As you head into 2015, will this be another year in which you try to slow the race to the bottom? Or will it be a year in which you lead your staff with integrity, honesty and a vision of what you can become?
Running a successful newspaper or newsroom these days requires the faith of Abraham, the survival skills of Bear Grylls and the navigational skills of Ferdinand Magellan.
As you begin what likely will be another difficult year in the newspaper business, here are 10 tenets of leadership to consider.
1. Honesty. Honesty. Honesty. Left without the facts, any group of employees will make up their own based on slim evidence. Give them the truth about readership and revenue. Credibility matters.
2. Combat cynicism. Recognize that your staff’s cynicism is based in the depressing news about their industry. But you’ve got to lead them. And you don’t do that by modeling the cynics.
3. Lead them somewhere. “If you don’t know where you are going, then any road will take you there,” sings the Dawes, my favorite band. Set goals—short and long-term—and measure your progress. If you don’t have a clear idea of where you are going, then practice what the experts call “pattern interruption.” Break the cycle of what you have been doing. Talk to some people outside the industry. Go for a six day hike in the Himalayas. Stop doing the same thing that hasn’t worked. Challenge the status quo.
4. Celebrate successes. It’s important not to overdo it, but find appropriate celebrations for the good work they do. Be sincere about it, not obligatory. When people complain about pay, they’re usually complaining about lack of recognition.
5. Remember that for all the declines in the industry, newspapers are still one of the few mediums that classify as “mass.” Even if your household penetration is down to 33 percent in your market, you’re still producing a product that is purchased by one out of every three consumers in the market. Most manufacturers or service providers would kill for that kind of market share. There is huge influence beyond the circulation number. Inspire your staff by showing them of the power of a local newspaper.
6. Celebrate the distribution and the diversity of the product.There is no product anywhere that is delivered within reasonable proximity of a doorstep seven days a week before sunrise and offers local news, high school sports scores, comics, columnists, and a temperature chart that includes Timbuktu. If it did not exist and you invested such a product, its value would be immense. We’ve lost that battle for value, but the product and its delivery are still miraculous. Talk about that and remind your staff and your customers how truly awesome a newspaper is.
7. Never ostracize the outlandish. In fact, consider awards for the crazy. They might become the key. If you read the biography of Steve Jobs, you’ll understand. Picture a day in the 1990s when he said he wanted to build a small device that could hold 1,000 songs. Such outlandish brilliance might save the industry. There are young people who joined your newspaper because they had some crazy ideas about how to save the business. Listen to them.
8. Get better every day. Jack McElroy was managing editor of The Albuquerque Tribune when he led us on an improvement process to make one change in the paper every day. Big or small, we incrementally improved the product day-by-day. It was one of the best ideas we ever executed. Jack is now the editor of the Knoxville News-Sentinel and I know he’d be glad to talk about it.
9. Exceed what customers expect. I’m not talking about how you answer the phone. Think big. What’s the major issue in your community that’s been ignored by the politicians? Drug abuse? Hunger? High school dropouts? Gather your resources (as meager as they might be) and take it on. You can still be a force for good, and isn’t that why you got in the business to begin with?
10. Forget the good old days. They weren’t that great. And now they’re gone.
Tim Gallagher is president of The 20/20 Network, a public relations and strategic communications firm. He is a former Pulitzer Prize-winning editor and publisher at The Albuquerque Tribune and the Ventura County Star newspapers. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.