A project of Democracy Fund

July 31, 2018

Five lessons from mentoring newsrooms in times of change

“The answer to some of these problems has to be putting in the time, and connecting people who together can build something great.”

Two women with notebooks sit in a room sharing feedback on a project they're working on.

(Photo via CC/wocintechchat)

By Marty Kaiser, Democracy Fund Senior Fellow

Editor’s note: This piece builds on many of the lessons shared in a previous series from Marty Kaiser on how newsroom leaders lead during times of change. Read the leaders’ advice here.

When I was the editor of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, I was fortunate enough to assemble a leadership team and a staff person-by-person, department-by-department. Each step of the way my goal was to set the tone for the newsroom and then, together, we built a common culture and vision.  We owed our success to each other.

Today, many editors have neither the time nor the tools to build that kind of an organization. And yet, at a time of profound transition and change, leadership is more important than ever – to news organizations, to the communities they serve, and to the role of journalism in a healthy democracy. In an era of dwindling resources and mounting pressures many leaders I talk to feel isolated, and their staffs are stretched thin, buffeted from all sides, just trying to stay afloat.

Since I left the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in 2015, I have been working with editors and news organizations to nurture leadership and encourage better culture in newsrooms. Over the past two years as a senior fellow for Democracy Fund I’ve been able to travel to small newsrooms across the country and offer these services for free. This work is about enhancing the journalism they produce, fostering greater sustainability, and making newsrooms better places to work. I don’t define success for them or give them a pre-meditated list of goals; they know themselves and their communities better than I do.

Rather, I help them stop the treadmill, look up, engage each other, see different options, help with decision-making, and develop a plan to take concrete steps forward. The feedback from these processes has been extraordinarily gratifying. Based on my work with Democracy Fund on this project, I have distilled five factors that appear to be critical to successfully navigating change in newsrooms.

1) Providing mentors.

Many top editors tell me they have never had a mentor, or haven’t had one since they started climbing the leadership ladder. They appreciate someone outside their organization who they can consult with privately on anything from handling decisions on news, ethics and personnel to meaningfully celebrating accomplishments with their staff.

This is especially true of new editors who are good at their jobs, but know they could get even better through learning and counsel. They can’t get this through episodic training or an annual convention. It comes with time, with a developed relationship. As a mentor, I help them think deeper and more long-term, running through not just the issue of the moment, but the next and the next. I want them to see the whole field. Even after concluding my work in their newsrooms, I continue to stay in touch and grow this mentoring relationship.

2) Building connections. 

Throughout my career I always made time to stay in touch with mentors and colleagues across the country. They were invaluable to me. When I needed them, they challenged me, guided me and shared their expertise.  The connection to them made me feel part of something larger, and it gave me a chance to mine the thoughts of people I trusted. But I’ve noticed that, in a time of constant change, where news organizations are experimenting with new ways of doing things, exchanging knowledge about what’s working and not working among colleagues across the country is more important than ever.

In my work with very different newsrooms around the country I have been able to connect journalists who have dealt with – or are dealing with – similar issues. It doesn’t matter if they get different advice – or even conflicting advice. Just hearing a variety of voices allows these leaders to make more informed decisions for themselves and their particular circumstance.

3) Embracing change.

In many cases, editors today face tougher challenges and demands than their predecessors. Technology continues to evolve, and that changes both news consumption habits and news delivery methods. It also fundamentally changes newsrooms – the kinds of journalists needed, the pressures they face, the skills they need. No wonder it feels like there is turmoil all around – all the time.

The best newsroom leaders and their staffs acknowledge that change is a constant and begin to cultivate the skills and temperament to adapt to that. “Change is like oxygen: we need it to exist,” Ron Smith, the USA TODAY managing editor for news, told me.

Leaders see that it’s not something to get through until things settle down, but instead a continuing part of their job. Developing the capacity to lead within constant change demands a commitment to questioning, learning, measuring and iterating. I coach the newsrooms I work with to embrace diversity, empathy, humbleness, and nimbleness.

4) Creating culture.

Culture is the foundation of success – or failure – in organizations. I believe strongly that if you get the culture right it goes a long way to creating effective newsrooms. Culture starts at the top; it doesn’t rise from the bottom. Leaders who build a positive culture consistently share a clear and inspiring path to the future. This vision shouldn’t ignore the challenges along that path, but it should define what success looks like. Without it, the staff will wander, resist change, and look for leadership elsewhere. People watch leaders, they take their cues from them. In the best news organizations there is a common sense of what the organization is doing – and why.

5) Developing staff. 

In work with newsrooms, I lead the staff through a process to help them to better define and achieve their goals. We work together to build on existing strengths and find solutions to overcome obstacles that get in the way. I bring as many staffers as possible into the process with open and honest communication.

My work includes building a plan for the future with the staff so it has a roadmap and tools to reach its goals when I am not there. The intent is to help staffers let go of uncertainty, recognize that they are not alone, and show a path to the future with them in it. They often discover they can become each other’s mentors, they can develop peer networks across the industry, they can embrace change, they can develop their own brand, if you will, and in doing so raise the quality of their work, and the work of their organization.

One key thing connects each of these lessons. The best newsrooms are committed to diversity and know it is more important than ever.

Diverse newsrooms improve journalists as they learn from each other’s life experiences. Diverse newsrooms that reflect their communities help ensure they properly cover those communities. That commitment has to run through all of this work.

The journalists I have worked with want to succeed; they want their work to matter.  They know their role in our democracy couldn’t be more important. But they need more support, more allies, more mentors helping blaze the trail.

There are a lot of efforts focused on changing newsroom practices.  What I have found is the root of this work is building relationships, which takes time, money and patience. Slowing down and examining culture and goals in the face of fast paced change is hard. Being nimble while staying authentic is tricky. These tensions animate newsrooms right now. The answer to some of these problems has to be putting in the time, and connecting people who together can build something great.

Martin Kaiser headshot

Martin 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.

Read more on managing change in this series of Q and As with newsroom leaders, which was co-published with Poynter.