On the balcony: Leadership lessons with Sarah Nagem

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 Sarah Nagem, 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?

Sarah Nagem: Table Stake fueled so much (growth for) the Border Belt Independent. It really helped us narrow down our focus. Not in terms of coverage so much, but more in terms of what metrics we wanna focus on. How do we measure success? And, you know, I came from corporate journalism.

I had been with McClatchy for several years. So going from that to a startup nonprofit news organization, I knew that was gonna be one of my biggest challenges, right? How do I measure success? You know, some of my reporters would get 50,000 pageviews from a story at McClatchy, whereas that wasn’t gonna happen at Border Belt, (which was) just getting started. We had a great coach — Alesha (Williams Boyd) was just fantastic, and really helped us focus on growth (and engagement) instead of sort of the raw numbers of it.

And, for me personally, I think I had that challenge of, oh my gosh, I have no idea how to measure even personal success, right? When I write a story, when I edit a story. But I think it, it really allowed me to step back and, and say, OK, you know, even 10,000 people probably aren’t gonna read this story, but will it make an impact in somebody’s life?

Is this a story that really needs to be told, and will it make a difference? And it really helped me step back and focus on those questions.

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.

SN: Goal setting, for sure, is one of the tools that resonated most with me. I make to-do lists and scratch things off. I set goals — that’s how I get through the day. It’s how I function. And again, it’s often how I measure success, whether it’s a grocery list or growth for the Border Belt Independent.

So that really resonated with me and it’s something we still do. We continue to set quarterly goals and focus, again, not so much on page views and things like that. But mostly about growth, which has been really great for us.

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?

SN: We cover four very rural, socioeconomically disadvantaged counties in southeastern North Carolina. There are lots of issues, right? Lots of challenges in those communities.

We know they exist. Access to healthcare. Access to mental healthcare in particular. Schools that perform lower than statewide rates. Crime. There are real meaty issues affecting people’s everyday lives in the community. And we want to tell stories that not only highlight those problems — we all know those problems exist, right? If you live there, you know those problems exist — but we also want to present some potential solutions to those problems and really talk to people who are helping to solve those problems. Instead of just focusing on the bad, which we all know exists, let’s focus on change and how that change can ultimately come about.

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

SN: Well, I’m still learning every day. Honestly, maybe that is the best advice that I can give. Surround yourself with really smart, curious people who, hopefully, will think of things that you won’t. If we’re all sitting in a room together and we all came from the same place in the same backgrounds and had the same life experiences, you’re probably not gonna get much diversity and thought.

I think surround yourself with great people who have lots of different ideas from you, and that’s how good journalism happens.

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?

SN: There’s a lot of mistrust of the media in the counties we cover. I would want my readers to know we don’t have an agenda. We’re not trying to get folks to think a certain way or to vote a certain way. We are really just presenting information and, again, hopefully, some potential solutions — Hopefully giving people the tools to make well-informed decisions for themselves.