The management of young reporters in the newsroom is key to innovation, according to speakers at last week's Digital Editors Network (21 November 2018).

"The knowledge dynamic has flipped. Much critical insight and know-how is now located in the newer and lower levels of the organisation, and leaders need to ensure knowledge can flow up and around, as well as down from the top," said Lucy Kueng, senior research associate at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.

Kueng explained that leadership is fundamentally changing in the digital age because of the rise of technology but also the existential challenges facing news organisation business models.

The solution involves embracing an uncomfortable shift of power.

While large media organisations need to maintain the old business model, they also need to be growing entirely new layers in mobile, social, data and AI. Integrating these new technologies, coupled with the rate of change, means that no leader can expect to master all aspects of their business.

"Some of the strongest leaders recognise they do not need to show mastery over everything but instead are skilled at enlisting the broader talents inside the organisation to engage with the challenge it faces.

"When this works well, smart strategies morph into a clear leadership narrative around goals and principles to guide decisions, and these become an internal protocol to allow young reporters to take initiative and have ownership over their own goals."

Jane Barrett, global head of multimedia, Reuters News, added that leaders must take a step back and embrace experimentation if they want to see results.

She noted that leaders must realise that they cannot kick-start a meaningful digital transformation in their organisation without some personal transformation themselves: they must accept that their role has changed from one of direct command and control power to one of influence.

"For instance, they should move away from directing every detail, as an editor would on a story, and instead should empower their workforce and inspire people to take their own creative risks, which will in turn allow other leaders to move up their own learning curve — which multiplies the impact of change," she said.

This means giving young reporters the permission to learn from their mistakes and to embrace feedback. Reverse mentoring also allows younger employees to point out areas where leaders can improve, which is a good opportunity to set an example.

Although young minds are central to innovation, leaders need to be on the lookout for staff burnout. Kueng stressed this can be difficult to diagnose and define because it operates at multiple layers and involves numerous triggers.

The stream of news has evolved into a fast moving torrent that is often hard for journalists to cope with. Add to this a constant ratcheting of new products and newsroom systems, as well as journalists’ own addiction to the news cycle, love of scoops and Twitter habit — burnout levels are high. Kueng explained leaders need to be aware of the issue, thoughtful about change, transparent with adjustments, avoid abrupt decisions, and delegate around competency.

"Some of those most at risk are the least likely to raise the red flag, so it's incumbent on leaders to be alert. Burnout is a business issue because it undermines transformation goals, but also a moral one — leaders have a responsibility for their team’s well-being," she said, adding the best way to counter burnout is to create an environment of trust so that even the quietest of staff can flag up fatigue.

Of course, staff burnout can happen at every level in the newsroom and it is often leaders who place too much burden on themselves and become at risk.

Barrett said they must recognise their human limits and shore themselves up by building a network of allies. That, and ignoring email alerts once in a while.

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