What should newsrooms look like in the future?

No one knows the answer.

But there is energy in uncertainty. And the best way to find an answer is start an adventure. Even if it means getting up at 3 a.m.

Two flights later, I’m in Gastonia, North Carolina, a turn signal west of Charlotte. GateHouse Media editors representing four daily newspapers gathered to discuss the qualities of their communities, resilience of their journalists, and realities of an uncertain future.

Their tales were wistful and even wishful, yet editors of community newspapers are consistent in their commitment to journalism that makes a difference. They care about their journalists. They give a damn about their neighbors.

Michael Smith, executive editor of the Spartanburg Herald-Journal, has been in his South Carolina community long enough to raise a family to adulthood. He has moved up the newsroom ranks, seen the birth of a website and mobile products, and still writes editorials and columns to readers who have known him for more than three decades.

He now is taking on an expanded role of guiding his newsroom and three others in nearby North Carolina—Hendersonville, Shelby, and Gastonia—while navigating journalism’s future.

He’s energized by the uncertainty and adventure. His teams still are about local news, but their newsrooms will be different. More focused. More adaptable, too.

My roles with the editors were listener, questioner, and organizational nerd.

My recent term as a Knight Visiting Nieman Fellow taught me more than the best times to avoid winding lines at Felipe’s Taqueria. Multi-tasking at Harvard—editor (because of the day job), researcher, and burrito aficionado—focused on organizational dynamics for community-sized newsrooms.

Should newsrooms migrate to a hybrid organizational structure? Are so-called “legacy” newsrooms capable of systemic changes? Can small newsrooms adapt their traditional hierarchy to nonlinear decision-making?

Nerdy questions, indeed.

My research looked at publicly held companies, start-ups, international media organizations, and even hospital emergency rooms. Two days at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts showed how art globally has systemic roots.

What emerged was a recognition that uncertainty is an opportunity, that changing organizations must start with understanding relationships.

Two months after the fellowship ended, my world changed. I’m no longer executive editor of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune and GateHouse southeast regional editor. That magical (if expired) Harvard ID card takes me to Austin as GateHouse’s senior vice president of news.

The Sarasota-to-Cambridge-to-Austin adventure, though, has the Carolinas on my mind.

Back in our Sarasota, Florida, condo, two more flights and 19 hours later, I struggled to sleep.

Reinventing newsrooms didn’t happen on a day tripper to Gastonia. But I’m energized. The adventure awaits.

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