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Zaltsberg: Wisdom to deal with change is “in the (news)room,” but leaders must listen

March 31, 2010

By Tyler Angelo
Eastern Illinois University

In journalism, there are a lot more questions than there are answers, more so today than ever. To help answer those questions, news organizations should keep in mind that the wisdom is in the room; just start the conversation.

Journalists today need to figure out how to deal with the ground that’s shifting under their feet, said Bob Zaltsberg, editor of the Herald-Times in Bloomington, Ind., since 1985. He said he has been through several big changes at his newspaper — including a name change and press change — but “nothing like what’s happening today in journalism.”

He spoke to a group of journalists — young and old, educators and students — on Friday, March 26, at the Daily Herald in Arlington Heights as part of the APME/MPI NewsTrain sessions.

Bob Zaltsberg discusses newsroom culture. Photo by John Ryan

His session, titled “Constructive Culture,” zeroed in on the building blocks to a better newsroom culture. Zaltsberg said he led his newsroom in an offensive change after realizing change was afoot with new technologies and applications popping up seemingly every day.

“How is it we change with the times and with the new technologies ahead?” Zaltsberg said.

He took a lesson from the Four Imperatives that came from the Readership Institute Impact Study by Northwestern University. The imperatives include content, service, brand and culture. The study said out of 100 newspapers, 94 were defensive, meaning those papers wait for a rescue, are afraid to take risks, have static training, and the employees cling to old ways.

Zaltsberg defined culture as learned ways of learning, acting and thinking and from there figured out how to relearn a positive newsroom culture.

In order to help change his newsroom’s style, he first listened to what his staff had to say. They wanted more frequent interaction with senior editors, greater transparency, less influence by stronger personalities and to overall take more risks, or stay offensive.

“In order for people to know that they have to change—the what—they have to know the why,” Zaltsberg said.

He also followed four building blocks to a better newsroom culture:

  • business literacy
  • communication
  • training
  • innovation

Bringing in people from other departments — like advertising or circulation — to explain what is going on so that everyone in the organization can better understand that there is more to their job than ever before is key. People are now needed to do different things at different times in different places.

“They need to understand the social contract has changed,” Zaltsberg said.

As an editor, he tries to remain an active listener to his coworkers. Something as simple as letting someone know a better time to talk can build a better culture of honesty, he said.

Zaltsberg stressed training to build confidence, increase efficiency and increase job efficiency. Out of the group listening to his speech, the NewsTrain was the only training time five or six people would see all year. At the Herald-Times, the younger people are now helping train older staff with newer technology, like Facebook or Twitter.

Before breaking off into groups for an activity on developing a strategy to reach new audiences, Zaltsberg said editors should support innovation, celebrate progress and sometimes listen to the crazy ideas. But whatever problems or questions that arise in a newsroom, the wisdom is in the room; the conversation just needs to include more people.

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