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April 12 2012

19:30

Arthur Sulzberger’s hiking buddy has leadership advice that news executives should hear

New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. is indeed set to go hiking in the Himalayas with Michael Useem, the director of Wharton’s Center for Leadership and Change Management, next month.

Useem is the man one Times reporter suggested was Sulzberger’s “new management guru,” a characterization the Times disputes. Sulzberger and Useem have gone on this kind of excursion in the past (to Antarctica, New York Times spokesman Bob Christie told me). This time around, Christie says, Sulzberger will present a case study to a group of Wharton MBA students about the decision behind publishing material from WikiLeaks and the implications of that decision: “the legal jeopardy, the PR fallout, reader reactions, advertising reactions, and the decisions you have to make as the head of a company with these kinds of controversies.” He’ll also present a case study about the launch of the newspaper’s paywall.

But guru or no guru, change management is a field of research that’s of particular interest to the news business these days. News executives need to figure out how to get large organizations to abandon old habits, build new products, and create new cultures in the newsroom and on the business side. There’s plenty of evidence from other industries on how to manage that kind of a process. What kind of leadership advice might Useem have that Sulzberger — or anyone else in the news industry — should heed?

I wasn’t able to get in touch with Useem, but I did download his latest book: The Leader’s Checklist: 15 Mission-Critical Principles, published by Wharton Digital Press last year. The price, thanks to the market-disrupting powers of ebooks, is just $2.99 at Amazon, which means for the cost of a latte you can have a taste of what Sulzberger may find interesting in Useem’s work.

The top five principles on his list go something like this:

1. Articulate a vision
2. Think and act strategically
3. Express confidence in those who work with and for you
4. Take charge
5. Make good and timely decisions, and make sure they’re executed

Useem also advises leaders to communicate persuasively, to know when to delegate authority, to stay close to those directly engaged with the company’s work, and to help individuals see how a larger vision/strategy will affect them personally. So far so good — these are all easily applicable to a news environment.

He cautions leaders to dampen “over-optimism,” which may not seem necessary in the doom-and-gloom corners of the traditional news industry. But the idea is also about fighting the hubris that accompanies success. Keeping optimism in check also means preparing the organization for “unlikely but extremely consequential events.” Sounds newsy to me.

Throughout the book, Useem uses leadership examples from major corporations, the military, and government agencies. He publishes the transcript from a conversation about leadership that he had with Laurence Golborne, the Chilean Minister of Mines who helped manage the dramatic rescue operation in that country two years ago, and a transcript of an interview with New York Fire Chief Joseph Pfeifer about 9/11 and the lack of information sharing between officials that day.

The upcoming hike location is a fitting choice for Useem: One of the recent books he co-authored is The India Way: How India’s Top Business Leaders Are Revolutionizing Management. He summed up some of the ideas from that book in a 2010 article for The Wall Street Journal:

Indian executives see their most important goal as serving a social mission, not maximizing shareholder value, as in the U.S. They take pride in enterprise success — but also in family prosperity, regional advancement, and national renaissance. When asked about their priorities, Indian executives ranked investor interests below strategy, culture, or employees, much the inverse of what we usually hear from Western executives.

In The Leader’s Checklist, Useem writes that the critical quality that leaders most often lack is remembering to “honor the room.” Here’s a piece of advice for news executives to remember:

In a discussion with one person, a team, a class, an off-site meeting, before you get off-stage, take a moment to tell the people you are with — those who may be ready to follow you — that you know who they are, that you respect what they’re doing, and that you’re extremely grateful for their hard work, upon which you’re going to get your job done.

November 09 2009

14:31

NGOs as newsmakers: A new series on the evolving news ecosystem

[Today we're beginning a series of essays here at the Lab dealing with an important set of players in contemporary journalism: non-governmental organizations, or NGOs. Its title: "NGOs and the News: Exploring a Changing Communication Landscape." Our friends at Penn's Center for Global Communication Studies explain below. —Josh]

The past decade has seen dramatic changes in the information and communication environment. Parameters as to who has access to information gathering and dissemination have altered rapidly and irreversibly. Civil society actors such as NGOs and advocacy networks are becoming increasingly significant players as the traditional news media model is threatened by shrinking audiences, the availability of free content online, and the declining fortunes of mainstream media. To what extent do NGOs take on functions as information intermediaries, working in cooperation with, or even in the stead of, traditional news organizations? Are we witnessing a general trend, or do NGOs fulfill specific purposes in times of crisis or critical events that focus attention on a specific (international) topic? And what are the consequences of this for the fields of advocacy and journalism?

This essay series, organized by the Center for Global Communication Studies (CGCS) at the Annenberg School, University of Pennsylvania, in cooperation with the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University, seeks to examine these critical questions from a variety of perspectives, and encourage discussion and deliberation on what these changes mean for NGOs, traditional media outlets, news consumers, and society as a whole. Each week, for the next three months, we will feature a new essay on the subject. These essays are the outcome of recent workshops that have explored various aspects of these developments.

NGOs as a supplement — or replacement?

One field of inquiry addresses the question of how NGO communication practices have changed over time. NGOs are, not surprisingly, adapting to — and to some extent taking advantage of — the changing information and communication environment. They are becoming increasingly involved in the gathering and delivery of international news, using a range of communication channels and technologies. In some cases, NGOs may form partnerships with mainstream media outlets. In others, NGOs act as their own news agencies, developing into their own media hubs or speaking to audiences and constituencies in a direct and unmoderated fashion.

There is also the broadening range of communication strategies employed by NGOs. How do different NGOs maneuver in today’s growing, but also increasingly crowded information spaces? An NGO’s size, mission, and resources influence how the organization thinks about, uses, and disseminates information. Traditional or so-called “legacy” NGOs must adapt to the new opportunities, negotiating and coexisting with new media and network-based NGOs such as Ushahidi or the Hub, for whom the current information ecology is a raison d’être.

New technologies and social networking platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, as well as more traditional media partnerships, offer NGOs a number of avenues, both old and new, for disseminating information. As advocacy organizations become more active in gathering and disseminating news, this raises a number of consequences, challenges, and ethical dilemmas. NGOs have their own agendas, and have not traditionally been expected to hew to the journalistic standard of objectivity. As they move into this arena, what consequences does this indicate for journalistic standards of objectivity and verification? And what repercussions does this shift have for NGOs’ communication strategies, branding efforts, and organizational integrity and credibility? These challenges are further exacerbated by the growing competition that NGOs face in the news space from bloggers and citizen journalists, among others, who also fill information spaces and develop news making capacity of their own.

An evolution of standards?

Finally, these developments have a significant impact on the traditional news makers: news media outlets, journalists, and editors. What happens when news making and journalistic functions are increasingly outsourced or claimed by other actors with no original training in this field and its editorial standards? How central are new media to the alterations and growing distortions of the traditional journalistic sphere and how, if at all, can they be harnessed?

The essays serve several aims. They speak directly to a community of practice consisting of NGO experts, journalists, and academics involved in this field of inquiry. They list and share best practices, suggestions, and warnings. And they map a new landscape of communication processes, which holds conceptual and methodological challenges for academic inquiry and research. The series is intended to inspire and encourage ongoing discussion among practitioners and researchers. We hope you will join us and contribute to a vivid and fruitful exchange.

Monroe Price is director of the Center for Global Communication Studies at the Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania and professor at the Cardozo School of Law, Yeshiva University. Libby Morgan is senior research coordinator at the Center for Global Communication Studies. Kristina Klinkforth is a research fellow and PhD candidate with Freie Universität Berlin who recently completed an academic research year at the School of Media and Public Affairs, George Washington University.

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