A difficult journey through the world of media ‒ with its ups and downs ‒ led Zuza Ziomecka to discover mindfulness, a technique she argues the media world really needs to improve its ability to adapt, manage stress and navigate its current crises of trust.
Ziomecka has been the editor-in-chief of such publications as Gaga, Przekrój and the digital edition of Wysokie Obcasy. She was also the founding editor of NewsMavens, a Google Digital News Initiative supported project that aimed to show the news through the eyes of Europe’s leading female journalists.
But the journey has not been easy, with closures, shifts in strategy and a lot of stress ‒ leading Ziomecka to embrace mindfulness as a way of coping. Since the close of NewsMavens, she has focused on supporting others. She carries out trainings for open groups and organizations, as well as coordinating development programs for WellCome Institute, and The Center for Leadership.
“I demonstrate how life and work can both improve with mindfulness practice,” she notes.
The Fix sat with Ziomecka to discuss her unusual career path, what she learned about the challenges of the media world along the way, and how the practice she advocates for is, as she says, not a marketing gimmick, but a real way to make media better.
This interview has been edited and condensed
Alicja Peszkowska: You’ve worn many hats. Who do you identify as now, professionally speaking?
Zuzanna Ziomecka: I have always been a medium. When I am engaged, energised, and present ‒ that’s when I discover things that can be useful or interesting to others. Then I take those things and pass them on in the form of an article, a workshop, a speech or an interview. Working in the media was no coincidence in my case. The same is true now of trainings.
Discovering and sharing value is the common denominator in everything I have done, especially in journalism which is all about taking facts and ideas and making them accessible and available to others. This way of making new ideas and concepts sticky has always been a passion of mine.
AP: You also worked as a community organiser.
ZZ: It’s true. Before becoming a journalist I was a cultural director on the Warsaw clubbing scene. Back then Polish urban culture was just beginning to blossom after decades of communist rule.
In August 2002, a year after I came back from the US, many clubs were opening music scenes, off theatre productions were taking off. I had the opportunity to enter this space to find artists and connect them to audiences. We even made a little newspaper to let guests know about upcoming events. There was some literary foreshadowing in that…
AP: Then you went back to the editorial room. But it seems to me like building communities around issues and ideas has stayed with you.
ZZ: My career in journalism started in niche publications. One of my discoveries from that period was that when you create a media platform around an idea that is genuine and deep enough, a community of readers grows around it. And if it’s a really good fit, the core editorial team becomes part of that community, not just its information feed.
A milestone from that period was Gaga, a magazine I created for modern parents who wanted to give their kids beautiful childhoods. That was a great project because the people we wrote for would bring us content and ideas. The magazine helped define a community of like minded people across the country. We became a hub, a family of people who were passionate about the same thing. Unfortunately this model was not transferable to a national scale.
AP: That’s when you transitioned to the mainstream.
ZZ: After over a decade in niche lifestyle publishing, I was given the opportunity to be Editor in Chief of one of Poland’s most beloved press brands, a weekly magazine called Przekrój ‒ “a window into the world”.
It was a dream come true for me as a woman because, in Poland, we are rarely given leadership roles, especially in national media. I jumped at this opportunity so eagerly, that I didn’t read the fine print…
AP: It is hard to know what to expect and prepare for the first time you do something.
ZZ: Once at its helm, I discovered the title was in extremely poor condition financially, that readership was in a nose dive and that the publishing house wanted it to be turned around on a shoestring budget.
I had always worked with small budgets and with small teams but I didn’t realise how hard it would be to scale such small resources into a quality weekly. That was the most difficult year and a half of my life.
AP: What happened?
ZZ: Due to political circumstances the publisher ‒ the man who supported me, got me to join ‒ was fired two months after I started. After him I had several bosses, all of whom had different visions for the title: a magazine for young people struggling to find jobs, a magazine about technology, a magazine about culture and society….
Every few months I was asked to pivot which made readers both angry and confused. Additionally, every change in management brought greater constraints and expectations. The dream job literally turned into a nightmare.
AP: Sounds like mission impossible.
ZZ: It was very, very difficult. Soon the tension and the stress started taking their toll. The first thing I lost were words.
I always prided myself on my vocabulary ‒ I am a writer, a reader, words have always been my friends and allies. And suddenly, when I needed them most, they stopped coming. I couldn’t communicate my thoughts. Then, my memory started to go… I couldn’t remember when an article was due, who was supposed to do an interview, which actor won the Oscar or where my notebook was.
Being an editor in chief who couldn’t articulate or remember things made me feel deep shame. I didn’t know what was happening. I was so worried I couldn’t sleep and started to gain weight. Everything was wrong. My mind and my body really failed me.
The story doesn’t end well, because the publisher ended up closing the magazine on my watch. A legendary Polish brand that shut down on my watch.
AP: Is this when mindfulness found its way into your life?
ZZ: Just before we closed, our science editor submitted a story on mental exercises that Silicon Valley big-wigs do to help them deal with pressure. The article looked at how mental exercises could rearrange the brain to better deal with stress.
It was called mindfulness. I don’t remember everything from that period, but I remember that story. Coincidentally, just when the magazine closed, the first mindfulness courses began to be offered in Poland. I signed up immediately.
AP: …and it changed your life?
ZZ: Gradually. At the beginning of that course I helped find a new owner for a magazine that shut on my watch. An acquaintance of mine bought it and invited me to become the first editor of the new Przekrój. I thought: this is wonderful!
At the same time I dove deep into mindfulness ‒ I sat right next to the teacher, did all the meditations, read all the readings. I was systematic and disciplined from the first day.
This mindfulness-based stress-reduction course took eight weeks. During week seven, my acquaintance, who had bought the magazine, decided to let me go and take on the role of editor-in-chief himself. The next day my grandmother died.
AP: When it rains, it pours…
ZZ: I am the main breadwinner in my family. I married a musician so money has always been my responsibility. That means that when I lose a job, it affects four people not one. And when I also lost my beloved grandma, I was doubly weakened.
But after seven weeks of meditating every day I went through this double stress whammy without losing my memory or my ability to articulate. I slept, my body did not shut down or gain weight. I went through profound mourning but without losing connection to the people around me. I was concerned about work, but my mind was sharp and did not lose its ability to problem solve. A few weeks later I was hired as editor-in-chief of the digital edition of Wysokie Obcasy at Gazeta Wyborcza, where I was happy and had many successes over the ensuing five years.
AP: A classic heroine tale about overcoming obstacles…
ZZ: Classic tales have a way of mirroring reality, don’t they? After this experience I realised that I had discovered a new way to help myself face problems – a game changer. Instead of losing them, mindfulness helped me hold onto my talents, my sense of purpose, my knowledge and abilities when faced with trouble.
That’s when I decided I would never stop meditating. Moreover, I couldn’t think of a single person who couldn’t benefit from what mindfulness does, so I became certified and continued my media career alongside teaching mindfulness for the next five years.
AP: What was happening on your journalism path at the time?
ZZ: Until last June I managed a big project with Gazeta Wyborcza called NewsMavens. Essentially, it was based on collaboration between professional women journalists in Europe. Together we created a daily news roundup about the most important news in Europe from a woman’s perspective.
AP: How did it start?
ZZ: When I came to the news industry I realised there are a lot of women at the top of lifestyle media but not so much in news, and that this was consistent across Europe. I found statistics to back that up and was surprised that somehow news was considered a man’s game. I started asking myself what the consequences were.
AP: What were the consequences of this gender imbalance?
ZZ: That the story of modern times is being filtered through a male perspective. When I looked closer, I also saw the outdated power structure that most news organisations are built around, which maintain this unbalanced status quo.
Around that time I went through a leadership fellowship program at the Center for Leadership, which flies staff from the Harvard Kennedy School to Poland to conduct deep development work. They taught a fascinating model called Adaptive Leadership that defines leadership as an activity, something you do, rather than a position of power. It requires being able to notice a problem and willing to try to make changes from wherever you are in an organisation or community.
Fueled by this concept, I began poking around and looking for possibilities to intervene into the gender imbalance of the news industry. I kept thinking that in the tech world, the finance world and, hell, even in pharmaceuticals or FMCG, organisations are shifting to modern leadership structures with good results. Why is the media stuck in this really old, top down, male dominated model?
AP: Your project was funded with the help of the Google Digital Initiative.
ZZ: At the time Google Digital News Initiative was actively trying to to help the news industry innovate. The shift of advertisers to social media and search has caused an unstoppable fall in ad revenues leaving most publishers with no money for research and development.
Google DNI reacted by offering European news publishers grants to explore bold ideas and new technology. They awarded me a sizable sum to set up a project that would publicly explore the question of what would happen if only women decided what to put on the front page of a newspaper.
Because Google funded it, because it was in English, and because everyone was kind of curious about the answer, this project allowed me to visit conferences and speak to industry decision makers and influencers which in turn helped put the question of gender on the table in a very consistent way.
AP: What did you find out during the process?
ZZ: The project involved 30 women from newsrooms from all over Europe recommending stories that ‒ if they were in charge ‒ they would put on front pages. These stories were overwhelmingly about women, other minorities and regular people.
Conversely, we found that male editors have a greater tendency to focus on authority figures, decision makers, people with the political or economic power to impact the world. This is an important perspective. But what they are less interested in is how decisions or actions by people on top impact people on the bottom. This is what women on the NewsMavens team were consistently surfacing.
Our conclusion was that neither perspective should be excluded from the way the news narrates modern history. We need both the cause and effect, and therefore strongly recommend pulling women up into news leadership so that readers understand both what has happened and why, as well as the impact of these events on our everyday lives.
AP: There is currently a global discussion about stress, discrimination and bullying in newsrooms. Can mindfulness be the answer to dysfunctional work environments?
ZZ: Mindfulness allows us to look at reality from a kind of a balcony, where you can see the full picture, including your own contributions. This perspective allows for a fundamental shift in leadership approach because it allows you to see and realise how you impact the system and to spot patterns and sudden changes early on, before they become permanent or damaging.
On an individual level, mindfulness also helps people better cope with stress, so that they don’t lose their memory, ability to articulate, problem solve, analyse and learn. Stress has a way of streamlining attention into a narrow tunnel of possibilities that is not conducive to creativity, innovation, or curious exploration. If we don’t actively work to ensure that journalists retain access to these core competencies, we run the risk of lowering quality and causing an epidemic of burn out across the field.
I say this in such alarmist tones because high stress has become the standard in the european newsrooms. As a result of political and economic pressures, there is more content, more channels, more competition and less money. Consequently, newsrooms have become high risk environments.
Over the last two years, the Reuter’s Institute for the Study of Journalism has been reporting a growing concern with burnout in the industry ‒ a condition that is very difficult to come back from. Neurologically you can begin to function fully after 4 weeks of rest, but psychologically it’s not that simple. To come back to work, you need to make such significant changes in how you function there that many top talents who end up leaving the news forever.
Mindfulness has a massive contribution to make in this area. Just to be clear – the work to be done is on the management/editor’s level, not with the journalists themselves. As surprising as that may be, preventing burn out is about good management much more than it is about a journalist’s resilience.
AP: What about bias?
ZZ: Bias comes from the mind’s tendency to use shortcuts, to jump to conclusions. It is characteristic of the mind but not of your intellectual capacity. What that means is that no matter how well educated you are, no matter how liberal your values or noble intentions may be, your mind is designed to be biased.
Mindfulness helps by strengthening your ability to notice, discover and counterbalance fast, biased thinking with more intentional, slow thinking. This is what you call a “second thought”, it’s what happens when you think things through, step back, sleep on it, or consider for a moment as opposed to going with your knee jerk reaction.
AP: Could mindfulness be a tool of systemic change?
ZZ: It could be…as long as you don’t build this belief on misconceptions. Mindfulness is not a health spa for your emotions. It doesn’t make you happy and content with a bad situation.
Instead, it makes you keenly aware of everything present here and now, even if it is difficult, ugly and painful. In a crisis or when difficult emotions are present, mindfulness puts these experiences front and center and keeps you from turning away. On days like this, mindfulness is far from pleasant.
If you are working at a company where the environment is difficult and toxic and you get mindfulness training, what that training will do is show you just how hard things are and how deeply they are impacting you. However, mindfulness does not control what you do with that information. It is like a mirror that helps you to see and face reality, even when it’s not what you want it to be. What decisions and actions you make based on this clarity is up to you.
In this way mindfulness can be key to system change. How can you change something you cannot clearly see or understand? In this age of complexity, a practice that helps you focus near and far to keep abreast of where you are and what is happening is essential to making decisions about where and when to turn the ship.
AP: What would you say to mindfulness sceptics? Especially those in the media?
ZZ: As a journalist your profession requires you to be sceptical. A good journalist will ask difficult questions and will not take you at your word. A good journalist will check your sources and challenge your conclusions. This scepticism is something the profession should never lose.
However, it is also the reason that journalism’s rendezvous with mindfulness has been so cautious so far. When mindfulness went mainstream it underwent a commercialisation that warped the practice with exaggerated promises and absorbed it into a very lucrative wellness industry. Finding its real value requires digging through layers of instagram gurus, screens full of apps, shelves full of mindful-everything books.
Luckily, below this shiney layer of packaging, there are over 6,000 scientific studies and papers written about the positive effects of real, robust mindfulness meditation on emotional intelligence and emotional regulation, stress reduction and resilience, as well as on the alleviation of depressive episodes and promotion of health. The trick now is to separate the just-add-water mindfulness based hype, from the scientifically grounded practices that bring real value and lasting change.
I see the current crisis in the news is an opportunity to rebuild the culture and organisations in a way that helps people do their jobs well without harming themselves and others in the process. Mindfulness can play a meaningful role in this.
Alicja Peszkowska is a Copenhagen-based consultant, researcher, and a participation strategist focused on technology, digital culture, and social change. Her track record includes working with IOVIA, Outriders, Facebook Journalism Project, Google News Initiative, TechSoup Europe, and Creative Commons.