Mizell Stewart | Spring 2014

The following is a transcript of the keynote lecture given by Mizell Stewart III, vice president of content at Scripps Newspapers, at the Cox Poynter Leaders Banquet in 2014.

Now, when people ask me to come and share a few words, I tend not to talk about myself. So we’ll get this out of the way quickly.

My fascination with the news business started even before I started delivering newspapers in elementary school. I was a reporter and a photojournalist in high school. I dabbled professionally in both radio and television and spent many years as a news reporter and editor for newspapers and magazines. And yes, I am a magazine journalism degree holder. And today, even though I don’t cover news, or create content from day to day, I got one of those long job titles, and what some would say is a lot of responsibility.

But let me be clear, I didn’t come here to say as much about myself as I came to talk about you: Those of who have completed the media leadership program and those of you who are playing a significant role in preparing others to lead. And that’s also a word for the parents. Now, one thing I gotta ask from parents is your patience. Because your sons and daughters are now newly minted, educated leaders. And you want to be real careful, because what’ll happen is you’ll have a situation like my wife, where she said, “don’t practice on me, I am not one of your employees. We are not at work.”

So when your son or daughter comes home and says, “You know, Mom, Dad, there’s a different way to motivate me…” be very afraid. But the reality of all of this is that many of you even right now — students, parents, professors and otherwise — are far better equipped than I am to meet the challenges of tomorrow’s news media landscape. The great preparation you’re getting here at Grady is just the start — and let me emphasize, the start — of your leadership journey.

For all of you, student or university professor, parent, current professional or past practitioner, the challenge ahead is less about how the world changes around you — because it will — and more about how you choose to respond when those changes come your way. Making a conscious choice in how you respond to change is what it means to practice leadership.

No matter what level in the organization you happen to occupy, or whatever your personal situation might be, I’ll say it one more time “The essence of leadership is not about being at the front of the room.” It’s about how you choose to respond to the situation at hand, day in and day out. And I am convinced that a proper and positive response to change requires two elements.

The first is humility. The second is courage. Now often we think we have to have a formal title or a set of lofty responsibilities to practice leadership. But that is simply not true. To the students: when I was in your position I had been an editor of the campus newspaper, an operations manager of the campus radio station, occupied a number of different leadership positions on campus, and I was terrified. Because at some point I was going to have to leave campus and be a peon. I mean, I was going to have to leave campus and actually start taking orders from people when I had been the person who was dishin’ it out.

Now, Nick, right? You interned at the Baltimore Sun in sports. Well, one of my college buddies was Ron Fritz , the sports editor of the Baltimore Sun. And Ron and I used to sit back and think about world domination. I mean, we would think about man, how when we got into the real world, how we were gonna take charge. Boy, how wrong we were.

The first part of successful behavior is less about making decisions and more about putting others first. Taking the time to understand your environment, taking the time to understand the people around you, and then figuring out how to respond and meet their needs. Now if you struggle with that in the context of leadership, let me put that in terms every journalist can understand.

Tom Friedman of the New York Times once said that if you really want to get through to people as a journalist, you first have to open their ears. And the best way to open the ears of other people is to first open your own. Show them the respect of listening. Tom said it’s amazing what people will say, and it’s amazing what you might learn.

Now you would think that this behavior comes easily to journalists, as we tend to spend a great deal of time talking with and listening to other people during the reporting process. But that’s not necessarily true. And that’s why one of the first and best responses of a leader is to listen.

Now, you may have heard of Ezra Klein, who launched Wonkblog at the Washington Post and has become a household name in the nation’s capitol. He started at the Post when he was 24 years old. Five years later, he is taking his mini empire to Vox Media, which hopes to build an entirely new kind of news organization around him.

Ezra started blogging in his freshman year of college and built a following through patiently explaining policy, posting detailed transcripts of interviews and filling a void that no one else saw. Now incidentally, Ezra started the blog in college because the folks at the college newspaper rejected him, saying he wasn’t good enough to be around them. Anybody ever had that experience?

Instead of growing bitter, he took another path. Blogging turned out to be a great way to cover policy debates, and he gradually began building a following, moving from his personal blog to the American Prospect and from the American Prospect to the Washington Post.

Now he’s in the vanguard of journalists who are building brands outside of traditional news organizations. Earlier this year, New York Magazine had reported that Klein had received more than 600 resumes from journalists wanting to join him. He’s 29. 600 resumes. Not bad for a guy who started out blogging from his dorm room at UCLA. But he practiced leadership not by being in charge, but by listening and then acting on what he heard.

Now I’ve had the good fortune to work for the EW Scripps Company for nearly seven years. I joined the company in Evansville, In., and moved to our corporate offices in Cincinnati a couple years ago. When we talk about leadership in our newsrooms and throughout our company, we talk about five practices that everyone can master to be effective leaders regardless of one’s title or responsibilities.

These practices come from the book The Leadership Challenge by James Kouzes and Barry Posner and I highly recommend it for those of you who wish to improve your own effectiveness as a leader. Now Jim and Barry say leadership is not the private reserve of a few charismatic men and women. It’s a process that ordinary people use when they’re bringing forth the best from themselves and others. In other words, when the leader in everyone is liberated, extraordinary things happen.

Now the first of their five leadership practices is called Model the Way, or the way leaders set an example for others to follow. Next comes Inspire a Shared Vision, helping people see exciting possibilities for the future. Then there’s Challenge the Process, or search for opportunities to change the status quo. The fourth is Enable Others to Act, helping people around you feel capable and powerful. And then finally there’s Encourage the Heart, recognizing the contributions of others and celebrating accomplishments. Notice that none of these practices require a title or positions of any kind. They are behaviors that anyone can adopt through focus and understanding and through practice.

But when you think about it, journalists who lead at every level demonstrate these leadership qualities through both their personal behavior and the stories they choose to pursue. Yes, it’s true. The stories we choose to publish, even the stories we share are acts of leadership in and of themselves.

Years ago, a woman came to visit the newspaper I worked for at the time and asked to speak to a reporter. Now, any of you who spend anytime in a newsroom know that those calls that come from the front desk usually elicit a groan. It’s like, “you want to me go out and talk to who about what?” And frankly a lot of people who happen to walk up to the newsroom just get ignored.

Now if you’ve ever had the chance to talk to somebody who walked in off the street, you know that there are people in all of the communities we live in who struggle to express themselves as coherently as the well-placed source we happen to have on speed dial, or on the other end of a tweet. This woman came to talk to a reporter because her young son had died under suspicious circumstances. She was convinced that her child died at the hands of her babysitter, and no one would listen to her. Investigators from the Sheriff’s office wouldn’t listen to her. People in her family thought she was nuts. This one time she came to the newspaper happened to be the fourth time she came to the office in the hopes of speaking to a reporter.

Now, she was not a sympathetic figure. She was a single mom of three kids who worked nights in a bar. She had been in trouble with the law. She didn’t trust people easily. But on this day, on this day, the reporter listened. The reporter listened and wrote a story. The editors were real nervous about that story. They were so nervous about that story, they ran it on Saturday.

For those of you that hang out at newspapers, you know that Saturday is never considered to be the high circulation day. And instead of that big circulation Sunday, that story ran on Saturday on the front page. And one person in particular happened to see that story. It was the babysitter.

The babysitter saw that story and turned herself in and confessed to the crime. All because the reporter listened. But beyond that, the editors were a bit nervous. But they still ran the story. And that took courage. And courage, the second quality that I’d like to talk about tonight, is not about the absence of fear; it’s about the willingness to move forward despite the distinct possibility of failure or personal embarrassment.

In journalism, we talk about many kinds of courage. Reporting from a war zone. Standing up to corrupt public officials. Or going toward a disaster zone when thousands of people are running the other way. But you can’t build journalistic courage without building personal courage.

In the context of leadership, courage is not just about bravery. It’s about admitting mistakes, acknowledging imperfections, even showing appreciation for the efforts of others. It’s about taking responsibility. I was telling some folks at my table that I happen to be in graduate school right now, you know. And I recognize that I happen to be in a room of extraordinarily talented and highly degreed professionals. Well I was lucky to get out of college. I think you needed to get a 2.35 to finish your undergrad — to get your undergraduate degree. I think I had a 2.37. I was not a model student. Ask how much time I spent at the newspaper office and at the radio station — you kind of get the idea. And so I had the bright idea that at 49 years old, I’d go to graduate school.

And a couple weeks ago, I’m in my research methods class. And everybody who’s had time to spend in a research methods class knows exactly what I’m talking about. Well, I have to say it was probably one of the most embarrassing experiences of my adult life: working in that class with my group, of which I am the oldest one, the one with the biggest title, and the one, frankly, with the least knowledge. We were literally sitting down trying to put together a statistical analysis and survey, and we weren’t even trying to do standard deviations on longhand. We were using Excel for goodness sake.

Well, I decide to build this spreadsheet, and because I am the professional — I manage millions of dollars in budgets. I can build a spreadsheet! I built this spreadsheet like absolutely, positively wrong. And the young man, one of the young men in my group — very bright young man about 23 — said “You know Mizell, let me do this. I got this. Let me do this. I got this.” And I’m going “Drew, I got this.”

So of course the moment I realized that I was wrong and Drew was right was a life altering moment. And I had, in the context of my studies — which are in leadership and organizational change — an emotional intelligence meltdown. I lost it. I threw the computer at him. I was coding a bunch of surveys. I tossed the surveys over to another delightful woman in my group who was again half my age. And I’m just going, “why in the hell did I decide to do this?”

One of the neat things about my program is that it’s not a traditional academic program in the sense that we have exams and a lot of memorization. But we do an enormous amount of reflection. An enormous amount of reflection about our behavior and about how we apply the learning both in class and then how we take what we learned in class and apply that in the workplace. I realized during that time and during that experience that courage was a lot more than standing up to the bully and a lot more than just focusing on dealing with a confrontation or difficult conversation. In that particular moment, courage was realizing I really don’t like doing this, but I’ve got to push through. And I’m really embarrassed because I don’t know what I think I should know. I mean, I’m almost 50 for God’s sake; I ought to know this by now. Pushing through that was the definition of courage in leadership.

A lot of times people get in leadership positions and believe they’re supposed to know everything. And the reality is no you’re not. And getting to that point takes courage.

Now, let me see a show of hands. How many Oprah fans do we have? Oh, don’t be embarrassed. Well, I have to tell you: my wife just loves Oprah Winfrey. And those of you who are not married are going to learn that if something is important to someone you care very deeply about, it damn well better be important to you.

And so, if you remember what I shared earlier about humility, and if you remember what I shared earlier about listening, you will understand how I managed to find something incredibly useful when my wife said, as she says routinely, “would you sit down and watch the Oprah Channel with me?”

That day, Oprah’s guest was a college professor, a researcher in social work by the name of Brené Brown. She studies the concept of vulnerability. She studies this concept of what it means to put yourself out there. And she was literally being vilified online for some of the opinions that she expressed. And again, her viewpoint is that acknowledging one’s vulnerability is not a sign of weakness. In fact, acknowledging your vulnerability is, in her opinion, our most accurate measure of courage.

And so she takes this point of view from this great vote from Teddy Roosevelt. He said:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

And when Brené Brown said this quote, she said, “that’s who I want to be. I want to be the courageous person. I want to be the person in the arena who is just showing up.” She also realized that if you live your life in the arena, eventually you’re going to get your ass-kicked. And so if you take nothing away from our conversation today, she said that “you can choose comfort, or you can choose courage, but you cannot have both. Because courage and comfort do not exist.”

And as I work with newsrooms, as I work with journalists to help them master this new digital era, I tell them, it’s okay to be uncomfortable because all of this is new. But you’re not going to learn anything if you’re comfortable — if you’re satisfied. That’s just not going to happen. So again, you can choose courage, or you can choose comfort, but you cannot have both. The most powerful thing I have heard in a very long time.

So think about it. Think about every time you were uncomfortable. From your first day on campus to the first time somebody reacted to something you wrote or something you said. You were showing courage. Every time you embark on an experience that you never had before, you’re exhibiting courage. When you get the feeling in the pit of your stomach that you really screwed up, but you get up and try again, you’re displaying courage. And as we look for new ways to tell stories and use the latest digital tools, we’re demonstrating courage.

The late Nelson Mandela perhaps said it best: “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”

And frankly if you’re anything like me, one of the most courageous things those of you who are students have already done is to tell Mom and Dad you want to study journalism.

Humility and courage. Taken together, you can respond to any change, you can meet any challenge. And even better, with humility and courage, you can achieve your destiny.

Thank you so much.