Succession is a perilous time for small or family-owned businesses, and community newspapers are no different. We often hear from publishers whose papers have been in their families for generations, but who need a new path forward.
We also know that papers published by and serving Black communities play an outsized role in our nation’s history and progress. Many are truly institutions in their towns.
With these realities in mind, the Local Media Association and the National Trust for Local News developed a half-day workshop focused on succession planning for the members of Word In Black, the collaborative of the nation’s leading Black publishers. The workshop was sponsored by the Google News Initiative.
What succession planning is, and why it’s important
The goal of succession planning is the smooth transfer of leadership within an organization or business, typically when a publisher wants to retire or hand off the business. It often starts with an assessment of options (e.g. selling, donating, or bequeathing your organization), and then proceeds with the creation of a plan to follow through on the chosen pathway.
Emergency succession planning is a risk-management tool that any publisher can put in place any time. It establishes the essential steps for an expedited transfer of leadership within an organization or business in the case of an unexpected event. This can take the shape of a simple checklist, with items such as back-up access to critical information, clarity about legal documents, and a decision about who steps into leadership in case of emergency.
Short and long-term succession planning is critical to ensuring the continuation of an organization, to protecting its financial assets and leadership, and to creating a forward-thinking culture that can adapt to change. Succession planning is a powerful way to respect and honor the legacy of the publisher and the community the paper serves.
But by its very nature, the topic of succession can be logistically and emotionally difficult. With some thoughtful planning, publishers and their teams (and often family members) can create options with room for deliberate, independent decision-making.
Three lessons from our first succession-planning workshop
First and foremost, we would like to thank the leaders of the 10 publications who shared their ideas and experiences with us. The workshop began as an experiment for both LMA and NTLN. We were eager to learn more about the needs of publishers, and especially those who serve communities of color, as they consider critical components of sustainability. By outlining succession pathways and cultivating a dialogue among participants, we hoped to equip participants with the key steps of succession planning so that they could jumpstart or finesse their own organizational strategies. We are eager to share some of our lessons.
Lesson 1: Succession takes time. This inaugural workshop underscored what a challenging subject and process succession planning can be, and therefore, that succession planning requires time, expert guidance, and sensitivity. Succession planning often includes family members, which can add a layer of complexity that necessitates the respect and sufficient time required of any thoughtful process.
Lesson 2: Succession takes a village. Second, we heard that it can help publishers to talk through options and questions related to succession with trusted peers. Almost like a support group, the members of Word In Black benefited from the camaraderie and trust that already existed among members.
Lesson 3: Succession takes care. Third, newspapers are civic institutions—especially those serving communities of color—and have multiple roles that need to be addressed in any succession process. These organizations are critical sources of information, economic drivers within communities, and building blocks for social cohesion. Their intrinsic community value requires a more thoughtful approach to both valuation and succession planning.
As publisher and CEO of the Defender Network, Houston’s leading Black information source, I am always thinking about the future of my organization and the role I must play to ensure its legacy. For us the workshop emphasized the importance of having a plan for leadership transition and not just aspirations. Confronting the challenges of gender and age differences has not been easy but the discussion opened the door to a new way of approaching our common goal of succession. The lessons learned were invaluable.Sonceria “Sonny” Messiah Jiles, who has led the Defender for over 40 years
The Google News Initiative provided support for the launch of the succession-planning workshop. “Succession planning can be a delicate, difficult and deeply personal topic but is critical to ensuring the continued strength and vibrancy of the Black press,” said Casey Pallenik, News Industry Relations Lead, Google News Initiative. “The Google News Initiative is honored to support this important work and the publishers it serves.”
The National Trust for Local News is launching more succession-planning workshops around the U.S. to support the thousands of publishers who are nearing retirement age. Please reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org if you’re interested in participating in or hosting a workshop.