The Power of the Middle – Not even media leaders themselves think that they have the best ideas

Middle management in companies more often than not suffers from its infamous reputation. They are branded as rule-abiding busy bees, nitpickers who stick to processes just as much as they stick to their own chairs, managers, definitely not leaders. If they were, they would have long been promoted to the top – or so it is taught in many a business school. Former Siemens CEO Peter Löscher once spoke of a “clay layer,” the term even survived his own career in the company. A word that is like a slap in the face of all those tireless getting-things-doners who not only keep the company running on a daily basis, but also strive for constant improvement and overhaul, whether there is a crisis or not.

In the media industry, bosses are apparently no longer so sure about that clay layer. In the new “Journalism, media and technology trends and predictions” report by Nic Newman, which the Reuters Institute in Oxford publishes regularly at the beginning of the year, top managers were at least refreshingly self-critical about their own capacity to generate top ideas. Only about one in four (26 percent) of the 234 executives surveyed from 43 countries said they were convinced that top management generates the best ideas. The problem, as Nic Newman frames it: Innovation might not come from the top, “but companies are still run that way”. The report is not representative, but it is a must-read in the industry precisely because the respondents tend to be leaders who are particularly concerned about progress.

But where do they see innovation coming from? Nearly three-quarters revealed that data and audience research were most likely to give them a leg up, 68 percent bet on mixed teams from different areas, and still just under one in two admitted to borrowing the best strategies from other media companies. Okay, according to the survey, editors-in-chief and media managers trusted middle management as such even less (17 percent) than they trusted themselves. But who meets in the mixed teams, who evaluates audience data and derives strategies from it, who attends the relevant industry meetings, reads up on foreign material and then reports to the C-level? That’s right, in the very most common case, it’s the mid-level.

It is often those who are not celebrated as heroes in any industry publication and who neither management literature nor research has an eye on. They are the ones who are closest to the difficulties – and often therefore to the solutions. But they are also the ones for whom demands from employees and customers alike pile up into a sandwich of expectations. They are expected to be both operationally reliable and to think strategically and manage change. And if something goes wrong, it’s up to them to pick up the pieces and rebuild them into something else – in management-speak this is coined as “celebrating failure.

This layer of dedicated and loyal drivers of innovation, many of whom are at an age and in situations where family work demands additional work from them, is – no surprise – most at risk of burnout. Lucy Küng, who researches cultural change in media companies that go digital, has revealed this in countless interviews, including in her latest book: “Hearts and Minds: Harnessing Leadership, Culture and Talent to Really Go Digital.” This results in a huge brain and talent drain, she emphasizes again and again.

Yet many managers consider the mid level worthy of support only as long as they themselves are part of it. As soon as they have made it into top positions, they recoin themselves as visionaries. Gianpiero Petriglieri, a professor at INSEAD Business School, calls this “leaderism.” Instead of valuing reliable and constructive management, which is so necessary especially in times of crisis, he says, people celebrate visionaries whose ideas all too often go down with them. The glorification of leadership on the one hand and the devaluation of management qualities on the other is a dangerous pair of opposites that is still taught, but does more harm than good, especially in crises, he eloquently describes in the essay: “Why leadership isn’t a miracle cure for the Covid-19 crisis (and what can really help).” It is time to put less hope in leadership and more humanity into management, Petriglieri said. Judging by the “Trends and Predictions” report, many media managers already understand this. Humility can be the first step toward innovation.

This text was first published in German with Hamburg Media School Blog on 15th January 2021, then translated with www.DeepL.com/Translator and edited. 

Beyond the headline race: How the media must lead in a polarized world

When US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg succumbed to cancer recently, the headline race was on once again. Instead of pausing for a moment to honor a great personality for her leadership and stamina in the quest for justice, most of the news media didn’t miss a beat. Who would President Donald Trump nominate as her successor, and how would that reshape American society? Reporting instantly took second place to speculation and opinion, drowning out the announcement of the 87-year-old’s death in a sea of noise.

The predominant frame for interpreting today’s world is winning and losing, and the media has bought right into it. Being faster, smarter, delivering yet another interpretation, speculation and judgement – a certain breathlessness has always been inherent in journalism. But in pre-digital times, news media only competed against each other. The difference now is that they are up against everything an average smartphone holds. The battle for attention shapes their very existence. And readers are responding by leaving in droves. According to the Reuters Institute’s Digital News Report, one in three people now regularly avoids the news. A rising share of audiences find journalism too overwhelming, too negative, too opinionated with too little relevance for their daily lives. And they believe it can’t always be trusted.

This is bad news – for democracy. In a world of noise, propaganda and misinformation, leadership by independent media that provide the facts is needed more than ever. Studies show that voting turnout is higher, more people run for office and public money is spent more responsibly where local news media keep citizens informed and hold institutions to account. But business models are broken. Platform monopolies have gobbled up advertising money and optimize for attention; too often the media has followed suit.

Now there is no way that media companies can outsmart Google, Facebook and the like. News media have to go where their audiences are. But when opinion is everywhere, quality information becomes a critically important currency. Covid-19 has demonstrated that people crave trustworthy journalism. According to the Edelman Trust Barometer, in the first weeks of the pandemic more people relied on major news organizations than on government agencies or even their own friends and family for information. This is a huge responsibility, but what to do with it?

First of all, listening to audiences is vital. Many journalists still spend more energy on beating the competition than attempting to find out what their audiences need. Among these are more explanation, more solutions, a clear distinction between facts and opinion, less noise, clickbait and talking down to people. Instead of indulging in thumbs-up, thumbs-down journalism, more constructive reporting is needed.

The news media cannot go it alone, though. The political sphere needs to secure press freedom; supporting the economic viability of the industry is part of it. And the platform companies that shape today’s communication infrastructure have to take responsibility too. Their algorithms have to optimize for quality content.

Yet blaming Silicon Valley for everything that is going wrong has been the easy way out for too long. A recent study by the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society confirmed what other research has already pointed out: the mass media are much more responsible for spreading misinformation – for the most part thought up by political leaders – than social media is. This is bad news and good news at the same time. Bad news, because journalism has not lived up to its potential. Good news, because the media still has plenty of agenda-setting power. Instead of blaming platform companies or foreign meddling for spreading “fake news”, the news media and its leaders should confidently reassert their historic mission to lead through a world of information confusion: that is, to deliver the facts, be transparent about their quest and stimulate serious public conversation. The health of our societies depends on it.