New Paths to the Top of New Newsrooms
Managing people now matters more than editing stories.
Welcome to Second Rough Draft, a newsletter about journalism in our time, how it (often its business) is evolving, and the challenges it faces.
In thinking about how newsrooms have changed, I like to draw the distinction between what I call “20th century jobs,” primarily reporter or editor (copy, line or supervisory) and “21st century jobs,” including those involving data, audience, engagement or product. The emergence of these newer sorts of jobs has been one of the most important recent developments in newsrooms. This week I want to talk about the next step I see in this evolution—changes in the backgrounds of the people who will have the top jobs in the newsrooms of the future.
Until now, editors-in-chief (the titles vary, but let’s use EIC as a generic) have come from those who march up a traditional ladder, from reporter to group or story editor to section or supervisory editor to top management, effectively becoming editor of other editors. This ladder was premised, at least implicitly, on the idea that stories are the building blocks of news organizations, and that the ability to craft such stories is the highest art in the enterprise.
Changing premises of publishing
Those premises are no longer true—or at least no longer the whole truth. Where once the audience for newspapers consisted almost entirely of a relatively loyal band of print subscribers and regular single-copy buyers, now the hunt for a primarily digital audience is constant, shifting and unstable. Where the relationship with readers, listeners and viewers was one-way, now it is increasingly interactive. Where next year’s version looked and felt a great deal like last year’s version, now the most successful publishers are constantly crafting new and enhanced products. Stories still matter a great deal, but they are far from all that matters. So it follows that the folks who craft stories might no longer have a monopoly on top editorial jobs.
But there is more—significantly more, I think. The news product and editorial process are not all that have changed. So has the culture of newsrooms, especially since the weakening of office ties that began with the pandemic and the cultural reckoning that was accelerated in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. Both of these powerful forces put an enormous premium on effective personnel management, even as that management became substantially more challenging.
The talents that matter most now
The result has been that people skills are becoming the great differentiator in assessing potential newsroom leaders. Can someone navigate the cross-currents of a workforce where generational, racial and gender tensions are palpable? Can they motivate diverse colleagues? Can they seamlessly integrate the efforts of those in both traditional and non-traditional roles? Can they craft and inculcate a shared editorial vision? Can they be the newsroom’s public face without alienating those who work more anonymously?
All of these skills and talents are becoming more important than whether someone who aspires to top leadership can compose a compelling lede, identify a central character or untangle a complex narrative.
None of this is to say that the reporter-to-story-editor-to-EIC pipeline is being shut down anytime soon. But I do believe that the next generation of EICs will come from a much wider variety of newsroom backgrounds, and that, inevitably, more and more of them will be rooted primarily in 21st century rather than 20th century career paths.
What will remain essential will be the need for editorial vision and defense of its independence, the instinct for seeing around corners, for telling trends from fads and watershed moments from momentary obsessions, for honing in on what makes a newsroom’s work distinctive, and thus compelling.
Narratives still need to be gripping, reporting must remain meticulous, editing tight, standards maintained. Indeed, the declining attention span and growing skepticism of most readers make all the skills necessary to yield such results even more valuable. And outstanding editors continue to clear this rising bar: As I have said before, the best journalism today is the best there ever was.
But even more important in guiding the newsrooms of the future to success, I believe, will be the skills to sustainably lead the talent within them. That sort of management abjures reliance on command and control, understands that fear in the workplace is ultimately corrosive, practices inclusivity rather than just aspiring to it, inspires and rewards work across the span of newsroom functions. Such leadership unites those in both 20th century and 21st century jobs in common cause.
It follows, I think, that these new leaders, rather than climbing a narrow ladder, will ascend from a variety of early perches. We should both welcome and encourage that.
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