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Newsrooms’ problem with talent turnover: How to turn it around

Attracting and keeping talent in the newsroom is a real struggle with huge consequences

In this column, I have written several times that one of the problems many newsrooms face is they rarely plan long term. Let me give you one example which illustrates the frustrations that come with short term thinking.

Every newsroom faces the same problem of staff turnover, some employees go, new ones come and so on. That’s life. Sure, every time this happens managers have to work on solving it and it’s no one’s favorite task.

Attracting and retaining talent: The state of things

In 2019, the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism published an interesting report on the struggle for talent and diversity in modern newsrooms.

One of the key findings was that the talent question is regularly mentioned among the top three challenges newsrooms face nowadays. On the one hand, media leaders see the new generation of journalists as very motivated, more flexible and more technologically savvy than previous generations. On the other hand, young journalists seem to be less loyal to one company and more interested in individual freedom.

Another key change the report noted was that recruitment in journalism changed from passively waiting to getting lots of applicants and then filtering out the best to active recruitment.

Big news organisations like the BBCReuters and the Financial Times have created posts within their newsroom that are responsible for talent development, the report noted.

Of course, that’s almost impossible for smaller news outlets.

In the end of 2020, after the first months of the pandemic, the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism published a report in the series of following the changing newsrooms with a focus on addressing diversity and nurturing talent. And then a followup in the end of 2021.

Media managers who participated in the survey expressed confidence in being able to attract and retain talent in editorial areas (53%). But the level of confidence was much lower across key areas including product, audience, and design (23%), data and insights (21%), and technology (18%). The figures haven’t changed that much in the report from 2021.

Source: RISJ 2020 report
Source: RISJ 2021 report

So, coming back to my initial point on the lack of long term thinking in newsrooms – there are roles which can be filled quickly and easily, usually around editorial. The problem is the other areas – product, audience, design, data and tech.

My current role in the newsroom where I work has been for years somewhere between editorial, product and audience also referred to as a bridge role. From time to time, other newsroom leaders reach out to ask whether I am happy where I work. So far I have been declining those offers and the follow-up questions were almost always whether I know someone instead, ideally in a junior role.

I don’t and not for a lack of trying to get to know someone like that. Of course, I know of other senior product managers working in other newsrooms but not the junior ones.

Whenever journalism school graduates came to the newsroom to apply for a job almost everyone wanted to write or simply be famous. That’s just my experience from a little media market.

I tried to think who would replace me if I ever left for one of the positions I was offered and although there is a group of people who could easily replace me, there is not a junior ready to step up.

I suspect it’s a common issue also elsewhere, otherwise, why would media leaders for the past few years say attracting and retaining talent in product, audience, data and technology is hard (see charts below).

To get a better answer of why is that the case it is good to take some cues from other businesses and see how mid-sized companies are dealing with the same issues and what might be the underlying problems and potential solutions.

US vs. Europe

Before we get to that, let me just paint a picture of how different the pandemic has been for employees in general in United States vs. Europe.

During the past two years, US has seen a record rise in new business applications, in other words – workers are quitting their jobs to become their own bosses. People are quitting their jobs at record rates in what’s become known as the Great Resignation.

According to a report by Euronews, the situation is quite different in Europe where the unemployment rate is on the verge of returning to pre-crisis levels. One of the reasons the Great Resignation is still not being felt in Europe could be the use of pandemic-linked unemployment benefits, Euronews wrote.

In the US, the government handed out stimulus cheques, while the European stimulus injection was linked to a work contract. So far, Great Resignation is not happening in Europe.

A second example of the difference between US and EU media can be seen in the rise of creators platforms luring away successful journalists from newsrooms to become independent writers. Again, in the US this was a much bigger debate than in most of Europe, and also there it seems to be going back to normal.

The US is much more eager to adopt current trends. As a matter of a fact, there is less of an appetite for independence in news media in Europe than in US media (one day I will write a deep dive into why that is the case). 

However, it might seem out of context there is a difference in both markets affecting also newsrooms. In the US, the path to independence is more acceptable than in Europe and if you are a European newsroom a competing news organisation is more likely to lure away your talent.

Know-how from other industries

OK, so, coming back to solutions, and best practices from other industries to uncover the answer to why it is harder for newsrooms to attract and retain talent outside editorial roles.

Reading the summary from a survey of middle-market CFOs (chief financial officer) and CHROs (chief human resources officer) conducted by AchieveNEXT it feels like a deja vu as most of them said that attracting and retaining talent is their number-one challenge.

Although the authors provide a somewhat interesting sounding three-step initiative (pinpoint the problem, revamp the recruiting and onboarding process, craft a retention strategy), it’s nothing new and those steps help little with narrowing down the problems enough to see clear solutions.

Still, one of the more compelling strategies the authors of the survey present is a four-step retention strategy:

1) Build better bosses – I can tell you from experience good journalists do not make good managers (and I am not the only one who thinks that), so investing in leadership development is the first step and today it is much more affordable even for smaller newsrooms.

2) Get explicit about career paths – company leaders cited by the survey confessed they were not direct enough about communicating all the opportunities for professional growth within their companies as they thought they are small enough that everyone knows. That’s wishful thinking and if the pandemic has shown anything is that more communication is needed than less.

3) Create an inclusive culture – another good point as people are more inclined to stay when they feel valued and have a sense of belonging.

4) Creative and flexible reward packages – a comp strategy designed specifically for younger generations is easier to design within a smaller or mid-sized newsroom than a big corporation.

There are no quick solutions for talent retention

The second point (get explicit about career paths) provides a better answer to my initial thought on why there might not be a junior to replace my role at my current newsroom.

The most simple explanation is that none of the juniors know what exactly is the role, how to grow into it and what are the next logical carrier paths from there.

Again, food for thought for newsroom leaders to make sure all roles are understood within the company, without that there is hardly going to be replacement within the organisation.

I started this column with the idea that longterm thinking will give any newsroom fewer headaches along the way, especially when it comes to something as crucial as talent.

In news media, we like to talk a lot about digital transformation, digital subscriptions, doing great journalism (no matter the platform).

Recent years and especially the pandemic has shown that culture, diversity and the evolution of the workplace practices within newsrooms should be equally addressed by newsrooms of all kind of sizes and their leaders. As always, if you are stuck looking for solutions within the industry, look at the others.

David Tvrdon

This piece was originally published in The Fix and is re-published with permission.