Q&A with Jonathan Halls: ‘Stories will continue to be at the heart of the newsroom’

Jonathan Halls is Principal of Jonathan Halls & Associates and an adjunct professor at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C. He has worked for more than 20 years in the media industry, in more than 20 countries and with 30 different nationalities. He teaches and consults on organizational dynamics including leadership, change, communication and innovation. He also teaches media production.

by WAN-IFRA Staff | March 3, 2015

He delivered the WAN-IFRA Newsplex training for journalists at the Daily Telegraph when it moved to its converged newsroom in 2006, providing audio, video and web writing workshops. He has delivered training to journalists, editors and media professionals at newspapers and magazines around the world including Nottingham Evening Post, DeVolkskrant, Romania Libera, Primera Hora, Financial Times, and many more.

In April, Halls will be speaking at WAN-IFRA’s 10th Annual Middle East Conference in Dubai and will discuss the newsrooms of the not-so-distant future and how they will likely operate. In this recent email interview, he tells us how newsroom managers can lead meaningful change in their newsrooms and what we should expect from newsrooms in 2020.

WAN-IFRA: In your experience, what are a few things that publishers and senior managers can do to promote real change in their newsrooms?

Jonathan Halls: First, create a clear, concrete vision so everyone knows where they’re headed. If journalists don’t know why their newsroom is changing or don’t see the purpose for change, why bother to support that change? Developing and communicating a clear vision is complex and means understanding communication and influence at a very deep level.

Second, work WITH, not AGAINST resistance to change. Recent cognitive neuroscience research suggests our brains are not wired for change. Good leaders get that and work with it – this aversion to change is complex but manageable. Poor leaders work against resistance and resort to control-command techniques that simply increase resistance to change.

Third, recognize that not everything changes and take some comfort in that. All we hear about is that everything is changing.  But not everything is changing. Humans have an innate need for story – that will never change. So while we change how we tell stories we don’t change the fact we need to tell stories. There are many other things that will not change either. Conflict in newsrooms will always be there. Politics will always be there too.

Fourth, be vulnerable. It’s OK if you don’t always know the answer – we’re all human. It’s important to be honest when a mistake is made, and of course, work to make up for that mistake.

Fifth, build trust – it’s not whether you can trust your team but whether they can trust you. Editors do this by doing things such as following through on promises, listening to staff and showing respect. Trust is one of those wishy-washy terms that is hard to quantify but it comes up in surveys as one of the top five reasons people don’t follow a leader. It also allows your vision to be believable.

Sixth, create hope that what you’re leading folks to is right. This too feels like a wishy-washy factor but in an authoritative Gallup poll of hundreds of thousands of workers, “Hope” came in as one of the Top 5 things people look for in a leader. People follow leaders who offer hope. This ties into the vision piece but needs to stand on its own.

From your standpoint, what is the biggest misconception about training from both the publisher/manager side and the training participant side?

I think the biggest misconception about training is that that putting on a training class is easy, anyone can do it and it will solve all of your problems.

I’ve seen a lot of media waste money on training because training is an afterthought in their change process. They plan products, services and workflows but forget to talk about capability until the end when they realize, “Oh my gosh, how are we going to do all this?” They then panic and slap together a training program that is poorly designed, delivered by someone who is not trained as trainer or has to wing it because proper preparation was not done at the outset.

And very often, because a proper design process was not followed – known as instructional systems design in the training profession – options other than classroom instruction are not considered which may improve effectiveness and lower cost.

Money is also wasted by the misguided notion that training is the answer. Very often training is not the answer – it may be that re-allocating resources, making better decisions or holding folks accountable is what is needed other than training.

Just as publishing has changed dramatically over the past 15 years, so has the world of training. Traditionally, training was seen as something that happens in a classroom. But now learning experiences that happen outside the brick and mortar classroom are proving just as effective, if not more so in some cases.

Is it the end of classroom training? Not at all. It’s the beginning of an era where classroom, webinar, online, coaching, mentoring and other instructional techniques are now in the mix and respected because they too get good results.

This evolution has been happening for almost two decades but is mainstream now. The training world is no longer the Wild West where cowboy trainers entertain learners with good stories and tell jokes rather than craft meaningful experiences that cause learning and equip people with skills. Research has pushed us to a point where learning can be smarter, focused and more efficient.  It’s no longer a conversation about what goes on in the classroom. It’s now a conversation about how to develop skills.

So training or talent – whatever one wants to call it – is not something that should be left to last and thrown together. It needs to be thoughtful and carefully integrated into the change process from Day One. And the folks doing the training need to understand the science of learning from the latest research. They need to know how to help editors build talent using the best methods that fit their budgets.

In keeping with the theme of the conference, “Imagine it is 2020,” what are a few of the key ways that you think the newsroom of 2020 will differ from today’s?

I think successful newsrooms in 2020 will constantly evolve, not for the sake of change but for the sake of striving for better ways to achieve their editorial purpose.

Journalists will have more autonomy and skills to try new ways of storytelling that push the consumer experience more towards transmedia where story is first and platform is second. And newsrooms won’t be built by copying the way another newsroom works – instead editors and publishers will have intelligently developed their newsroom structure and workflows based on their editorial purpose, culture and commercial objectives.

New journalists will no longer come to the newsroom trained just in storytelling skills – they will be trained in dealing with change, fostering innovation and maintaining resilience.

Editors will relax a little and no longer feel they have to have all the answers – instead they will nurture and encourage journalists to feed into the ideas generation process. Editors will understand that they are now leaders and much of their job is to nurture and inspire many journalists.

Stories will continue to be at the heart of the newsroom, responding to the very natural human thirst for story. But how those stories are gathered and told will be constantly changing as technology improves and consumers demand more personalized content.

For full programme details, speaker bios, and registration information for WAN-IFRA’s 10th Middle East Conference in Dubai, 15-16 April, please click here.

Interview by WAN-IFRA Senior Editor Brian Veseling

Share via
Copy link