Notes from the Chair: Preoccupations for 2012

It has certainly been a very intense year in media: sometimes I wonder if it is the nature of the topics, our times or that there is so much more coverage and awareness. At present I think it is all of these.

As you read this post, massive, visible struggles continue all over the world, most recently this past weekend in Russia, where voters disenchanted with their leadership adopted the slogan: “We Exist.” And since January, countries in the Middle East and Northern Africa have just as fervently been demanding freedom. This Arab Spring movement has some success stories to report, but how these developments will take shape is still unclear. Americans, Canadians and other nations joined the “Occupy” movement to protest economic inequality, some literally occupying the streets and public spaces of their cities, starting their own libraries and newspapers, perhaps feeling that the only way they could achieve change was to establish these societal pillars anew and sit with others under rain-spattered tarps, as many more of their fellow citizens shrugged or sympathized.

Some say the news depresses them. Though this has been a very challenging year in many ways, I am still very hopeful. And as far as all of this outward discontent: it’s hard to imagine people would be so angry, if they didn’t feel hopeful too.

“Person of the Year: The Protester,” TIME magazine cover, announced December 14, 2011

As we wrap up the year, and my term as News Division Chair, I have very much appreciated these tests and lessons learned. I took on this position as it is a good leadership opportunity, and in the process was shown its challenges. Some of the most provocative moments came from hearing directly from members seeking suggestions on, among other issues: advice on keeping a team motivated and guidance on careers. Speaking of teams, we’re fortunate to have one of the finest I’ve worked with in our board and volunteers who have in turn been working for you — in addition to all of us observing and experiencing firsthand the changes in the information ecology and media business.

As I mentioned in this column back in June, it is almost pointless to try and predict the future. So here are three important lessons for any news librarian. These are largely common sense, but I’ve tried to live by these lessons this year and carry them forward into the next, and I thought they would be good for the information / knowledge professional — or anyone.

1. Get on the team(s).

Leadership is about building and continuing relationships, as well as constructing and working in teams. The innovative, successful company is flexible, always learning and doing work within these teams. This should include media entities and their information professionals. If these last two are absent, then I would be very worried. As a potential team member, it’s important to be visible and demonstrate your abilities and knowledge base. We have all heard about developing that “Elevator Speech.” It turns out you need several of these to call up, depending on what needs to be done. But overall, being part of any team will give you good experience in project management – and leadership.

2. Be part of the “pipeline.”

Our managing editor coached me that the library should be as “close to the pipeline as possible.” We worked very hard on that. Clearly for an editor that means: writing and creating content for posting and publication. That’s something we’re doing much more of.

Certainly the development of new ways of thinking and opportunities for archival content as to additional editorial use, context and revenue sources is essential. News librarians should be involved in this process. (I have to give Lany McDonald credit for encouraging me in this area; she’s a terrific leader, team builder and news professional who received the News Division’s highest honor.)

“Engagement” with citizens means listening, employing their ideas, following up on their suggestions and direct conversation and contributions. This has emerged over the past year as a top priority in media. News organizations need help with this. How are you fitting into this (two-way) pipeline?

A company getting some buzz as being an evolving news entity is the Journal Register Company. This past month one of their properties, the New Haven Register, announced a reorganization around investigative and local journalism, as well as an emphasis on engagement. Angel Diggs, the news librarian, was cited as being part of the Engagement Team. I called Angel to ask her about this new direction. This had just been announced, and it isn’t clear how this will work yet, but she said that there’s plans for a physical move, as well as direct engagement — face to face — with citizens in person, quite possibly in conjunction with the public library.

This is a continuation of a digital first, “open newsroom” strategy, within this chain that launched at the Torrington, (CT) Citizen. This paper, that welcomes the public into the building, utilizes open news meetings, crowdsourcing of factchecking and other forms of transparency and inclusion.

3. Own the idea. And do it.

If you attended the SLA Conference in Philadelphia this past year, or followed along online, you may have heard about Tom Friedman‘s keynote address. It is always great to have a journalist headlining this forum, and he spoke engagingly about the many changes in society — including media — and offered some strong and thought-provoking recommendations. He said: anything that can be done, will be done. If you don’t do it, someone else will. The question is: will it be done by you, or to you?

I watched this commencement speech given by inventor Dean Kamen a few years ago. In it he emphasized how everyone is looking for new, applicable ideas and energy. While there’s more receptivity after what hasn’t worked — to the point where companies and industries in business for over a century suddenly no longer exist — there’s also been a corresponding pragmatism and reliance on analytics to aid in decision making. Bottom line: keep the ideas flowing, but be prepared to say “I would support this,” test it, and provide results. If it doesn’t seem worth it, move on. But be sure to follow up, and steward it.

It has been a great privilege to lead our group of dedicated, versatile professionals perservering in a very challenging environment. Thanks to everyone for your friendship, hard work — often for years at a time — by our fantastic board and volunteers, and ALL of those ideas. I look forward to continuing our conversation together in the new year.

I hope your holidays are merry and bright, and all best wishes for a fulfilling 2012.

–Leigh Montgomery
2011 Chair, SLA News Division

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