newsroom

The news business is the only where the CEO isn’t meant to control controversy

This summer, I was really proud to receive a leadership award from Temple University’s Fox School of Business. The next day the local tech news site I cofounded, Technical.ly, ran a highly critical analysis of that school’s signature business plan competition and widely panned it as having lacked any real successes in 15 years.

Awkward.

A year ago, we replaced me as Editor in Chief and I have been transitioning to more of a publisher (connecting and overseeing business and editorial). The experience brings up an interesting reminder of my role in a news organization I helped found but no longer have complete control over.

For anyone familiar with a newsroom, this situation wouldn’t seem all that surprising, that a publisher wouldn’t know the publication would be running something high-profile and critical, provided that it is thoughtful, accurate and lacked legal concerns (which is exactly what this piece was. And for what it’s worth, if I was still editing our product, I would have published the story).

But for anyone outside of the journalism community, this is understandably confusing. For any other industry, if a CEO was unaware that her organization would endorse a controversial act like publicly criticizing another organization, it would be a sign of extreme dysfunction.

In the case of Technical.ly, it was a sign that the model is working.

I’m feeling out this role of being somewhat arms-length from the editorial team (there have been times when I think I should have intervened but didn’t). I do want to maintain a relationship with our editors so that they feel comfortable asking to advice when they are working on something particularly controversial. In those circumstances, I can be in the know to help navigate our overall operations. But some distance is an advantage. As a publisher, I think I’m meant to be involved in a day-to-day editorial decision for three reasons:

  1. Perspective — There are some areas where I have real expertise and can be a resource for a stronger product. That means I can give a read through a story, not as a final edit, which remains in the hands of our EIC, but to offer feedback and perspective.
  2. Mission — I can be a check for whether a piece of reporting fits into our mission of connecting, convening and challenging our community. We must be accurate, relevant and productive, and I should be an outside sounding board for our maintenance of that.
  3. Legality — I am actively involved when there are particularly sensitive decisions that can involve legal ramifications. That’s when I can talk through issues with our editorial team and outline risks.

There are real concerns when a publisher or media company management generally involves itself in newsroom activity. This spring in Philadelphia, there was an insider fight over rumors that the city’s biggest daily newspaper editorial board had its opinion flipped because of management intervention. That’s an enormous breach of tradition.

I have little patience for old standards that don’t offer value today, but there is strength in this divide. We at Technical.ly simply need to find the right mix.

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