Two years of bringing media leaders together – this is what I learned

For two years I’ve been in charge of the leadership programmes at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, a home for those who care deeply about journalism and its role in democracy. Listening to and conversing with media leaders and committed journalists from all over the world has shed new light on many issues I had felt so certain about, after having been a journalist for more than 25 years, 15 of these in leadership roles. This is what I learned:

  • First, tech is seductive, but it will always be always about people. Senior editors and managers often came to us curious about the latest tools, and the developments in data and tech. But these challenges are manageable. What puzzled editors most were the seemingly mundane things: how to communicate with your newsroom, how to prevent your staff from burning out, how to retain talent, how to create a culture that embraces the adventurous journey of digital transformation while preserving the core of why everyone joined the profession — doing great journalism. There are no fool-proof recipes for this, no miracle tools. But a lot of listening and sharing best-practice helps.  
  • Second, trust is a difficult matter. Who doesn’t complain about diminishing trust in the digital age? All institutions suffer from it, the media included. In previous decades, people would just read the newspaper or listen to the evening news and trust them, journalists complain. But was this a good thing? Of course, earning trust today is much harder work. Audiences can resort to more sources, compare quality, call things into question, and they also have the means for immediate feedback. This can be a pain for resource-stretched newsrooms. But it is also a call to focus on the basics — focusing on quality, explaining how journalism works, and engaging with those whom the news is published for. Healthy scepticism within the citizenry is an indicator of media literacy and democratic freedom. By the way, some authoritarian regimes rank highly in trust– but it is often born out of fear.   
  • Third, journalism is a consumer good and a public good. This makes the business of selling journalism messy. In pretty much every industry the willingness to pay is 100 percent. Whether it is the bakery, the clothing store, or the hotel, there is one rule — no money, no product. Meanwhile, willingness to pay for digital news is on average only 14 percent according to the 2018 Digital News Report. There is an abundance of free news to choose from, so consumers need reasons to shell out funds for journalism. And in contrast to popular assumptions, micropayments for single pieces of content are not it. When audiences pay, they do it for experiences, for the expectation of quality, for purpose. Those who want to sell their journalism have to tick at least one of these boxes. Some journalism is also a public good in the service of democracy after all, public service media must provide it. 
  • Fourth, newsroom leaders better learn how to lead diversity, because running a successful newsroom is about the culture. The diversity of newsrooms is an increasingly major concern for today’s newsroom leaders, at least this is what they say. And they have a point: newsrooms are too male, too white (in the West), too homogenous politically, too urban, and too academic, thus too far removed from the reality of many of the people they serve (the Reuters Institute and the University of Mainz will publish a study on this on July 2, 2019). But hiring diverse talent, as challenging as it might be, is only the first step. For diverse talent to flourish and have an impact, it needs real and active support. Continue with the old routines, hierarchies and practices, and diverse candidates will either hyper-conform or opt out. The impact of this kind of “diversity” is zero. Women or minorities choose the news differently when given enough voice. You’d better listen. 
  • Fifth, journalism has become more of a craft than an art. But it can’t do without some great artists. Newsrooms used to center around a bunch of reporters and editors, the rest was supporting staff. They attracted big and vulnerable egos, many narcissists and some others who tagged along but could be easily replaced. This doesn’t work in an environment where journalists, product developers, data scientists, marketing experts and many more have to work in teams that produce great and commercially successful journalism. A great product is no longer the achievement of a lone star player but of many hands. Some egos have to restrain themselves, which makes digital transformation particularly hard in old-style TV environments. On the other hand, successful journalism can also be built around single expert journalists who become brands. They run events, publish newsletters, go on cruise ships. Every newsroom profits from a few stars, but none can run without plenty of craftspeople.
  • Sixth, too much of journalism is dominated by a Western worldview. As in every industry, there is a huge conference circuit around journalism where the same individuals meet over and over again in different settings. And it is heavily dominated by American and European participants. Certainly, some stars from the Global South are welcome guests and admired speakers, if only to remind the others that in many parts of the world journalism is a profession that requires more human sacrifices than making below-than-average money and being harassed on social media. But the debates are still very much framed through the Western lens. It doesn’t help that powerful American platform companies, mostly Facebook and Google, shape plenty of the issues at stake (and finance many conferences — as their Chinese counterparts do on the other side of the globe). Developing sustainable business models, research and fact-checking tools and support networks for journalist safety are even more important for newsrooms in the Global South. They face some of the same but also very different battles to save journalism in the digital age.   
  • Seventh, there will be plenty of AI in journalism, but there will be no journalism without journalists. Rejecting artificial intelligence for the sake of journalism jobs is wrong. There are already plenty of examples of ways that AI can improve products, help sell subscriptions and free newsroom talent from tedious tasks that consume energy which should go toward great journalism. AI can be used to analyze data and point to stories that we may not have noticed before, it monitors audience behaviour and identifies what people care about. Nevertheless, journalism will always thrive on dedicated, committed, sometimes inspiring journalists who are in it for a cause. This is what makes our industry so special.  

This column was published by NewsMavens on June 16, 2019