed up can never replace a transparent publisher/editor dialogue.

Digital-minded editorial leadership is a challenge, yet so is attracting young digital talent to newsrooms. I am hearing this at every company on every continent I visit.

I toured a North American newsroom in the past year. It was close to deadline at night, and I initially didn’t understand what was out of place. Looking out on a sea of gray hair, I finally asked my guide: “Where are you hiding your young people?”

The answer was economic times had been tough, it was a union shop, and seniority ruled. In a department of a company in an industry that desperately needs young blood, there was none to be found in this newsroom on a Thursday night.

Digital media companies are disproportionately acquiring the best young digital talent at the expense of big brand legacy publishers.

A recent tour of Central America found a familiar refrain from newspaper publishers: We can’t acquire or keep young digital talent. Australia’s Fairfax Media is kept on its toes by having Google in the same building. Human resources managers have begun attending INMA conferences on the lookout for young digital talent.

Yet I will take the “young at heart,” too. Two of our industry’s best change agents – John Paton at Digital First Media and Lewis DVorkin at Forbes – are digitally reformed ink-stained wretches who inspire and lead. And they might have a gray hair or two. One is leading as an editor, and the other is an editor-turned-CEO – the ideal cultural change artists in today’s media company.

As Novak points out in her blog post, Paton encourages publishers to put the digital people in charge of everything. That the “digital people” are disproportionately young often hangs in the air without comment.

How do we attract young digital journalistic talent led by digital-minded editors? Management outside the newsroom has to impose direction and culture change and not wait for an outsider or the digitally converted to do it. We need to make our newsrooms magnets for a consistent stream of young digital talent.

And we need to do it five minutes ago.

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