A project of Democracy Fund

July 12, 2017

How do leaders lead through tough times? Let’s get outside our own newsrooms and find out


Image of a map with many pins in it.

By Marty Kaiser, Democracy Fund Senior Fellow

It’s not exactly breaking news to say that the media landscape is changing – rapidly and relentlessly.

More than ever, the challenge for people in leadership positions is to recognize that landscape, embrace it, and foster a culture in which the prospect of ongoing change is inspiring, not intimidating. Leaders must set the tone, built on sound strategy, disciplined focus and skillful guidance.

So how do leaders lead, especially during these demanding times?

We all know that the worst answer to any question is: We’ve always done it that way. We also know that little can be more deadening – intellectually and spiritually – than leaders who think they are the smartest people in the room. And although establishing a sense of urgency is critical, it’s important to differentiate between managing by plan, and managing by panic.

One of the most successful ways for leaders to create the right culture is to learn from other leaders’ experiences.  Just as the best journalists have the most curiosity, the best leaders are always curious and learning. What am I missing? Who else can I talk with and what else can I read to learn more? How do I know enough to deeply understand and explain the context of my journalism? How do I better connect with my audience – both in the newsroom and outside?

Of course, there are times when a leader charts the course of the enterprise through explicit direction. But an executive does that at great risk if the directive is not preceded by listening to, understanding and learning from others inside the organization.

It is also necessary to listen and learn from those outside the organization. There are issues you can’t discuss inside your organization. You might need confidentiality. It is a gift to have experienced, impartial outside voices for counsel.

So let’s go outside your news organization to find some helpful advice – or at least give you some leadership, culture and change issues to think about as you make decisions.

I have asked some experienced news leaders to think about the challenges today’s leaders face in their news organizations and give some guidance by answering some questions from me. Whether your news organization is small or large, a start-up or more than 100 years old, the issues are often the same.

(Lead photo via Creative Commons/Doran)



This series, Leadership in Times of Change, was supported by Democracy Fund, and co-published with Poynter. Follow along for the next week for new posts from various leaders in the industry.


Are there other leaders we should highlight in this and future series? Tweet your suggestions to @TheLocalNewsLab and @Poynter, or email to localnewslab@democracyfund.org.


Martin Kaiser headshotMartin Kaiser is a Senior Fellow and Consultant at the Democracy Fund.

Kaiser is a nationally recognized journalism media consultant specializing in leadership, digital innovation, ethics, investigative reporting and editing. He was Editor/Sr. Vice President of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel from 1997 to 2015. Kaiser’s newsroom won Pulitzer Prizes in 2008, 2010 and 2011 and was honored as a finalist six other times from 2003 through 2014. Columbia Journalism Review wrote that the Journal Sentinel had one of the most acclaimed watchdog teams in the country, period. 

Editor & Publisher magazine named Kaiser its Editor of the Year in 2009. In 2011, the Milwaukee Press Club honored him with its Headliner Award for leadership in Wisconsin, only the second time a journalist had been selected in the 55-year history of the award.


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