Trends in Newsrooms #10: The evolving editor – new age, new skills

“As an editor, journalism is only 20 percent of your job,” Jonathan Halls, adjunct professor at George Washington University, has said. So, what does it take to lead a newsroom today? In this tenth installment from our Trends in Newsrooms blog series, we look at how some top editors around the world leading their newsrooms through these challenging times.

by WAN-IFRA Staff | August 28, 2014

Chief editors have always been required to wear a variety of hats, but the ongoing major changes in newsrooms during the past several years demand a new kind of editor, one who is not only an expert at managing news and leading people but one who also understands new technologies and products as well as the increasing importance of the business side of news.

This last point is perhaps the biggest change in recent years, and it was one that was brought home in our interviews with a number of top editors for the 2014 Trends in Newsrooms report. 

“First, the reality is such that the top editor increasingly must also worry about the commercial side of the business, hence the collapse of the church/state divide, or wall, between advertising and editorial,” says Joseph Odindo (pictured, centre), former Group Editorial Director, Nation Media Group, Kenya.

“I think the major change [during my last few years in Seattle] was the degree to which the editor really needs to be very squarely involved in the business and the evolution of the business model,” adds David Boardman, former Executive Editor and Senior Vice President of The Seattle Times:

Today, Boardman says, “every significant decision made outside the newsroom affects the newsroom, and every significant decision made inside the newsroom affects the business. That wasn’t the case for most of my career.

“As we experiment with new models and think about new streams of revenue, it’s essential that the editor be right at the table on that,” he adds. “So, I found my time spent far less on the day-to-day of the newspaper and more involved in the longer-term discussions about the future of the business.”

Boardman says this means those who want to lead newsrooms could benefit from earning a business-related degree.

“If I were 20 years younger and heading into that period of my career where I aspired to lead a newsroom, rather than the Master of Communication degree that I have, I would probably get an MBA or a degree in finance or something that was even more focused on business,” he says. “I think this is important for journalism, actually. You want the representative of journalism and of the newsroom to have the same depth of understanding of business that the other people around the table do.

“That said, it’s still essential the editor be the strategic leader of the news operation, the spiritual leader of the news operation. People are still hungry to have that sort of beacon, that sense of confidence and somebody who stands for a certain set of standards that ultimately they have to believe are inviolate: that no matter how much change and how much evolution we do, there’s somebody who will make sure that certain things are held dear and protected in terms of the values and ethics of journalism.”

Boardman’s thoughts on the editor’s role as “spiritual leader” were echoed by Sukumar Ranganathan, Editor-in-Chief of Mint, a major financial newspaper in India, which is part of HT Media and a partner of The Wall Street Journal. He told us in an email interview that the editor remains the “moral compass” of the newsroom and sets the direction.

He added that being the chief editor also has “become more hectic,” and “physically and mentally taxing.”

Having ‘a multi-platform understanding’

Beyond strong business and leadership capabilities, it is of course also essential that today’s top editors have a good handle on the range of technical platforms that the modern news consumer uses to access content.

Carlos Guyot, the Editor-in-Chief of Argentina’s La Nación, says “I think the significant change in the audience’s habits and the growing complexity of our industry demand editors with vision and leadership, with the ability to create an environment where individual talent combines with the interdisciplinary task of highly motivated teams focused on creating value to the readers.”

Nation Media Group’s Odindo concurs: “More and more people are consuming journalism through technology, hence it is not enough to ferret out the facts. Telling the story in formats that appeal to the audience is becoming ever so important. … The top editor increasingly needs to have a multi-platform understanding, as s/he will lead journalists who tell stories using text, pictures, video, data, etc; and drive newsrooms that operate 24/7 with major implications for gatekeeping and a much shortened news cycle.

“We have redesigned our print products to make them appeal to a younger, tech-savvy audience …. (and) we have made filing for digital platforms part of every journalist’s job, including equipping them with the right devices.”

Emma Goodman contributed to this post.

Picture: Joseph Odindo in Kenya (Nation Media Group)

Note: You can read this article in full in the report Trends in Newsrooms 2014. The report, edited by Julie Posetti, is available here (free to WEF and WAN-IFRA members). In part 1 of this Trends in Newsrooms blog series, we provided an overview of the top 10 newsrooms trends of 2014, in part 2, we profiled Trend 1: the urgent need to shield journalism in the Age of Surveillance. In part 3 we addressed Trend 2: the rebooting of mobile strategy. The fourth installment of the blog series tackles Trend 3: Back to basics with social media verification. More recent posts include Trend 4: Analytics – when data drives the newsroom; Trend 5: Newspapers begin to challenge broadcasters in online video storytelling; Trend 6: The rise (and fall) of women editors; Trend 7: The growing importance of global collaborative investigative journalism; and Trend 8: The impact of digital mega-stories; and Trend 9: ‘Native’ advertising – the challenge to journalistic integrity

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