Business of News: How Newspapers Can Reclaim Their Drive and Ambition

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Business of News 316The 1980s weren’t all bad. Yes, it was the decade in which bottled water replaced whiskey in our desk drawers and we started writing articles about video games. But some good things happened too.

One of those good things was the energy in our newsroom caused by thousands of young journalists. Inspired by Woodward and Bernstein, these newbies flooding robust newsrooms intent on doing journalism that mattered—rooting out injustice and exposing scoundrels.

When I first took over as editor of an afternoon daily in Albuquerque, N.M. in the 1980s, I gathered the top managers in an off-site meeting at one of those New Age retreat centers outside Santa Fe where they had painted kachinas and geckos on the stucco walls to make it seem authentic. (Forgive me. I was young.) And the leader of the center told us that in all of their work with people who came from scores of industries, they learned that what people wanted most from their life’s work is to make the work matter. They were not motivated by pay. They were motivated by meaning.

Have we lost that drive to matter in the decades that have followed the 1980s? I think so. Too many layoffs, early retirements, newspapers folding or contracting. It’s taken the meaning right out of us. This is a shame. Newspapers are most valued in a community when they are operated by people who care about the life-changing work that their staffs can do.

Here are some things I’d try to bring the meaning back:

Lead. Communicate to the people working for your newspaper that their work matters. Tell them and show them how the newspaper has made a difference in the lives of its readers and advertisers. Take photos of the people whose lives and businesses are better because of what your newspaper has done and hang them on the walls. Stop punctuating every sentence with money. Instead, talk about impact in your community.

Inspire. Motivation comes from within, but leaders have an obligation to inspire, said Karen Kennedy, CEO and founder of Insights to Growth, who has helped design high-functioning teams for everyone from Hewlett-Packard to Dun & Bradstreet. When leaders take the time to understand the personal motivations of workers, they can inspire great achievements.

Stop living in the past. I realize this column talks about another decade gone by, but it’s about the greatness that could be. No one wants to hear how it used to be. They want to talk about how it can be.

Don’t blame millennials. Or Gen Y or Gen X. Each generation is motivated a bit differently. Rather than miscast and misunderstand them, meet them on their turf, understand what makes them work hard, and appeal to that.

Line up your goals. Yes, it’s understood that surviving is the number one goal for many newspapers these days. But you survive by creating a daily product that people feel they must have. That won’t be created by people who are dialing in that day’s work. It will come from people who share a goal, and kick distractions aside.

Stop hovering. You hire people because you believe in their talents and skills. So don’t micro-manage them. Explain your vision and set them loose to find the stories that fulfill that mission.

Play to the passion. The greatest leaders walk among aisles and desks ignited pilot lights or fanning small campfires into forest fires. Your role as a newspaper leader cannot be underestimated. The power of your words to inspire is awesome. I can clearly remember words of inspiration from the leaders who inspired me.

Take some chances. Allow for the possibility that you might be wrong and take a chance on someone else’s ideas, even when they run counter to your own.

Demonstrate to the community that your newspaper makes a difference. As an industry, we have long been shy about blowing our own horn. Explaining our relevance might be more important than ever now.

Remember what got us here. Newspapers have been a crucial component of this democracy for almost 250 years. Few institutions can say the same. We are important to America. We do matter. It’s your job, as leaders, to remind us.


Tim Gallagher

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

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