"The industry has been on a digital transformation journey for a quarter of a century," said newsroom strategy expert Lucy Kueng in a podcast with Journalism.co.uk.
However, very few media companies have successfully pivoted to digital and those who did had a rather rocky ride.
To find out more about challenges newsroom leaders are facing in 2021, Kueng did nearly 100 interviews and focus groups with media executives for her latest book 'Hearts and Minds: Harnessing Leadership, Culture, and Talent to Really go Digital'.
2021 is going to be a challenging year. On top of the disruption caused by the pandemic, newsrooms still wrestle with ongoing crises like digital transformation, sustainable revenue models, or lack of diversity.
On the plus side, this state of chaos is also an opportunity to push ahead with changes that newsrooms need to make happen but just have been slow on. While working from home, many processes needed to be re-invented, work re-organised and priorities re-arranged. This has, in fact, helped focus on what truly matters and stop wasting time and resources on what does not.
However, one of the problems with working from home, Kueng said, is that everyone’s "batteries are really low" and that makes it harder to tackle new, creative challenges.
'Digital transformation is people transformation'
This is not all about a shiny new business strategy. You cannot change the culture of an organisation unless everyone is open to try doing things in a different way, which is easier said than done.
During the years Kueng spent working with news outlets, she realised that most have a solid digital strategy but 90 per cent of it never gets implemented. The reason? We struggle to change the way we work and make decisions or listen to different people.
Many organisations that did well during the pandemic have gone through some kind of crisis in the recent years and it is as if they have developed a “crisis muscle” that helps them wrestle with the disruption, according to Kueng.
Those who are doing well use uncertainty as an opportunity to not only launch new projects but also assess priorities and shed tasks that are no longer needed.
"In the media industry, it is very easy to start new things," says Kueng. As the tech companies were launching one product after another for the past 15 years or so, we adopted them to keep up with the latest trends.
"But we ended up with an oversupply of initiatives floating around the organisation, added to the legacy ones, whose shelf life has expired, or that didn’t scale as much as they should have."
What are great leaders doing right?
First of all, they get everyone reading off the same page. They clearly communicate what goals matter now and what to focus on in the months ahead.
With new areas of newsroom careers emerging, such as product, senior leaders need to accept they may need to step back and listen to others.
As Kueng puts it, they need to change their mindsets from 'I know all the solutions because I’ve been in the industry for longer' to learning to rely on and trust more junior staff.
Another important quality is to be approachable but also to show that they are themselves learning as they go. This means encouraging their teams to keep an open mind.
The burden of leadership
To be a transformational leader, you need to understand how your staff works, what makes them tick and how to get people to buy into solutions that are good for the organisation but perhaps not for them as individuals.
Kueng’s research highlighted the burden of leadership on those who rose up to leading positions because of their expertise but found themselves becoming people leaders on top of their day jobs.
While no one is born a great feedback-giver or team-motivator, the good news is that management can be learned. Better still, journalists already have many skills needed for great leadership, such as listening, understanding relationships and commitment to fairness and ethics.
"In all my research I found that the most stunning factor about the media industry is the calibre of people working in it. They are so smart and committed and any other sector would kill to have people of that calibre," says Kueng. The challenge for media organisations is to unleash that talent.
So, how can you prepare for 2021 if you are managing a team? Kueng advises to start by understanding where your colleagues are right now in terms of skills, aspirations and mental health. The pandemic has impacted everyone differently so do not assume you know the answers but check with everyone.
Most importantly, and this goes for everyone, reduce your to-do lists to make sure you do not burn out because of good intentions.
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