The newly appointed Head of Leadership Development at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, Federica Cherubini is, in her own words, “a journalist and a geek”.
Cherubini is returning to the Institute having previously worked there as a researcher for the Digital News Project. She then worked as Audience Editor and Head of Knowledge Sharing at Condé Nast International and as Engagement Manager at audience engagement consultancy Hearken.
She was also a coach for the Membership Puzzle Project and is a director at Hacks/Hackers London, which organises monthly events for people at the intersection of technology and journalism.
Cherubini says she had the privilege of crafting an unusually interdisciplinary career path for herself (she wrote a piece about the rise of bridge roles in media for Nieman Lab).
The Fix spoke with Cherubini about the biggest challenges media face, both during the pandemic and otherwise, how to manage these disruptions and design change in a way that can make newsrooms relevant, trusted, and sustainable.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Alicja Peszkowska: You crafted your own career path – how did it happen?
Federica Cherubini: When I was a little girl I would always say I wanted to become a journalist, to tell stories and report the truth.
But when I went to university to attend media studies I realized I didn’t want to be a journalist in the most traditional sense. What fascinated me was the behind the scenes of how journalism happens. I want to be a part of keeping media relevant and driving positive change for the industry
That’s what you are doing now: managing a programme that supports newsroom leaders. How does it work?
The Reuters Institute leadership development programme looks at what managers and leaders in the news industry need. That might be skills, support, research, knowledge, or networking opportunities to help them navigate the present and future of journalism. It also means rethinking what leadership in news means and how we can help the industry become more diverse, not simply in terms of gender but also in terms of socio-economic background, ethnicity, professional background.
Newsroom managers often haven’t received any formal management training. The natural progression starts with being a reporter, then being promoted again and again until you join the managing ranks. Being a fantastic reporter doesn’t automatically make you a fantastic manager – these are two different things and two different skill sets.
The world of journalism is changing all the time and so our work with leaders is a bit like discovering what is next, together.
How has the way in which we define leaders changed over the years?
Over the last few years there has been a growing understanding that the traditional, hierarchical view – in which you are a leader only if you manage a team – does not reflect the complexity of modern newsrooms. Just think about product development – it calls for lateral leadership skills.
What would you say are newsroom managers’ biggest challenges at the moment?
Newsroom leaders have had to learn to operate at the intersection of data, technology and product management, alongside editorial. You no longer just have to be a great editor, but also understand what drives business sustainability and things like how data can help you measure success and how to design user-first products.
Aligning editorial and business KPIs and making sure all the organizational units are working towards the same goal is key.
You call yourself a geek. What is your relationship with technology?
I love to understand and play around with tech. I think of it as an enabler and accelerator of progress. But it is important to be aware of the ethical questions it opens up and threats that come from the speed of changes – the spread of misinformation, privacy concerns.
What do you think are the main tech related issues newsrooms are struggling with at the moment?
How newsrooms incorporate AI into their work is now a big question – how will it impact reporting, what does it mean for sustainability, will it take away jobs? There is no simple answer. But if we can employ AI to work for the newsroom we could potentially free up journalists to focus on things machines cannot do.
Understanding how technology impacts your work is a must and we should embrace that. It is all a question of how we do it and what measures we put in place to ensure it is doing more good than harm.
The dot-com boom, web 2.0 showed us that what seems innovative one moment can soon become dated. A profile on Facebook used to be a great way to connect with the public. Now most media prefer to point people to their own apps and platforms to avoid being disrupted by the Facebook algorithm all the time…
One of the biggest challenges for the media industry is being able to adapt. A lot of the problems we face come down to organisational culture and how we decide to implement strategy.
A few years ago we used to think that transformation was a process with a defined end point: you transform from something to end up somewhere else. In reality, there is no end to transformation: it is constant evolution, adaptation and innovation.
One of the most difficult things for the media industry – for its managers and leaders – is to learn to live with constant adaptation.
If creating the right culture can help accommodate change on an organisational level how do you support individual leaders?
Individuals need to find support for continuous learning by having a peer network of smart thinkers and different professionals around you. Of course business is competitive but I don’t think we can survive in a constant state of change on our own. Throughout my career, I experienced first-hand the importance of fostering a culture of knowledge sharing where we learn from one another as much as possible.
Which legacy media and startups would you advise our readers to look up to in terms of adapting to the ever-changing reality?
I think it’s crucial for every publication to understand its own identity and values and stay true to them – getting processes, people, operations, business and editorial working towards the same goal. A legacy publication that is doing this very well is The Financial Times. When it comes to startups I think about organisations that are part of the Membership Puzzle Project: Outriders in Poland [disclaimer: I was their coach], Daily Maverick in South Africa. What makes them interesting to me is their ability to clearly identify and state their values, their editorial angle and voice, and building a system around those things.
We are now in the middle of another great disruption: a global pandemic. What is your take on COVID-19 related coverage? How has this played out?
Apart from being a journalist and a researcher, I am also a reader and consumer of news. Early on I kept signing up for various newsletters covering COVID-19. Then it became overwhelming. It made me reexamine what kind of information, how often, and from which sources I decide to follow.
One issue was just chasing big headlines on some new research or new deaths numbers. Another issue is that some publications don’t understand how to talk about numbers in an engaging way. There are many different aspects to the pandemic and covering them well requires an ability to critically process this information, and then pass it on in an engaging way. Polarisation of readers and issues is something that I try to avoid in these situations.
It highlights how sometimes newsrooms lack specialisation, experts who understand science, medicine, and data. I think The Financial Times tracker, compiled and updated every day by John Burn Murdoch from their data team, is a good example of COVID-19 coverage. We had him as a guest at our last Hacks Hackers event.
AP: At the same time, journalists are also people. They are suffering from this situation as much as their readers.
FCH: Exactly. Many newsrooms’ work has been completely disrupted. It is difficult to suddenly move almost completely to remote work. You need time to adapt in terms of technology, internal communications. You also have people being people – homeschooling their kids and maybe not having the best internet connection at all times. We’re all facing challenging times and doing our best.