Steve Grove, a onetime print reporter at the Boston Globe and a broadcast journalist for ABC News, joined YouTube and helped the homemade video site influence world events (becoming a platform for investigative video reportage like Sen. George Allen using the obscure racial insult “macaca” and a way to mobilize millions, such as President Obama and’s “Yes We Can” music video). Today, as head of Google’s News Lab, he’s enthused about virtual reality and big data becoming an integral part of storytelling. NationSwell spoke to Grove from Google’s Silicon Valley headquarters about the future of newsrooms.

What’s the best advice you have ever been given on leadership?
[T]o make it something that you practice, not something that you are. I tell my team at Google all the time, “You’re all leaders.” What I mean by that (this comes from some books I’ve read, a few classes I’ve taken and also my own experience) is leadership is helping a group that is facing a challenge grapple with it in an honest and productive way. It’s really getting to the root of what a problem is, engaging in various interventions or techniques to really get to the core issue they’re trying to solve. Great leaders are able to exercise leadership, not just embody it.

What’s on your nightstand?
I just finished a book called “Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work,” which is about the modern economy and how technology has actually, in some ways, made us more distant from the actual work-product. The guy who wrote it was a motorcycle mechanic, and he talks about the power of working with your hands and how the trades are actually a really active way to use your mind and develop yourself. It’s not just an argument for, hey, you need to go start your own mechanic shop, but that you should understand how the things you own work.

What innovations in your field are you most excited about right now?
There are all kinds of new storytelling devices that are making journalism and frontiers really hopeful. While getting traffic to your site is a challenge and thinking about catchy titles or even clickbait is part of a conversation, deeper, more immersive storytelling is even more exciting and differentiates your site or broadcast. Virtual reality’s a part of that. You’re not just clicking and leaving: you dive into it. But another really interesting development (we’re not quite there yet) is journalism via drones. It’s really powerful for things like crisis response… and climate journalism — looking at ways different ecosystems have changed and are changing from above. It’s just a totally new perspective. There’s lots of challenges to figure out there ethically and technologically, but that’s exciting.

Data journalism itself is probably one of the biggest frontiers for journalism right now. It takes a massive amount of computing power that we now have, the extraordinary access to data sets we didn’t have before and a shift of how newsrooms think about telling stories. We, of course, work on Google data in that space, but ProPublica, FiveThirtyEight, The UpShot, Vox — they’re all really innovative data-driven journalism. That’s one of the things we’re betting big on: that data journalism has a huge potential for making readers around the world smarter about topics they’re discovering. Newsrooms are beginning to understand there’s never been a better time to be a storyteller, given the tools they have.

What do you wish someone had told you when you started this job?
I wish somebody had told me to lead with passion and manage with consistency. A lot of leaders are very good at one, but not the other. They can crisply manage a spreadsheet, a meeting schedule, a document and metrics tracker, but they don’t have the vision or the passion to lead an organization. Other leaders give the inspiration and purpose. That’s great, but the management piece falls off a little bit, because it’s harder for them to operationally develop things. Most leaders need to have both. I wish someone had defined that for me. I came into my work with the former — the passion and excitement — and I don’t think I was incapable of the latter, but I didn’t know when to toggle between the two.

What inspires you?
What’s most inspiring to me about my time at Google is amplifying stories or voices that wouldn’t have otherwise been heard. You look at YouTube as a platform for that, or the Internet in general as a chance to discover stories that wouldn’t have otherwise made it into our conversations — that’s a really powerful additive element of technology in media. Whether that’s citizen-captured videos from streets of the Arab Spring or whether that’s someone “coming out” to their community on a blog or whether that’s a kid in his bedroom in Philly or a mom in her house in Montana getting to ask the President a question in a Google+ Hangout, there’s all kinds of elements that plays itself out.

What’s your proudest accomplishment?
I feel very fortunate to have had some amazing experiences at Google. But if I had to pick something I was most proud of, I might go back to before I was a journalist, in my early twenties, when I spent about half a year in India. I just sort of went; I didn’t know anybody there. I bought a plane ticket and landed in Bombay [now Mumbai]. I wanted to do something that went beyond being a tourist, but I didn’t know what. I ended up finding the opportunity to work for an organization that did interventions in small rural Indian towns to try to get 30,000 people above the poverty line. They would help these people grow mango forests or cross-breed cows to create their own dairies. I [wrote] profiles of the people who this group was helping. I got to spend two months in rural villages, finding my own translators, talking to different people who were in these situations. It wasn’t the best journalism or work I’d ever done, but early in my career, it was a really transformative experience.

To learn more about the NationSwell Council, click here.
This interview has been edited and condensed.

Home page photo courtesy of Steve Grove.

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