August 4, 2023

Around 90 journalism managers graduate from Poynter’s Leadership Academy for Women in Media every year, each with a unique experience of personal and professional growth. The person responsible for facilitating that growth? The program director. 

Kate Cox is leading the academy in 2023 and will return as program director in 2024. As the former editor-in-chief of the nonprofit newsroom The Counter, Cox oversaw special projects and edited numerous award-winning investigations. She has worked in every medium, from radio to TV and print to digital, and all sides of the newsroom, including editorial, development and revenue strategy. She’s also a graduate of the May 2022 cohort and a digital media consultant.

As Poynter kicks off recruitment for the 2024 program, I caught up with Cox to hear about her journey as a leader in media, the current day-to-day challenges of media management and how next year’s program is shaping up. 

MEL: You went from student to teacher in less than a year. Tell me about your journey in media leadership and how you got to this point.

KATE: I didn’t become a professional journalist until I was in my 40s; I stumbled into leadership before I had the training and tools to lead without burning out totally. I share this freely because I want potential applicants to the leadership academy to know that how you navigate upheaval, uncertainty and transition is, in many ways, far more impressive than your biggest wins. There’s no singular, linear path to leadership. Many of us, me included, get there on nerve and instinct — with a whole lotta fumbling in between.

When I applied to the program in early 2022, I was editor-in-chief of The Counter, a thriving nonprofit newsroom I’d poured myself into building from the ground up alongside a team of very gifted journalists and friends. When I attended the program, we were in the midst of folding, and in fact, were publishing our last few stories the same week I was in St. Petersburg. 

I had no prospects, a trunk full of emotional baggage and zero idea how to translate what I’d learned over seven years leading  — and losing — a newsroom into something useful. I wasn’t even sure I could stay in journalism. 

So every day, I lugged my imposter syndrome into Poynter, took a bazillion notes on things I wish I’d known and could’ve done better, and on the last day, awoke to a laser-beam of Florida sun and an epiphany: I wanted to support other leaders in making journalism more humane for journalists. I had no idea how to get there, but the 29 people in my cohort and our women’s leadership academy faculty were proof that leading with our values opens the right doors.

Hear more about navigating career plot twists during a LinkedIn Live audio event on Monday, Aug. 21, at 4 p.m. Eastern time. Kate Cox will talk with program alumni Jin Ding, Erika Hobbs and Zainab Shah about planning for the unexpected. 

MEL: How would you describe Poynter’s Leadership Academy for Women in Media? 

KATE: The topline summary is this: Poynter’s Leadership Academy for Women in Media is transformative — professionally and personally. Think about the last time you spent an entire week mostly free of distractions and fully present, focused on building a journalism community of your own, and a toolkit to strengthen your delegation, negotiation, ethics and decision-making skills. If you can’t think of a time like that, then you’re in the majority — and you’re a prime candidate for the program.

MEL: What should someone who has never heard about the academy know about the experience? 

KATE: You should know that it requires tremendous vulnerability on the part of leaders to offer up their experiences as a case study so that other leaders can offer up their own. But that give-and-take is what makes the program so special. We listen and share with the understanding that what we want, above all, is to make the good work we do sustainable in newsrooms of the future.

MEL: What are highlights for you from academy to academy? 

KATE: While every cohort is different, one consistent highlight — and I’m borrowing from my Poynter colleague Kristen Hare here — is that there’s no “capital-J journalist” anymore. The people who come through this program are experts in every facet of our business, from editing to SEO to subscriptions, visual journalism, social storytelling, engagement and more. That’s exciting to me! I like to imagine each cohort as its own dream newsroom, with the collective wisdom to adapt and grow as our industry grapples with how to sustain itself.

MEL: You’ve led two cohorts so far and are finalizing the third cohort experience in 2023, in addition to launching applications for all three cohorts in 2024. What are some of the challenges cohort members are dealing with right now, and how is that impacting future program plans? 

KATE: What I’ve seen in every cohort so far is that people are working with lots of unknowns, toggling between post-COVID burnout and what’s-journalism-gonna-do-next anxiety. There are still the standard-issue leadership challenges that go with managing change and working across generations and personality types, and we tackle those in the program. 

But there are layers of deeper knowledge required from newsroom leaders now. We need to understand how to foster a culture of psychological safety for our teams, juggle our personal and journalism ethics with the changing dynamics of our business model, and address burnout and exclusion before they drive talented people out of the profession. That’s a lot

We try to stay nimble, adapt our program in real time and after each cohort provides feedback on what worked and didn’t. Whatever’s happening in the news on any given week is also happening in the program, and we teach with that very much in mind.

MEL: As a graduate of the May 2022 academy and now the program director, you stay connected personally with more than 100 recent alumni. What are some of the common ways that you see this program impacting alumni after they leave?

KATE: First, there’s this initial boost of confidence that comes from seeing their own excellence reflected back in the members of their cohort. But what I see more often after people leave Poynter is a renewed sense of purpose and engagement in their work, plus a fresh perspective on issues that have stymied them for, in some cases, years. New approaches to conflict, a willingness to persist through discomfort, ideas for a policy change or big projects — they’re all part of the post-program-alum experience. In a single week, your journalism community expands by literal hundreds. The network becomes like an endlessly renewable battery for even the most depleted among us.

MEL: What are some tips you have for putting together a successful application? 

KATE: The academy is a highly competitive program and we typically get far more applications than we have slots for. We take great care to select a class through multiple rounds of review — including program alumni — to ensure diversity across race, ethnicity, geography, age, platform/medium, organization size and expertise to further enrich the cohort experience.

We are interested in dynamic, emerging journalism leaders whose applications provide insight into the unique challenges they face in their news organization, and the essential skills they’d like to develop through training. Below are some application tips:

  • The curriculum is geared primarily toward women or nonbinary journalists who are newer to leadership but have also had more than one year in their management role.
  • Be sure that the digital project you highlight provides insight into the specific leadership challenges it presents. We’re less interested in the eventual output and list of tasks/staffers involved and more in how you navigate your way through people dynamics.
  • Your recommendation letter — ideally from someone with influence over your career — should paint a picture of your trajectory and include areas where you can grow and how the academy might help with those goals.

MEL: How would you describe your leadership style? How has it evolved? 

KATE: I’d call my style empathy first, for better and worse. That’s mostly because it comes more naturally to me than other styles. But what I learned in my own program was how to know when empathy is required versus when structure or stronger communication are more important. 

I’ve learned a great deal about how leadership requires not just your emotional intelligence, but also a finely tuned sense of how to support others to do their best work. Not everyone needs empathy. Some people just need a really efficient workflow to succeed. That difference matters.

MEL: Who are some of your mentors or leaders you look to for inspiration? What about their leadership do you value? 

KATE: I think a lot about the great people I worked with at The Counter and how much I learned from my fellow editors on the team, who could spot and resolve a workflow issue I couldn’t see, or support an unmotivated reporter who just needed a chance to try something new. Those people had gifts that I didn’t and that I continue to be inspired by, even though we no longer work together.

I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention the Poynter faculty members I’ve taught and collaborated with over the last year. I’ve sought their counsel on so many things, from how the heck to be a more creative facilitator to how to adapt our instruction when the cohort needs a different approach. 

One quality all my past and present colleagues have had in common is a commitment to journalism stewardship — a shared desire to make things better and more sustainable for the people who will do this work after we do. I’m humbled and inspired by them in equal measure.

MEL: What do you bring to the program that might be different from past program directors? 

KATE: Oh, this is tough. Loads of subject-matter expertise in endless transition? I kid … kinda. One thing I bring to the program is my great, enthusiastic love of nonprofit news and the growing community of changemaking newsrooms therein. And while I never planned to build a news organization from the ground up, I also bring with me the experience of growing and finding an audience for something entirely new.

MEL: What are you most excited about for 2024? 

KATE: I love the endless array of new ethical challenges we face every year — truly. I’m most excited to work with next year’s cohorts on making ethics central to our day-to-day operations and talking to our audiences about why and how we cover what we do. 

Applications for the 2024 Leadership Academy for Women in Media are open now through Friday, Sept. 8, 2023. There is one application to seat all three academies, which will be held in person at Poynter in St. Petersburg, Florida, March 18-22; May 20-24; and Sept. 23-27. 

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Mel Grau is the director of program management at The Poynter Institute. Mel was formerly the senior product specialist, focusing on Poynter's training experiences and…
Mel Grau

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