Eiko Ojala

The news industry is entering a new era, and after so many failed attempts at transformation over the past two decades, we’re wrestling with the fundamental question of our time: What kind of business is journalism, and whom does it serve? 


Eiko Ojala

We don’t yet have one clear answer, but the question itself signals the magnitude of the transition underway. And like most seismic shifts, change has started slowly, on smaller levels. 

Now it’s time for the next step. If we want this new era to move us closer to a healthier, more sustainable future, it’s time to rethink how we define the qualities of those who will lead us.

If you peer inside most media organizations today, you’ll see change efforts already taking place. We have more meaningful metrics, more creative products, better audience research, and more inclusive workplaces — though all of these areas, especially the last, require more work. There are new roles, like audience strategist; new formats, like WhatsApp groups; and new policies, like six months of paid family leave in some U.S. newsrooms.

Most of these changes have come from the bottom up, pushed slowly and painfully by people who devote their personal time and energy to inching toward a new way of thinking. The changes are innovative, and they are having positive impact, but often they are piecemeal, and ephemeral.

If we want these changes to stick, if we want them to be expanded and codified into a new way of operating a media organization, and a new way of thinking about our role in society, we need leaders at every level who are the biggest champions of change.

So what does this new leadership blueprint look like? I set out to answer that question by talking with 26 of the smartest innovators and changemakers in our industry. They come from diverse backgrounds, careers, and organizations but they were remarkably unified as they described this new skillset.

We need people with a service mindset, who understand how to run a business, but a business with a mission that’s more important than ever. We need leaders who embrace new revenue models, run toward chaos, and are excited to build new structures from the ground up. We need leaders who are generous, who nurture the careers of their employees, and who are serious about creating diverse and inclusive workplaces. And we need leaders promoted for their skills and their thoughtfulness, not their loud voice, charisma, or pedigree.

As the experts described this new skill set, it was clear that something deeper is shifting in journalism, the very values that underpin the work we do. We’re far beyond the era of mass distribution, and we have also moved past the early digital days when clicks were all that mattered.

Today we are moving closer to our communities, online and in person, and we’re trying to do a better job of listening to the people we serve – and to those we don’t yet serve. We need leaders who strive to provide value to the lives of their communities, with the goal that, in return, they can earn their financial support.

Here are the top five skills and mindsets that evolved from my interviews. I hope these concepts guide those who hire leaders, as well as those who aspire to become them. They’re also skills that existing leaders can, and should, adopt. And they are skills that every journalism school should teach. 

We need leaders who think like product managers

And understand that a publication’s value is defined by the communities it serves

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Eiko Ojala

For a long time, career pathways in the media industry have mirrored the siloed business model of our legacy print organizations. Just as our product, the newspaper, was largely divorced from its primary revenue stream, print advertising, so, too, were the career trajectories of our leaders. Skilled reporters and editors rose through the newsroom ranks while savvy advertising executives climbed a separate career ladder, each setting separate goals and confronting separate challenges. 

What’s more, our industry created something like a religion around the notion that a firewall separated the two halves, making it feel sacrilegious for newsroom leaders to think of themselves as business executives or name revenue as a factor in decision-making.

The internet, of course, shattered this business model, but the religion has proven more difficult for us to renounce. This has been particularly detrimental when it comes to leadership trajectories, because we now need leaders who understand both halves. 

The discipline of product management, central to the technology industry, offers us tools to work differently. Product thinking is a practice that starts by understanding the needs of the user, the audience, then works to create a product that meets those needs.

In a newsroom, product thinking could be as simple as starting a story-planning meeting by examining audience survey findings, or interviewing newsletter subscribers about their information needs. These small changes are examples of the mental shift that comes from thinking of journalism as a product, and our community as the users we serve. It’s a framework that leaders at all levels, in organizations of all sizes, can learn, whether or not they have the word “product” in their title. 

Most importantly, product thinking finally unites the goals of those legacy newsroom leaders with their advertising counterparts because it prioritizes the needs of the customer – the community. Product thinking offers us not a renunciation of our religion, but a new way of practicing. 

“It’s somebody who thinks about money and impact at the same time,” said Alison Go, a product and strategy consultant.

Perhaps the most valuable aspect of a leader who thinks like a product manager is their ability to break down the siloed, hierarchical legacy structures of media organizations that now impede our progress. 

The people who learn to work in this cross-functional way are often those in non-traditional roles within a news organization. By nature of their work they may lack formal authority so they learn to lead through influence out of necessity, said Rebekah Monson, co-founder and chief operating officer of Letterhead, a newsletter platform. 

Think, for example, of a social media manager, Monson said. That person behaves much like a product manager, coordinating efforts across multiple departments and convincing leadership of how to use content to grow their online audience. Their scope is inherently wider than someone in a traditional newsroom role, especially if their work involves a budget. From an early stage they learn stakeholder management, data-based decision-making, and how to manage up and sideways.

We need leaders who can strategize

And who are in conversation with the community

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Eiko Ojala

Unlike the days of print, leading a media organization today means guiding it through a jungle of possibilities, none too certain, for how to become sustainable. In this environment, the need for strategic thinking has never been more urgent.

Thankfully, digital distribution of news makes it easier than ever to gather the type of insights necessary to build a case for a certain course of action. This includes metrics, of course, but that data only shows insights on what has already been published. More important is the kind of information gathered on the front end, through conversations with the people we serve. That type of research is the key to setting a truly transformational strategy.

“The people who are really going to lead, and really make a difference for organizations, are the people who are setting the strategy,” said Kelly Ann Scott, former editor in chief and vice president of content at Alabama Media Group who was recently named executive editor of the Houston Chronicle. “They’re staying high level enough, talking about what you want to be, how you’re going to pay for it, and who you’re serving.”

Strategic thinking enabled the team at Alabama Media Group to chart a new and more sustainable course for the organization and the way it produces and supports local journalism. 

In 2023 the organization, which is owned by the national media group Advance Local, ended print production of its four daily papers. It now operates AL.com, the main news site, The Lede, its suite of daily e-editions, as well as other community-focused brands including the Alabama Education Lab and People of Alabama. The organization has also launched two national brands, Reckon, which covers social justice and activism, and It’s a Southern Thing, a lifestyle publication. It also operates a film production group, Advance Originals.

By launching brands around specific audiences and interests, they have been able to build community, create meaningful discussions, and help people find commonalities amid today’s extreme polarization, Scott said. All this has also helped create sustainability. 

Because the industry faces so much disruption and upheaval, it’s no longer important to promote someone who is the best at any one skill set, Scott said. There can always be a second-in-command who is the journalism expert, but it’s more important that the top leader understands where the industry is headed and can set a vision for how the organization can move forward.

“In today’s news organizations, if you aren’t setting very clear priorities for your room and for what you want to be, the daily news cycle will eat you, the business troubles will eat you, the uncertainty about the industry will eat you,” Scott said. “And then you stand for nothing.”

Part of the reason that strategic thinking, and the kinds of theories and frameworks that are foundational to nearly every business school curriculum, have not been a part of legacy news operations is because many journalism leadership roles have historically lacked formal training. 

“There is very little, if any, training on ‘What does it mean to be a leader? What does it mean to manage? What does it mean to do a good job in those things?’” said Cheryl Thompson-Morton, director of the Black Media Initiative at the Center for Community Media at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY.

We need more formal training in journalism schools about business leadership, said Evan Smith, co-founder of The Texas Tribune who now serves as a senior advisor at both the Emerson Collective and the The Texas Tribune. It’s time for leaders, especially journalism start-up founders, to embrace the role of the CEO, even if they are often learning on the job. The ethics and mission-driven nature of journalists make them excellent CEOs, he said, but we also need leaders who are comfortable asking for money and who acknowledge that they are selling a product.

“There is very little, if any, training on ‘What does it mean to be a leader? What does it mean to manage? What does it mean to do a good job in those things?’” — Cheryl Thompson-Morton, director of the Black Media Initiative at CUNY’s Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism

This is where journalism schools can step up. Leading the way are professors like Damon Kiesow, the Knight Chair in Journalism Innovation at the Missouri School of Journalism, who has written the first-ever textbook about news product management, and Aron Pilhofer, formerly the James B. Steele Chair in Journalism Innovation at Temple University who was recently named chief product officer at the Star Tribune in Minneapolis. They, along with the leadership of the Craig Newmark Graduate School at CUNY, recognize that journalists need formal business leadership training.

At Temple, Pilhofer taught a class in entrepreneurship and journalism that covered some of the fundamentals of product development and human centered design. His former colleagues also teach courses that touch on other digital skills, like podcasting and community-driven journalism, he said. 

But in general, he said, those courses are one-off electives, not part of a new philosophy that underpins an entire degree program, and that puts legacy journalism programs “wildly out of step with where the industry is now and will be in the future.” Other programs are innovating successfully, he said, pointing to the Digital Media Innovation degree at Texas State University and the Journalism and Design program at The New School as the direction the journalism training industry should be headed. 

Kiesow teaches that news product thinking is entirely aligned with the mission of journalism, as well as with many of its methods. The roles share an interest in identifying gaps in knowledge and using the scientific method to reveal facts and insights in service to a community, he said. 

His classes spend much of their time talking about practical tasks like survey design, in-depth interviews, and data analysis, as well as cognitive bias and other risks in the process. These are skills journalists are familiar with, even if the business-minded vocabulary is sometimes new, he said. 

We need leaders who are excited about being entrepreneurs

And see opportunity in chaos

If product thinking is a practical framework that helps us produce better journalism, entrepreneurism is more about the attitude we bring to this work. 

When the internet first rocked the industry, existential challenges fell in the lap of newsroom leaders who, until then, had largely relied on an age-old formula: Write stories, sell ads, then print them both in the newspaper. This is no longer the case. To aspire to leadership today, you must be excited to confront a world of frighteningly limitless possibilities for how to become sustainable, at a time when digital news avoidance and mistrust remain high. New types of challenges and near constant chaos must excite you, the experts I spoke with emphasized. 

We need bold entrepreneurs, they said, who aren’t afraid to trash those stale formulas, start fresh, and fail a few times along the way. Perhaps most important is that the next generation leads with a can-do attitude, experts said, finding ways to act rather than being paralyzed by past failures, endless options, or lack of clarity.

“You have to shift this mindset that our industry is in decline, and you’re managing decline, to the place of ‘I am building the future,’” said Scott, of the Houston Chronicle.

Today, it’s not only the business model and new technologies like artificial intelligence that present challenges, but a news landscape that has left our communities exhausted and distrustful.

Trust in the news continues to fall worldwide, according to the 2023 Reuters Institute Digital News Report, with only 40 percent of people surveyed worldwide saying they trust most news most of the time. In the U.S., that number is 32% and has increased slightly (6 percentage points) compared to 2022.

Shirish Kulkarni, a news innovation research fellow at Cardiff University in Wales, sees the problem less as “news avoidance” and more as people becoming “frustrated sense seekers.” The problem, Kulkarni writes in an essay for Journalism.co.uk, is multifaceted but related to legacy business models. Audiences “are making a rational decision not to consume our products,” he writes. “That failure is on us, but it also means there are opportunities to address that frustration — largely by telling different stories in different ways.”

Given this backdrop, we need leaders who find new ways to provide information that doesn’t make people want to close our tab in their browser or let their subscription lapse.

Because there is no longer a formula, we need nimble leaders who can localize what they see working elsewhere and create replicable solutions, said Thompson-Morton, of CUNY.

“There’s so much that is just out of our control,” she said. “People have to be excited by that, and not afraid.”

We need business leaders who also evangelize our mission

And whose devotion to our cause brings others along

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Eiko Ojala

All this talk about business models understandably gives some journalists an uneasy feeling. We devote ourselves to this work because we believe in our duty to hold the powerful to account and arm citizens with information. If we say journalism is just a business, does that corrupt our mission? 

The answer is that both can be important at the same time; both are necessary for the survival of our industry. Sustainability doesn’t have to come at the expense of all we stand for, and we need more candid ways of talking about journalism’s mission as it relates to a news organization’s business model. 

Some pushed the idea further: If we now say our goal is to serve our readers, perhaps it is time to state more clearly that our mission is one of service. And perhaps we should craft that mission in partnership with the communities we serve. 

That kind of transparency requires vulnerability both within your organization and with the public, said Candice Fortman, the executive director of Outlier Media in Detroit, but it can lead to deeper trust. Imagine if the news industry had been honest with readers during the financial collapse of the early 2000s, she said, and asked communities to step up by explaining just how dire the financial situation was. That kind of communication can be scary, but it also brings us closer to the people we serve and demonstrates how much we believe in the civic importance of what we do. 

Leaders must also be able to use the mission to motivate their staff. Journalism attracts people who want to make a difference in the world, and motivating them requires tapping into that drive, leaders said.

“If you do not have a very well-defined mission, you should figure out what it is, because that is the most powerful and unifying thing you can do, is to explain the why,” said Hannah Yang, chief growth and customer officer at The New York Times. 

Part of that means explaining to employees the context of what you’re asking them to do. As simple as this sounds, it’s not done enough, she said. 

For example, before The Times’ quarterly earnings calls, Yang tries to step back and remember that the subscription numbers she shares hold important symbolism and send a message to the world not only about The Times, but about the future of paid journalism, she said. She makes a point to explain to her team, especially new members, why the number is important and how meeting short-term goals is connected to meeting long-term goals.  

“Why I work so hard is because I literally care about the impact of this organization on the world,” she said, “And feel that us succeeding will make this world a better place, so if you really internalize that as a leader, it will come through in how you lead.” 

We need leaders who consider themselves stewards

And who position our organizations, but more importantly our people, for success 

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Eiko Ojala

During this project I worried about ending up with a list of garden-variety leadership skills that could apply to any industry. I tried to zero in on skills specifically necessary for the news business.

That felt especially important when it came to this category of “soft” skills, a term that already devalues crucial capabilities like listening and empathy. Vital qualities for every leader will always include self-awareness, authenticity, vulnerability, good communication, the ability to learn and change your mind, and a real commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion.

What I found, however, is that there is something more that we need from future media leaders when it comes to this category. In fact, I think this type of skill is the most crucial for those who will lead in the years to come. We need leaders who focus on creating an environment where people can thrive, and see journalism as a byproduct of that, the experts said.

Smart leaders recognize that they don’t own their organization or their employees; the best they can do is leave both better off than when they found them. 

“You have to shift this mindset that our industry is in decline, and you’re managing decline, to the place of ‘I am building the future.’” — Kelly Ann Scott, executive editor of the Houston Chronicle

Amid all the pressure and uncertainty news leaders face, we need people who still make time to invest in their staff, helping employees chase their goals even if that leads them to a new job. This can be as simple as asking an early-career staffer about their long-term ambitions during your weekly check-in, or making time for them to participate in a professional development course. It can mean asking a promising young editor to lead the story planning meeting once in a while, or allowing staff to shadow other roles across the organization on a short-term basis. 

It’s true that someone might find a role they like better, or use their new skills to leave for another job, but they’re also sure to leave if they feel stymied. And if we view our industry as a collective, training up our talent is never a waste. 

This is especially important for women, people of color, and other underrepresented groups. We need leaders who understand that we can’t move our industry toward sustainability if our workplaces don’t allow people of all backgrounds to feel that they belong and have an equal chance to thrive. The experts I spoke with pointed to the many talented people that our industry has lost because they weren’t given opportunities for growth, or were driven out by bad managers, non-inclusive policies, or a lack of diversity. We need leaders who consistently ask themselves who is not at the table, who is not in the meeting, whose voice is being left out of the conversation and the decision. 

A failure to focus on careers and skill development, and a lack of attention to the ways that workplace policies – like a lack of substantive, equitable family leave, internships that don’t pay enough to afford the city’s housing, or a lack of training for hiring managers on how to recruit a diverse pool of candidates – can disadvantage not only certain groups of workers, but future generations of them. 

Who must take action now?

One question I’m left wondering after synthesizing everything the experts had to say is whether it’s really just the next generation that we’re talking about. Journalism is in crisis today, and if we wait for new leaders, we waste time. 

It’s good that motivated change-makers are disrupting journalism from within, but it’s also true that current leaders can often do more to support those efforts. 

Indeed, those who lead our organizations and teams today have an obligation to engage if they care about sustainability. This new leadership blueprint doesn’t depend on whether you are a millennial or a boomer, or your job title, it’s about a new way of thinking that we all can cultivate. 

So much needs to change in order for our industry to find its way to sustainability — the challenges we face cannot be overstated — but I’ve come away from this project with more hope than dread. 

There is so much fervor inside our organizations. The experts I spoke with are exhausted, make no mistake, but they also see a future for our industry that’s better than its past. 

If those who hold power today understand the value of this new skillset, if they work to develop it themselves, and if they help other changemakers climb the ladders that lead to the very top of our organizations, we might get to that better future.