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Sept. 24, 2019, 10 a.m.

Columbia’s news-industry leadership program is getting new leaders and some startup energy

Corey Ford will take some of the startup-accelerator lessons of Matter Ventures into training the next rounds of Sulzberger Fellows.

In 2005, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Sr. — a.k.a. longtime New York Times publisher “Punch” Sulzberger — was given two pre-80th-birthday presents by his sisters: $4 million gifts in his honor to the journalism schools at both Columbia University and CUNY. The CUNY gift went toward a scholarship fund for students; the Columbia gift created the Sulzberger Executive Leadership Program, “an advanced management training program for executives in news organizations.” It brought in its first class of Sulzberger Fellows in 2007, and more than 200 news executives have gone through the program since. Here’s how the program describes itself:

The Sulzberger Executive Leadership Program is designed for senior and rising newsroom and business-of-news practitioners who are poised to take on more significant leadership challenges in their current organization and across the industry. Fellows come from a wide variety of news organizations, from the U.S. and internationally and from large national media to those that are small, local or nonprofit. Fellows are expected to have from 7-15 years of relevant experience, including some people management skills or past roles where working across teams was key to organizational success.

But it doesn’t take the keenest journalistic mind to notice that the news industry is a rather different animal in 2019 than it was in those pre-Great Recession, pre-social media, pre-digitization-of-everything days. And the Sulzberger Program went through its own recent iterations, with some of its elements and staff moving first to Harvard and then to Poynter.

Last year, Columbia announced that “under the supervision of Raju Narisetti, the program will relaunch with new faculty and a new program design in 2019.” And today’s the day.

Alongside Narisetti, who’ll serve as faculty director, the Sulzberger Program’s new director is Corey Ford, who longtime Nieman Lab readers will know as the longtime head of Matter, the media-focused startup accelerator, which we’ve covered since back in 2012. Matter came to something like a close at the end of 2018 (“on pause indefinitely”), having worked with more than 70 new companies, when funding dried up. Columbia’s announcement says Ford:

…will be responsible for implementing the program’s renewed executive leadership curriculum focused on empowering rising leaders in media and journalism to solve strategic challenges in a rapidly changing landscape.

“We’re excited to welcome Corey to lead this renewed effort for the school’s leading executive training program,” said Dean Steve Coll. “Those enrolled in the program will benefit from having an instructor and coach who brings a wealth of expertise on how to design, test, and launch products and business strategies quickly.”

[…]

The program’s new 16-week curriculum is centered on:

  • Leadership & Team Building
  • Skills Assessment & Development
  • Design Thinking Innovation Process
  • Audience & Trends
  • Product & Marketing
  • Business Models & Strategy
  • Managing Through Change

Here’s Ford:

The program is designed to train the future leaders of the world’s most impactful journalism and media organizations during a time of rapid transformation, uncertainty, and opportunity…

One person who reached out [after Matter went on pause] was longtime Matter mentor Raju Narisetti. He had an idea: What if you were able to continue the impact of Matter by taking over the Sulzberger Program at Columbia Journalism School and infusing the essence of Matter into it?

It was a chance for Matter to live on when it was needed the most. I was in…

The redesigned Sulzberger Program draws heavily from my experience training both entrepreneurs and journalism leaders through Matter. But it also combines forces with Raju, who has led internal transformation at some of the most important journalism institutions…

Like any rising executive, these fellows need a way to improve their leadership, business, and management skills while on the job. But because they are also navigating an industry facing constant disruption, traditional management training won’t suffice. They need to build cultures and create processes within these media companies that doesn’t just help them come up with “the next big thing” but enables the organization to constantly understand the changing needs of their audiences, experiment with emerging technologies, and seek sustainable business models as the world rapidly changes beneath their feet. They need to recognize opportunities for innovation and pursue them without being told what to do or how to do it. They need to lead.

The program will be project-focused (“each fellow will be required to define a project of strategic importance to their employer that they will lead throughout the course of the program”) and be a mix of time at Columbia and time doing the work back at fellows’ companies.

While many of the largest news companies have been able to make real strides in building a more entrepreneurial, innovation-focused culture, those advances are still unevenly distributed — both among news companies and within them. There are any number of programs out there — including, of course, the very best of them, the Nieman Fellowships — aimed at building new generations of leaders in our industry, each with their own approach. If you’re looking for one compressed into 16 weeks and with a good-sized dose of Silicon Valley verve — and if you have $20,000 to spend — the new Sulzberger Program may be worth a look.

Photo of the entry to the Columbia Journalism School by Stacey Huggins used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Sept. 24, 2019, 10 a.m.
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