For journalism innovators, the need for a safety net

Posted on January 24, 2011 by Janet Coats

For the past six months, I’ve been serving as a coach with the Knight Digital Media Center’s Leadership Fellows program.

We wrapped up the program with a gathering in Los Angeles last week, where the fellows focused on developing tactical plans that would help further the mission and strategic goals of their organizations.

Sounds like pretty ponderous work. But there was lots of laughter, and I hope the beginnings of supportive relationships that these journalism innovators can call on as they try to navigate news and information needs in a rapidly changing world.

As for me, as I told KDMC Director Vikki Porter, I was just grateful to be invited to the party. I’m not sure how much help I was as a coach; I am certain that I learned a boat-load from the leaders of the non-profit journalism organizations that worked with me.

While the specifics of what we discussed at KDMC are like Vegas – what is said there, stays there – there are a couple of broad themes I’m thinking more about.

One has to do with my earlier point – my hope that the participants in this program will use the network of peers and experts they met through it to help them solve problems and discover ideas that will inform their work.

The need for strong networks – people who are doing similar work, who have similar experiences or who have expertise that you need – has never been greater in journalism. Yet like everything else in the business, the old networks have weakened or faded away entirely, and new pathways for connection are still under construction.

I thought about my own experience as a young editor, I became managing editor of The Wichita Eagle when I was 31 years old. I clearly needed help in learning how to manage a newsroom, how to negotiate the corporate structure, how to juggle all the competing needs coming at me each day.

Fortunately, I had a great mentor – Sandy Rowe, who had just moved from her job as editor of the Virginian-Pilot to be editor of The Oregonian in Portland. And Sandy knew I needed a network. So she made sure I was invited into the American Society of Newspaper Editors, and the members of that group became my professional network for the next 15 years.

I always knew that no matter what issue I was working on – be it new computer systems or staff recruitment or managing dwindling resources – I could reach out to other editors in Portland and Atlanta, in Phoenix and Lexington – and find someone had been through it before and could offer advice or point me in directions I hadn’t considered.

Having that network – that safety net – gave me more than just good advice. It gave me confidence.

One of our areas of interest at The Patterson Foundation has been network development for journalism entrepreneurs. We’ve bumped along down a couple of what looked like dead ends in our thinking about that, only to emerge more convinced than ever about the need for incubating and developing networks that will allow innovators with common opportunities and problems to connect.

Soon, we’ll begin testing some of those ideas in the real world with real communities of innovators, and I’m excited about what we will learn. Because when it comes to learning, nothing beats connecting with someone who has been in your shoes and can share their experiences with you.

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