Succession planning is key to journalism’s sustainability

Digital news organizations need to prepare and plan for leadership transitions

You’d be forgiven if the word “succession” triggered thoughts of despicable scheming and jockeying for power set to a haunting, unmistakable theme song rather than an orderly, healthy leadership transition. (Thanks, HBO.) As much as I love the former, it is the latter that I have found myself obsessed with lately. And it is the focus of my fellowship with the Reynolds Journalism Institute.

Transitions and changes in journalism abound these days, including and especially at the leadership level. As someone working in the journalism support space and as a person who loves to nerd out about organizational culture, I have been asking myself what a successful, smooth transition could look like in an organization when a leader — a founder, no less — steps down, moves on or retires.

That question has kept coming up again and again in the last year as I’ve watched the announcements about leadership transitions from prominent local news organizations pile up. 

I began to get more curious about these transitions and started talking with people across the industry. What quickly became clear is that we are on the cusp of seeing many more of these transitions, as digital-only news outlets mature and more diverse digital native leaders are ready to take these organizations into their next chapters. The need for planning for these transitions runs deep. 

The success of these transitions will determine how well these organizations can withstand change — and ultimately will be a test of their sustainability, not just for their own institutions but also for the communities they serve.

But few models of doing this well exist within the journalism industry, and journalism doesn’t have a strong track record of learning from other sectors. So between all of these conversations about the need to plan for leadership transitions and my own desire to support these important providers of local news and information, I came to my fellowship project idea: creating a succession planning guide for independent local nonprofit and for-profit digital news organizations.

Over the next several months, I will look at the needs of these organizations and research best practices, advice and tips from other sectors, including the wider nonprofit industry. I want to partner with a handful of news organizations who are currently experiencing their own transitions to figure out their pain points in an effort to help define the problem more clearly and to help others prepare for what they may face. 

These are some of the (many) questions I want to answer with this fellowship:

  • How do you know when it’s time to pass the torch?
  • How can stakeholders — staff, boards, subscribers/members, funders, community members, etc. — be involved in succession planning?
  • How do you make time for succession planning, which is quite important, when you spend your time focusing on the urgent day to day deadlines in front of you?
  • How can you center the principles of diversity, equity and inclusion in succession planning?
  • How can you model journalistic values of transparency and accountability during transitions?

Focusing on digital-only outlets

Leadership transitions in journalism aren’t new, of course. They have happened in news organizations large and small since the founding of the first newspapers. But these latest transitions are different in that we’re seeing founders and leaders leave digital-only for-profit and nonprofit news organizations that were created in the last 20 years — many of which are only now hitting their teenage years.

Most of these organizations were forged at a time when the journalism industry was in the throes of the economic collapse, just as audiences were migrating to the Internet for their information and communication needs, social media companies were on the rise and smartphones started to take off. These organizations and these leaders were and are the pioneers of digital journalism. They have helped to fill serious gaps in communities that were left when newspapers and other media collapsed or receded. 

And there are more and more of them every day: In its latest INN Index released in July 2022, the Institute for Nonprofit News reported that more than 4 in 10 nonprofit news organizations are local. Both INN and LION Publishers each have more than 400+ members (with some overlap).

It is not overstating it to say that these news organizations provide a critical service to their communities. Their ability to weather leadership changes has a direct effect on how well they can serve their communities, especially because some of these organizations are quite small. They don’t have a chain or parent company to provide them with paths forward or with extensive training and development programs for new leaders. For example, the INN index reported that nonprofit news outlets have a median of six FTEs on staff. In contrast, the largest INN member newsroom is ProPublica, at roughly 170 FTEs.

By focusing on this part of the sector, I aim to help them directly but also hope that the guide I build may be helpful for other news organizations out there, including legacy mainstream media, legacy community and BIPOC media.

Why I’m drawn to this work

For the last decade, I’ve worked in what I like to call “journalism adjacent” spaces: academia, Georgetown University and West Virginia University, and journalism support organizations, the American Press Institute and now at The Lenfest Institute for Journalism. I care deeply about the culture inside journalism organizations and believe that the internal workings and operations have a direct impact on the ability of those organizations to be sustainable and to thrive.

I’ve seen up close a number of transitions and departures of top leaders at organizations both large and small, and I know how disruptive, confusing and unsettling those changes can be for staff, communities and other stakeholders, especially when succession plans are not communicated or executed well — or are nonexistent. 

I also know how difficult it can be for organizations to spend time on planning for the future, particularly in our current environment with so many urgent needs and demands. 

How you can help or engage with this work

First, if you are a digital-only nonprofit or for-profit local news organization that is thinking about — or know you need to start thinking about — succession planning, I would like to talk with you.

  • What obstacles are you facing? 
  • How far along are you in the process? 
  • What help do you most need? 

I am creating a small learning community of folks who want to discuss these issues with colleagues at other outlets, and I’d like to gauge interest in that. Please contact me, and we can find a time to talk.

Second, I am a big believer in not reinventing the wheel. If you’ve gone through a transition, I’m curious to see what you have learned from your experiences, either in journalism or outside of journalism. I may be interested in interviewing you for an upcoming published piece for the fellowship or for part of the guide that I will create. Please get in touch, and we can find a time to talk. 

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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