Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Columbia focuses on coaching journalism execs

Doug Smith
Executive Director
Punch Sulzberger Program
Sixth in a series on entrepreneurial journalism programs at universities and media organizations. 

Columbia Journalism School's Punch Sulzberger Program differs from other programs in this series in several ways. 

Like them, it is entrepreneurial in focusing on innovation and transforming of a media enterprise. But the biggest difference is that it focuses on changing the enterprise rather than on mainly developing skills of an individual.

The participant is supposed to recruit people within and outside the media enterprise (for-profit, non-profit, public) to drive measurable change. The success of any individual participant in the program is based on metrics of the enterprise. 

Doug Smith, executive director of the program since its inception in 2007, says each applicant to the program has to propose taking on a "challenge" that their enterprise faces. That challenge has to have the potential to build the enterprise's capacity, be measurable in performance results, be timely, be achievable in 10 to 20 months, and result in major change to the enterprise, among other criteria. Unlike several of the other university programs, the Sulzberger program does not focus on helping individuals launch their own media products, although such entrepreneurs have been in the program and are welcome.

Just-in-time curriculum

The teaching dynamic is also different from the other university-based programs. The 20-25 participants come to New York four times during the year-long program for a week each time. Regular phone calls  with an adviser keep the participant on track. The program gives participants a certificate but not a degree. Cost is $25,000, plus cost of travel and housing in New York.

Although other programs profiled in this series, such as CUNY and American University, share many of the elements of the Sulzberger program -- a project focus, individualized coaching, measuring key results -- Smith makes a case that each participant at Sulzberger gets a more-customized program. Testimonials by participants seem to bear him out.

There are set topics around which participants build out their challenges, such as strategy, how to measure business results, managing work flows, and innovation, among others. But the professors and individual advisers tailor the course materials to the participant's challenge and needs -- what do they need to know now to advance their project, a kind of just-in-time learning.

Much of the program training focuses on giving the participants the tools they need and the theoretical foundation at the moment they can put it to use.  "That is when they're more likely to remember it," Smith says. He is one of several faculty members and lecturers. There are also three advisers who coach participants.

How to measure success

Big media enterprises that operated for years in a monopoly or oligopoly environment failed to develop general managers with fully developed business skills, Smith says. This left media enterprises ill equipped to transform themselves into digital media and deal with technological change driven by the Internet. 

Smith believes the success of the program should be judged on whether these transformed media enterprises have built capacity to continue changing and, more importantly, are contributing to shape the future of the media landscape. He believes they are, in 80 to 90 percent of the cases, based on the metrics.

He described one print media organization that decided it needed to develop a video component. At the end of the one-year program, they had decided to develop an entire new business around video. That provides a model that other media organizations can attempt to emulate, Smith says -- shaping the future of media. That future focus is part of the mission of the Journalism School.

Las Vegas rules

Participants have included major media organizations such as the Associated Press, the New York Times, Time Inc., and BBC World. But among participants have been non-profit journalism organizations that are also focused on finding ways to pay for high-quality journalism.

Participants are asked to abide by rules of confidentiality. What is said in the sessions is not to be repeated outside. It has not been a problem, Smith says. Sometimes competitors will avoid each other's work groups. Sometimes they end up helping each other with their challenges.

Among the testimonials on the program is that of John Yemma, executive editor of the Christian Science Monitor. His challenge was shepherding the publication through a transition from a daily print edition to all-digital with a weekly magazine. He wrote:

The coaching of my advisor, Steve Dichter, was invaluable. It was a remarkable thing to have that kind of backfield. I've worked with him on everything from personnel issues to revenue potential and cost structure. Every week or so I talked to Steve and then the following year our publisher, Jonathan Wells, took the program and Steve continued to coach our organization through Jonathan's participation. Now our managing editor and director of marketing are enrolled in the program. We share a common language and a common coach. Steve pushes us to be specific, to keep our thinking focused. He makes sure we always confront the hard issues.

 To Smith, a measure of success is the number of participant companies like the Monitor that send a second or third person. "Even some really small enterprises are sending another person," he says. "They see the value."  

Family project

The program was endowed in 2006 with a $4 million gift from the sisters of A.O. "Punch" Sulzberger, who wanted to honor their brother, former publisher of the New York Times and board chairman of the parent company. 

Sulzberger was known for defying the Nixon Administration in 1971 and publishing the Pentagon Papers, which revealed government mistakes and deceit in its conduct of the Vietnam War. He was also known for taking big risks that strengthened the financial position of the Times nationally and internationally. 

His sisters wanted to honor his belief that news executives needed to develop in two important areas at the same time: build highly profitable organizations and use that strength to maintain independent, high-quality journalism. His sisters believe the program is a way to do that.


Columbia University School of Journalism, Punch Sulzberger Program
Duration: One-year certificate program, no academic credit
Schedule: Four one-week training sessions in New York City, weekly coaching sessions by telephone
Participants: News media executives

Cost: $25,000 plus travel and lodging in New York


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