By Lillian Williams
Just imagine that you’re evaluating American businesses, from legacy institutions to lean media start-ups. You’re in search of leadership practices for success.
You could select from top-ranked companies, ranging from multinational comglomerates to smaller digital technology operations. Their management teams would likely offer insights.
But here’s my advice: Visit Denver’s historic Five Points neighborhood, once the heart of black entertainment and trade in the Rocky Mountain West. Still today it’s a mix of populations and businesses.
There, you would find Rosalind “Bee” Harris, an African-American business owner with modest offices but a warehouse of wisdom. From Harris you would learn (or be reminded of) essentials for leadership success.
Harris is the long-time publisher of the Denver Urban Spectrum, a monthly African American-oriented publication distributed throughout the Denver and Colorado Springs areas. Harris has kept her doors open, despite economic turmoil experienced in many sectors of news media.
To understand the fierce winds faced by Harris and others in this digital media era–read an excerpt from the 2013 State of the News Media Report:
“Estimates for newspaper newsroom cutbacks in 2012 put the industry down 30% since 2000 and below 40,000 full-time professional employees for the first time since 1978. Time magazine, the only major print news weekly left standing, cut roughly 5% of its staff in early 2013 as a part of broader company layoffs.
“And in African-American news media, the Chicago Defender has winnowed its editorial staff to just four while The Afro cut back the number of pages in its papers from 28-32 in 2008 to around 16-20 in 2012. And some of the newer nonprofit entrants into the industry, such as the Chicago News Cooperative, have, after launching with much fanfare, shut their doors.”
Harris described the climate this way: “I have a copy of the final edition of the Rocky Mountain News,” she said, referring to a major Colorado newspaper forced to shut down in 2009. “This is a challenging period of time for all of us.”
The challenge, Harris said, comes on several fronts: a weak, though recovering, economy; increased competition for advertising dollars, and a revolution in the way that people get news and information. “We’re constantly updating things to stay competitive,” she said. “People get news on the Web, mobile devices, social media, you name it.”
What does not change about the Spectrum, however, is its mission, according to Danny Walker, senior librarian at Denver’s Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library. “This publication documents history that other types of publications miss, and that’s an important function,” he said.
A FIXTURE IN THE DENVER METRO AREA
The Denver Urban Spectrum–a monthly printed “newsmag” as Harris calls it–has been around for 26 years.
Twenty-five thousand copies are distributed each month, though the pass-along readership is estimated at 60,000. Copies can be found at libraries, barbershops, beauty salons, cultural centers, churches, and other locales.
The Spectrum archives contain titles such as the “Colorado Black Arts Festival,” “Diana Castro, a Soulful Gem and Hidden Jewel,” and “Lincoln Hills: An African-American Monument in Colorado’s Mountains.” The September 2012 edition offered a perspective on voting rights, prior to the presidential election.
“We honored Marie Greenwood who would soon celebrate her 100th birthday, and two others who were older,” Harris said about an event sponsored by the Spectrum. “We recognized a total of 25 women in a black tie gala to mark the 25th anniversary of the Spectrum. And we wrote articles about these women. We think it’s the right thing to salute those who contribute to a community.”
Harris is correct. Knowing your audience-and respecting that audience–is a wise move, especially in the media business where visitors, views and circulation numbers, among other factors, could make or break a bottom line. That respect also extends to integrating new technology, she acknowledged, adding, “We have changed our website several times. I also know that mobile is growing.”
KEY LEADERSHIP PRACTICES
Based on interviews with Harris, and others who know her, below are five additional leadership traits. Importantly, these practices could be adapted for leadership roles in any field or endeavor.
- Respect Your Mission. The Spectrum adheres to its mission, an act that keeps Harris and her staff focused and energized.
“Our mission is to give voice to people, events, and milestones of people of color in our area.
“We do stories that other publications miss. We did a story on Too Tall Edwards, a retired baseball player. Later I saw him, and he said, ‘I just want to thank you for doing my story.’ Our mission keeps us focused and it helps us to get through the rough times. We believe that we’re making a difference.”
- Regularly Assess Priorities. During the recent economic downturn, Harris decreased the Spectrum’s page count. “At one time we printed 80 pages. We’ve cut down the pages.”
“We had a big office space that we really weren’t using. So we moved to a smaller space.”
“We reduced our ad rates for small businesses and nonprofits.”
- Strike While The Iron Is Hot. Harris started off with two business partners in the late 1980’s, but both left. She kept going. She saw potential. She found advertisers; created graphics; set the content agenda, and dealt with printers. “The time was right,” she said.
- Keep Your Finger on the Pulse. Harris circulates in her community. She attends funerals, birthday parties, retirement celebrations, anniversary events, and receptions of all stripes. She stays attune to what matters to the people she serves. In fact, her contributions to the community are so well-known that the Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library has a special bookcase devoted to her work.
- Maintain the Passion. Glancing at her cell phone for messages one day, she said, “I couldn’t imagine another life. I love what I do.”