The Leadership Vacuum in Journalism

    by David Cohn
    August 5, 2009

    Ideas are cheap; execution is everything. There are several factors that come into play to make the difference between a successful and a failed execution. One of those factors is leadership.

    There are different kinds of leaders. Some lead from the front. (William Wallace comes to mind.) But, in war at least, we haven’t had a general lead from the front since Alexander the Great. It simply drains a person too much to lead from the front, especially on a modern battlefield where too much is happening all at once.

    Some lead like ants, working hard and getting others to follow in line. Others lead like owls, giving sage advice in a calm and zen-like manner. Still others lead like puppies, bringing an unparalleled enthusiasm to galvanize others into action.


    So the question is: What types of leadership does journalism need now?

    A generation ago, we needed people who could take small newspapers and turn them into thriving businesses, people who could lead because of their stature, cut-throat competitiveness, and business savvy. The journalism industry has different goals and needs now. Today, we need flexibility, innovation, community, collaboration
    and tech-savvy, to name a few things.

    Which begs the question: Do we need new leaders? This isn’t a question relating to specific people, but characteristic traits.


    I have often used the chessboard as an analogy for the state of journalism: “Content is king, collaboration is queen, the board itself is transparency.” But the game of chess needs a leader, somebody who can step back, look at the board and make decisions.

    Just as a William Wallace-type general would be ineffective on a modern battlefield, could a William Randolph Hearst make it in today’s journalism environment? What new characteristics would Hearst need to nurture? What would be outright foolish in today’s culture? More importantly, is journalism suffering a brain drain? What new leaders are we losing to other industries?

    I went to my Tweeple for some thoughts.

    What do you think? Share your thoughts on the leadership needed in journalism in the comments below or by replying on Twitter to my tweet (which will then show up above).

    Tagged: journalism leadership tweeple william randolph hearst
    • Karen Fullenwider

      Print journalism has been witnessing a brain drain for decades. Many of the best and brightest migrated to larger papers for better pay and a larger audience. Budding talents were discouraged by the long hours, low pay and general inertia and lack of vision that permeated many news operations. It seems the industry failed to embrace one of its basic tenants to question everything, including the decisions and direction of one’s own company.

      This painful period in journalism has been a long time coming. but it will force a change not only in the delivery of news, but in the kinds of people drawn to the profession. It’s truly publish or perish time, and no publisher, editor or scribe can afford to ignore change and innovation because of a deadline or gaping news hole or fear of tinkering with a business model because it made millions for a few publishers during its heyday.

    • The change will come from the bottom up, so don’t expect leadership from the top.

      People who could have been leaders (Dean Singleton, Rupert Murdoch) are leading a retreat with charging for news and bizarre new notions of what should be protected by copyright.

      Other big players are futzing around the edges without really thinking through the implications of the changes in the economics of news.

    • Karen Fullenwider

      Would like to correct use of the word tenet (which I spelled tenant) in my post above. Was thinking about my lease. Even editors need editors. :) -kf

    • dorian benkoil

      The conundrum for leaders in the journalism business today is classic: how to build a business without destroying the ones you have.

      Or in military terms: How to use the troops fighting the existing war, and being productive at it, for the new battle that requires new techniques and skills.

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