5 skills editors need for our industry’s transformation


Editors have long held godlike positions in newsrooms. They are the omnipotent leaders whose authority is absolute, whose power to control and drive the delivery of news must be obeyed, and whose personal style and taste is reflected in story choices, opinion pieces, and the tone and colour of everything we produce.

Even today, back-benchers second-guess their whims, and reporters quake at sentences that start with “The boss ...”

This command-and-control structure has served newspapers well for decades. It provided the military precision necessary to successfully manufacture print day after day.

But it is a model that we now need to admit should be dead. And, indeed, our failure to kill it off for good is the source of so many of the ills now holding us back from real transformation.

No one can be personally responsible for every element of modern news delivery over so many platforms. Likewise, no individual reporter can cope with a conflicting list of instructions from multiple editors at the top who all think — by virtue of their titles — that their needs and authority mean their tasks should be prioritised immediately.

There is currently an extraordinary amount of tension and conflict in newsrooms. It is being blamed on transformation, which in many offices is being conducted like trench warfare. It is sad because it is unnecessary.

Since the 1980s (and even earlier), business thinking around what constitutes excellence in leadership and strong management has changed dramatically, as business structures have transformed in nearly every industry.

The skills we value in newsrooms, however, have not kept pace.

In a world of matrixes rather than silos, editors need to ask themselves, “What are the skills I need to lead in this new world?” We don’t have to invent them; there are perfectly good wheels already out there.

  1. Ask yourself: Why should anyone be led by you?

    Management experts Robert Goffee and Gareth Jones asked this question in an award-winning paper published in Harvard Business Review in 2006. Most executives find it confrontational, so you’re not alone.

    It follows on from extended thinking that leadership is not ordained, it is earned. Put simply, you cannot lead unless others are willing to follow you. If the authority of your title is the only thing ensuring obedience, or if the only answer to this question is “because I’m the editor,” it is time to urgently work on your leadership skills.

  2. Be humble — or at least show some self-awareness.

    Leadership roles are an honour, not a right. Editors, however, frequently confuse humility with being a wet blanket and, thus, reject it.

    In a command-and-control structure, the leader has to be perfect, as this is what earns him or her the right to demand perfection. But in empowered company structures, leaders earn respect for being honest about their vulnerabilities, and that honesty encourages followers to engage.

    Goffee and Jones argue that “many executives don’t have the self knowledge or the authenticity necessary for leadership.” They also point out that if you don’t reveal a weakness, “human nature being what it is ... observers may invent one for you.”

  3. First, change yourself.

    Leo Tolstoy said, “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.” Ask any editor what needs to happen to make transformation go more smoothly, and they will provide you with a list of what everyone else is doing wrong.

    Ron Ashkenas, a management consultant whose work regularly appears in Harvard Business Review, argues that one of the key problems for most managers is a fear of simplifying workflows and giving up outdated tasks.

    “While people complain about being too busy, they also take a certain amount of satisfaction and pride in being needed at all hours of the day and night ... being busy is a status symbol,” Ashekenas writes in “Why are organisations so afraid to simplify?

    “Managers also hesitate to stop doing things because they don’t want to admit that they are doing low-value or unnecessary work.”

    Want to make transformation less stressful? Look at your own daily and weekly to do list, be brutally honest, and recognise what really doesn’t need to be done any more — by anyone. Show your staff what you want them to do by demonstrating how you’re embracing it yourself. Don’t just tell them to get with the programme.

  4. Practice tough empathy.

    “Real leaders empathise fiercely with the people they lead. They also care passionately about the work their employees do,” write Goffee and Jones, who explain that tough empathy is the ability to balance respect for the individual with the task at hand.

    This contradicts the dynamic in many newsrooms, where the first and major concern is for the task at hand, and those who fail to execute that task are useless. It also identifies exactly where we fail collectively and how damaging it is to employees and, in turn, our future as an industry.

    “People do not commit to executives who merely live up to the obligations of their jobs. They want more. They want someone who cares passionately about the people and the work, just as they do,” write Goffee and Jones.

    The key to tough empathy is the issue of balance. The element newsrooms will love is that is “means giving people what they need, not what they want,” and part of the mantra is “grow or go.”

    In this way, tough empathy is different than the “concern” for others that human resources training seeks to inspire through “interpersonal skills.” The difference, however, is it gives people a chance to learn how to get on board, rather than outright rejection because of failure.

  5. Dare to be different.

    Technical skill, ruthless ambition, an appetite for working all the hours God gives you, and political smarts — these are the criteria that have traditionally determined who reached the pinnacle of our profession.

    But they are skill sets that on their own are not enough to cope with the multitude of information sources and the myriad platforms we now publish across.

    More useful, then, is an ability to inspire people to achieve their best, demonstrate consistently good communication skills, excellent managerial ability, and be comfortable with ambiguity.

    Likewise, the power to deal with fear and steer staff straight and true through the scary stuff will not only get us through these tumultuous years with less grief; it will ensure we catch up to current best-management-practice and are prepared to embrace the challenges of the future.
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