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Five big leadership challenges facing the media industry

May 12, 2022 | By Damian Radcliffe, Carolyn S. Chambers Professor in Journalism – University of Oregon @damianradcliffe

Anita Zielina founded the Executive Program in News Innovation and Leadership at CUNY in 2019. Since that time, she has shaped the leadership skills of executives from local media, start-ups and major outlets such as The New York Times, Reuters, Bloomberg, and ProPublica.

Now, on the eve of her departure as Director of Strategic Initiatives at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism in New York, she shares her perspective on some of the biggest leadership challenges the media industry faces – one of which is leadership training itself.

“I just built the program that I wish I had a bit earlier in my career,” explains Zielina. Like so many in our industry, she says “I started out as a journalist and I never had the management training, the product training,” she says. “I never learned how to speak the language of the business and strategy side of things.”

An Executive MBA at INSEAD, addressed some of those needs, but “there was not one other person from media in my class,” Zielina observes. In a cohort of 120 people, all of her peers were from consumer brands, oil and gas consultancies, banks, and the like. Nonetheless, she says, “I loved the experience.” But she could see that there was a need for such a program tailored to the media industry.

Zielina has set out to fill this need at CUNY. She built a program offering elements of a traditional MBA – with classes on strategy and organizational change – alongside a “comprehensive leadership growth development program,” and a focus on media best practices.

Anita Zielina

In a wide-ranging interview, Zielina – who is returning to Austria to launch her own consultancy focused on digital and leadership transformation – shared her views on the key challenges facing the news and media industries.

Here are five of the core elements that emerged from our conversation, with a focus on supporting future leaders  – and the challenges facing them – in the media industry:

1. Training the next generation of leaders

Zielina has extensive leadership experience in media including stints as Chief Product Officer & Editor-in-Chief Digital at the Swiss-based NZZ, Digital Editor and Deputy Editor-In-Chief at Stern the German current affairs magazine, and as an Editor at the Austrian newspaper Der Standard. Looking back at previous roles she says, “I think I did a decent job. But I had to teach myself a lot of the skills you need as a leader.”

Those skills include an ability to navigate the intersections of business product, audience, editorial, technology and innovation. They are not necessarily acquired in the newsroom, she suggests, and the media context is often missing from traditional business programs.

“Our industry has a tradition of people rising to leadership roles,” she says. “They were great journalists. Then suddenly they become managers, and they do not get the support that they need.”

The need for this type of support is clear when looking at the graduates from CUNY’s executive programs. “Half of the people in that cohort that just graduated have taken on a larger role throughout the year or immediately after the program,” Zielina told us, “either in their own organization or in a different organization.” The training CUNY provided has been crucial to enabling them to effectively step into these leadership roles.

2. Strategic vision and execution

“There are some similarities in organizations whether they are large or small,” Zielina says when asked to share the biggest challenges for participants in the CUNY’s Executive Program in News Innovation and Leadership. “Number one is strategy.”

Shortcomings in communication, as well as the need for strategy to continually evolve and be updated, are key factors. Even when strategy exists, she says “it’s not clearly communicated. In other cases, the strategy “is old, it’s faulty, it needs to be adapted to new challenges.”

To address this, Zielina encourages leaders to think about whether their organization is prepared for transformation. They must focus on which audiences they want or need to reach, and how to ensure that appropriate resources are prioritized. Integral to this is a “talent pipeline” as well as clarity about the type of work culture you want to instill.

“The difference between an organization that successfully manages transformation, and an organization that doesn’t, is not necessarily that one has a strategy paper or slide deck while the other does not.”

At the heart of this are leader who can turn strategy “into products, into audience work, into services, into organizational structures, and the daily execution routine.”

3. Detoxifying the workplace

Implementation is about more than just the products you build, and the platforms you use, Zielina reminds us. People, ethics, and culture must not be overlooked.  

The workplace is an area in which she believes change is long overdue. If not, then talented people will leave. For good. In fact, Zielina says, many are already gone.  

She notes a generational shift whereby Millennials and Gen Z “are not willing to put up with the not-so-great culture and ethics anymore.” “They are opting out,” she says. Unfortunately, “these people are never going to come back if we lose them now.”

According to Zielina, the size of this issue is one that too few industry leaders grasp, although she believes the trend is “becoming more obvious.”

“Younger colleagues in this industry, are waking up to the fact that they don’t have to stay in places that are toxic. They don’t have to stay in places that don’t let them have impact.”

“I think it’s the big the big issue that we’ll have to tackle the next few years,” she says.

4. Making DEI commitments a reality

“A lot of tensions obviously revolve around women, people of color, [and people] from different socio-economic backgrounds, finally saying, ‘I want a seat at the table. And if I don’t get a seat at the table, I’m going to leave.’ So really prioritizing DEI is so crucial.”

Zielina feels that “there was a certain reckoning after the murder of George Floyd and we see movement there.” However, many organizations are failing to deliver on their DEI promises.

Too often, she says, we hear companies say “yes, we are prioritizing, but it was so hard to find a woman and it was so hard to find that person of color. So we took another white man, but next time, we’re definitely gonna do it.”

“If we don’t tackle the big underlying cultural issues of this industry, if we don’t make this industry more attractive, if we don’t make this industry more equitable, if we don’t make this industry a healthier, better and more supportive space, we are going to lose all those people,” she adds.

5. Updating outdated modes of human capital

Making the industry more attractive, Zielina suggests, includes learning from the creator economy and the great resignation.

“More folks are realizing maybe I don’t want [to work for] an employer, maybe I want to do my own thing. But I don’t want it to be a kind of hockey stick startup with venture capital, I just wanted to work for me. I want to tell my stories. I want to serve my audience, who I care about.”

“We are going to see more of that,” she says, which means rethinking collaboration and working with creative/journalistic talent. She also believes we will see increased emphasis on impact, flexibility, and hybrid work – issues that matter to growing numbers of the workforce.

“There is a huge disconnect between the corporate world, and specifically corporate HR and applicants and employees,” she cautions. “And this disconnect is getting bigger.”

“You can start that tomorrow,” she says, urging organizations to ask “whether our incentive systems, our HR processes, our way of work is still adequate for this day and age.”

Future plans

After she leaves CUNY, Zielina plans to continue to focus on ensuring organizations have the structures, skills and talents they need, “in the space of digital leadership and product.”

Zielina sees signs that a famously myopic industry is starting to look beyond national markets for solutions. “It makes me optimistic that it seems that we are getting a bit more global and a bit more international as an industry,” she says.

“Those best practices are really starting to be shared across borders, and that that I think is an a fantastic development. We need more of that,” Zielina adds, “and I hope to play a part in that in at least bridging that gap between the U.S. and Western Europe.”

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