Handling inter-generational tensions in news media

Two newsroom floors are seen during the grand opening of the Washington Post newsroom in Washington January 28, 2016. REUTERS/Gary Cameron

This forward looking essay by Lucy Kueng supplements the Journalism, Media and Technology Trends and Predictions 2020 report. See menu for other such essays.


News media in 2020 will have to rise to the challenge of inter-generational tensions in their own organisations, differences between the values and priorities of many younger professionals, and an often older generation of leaders in news. A clear majority of the digital leaders we have surveyed are confident their news organisation can attract and retain the editorial talent they need, but most are much more worried about their ability to attract commercial, product, technology, and data talent, and many are aware of the challenge of retaining and developing talent of a younger generation with somewhat different values and priorities. As one of my interviewees in my ongoing research said of younger colleagues:

Their loyalty is towards themselves and their values. I know this is obvious, but when you see it in your own company it’s like ‘wow, this is not just some fancy article, it’s our employees’.

In every research project there tends to be one topic that surfaces unexpectedly and repeatedly.1 In my last project ‘Going Digital: A Roadmap for Organisational Transformation’, it was burnout.2 In my current project on the people dimension of going digital, it is inter-generational tension, an issue that cuts across discussions on culture, on leadership, on talent, and on strategy. This short essay skims the contours of this issue and provides suggestions for how to tackle it.

Mapping the Problem

There’s a temptation to dismiss this as ‘the millennial thing’, and it certainly is connected with younger generations, but things are more nuanced: many of those who raised this as a problem are millennials themselves.3 So which group is causing the tension? This is not easy to define, as this extract from a focus group shows:

‘What do we want to call them?’
‘I don’t know, entrant or emerging talent?’
‘But they’re not even emerging. They’re like 35, 36, 37. They’re running things.’
‘Younger talent?’
‘Just call them 25- to 36-year-olds?’
‘25 to 35-ish.’
‘I think it’s worth naming it, because there is a thing happening.’
‘There is a thing, but if we call them millennials, automatically there’s negative connotations.’

The tension arises because a growing group of staff, predominantly at lower levels but in some cases rising up fast, have a very different value orientation to those at the top. Their attitudes and expectations are at odds with established accepted processes and practices. The HR director of large media conglomerate describes how this plays out:

They’re blunt when they start … ‘I’m going to stay for one or two years.’ And then, of course they want to get the most out of those 24 months … ‘I want to learn, develop myself, … maximise the speed of experience. I want to have a good time, … I want to meet interesting people, I want to work in fun projects. I don’t want to be dragged into internal politics because that’s not really relevant for me.’

On a day-to-day level a major source of friction is simply the amount of ongoing feedback this group want (‘the unending quest for credit’ as one interviewee put it). For leaders accustomed to doing things differently, this is disruptive when life is busy, and can be especially so if that feedback isn’t positive:

They will absolutely ask for it … but when they hear it, they really struggle to digest it. It’s too painful … they only want positive feedback and struggle with the negative.

‘I’m So Sick and Tired of Hearing, “Oh, you’re a Millennial”’

How does this look from the other side? This group is frustrated that their needs, which stem from deeply held beliefs, are not being taken seriously:

They call this generation snowflakes … leaders think if something upsets us it’s because … we grew up in cotton wool. That’s not the case. It’s just that we’re a lot more aware of our surroundings, and there are just things that we care about.

It’s important to bear in mind also that this group’s experience of work, and expectations of what that work can supply in terms of security and lifestyle, are profoundly different to those of older colleagues:

For the most part they graduated into the Great Financial Crisis and have had a very unorthodox career, skipping around every 1.5 to two years … they’ve either been laid off or seen layoffs, they’ve seen how brutal this industry is … a sense of uncertainty hangs over them. … they’re in a house-share in their early 30s, and thinking, is this it? How do I get a bigger piece?

In this context, feedback is about much more than simply evaluating work done. It’s about the calibre of the relationship between the leader and follower:

It can’t just be a relationship where you use up ten hours of someone’s time, pay them very little, and give them no job security … Why wouldn’t you want to know if a person wants a one-on-one conversation? Why wouldn’t you want to know what they have to say?

‘We have to Deliver on an Entirely Different Set of Expectations’

Resolving this tension involves a set of shifts and adaptations to core processes. At the top of the list of things leaders can do and organisations can provide are:

  • A coaching and mentoring style of leadership that majors on feedback.
  • Opportunities for those at the bottom to have access to those at the top. They need to feel listened to and that they have an opportunity to make an impact.
  • Checking the calibre of inter-personal relations in general and the choreography of your most important meetings specifically. Make sure that all voices can be heard, and that decision-making is as transparent and inclusive as feasible.
  • Assume that talent in this category will stay for three years maximum. Accelerate their training and move them onto interesting projects fast.

The past decade’s (entirely understandable) preoccupation with digitalising our workplaces and securing a viable business model may well have blinded us to an equally seismic shift: the emergence of a markedly different value system shared by a growing group of organisation members. This is an emerging issue and a complex one that needs deeper research. It is not simply about differences in age – in fact all those cited in this essay are millennials. Underlying this are crucial differences in the strength of commitment to personal values and to self-actualisation needs, in preferences for the tenor and calibre of relationships with co-workers, in economic prospects, and in tolerance for organisational dysfunctionalities. Resolving these tensions will be central to attracting, retaining, and unleashing the talent that will be so central to building a sustainable future for news media in 2020.


Lucy Kueng is Senior Research Associate at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and an expert on strategy, innovation, and leadership, with particular emphasis on digitalisation and technology transitions. She is Visiting Professor of Media Innovation at the University of Oslo, non-executive board member of the NZZ Media Group, and strategic adviser to media organisations. She is the author of numerous books, including Innovators in Digital News, Strategic Management in the Media, and more.

1 This essay draws on insights from ‘Hearts and Minds – the People Dimension of Digital Transformation’ which will be published by the Reuters Institute in Spring 2020.

2 https://reutersinstitute.politics.ox.ac.uk/our-research/going-digital-roadmap-organisational-transformation

3 Gen Y-ers or millennials are those born between 1981 and 1996.