Local news leadership transitions require budgets, bandwidth, and a breadth of skills

Sara Shahriari of INN shares insights on the challenges of succession planning for nonprofit news organizations

Another RJI fellow recently posed a simple, straightforward yet important question to me about succession planning for digital news organizations: Why don’t these outlets have leadership transition plans in place already? It got me thinking about a critical phase of taking on any new challenge — problem definition.

In product design, defining the problem comes relatively early in the process. It’s a time to think deeply about the many facets of the problem you’re trying to solve. Product or UX designers often use the “five Ws” approach at this stage. Some of the questions include, “why does this problem occur” and “why does the problem matter.” In my first piece for RJI, I wrote about the latter. Here, I want to explore the former.

To get more specific about how and why digital news organizations operate — and why many don’t have succession plans in place — it makes sense to go to one of the major organizations that studies and serves these kinds of outlets. So I turned to the good people at the Institute for Nonprofit News. Although not all digital-only news operations are nonprofits, a healthy amount of them are. INN has been serving the nonprofit news field since its founding in 2009 and has conducted in-depth annual surveys of the sector, known as the INN Index, since 2018.

Sara Shahriari, INN’s director of leadership and talent development, was kind enough to spend some time answering my questions about the trends that INN has seen over the years about leadership development and transitions in the nonprofit news sector. 

The interview below has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Kovac-Ashley: Tell us a little bit about yourself. What do you do at INN and what was your career trajectory to get here?

Shahriari: As the director of leadership and talent development at INN, I build and manage internship and fellowship programs that bring new editorial and business side talent into member newsrooms and create and run our leadership development cohorts and seminars. Fundamentally woven into this work is the understanding that racism, classism and other forms of discrimination have always and still do affect who has access to positions of power and who can thrive in journalism, and that leadership and talent development work needs to combat those forces on many fronts. 

My heart lies at the intersection of journalism and education/mentorship, and I’m happiest when a job unites them. Most recently I served on the faculty at the Missouri School of Journalism and in radio newsroom leadership at two public radio newsrooms. (Hi, KBIA!) My work at INN allows me to help build a better future for news alongside INN members, who are honestly some of the most courageous, smart and dedicated people I know. 

Kovac-Ashley: The nonprofit news sector has grown quickly in the last decade, filling important gaps in news coverage in communities around the country. The latest INN Index reported that 42% of outlets surveyed are local newsrooms, up from less than a quarter just five years ago. Can you talk about that trend and what you expect to see in the next three to five years?

Shahriari: Yes, and here a lot of credit goes to my colleague Emily Roseman, who manages the Index. It’s the most comprehensive source of information on nonprofit news in the United States, and it indicates that local newsrooms are the fastest growing segment when compared with state, regional and national organizations. We expect to see that growth continue as traditional for-profit news sources contract and more people create outlets that serve local and hyperlocal areas and their communities.

Here are a few key indicators about that growth that came out of the 2022 Index: 

  • Local nonprofit outlets are starting to serve more smaller markets than before: “More than a third of local nonprofit outlets serve markets with populations under 100,000. In contrast, the pace of growth in the number of larger local outlets providing coverage for places with at least 1 million residents has been the same since 2018.”
  • The growth of local nonprofits is more pronounced: More than half of the news outlets that have launched since 2017 are local, and the growth of locals has increased year over year. In 2020, 57% of new launches were local, and in 2021, 65% of launches were local. Based on early 2022 membership data, we expect this trend to continue.
  • Local outlets are more likely than other types of newsrooms to focus on enabling or inspiring people to get involved in civic life.
  • About a quarter of all outlets surveyed say their primary mission is to serve communities of color. Startups, mostly local outlets, are driving this focus.

Kovac-Ashley: The earliest nonprofit newsrooms are now entering their “teenage years.” As you think about what it means for these organizations to achieve those milestones, how do you view the need for succession planning?

Shahriari: The importance of succession planning really cannot be overstated across the field, and it’s not just organizations in their teenage years that are thinking about succession planning. We also see younger leaders who are maybe five years in thinking about how to transition roles and people who are close to retirement seriously thinking about succession.

The role of founder or executive director is extremely demanding. Especially at very small organizations it can require people — often people with backgrounds primarily as reporters and editors — to become fundraisers, strategic planners, accountants, recruiters and experts in organizational sustainability across the board. It’s intense work that requires a complex skill set, which is why it’s so important to have a succession plan and also why it’s so hard to create one.

Kovac-Ashley: As you look across the sector, how prepared do you think nonprofit local news outlets are for leadership transitions? To put this question in context, a 2021 report from Board Source, a nonprofit board leadership research, leadership and support organization, found that only 29% of nonprofit organizations have a “written succession plan or policy to guide the board when CEO/ED transition occurs.” That number is for all the nonprofits that Board Source surveyed. What trends do you see among nonprofit journalism outlets?

Shahriari: We don’t yet have quantitative data on this, but anecdotally people are thinking about succession. I hear from founders and executive directors who are identifying “deputies” within their own organizations. The challenge is making time and finding resources to help that person acquire the skill set needed to become the next leader. 

Doing this kind of training in small organizations is particularly difficult, since there may not be money to have two senior leaders on the payroll, and staff time is always stretched. Also, these talented rising people are appealing to other organizations, sometimes with much larger budgets, so retaining them can be an issue.

Finally, it can be hard for senior leaders to move on. They might have concerns about retirement savings in this unpredictable market, and the real challenges of finding new senior leaders are ever-present. We don’t have a lot of information on that front, and I think it’s an avenue worth exploring.  

Kovac-Ashley: Let’s lean into those obstacles a little bit more. When you zoom out a bit, what do you see?

Shahriari: It comes down to budget, bandwidth and breadth of skill.

  • The transition period in some nonprofit organizations can last for extended periods of time, and departing leaders may still be employed by their organizations to play a defined, advisory role. Nonprofit news organizations may not have the budget to offer a competitive salary for existing leadership positions, let alone double up on executive leadership during a transition.
  • The time required to succession plan, conduct an extensive executive job search and onboard a new leader all add to both board and staff responsibilities. Lack of bandwidth when organizations and boards are already stretched can hamper a smooth transition.
  • The scope of knowledge needed to lead these organizations is quite large. The top job isn’t just — or even primarily — a journalism position and requires a breadth of skill and experience. How do you find and develop people who have keen journalistic principles, the desire to lead and manage people and the soul of a passionate fundraiser?

When I asked Sue Cross, INN executive director, about the challenges, she pointed to two trends or characteristics of nonprofit news that make succession planning particularly important to growth of the field. 

  • First, even beyond normal leadership/promotion opportunities that trigger succession, it’s a new field. And that means the pool of experienced leaders in this field is small.
  • Second, nonprofit news organizations generally are led by people adapting skills from other nonprofit sectors or from other journalism positions. That means the search timeline and the onboarding/ramp-up timelines both tend to be longer. The succession process overall takes more planning, because many organizations look beyond the growing but still relatively small pool of people with deep nonprofit news leadership experience.

Kovac-Ashley: An important part of your job is leadership development and training, especially for leaders of color and others from backgrounds underrepresented in news management and leadership. What support do these and other new leaders need as they take on executive-level positions, whether they are founders or taking the helm after a founder departs?

Shahriari: It’s often the startups leading change in terms of truly diverse senior leadership, as we see a growing wave of founders who are younger people of color. Like all founders, they face the leadership demands we’ve already discussed. It’s likely these leaders and others from backgrounds underrepresented in news management also face additional challenges in terms of securing sustainable funding and building out their organizations. Right now, we’re in conversation with leaders about these challenges and how to address sustainability alongside them. 

We also need to emphasize supporting emerging leaders of color because they have been, and still are, excluded from positions of power in many historically white news organizations. We know from our Index data that nearly two-thirds of nonprofit news outlets have all white leadership, so there’s a lot of work to do among more established nonprofit news organizations and people who can benefit from a supportive peer community of leaders as they rise to top positions.

Finally, a new senior leadership position is difficult for anyone, but something I’ve seen across industries is people of color being hired to “fix” a predominantly white organization’s culture. Unless an organization is prepared to do a lot of long-term, comprehensive work to address entrenched problems, that is an impossible burden to place on one person. Organization-wide equity and inclusion work is a shared and daily responsibility, and that’s especially true when there’s new leadership and culture change needs to happen.

Kovac-Ashley: Is there anything else these news organizations need to think about as it relates to leadership transitions? What blind spots do you see?

Shahriari: I would focus on making sure power and skill aren’t concentrated in just one person. Leaders can include middle managers in bigger strategic planning sessions and help them build relationships with board members and funders. That’s important because, as our executive director Sue Cross shared with me, boards usually lead the leadership transition process in terms of determining organizational and leadership needs and running the search and transition process. Funders and community or other advisory boards also sometimes contribute insights and advice.

Top executives should always have their eyes open for talent, inside and outside the journalism space. Just as journalists make time to connect and build relationships with sources, make time to build a broad network of potential future leaders. The time to identify talent you’d like to hire is long before you have an open position. 

Finally, succession planning is a sensitive topic because people don’t want to stress staff or potential funders by indicating that change may be coming. To the extent that it’s possible, we need to normalize succession planning as an ongoing and healthy part of any organization, whether a leader is considering moving on or not.

This article was originally published by the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri. Amy is a member of the RJI Fellows Class of 2022-2023.

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