On the balcony: Leadership lessons with Hadley Hitson

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 Montgomery Advertiser Reporter Hadley Hitson, a cohort five 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?

Hadley Hitson: I think it’s definitely made any sort of goal seem more attainable because we have gone through this process step-by-step: Trying something, seeing if it works, focusing on one way of recording the growth or the change.

Hitson (in the white) and other cohort five members listen to a presentation, September 2022.

And you can really apply things like that anywhere. So that’s been really helpful. I think it also has kind of spread throughout our newsroom, even people who were not on the Table Stakes team and didn’t come to the meetings because all of us who did are constantly talking about like our bus, for example — who’s on the bus, who’s coming with us to reach these goals that we set.

And it’s, it’s been funny actually how that Table Stakes language has spread a little bit.

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.

HH: I would probably say breaking down why you’re doing something. Like I was saying earlier, being able to track, OK, these are the resource resources I have, this is the impact I want, this is the outcome I want. And being able to look at all of those directly, you can figure out from the front end whether what you’re doing is actually going to lead you to your ultimate goal.

We had heard another Table Stakes newsroom talking about how they were doing a traveling newsroom situation where they would go and be in public and let the community know so they could come, interact with (the news organization), and everything.

This was a few months ago and one of my coworkers was like, well, why don’t we try that? We can do that in Montgomery and send out messages to subscribers — put it in an email, put it on Twitter — that we’re gonna be working at a coffee shop and have people come by and see us. And I was like, yeah, we could do that.

But then we thought about what that would get for us, and it wasn’t a lot. It’s interesting how things like that work differently in different markets because, in Montgomery, we realized when we started looking at the resources we have, the time we would have to spend to be there, and things like that it wouldn’t be valuable enough to us with the outcome we would expect.

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?

HH: I think that there are several different answers, and with the way that we approach Table Stakes by having it not really be a program for the entire newsroom, but more specifically focused on our rural coverage.

I think the outcomes and impact we’re hoping to see with that is that: A, we get to continue that coverage beyond my (Report for America) fellowship that ended last month, which was a big reason why we were able to start (the rural coverage); and B, that we see more communities coming to us with their stories because a lot of the places that we cover in rural Alabama are news deserts, and they don’t necessarily know where to go when something’s happening, and their local leaders aren’t handling it right. And so we’re hoping to be able to amplify their stories across the state.

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

HH: I would say show up to as many places as you can and introduce yourself and get your name out there in the community because you’re not going to be able to be a leader in local journalism if your community doesn’t know you, or the community you’re trying to cover doesn’t know you.

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?

HH: I think I want people to know that the reason why we cover the things we do within the rural south is because we want to help. We want to do good. And sometimes, the way that you do that is by making the problems known.

So sometimes you can look at our rural coverage and see a lot of sad stories about towns where people have died because they’re so isolated and ambulances can’t reach them in time. That isn’t to say that there’s a problem with rural Alabama, but it’s to say that there’s a solution or an easy fix available that we should be focusing on, if that makes sense.