USA Today managing editor for news: 'Change is like oxygen: We need it to exist.'

This is part of a series of questions and answers with leaders at news organizations. I asked leaders to think about the challenges they face in their news organizations and to share guidance and advice. Whether your news organization is small or large, a start-up or more than 100 years old, the issues are often the same. This series on managing change in a newsroom was funded by Democracy Fund, which is co-publishing these articles. Subscribe to Democracy Fund’s Local Fix newsletter for more of the best writing, ideas, and tips for those working in local news in your inbox every Friday.

Ron Smith is the managing editor for news at USA TODAY. Before moving to the Washington, D.C., area last year, Ron was the deputy managing editor for daily news and production at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

He started his journalism career while in high school as a reporter and editor of New Expression, a citywide newspaper written by and for Chicago teens that had a monthly circulation of 70,000. He later worked as advertising director and student adviser for the publication.

Ron began his professional career as a reporter and editor for two weekly newspapers in the Los Angeles area before becoming a political reporter for a daily legal publication in downtown Los Angeles. He went on to serve as a desk editor at Newsday, the Los Angeles Times and the Oregonian.

He holds a Master's degree in leadership from Marquette University, where he has taught courses on leadership, journalism and communication. In addition, Ron is active in the National Association of Black Journalists, the American Copy Editors Society and the Online News Association.

Change can be difficult for news organizations. What is one piece of advice you could give leaders of today’s news organizations?

Change is like oxygen: We need it to exist. It’s part of the daily rhythm of life. Instead of running away from it, try to embrace it. And the biggest change begins with your attitude. We can’t control many of the things we face as a leader, but the one thing we can control is how we react to any given challenge.

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In essence, our attitude determines our altitude. How high we soar depends on whether we choose to give up or give in – or whether we choose to give it our all. Anyone can think they can lead when things are going well, but true leaders show their mettle when the situation looks bleak. Accepting and embracing change begins within.

We all learn from watching others. Give me a leadership lesson you learned from observing someone else?

My grandmother lived to be 95 years old and raised 12 children during a time of racial strife, the death of her husband and a limited income. Yet she never complained. Though barely literate, she claimed to have a B.A. (bachelor's of adversity) and a Ph.D. (the power to handle the devil).

She was rooted in faith and believed that everyone has a purpose in life and that everyone should use whatever power they have for the good of all. She did not get wrapped up in a person’s position in life, but she did care about how that person lived. She stressed that outcomes were better than incomes.

“Someone paid the price for the place you are in life,” she would tell the grandkids, and she urged us to pay it forward.

I learned from her that nothing good is ever lost and that before you can lead others, you must learn to lead yourself.

How do you instill in people the motivation to develop new skills or improve needed skills?

I don’t. If folks lack the motivation or realization that they need to be constantly improving – given the immense pressures our industry is under – then that’s on them. I work with those who are the opposite, the folks who are hungry to make themselves better and who strive to give our readers what they deserve. If you don’t have that sort of drive, then you should get out of the way of those of us who do.

How do you deal with people who don’t have the skills necessary for today’s news organizations?

I am all about lifelong learning. Every day is a chance to learn and do something new. So long as a person has the desire to try new things and to experiment, then we can create a path toward success.

Training and refreshing of skills should be at the top of every journalist’s agenda. It’s an exciting time to be in the field, and we can use technology to reach more readers in ways we didn’t even think about five years ago.

I tell folks to stay motivated and get on the train that takes you to a challenging destination and to skip the familiar more comfortable route. Life is too short. Plunge in. If you have the desire and are willing to perspire, then we can conspire on an itinerary that gets you where we need you.

Even if you aren’t on the newsroom leadership team, what can you do to drive change needed to meet the goals of the news organization?

For too long, folks have sat passively and waited for The Leader to come up with ideas. “It’s not my job,” some would argue, “to lead.” True. And it is not your job to bitch about the leadership of your company, either. But some of us make that our full-time employment.

I encourage folks to play for the NBA, which stands for No Bitching Allowed. Stand up and offer ideas. The survival of our industry depends on each and every one. Leaders are not people who hold fancy titles and have offices. Leaders are those who come with a spirit of collaboration, creativity and the drive to get things done. We all know these people. And most don’t have “senior vice president” in their title.

The vast majority of people don’t work well in high-stress jobs. They get depleted worrying about things such as – Am I going to lose my job? Is the company going to be sold? A sense of security gets lost. It becomes easy to blame the boss. What can leaders do to help their staff understand they can be less than perfect, and what can be done to make the staff more tolerant and understanding?

I tell my folks to do your best and not to stress. We have to shoot for perfection but realize we are not perfect nor are our circumstances. It’s OK to shoot for the stars but it is not OK to shoot ourselves when we miss the mark. Keep trying. Learn from your mistakes. Rinse. Repeat. And start anew. Also, take time to celebrate the small victories – and each other.

What advice do you have for leaders facing a tough decision?

Think it through and then “prosecute” your decision. What are the unintended consequences? If you can, ask the staff for their thoughts – particularly those who are the high performers. Pay attention to your contrarians as well. While you may not always agree with their delivery, they usually pull no punches and can goad you in the right direction. Listen. Listen. Listen.

Tell me about a time you failed as a leader. What did you learn from it?

I am sure I have failed many times as a leader – in fact, I know I have -- but the biggest flop of my career came when I was selected to be editor in chief of the daily Marquette Tribune during my college days at Marquette University.

I was excited by this opportunity because I was the first and only person of color to serve as editor for the paper, which celebrates its centennial this year. I wanted my legacy as editor to be one of hard-hitting journalism.

During our transition week, I quickly realized that some of the section editors did not share my vision. Some saw the paper as a place to hang out and others did not share my high ambitions. So I fired them. This led to staff turmoil, and I attributed some of the fallout to the fact that some folks were not comfortable being led by a black man.

Although I am sure to this day that this is true, I think I created bad feelings because I never shared my vision for the paper with the staff. I did not provide them with a roadmap to follow nor did I try to work with the staffers I fired. I did not ask for their input, share my expectations or give them a chance to succeed.

I took the nuclear option and fired them. It’s been 28 years, and I still reflect on my decision. Since that time, I have always made an investment in getting to know my staff, to listening to their needs and then sharing my expectations—repeatedly, incessantly and unflinchingly.

I have learned to lead with love, and I have been rewarded with folks who appreciate my efforts and who offer better solutions to meet our SHARED goals. Leadership is not about power trips but is really about empowerment trips — taking and making the time to clearly articulate goals, ask for feedback and then working to achieve your goals.

In my daily leadership, I try to employ the three C’s: communication, collaboration and creativity. They are essential to any organization. I also have learned that I cannot control how folks will react to me because of the color of my skin. Instead, I focus on what and whom I can control: Me. And I try to lead with integrity. I am not perfect. But I don’t need to be. When you treat others the way you wish to be treated, you get better each day.


Readings that helped Ron as a leader: "Long Walk to Freedom" by Nelson Mandela (Why? He shows us the power of forgiveness. And if he can do it, then we all can) and “The Leadership Challenge” by James M. Kouzer, Barry Z. Posner and Tom Peters.

Are there other leaders we should highlight in this and future series? Tweet your suggestions to @TheLocalNewsLab and @Poynter.

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