On the balcony: Leadership lessons with Bill Horner III

Leadership matters. In times of disruption, whether staff are exhausted or energized by change usually depends on the tools, the vision and communication from an organization’s leaders.

Since 2018, UNC-Knight Table Stakes have been training news leaders across the Southeast in more than just best practices for audience and revenue in a time of extreme disruption – they’ve been coached in how change works in organizations and teams.

Read the entire “On the Balcony” series.

 As we near the end of our sixth Table Stakes cohort, we’re looking back at six years in local news transformation, asking leaders from all cohorts what they took away from those leadership lessons.

CISLM intern Honor Knapp spoke to Bill Horner III, the former publisher of The Chatham News + Record of cohort four and current news editor of cohort six participant CityView Media, via Zoom. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media: Table Stakes was designed to help newsrooms navigate change, but how has it fueled your personal and professional growth?

Bill Horner III: I just learned a lot. Being in a cohort with other publishers at different types of news organizations and the discussions that took place over that year of the Table Stakes program – you can’t put a value on that. It just enriched me personally and professionally in lots of different ways. Mostly, finding out what other folks had done that had worked and not worked. And also being able to bounce ideas off other publishers and develop friendships.

I had a lot of relationships that got deeper and richer through Table Stakes, and I made a lot of great friends as well. There’s no way to put a measure on that because it was so valuable.

CISLM: Which tool, framework or concepts from the program have you used the most as a leader? Tell us about a time you used it.

BH: I think, SMART goals. Having very specific measurable goals and (setting) a time limit on those goals.

The weekly huddles and then the sprint work, doing sprints on different ideas. I think in our industry — I mean, I’ve been around for a lot of change in the newspaper industry, and so, of course, one of the things that happens is you hear about a lot of ideas and, over time some of those ideas are like the next big thing. They turn out not to work, and then some of the ideas seem to be too big or too cumbersome to try. And so a lot of what we learned through Table Stakes was to break things down into pieces and to focus.

You don’t have to be ready before you launch something. Just go ahead and do something. I think the accountability of working inside your own group huddle, being accountable for making presentations to your fellow newspaper or news organizations in cohorts and talking about what worked and what didn’t work, and working with a coach. I mean, all that was so valuable.

CISLM: What is one piece of advice you would give to someone who wants to grow as a leader in journalism?

BH: Finding a mentor. Developing the ability to really listen and really thinking about being able to be flexible. A lot of what we, those of us who’ve been around the industry for a long time, it’s easy to get jaded on things. It’s easy to say, well, that’s not going to work, or this is the way we’ve always done it.

In my lifetime, I’ve seen it — the ecosystem of the newspaper organization (is) such that we were the ones who determined what people talked about. And we were the ones who set the table and kind of established what talking points were for the conversation because we were the only game in town when it came to producing local news.

And it’s just not true anymore, especially with social media. You’ve got to develop the capacity to learn and to grow and to try things that are outside your comfort zone and to really humble yourself to listen to audiences and learn from other people and in the industry who are doing good things.

You know, back when I first started… there were so many people doing so many good things. And now there are not enough people doing really good things just because of the changes in the industry.

So I think it is important to find folks like me, and then other people I met through Table Stakes — to find people who were doing really, really good things and be willing to learn from them.

CISLM: As a local news leader, what would you want people outside of the day-to-day to know about your job and what you’re trying to accomplish?

BH: Well, it’s hard to say one thing, but if there was just one thing that I can, you know, wave a magic wand and say this is gonna happen, it would be for them to understand how seriously we take our role and how hard we work at, at producing relevant, timely, compelling, unbiased news and information for our readers.

We work incredibly hard to produce a news product that’s trustworthy. A lot of our audience now, a lot of our potential audiences didn’t grow up with newspapers. The loudest critics are people who don’t even read the story. And that’s unfortunate. And so if there’s one thing that I would like to see happen, it would be for people to understand how seriously we take the role that we have.

In the news business and how hard we work to produce real, genuine news, compelling news for the local community, that would be it.