5 qualities of innovative leaders in today’s media

In “The Boys on the Bus,” Timothy Crouse’s fabled book about the press and the 1972 presidential campaign, Jim Naughton was the quiet and contemplative New York Times reporter who toiled alongside the outsized and flamboyant Johnny Apple.

After he left The Times 1977, Naughton became known to another two generations of journalists as a manager and leader — first as a top editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer in its ascent to becoming one of the country’s great papers, and later as president of the Poynter Institute. (Poynter’s annual Leadership Academy, one of its signature events, begins each year with a lecture in Naughton’s name.)

Naughton, who passed away last year, led in a style ahead of his time — by listening, shielding creative people from bureaucracy, pushing power down and more — concepts better recognized today for their value than when Naughton subtly advanced them.

What qualities distinguish successful leaders in media today?

I see five qualities common among the current crop of innovators — at a time when it’s perhaps even harder to lead, given all the challenges the industry faces. As I distilled these qualities, I also realized they are distinctly Naughtonian.

Innovators run at what is growing.

The strongest pull in the news industry, as in any disrupted business, can be to preserve the part of the business that, though shrinking, provides the biggest share of revenue. Innovators, such Clark Gilbert at Deseret Media, know this is a seductive mistake and focusing most of your energy on preserving what is shrinking is a strategy for slow death.

The innovators I see behave differently. While they work to preserve the legacy, they focus more energy on the part of their business that is growing, even if it’s small. They work on how to create the space and the forgiveness in the company to do that.

Focusing on growth, rather than on slowing decline, is hard. It means innovating rather than reacting. But if you don’t focus on growth, you’re hoping someone else will invent the future while you tread water. In your market, that someone may well be an organization providing services to businesses that don’t subsidize journalism.

Successful innovators create a culture of optimism.

John Gardner, the extraordinary social innovator who created Common Cause, Civic Ventures and other programs, wrote about personal renewal, saying: “The future belongs to people who believe in the future.” Innovators, he also argued, needed to be hard-headed optimists who expected to fail and would not be daunted by it. These were people, Gardner said, who believed in a future others could not see.

Seeing around corners and having a vision you cannot prove, engenders doubters. Believing against the crowd requires armor. But in an era of disruption you cannot lead any other way. Who would want to follow a pessimist? To make other people invent the future, they have to believe you that it will be better.

In a disrupted industry, this is partly a matter of which way you want to look. Do you look back at what is not there anymore? Do you look at the fact that your newsroom has shrunk 30 percent and bemoan what you cannot do?

Or do you look forward and see the possibilities? We now can more easily tap the expertise of our community to inform our work and engage in a more robust discussion of the news. Optimists see technology as an opportunity. So do those who will exploit technology to shape the future.

Those who see technology as only disruption will be overrun by it.

Innovators lead with a garage mentality.

In Philadelphia, Naughton barely had a budget for foreign news. Yet he and editor Gene Roberts kept the gifted Richard Ben Cramer in the Middle East with funds earmarked for building maintenance — among other items. Cramer won a Pulitzer for his trouble.

Leaders find ways to try, not reasons to say no. They see obstacles as challenges to work around and crises as opportunities. I have come across executives who have asked for demotions so they could have the freedom to experiment; others have found ways to get budget forgiveness in their companies to buy themselves time. They have tried ideas others said would never work (but that no one had tried) and tried them figuring they would learn no matter what. These types of leaders find a way.

Successful leaders also believe that the only way to succeed is to fail, that failing is how you learn and innovate. Robyn Tomlin, who is editor of Digital First Media’s Project Thunderdome, shared this message with me when we met during a leadership conference: She would fail and learn and fail and eventually succeed. It was one of the first messages she heard from CEO John Paton and executive editor Jim Brady. It liberated her.

Twitter was born out of the failure of a podcasting company called Odeo. The New York Times would probably never have created its metered pay model had it not failed with and learned from Times Select. You can’t afford to fail? No, you can’t afford not to.

Innovators look further down the road.

Unafraid to fail, using guerrilla tactics to succeed, innovators also operate with their heads up so they can see further out and around. They are not just focused on the next quarter or the next year. They are not just looking within the news industry for answers. (Gilbert in Deseret benchmarks various different companies, only three of which are traditional media, and adapted his social-media strategy from a Brazilian airline. Steve Jobs looked everywhere for inspiration, far afield from technology.)

Innovators also recognize that they don’t know everything. So they lead as much by listening as by teaching. (Naughton, again, disbanded the morning planning meeting by editors at the Inquirer, believing reporters calling in were better able to determine what should be in the next day’s paper.) This is a more modern kind of leadership, one that is absorbing and learning. It is a kind of leadership that believes leading is more than just repeating yourself.

Innovators know the essentials that should not change.

Peter Drucker, the management theorist whose ideas never seem to age, said the organizations that adapt best to a changing world know first and foremost what they should not abandon.

For any institution, that essential purpose is “the value you provide” to your various customers. In news, this starts with readers, viewers and listeners, but every business has many different kinds of customers. Your value is not what you do — your practices and routines — but the value you provide to people’s lives. Knowing your value — the essential service you provide — is the difference between being in the transportation business rather than the railroad business. But it’s also a matter of institutional values. Many in news confuse values with practices. I have also met executives who are giving up on what distinguishes journalism from all other media.

If the future belongs to those who believe in the future, it seems just as clear that the future of journalism will belong to those who believe in journalism.

Tom Rosenstiel, the executive director of the American Press Institute, is an author, journalist, researcher and a member of Poynter’s National Advisory Board. You can follow him on Twitter at tbr1.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly spelled Robyn Tomlin’s name.

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