On the balcony: Leadership lessons with Fernando Soto

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 Pasa La Vox Co-Owner Fernando Soto, a cohort four graduate, 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? How has it fueled personal and professional growth?

Fernando Soto: I was still a fairly young solopreneur, and I was setting out to take on this adventure of informing my community and trying to make it sustainable as a business.

I was just a one-person startup, and Table Stakes really helped me personally develop skills that I didn’t have.

I was doing journalism and also having to sustain it and think about growth, and what does that look like? What does that growth look like in terms of audience? What does it look like in terms of revenue? Table Stakes really helped me figure out some of those challenges that I had at first that I really maybe hadn’t even thought about.

But more importantly, it helped me figure out (my desired) processes through tools that helped me overcome those challenges, set out goals, flesh them out and think a little bit more clearly about some of the crazy things that were going on in my brain.

I attribute a lot of my growth to Table Stakes because now that I have grown over the last several years, I’ve been able to implement design-do loops, which has helped tremendously, even as I work with other people.

CISLM: Which tool, framework, or concepts from the program have you used the most as a leader? And then if you could talk about a time that you’ve used it.

FS: So those are two of my favorite ones, the Design-Do loops and then the Ease-Impact Matrix. Ease-Impact Matrix is something that we use almost every day as we set out to cover stories. Also, trying to figure out when we take on a new project or a new product that we might be thinking about, being able to map that out and seeing, does this make sense?

Does this make sense for us right now? For example, right now with Pasa La Voz, we are developing a couple of products and services, so (that question is) really important because we are still a small team to figure out what makes the most sense. The Ease-Impact Matrix really helps put that into perspective.

I think from there, we’re able to take those Design-Do loops and hone in on what is working, what needs to be tweaked to repeat the process.

CISLM: What are the outcomes and the impact you want to see as a leader in your community and your newsroom? How are you working to make that impact?

FS: Yeah, that’s a giant question for me because I have this big giant goal which would be that Latinos and Spanish speakers have access to information the same way that (white, English-speaking audiences) have access to information. That we have access to news, that we have access to resources. In an idealistic way, that would kind of be the moment where I feel like, OK, the work here is done. We have multiple ways in the community — not just owned or run by me, but in total in the community — that can inform the public about what is happening in our local communities.

I don’t know if we’ll ever get there, but we are doing our best to move the needle forward a little bit and be that connector, that bridge in the community so that people don’t feel so left out.

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

FS: I would say be incredibly open to being coachable. I think that is the biggest and most important lesson because there are so many incredible folks that I have found through the years through Table Stakes and then outside the Table Stakes. And then, it’s getting that network going, (in which) someone introduces you to someone, and then you start applying and becoming part of other programs.

But I think one of the most important things to being a leader is to be coachable, to be able to listen and to acknowledge that I don’t have all the right answers all the time. And that there are people that I need to surround myself with who are experts in a specific area that are gonna help me learn, and I can be, more knowledgeable and be able to implement those with my team.

But I think someone who thinks they might know everything or, it’s my way or no way, will have a very hard time executing the bigger picture and growth.

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

FS: I would want them to know that for me, for our current team, it’s more than just a job because we are so passionate about our immigrant community. It’s not something that we just unplug from. It’s a little bit of a lived experience and a little bit of passion that goes into it.

I think I would love for people to know that for us, it’s kind of become a lifestyle. I understand that there are folks that are like, well, you need to have a work-life balance, right? And that’s important. And it’s not to say that we don’t have one.

I think in comparison, I’ll put it into perspective in comparison to when I worked in English-language news where I clocked in, and I clocked out, and at the end of the day I was like, I’m headed home doing my own little thing. And that was it.

Now I am more conscientious about the things that I’m doing, even in my own personal life, and how that might relate to the work that we’re doing or my community. It also has helped me be more plugged into things that are happening in our immigrant community; people reach out and invite us to things. I’ve befriended more folks.

It’s really helped me be more centered around our culture rather than just thinking of it as a 40-hour workweek job that I have to do and accomplish these tasks and then call it a day. While it can be a daunting task, it’s still very exciting and very rewarding.