Kindling the Flame for Newsroom Executives

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Jun 27, 2008 em Media Entrepreneurship

"Word has reached me that you are having fun on the set. This must stop."
                                                    – Jack Warner, quoted in "Lauren Bacall By Myself"

Jack Warner sounds like too many newspaper editors. Working in a newsroom should be fun. Journalists should feel energized by their work. They should look forward to going to work every day. The top editors play a crucial role in setting the tone that makes a newsroom an exciting, fun place to work.

A management clichй says the supervisor must "light a fire" under workers. That's not necessary in journalism. Reporters, editors, photographers, artists, page designers and other journalists come with a fire already burning. They come into the business excited about the creative challenges of the news business. The newsroom manager's job is not to light the fire, but to tend it and fuel it. Inspiring journalists is one of the most important jobs of any editor. Your success depends on the work of your staff. Journalists often mirror the energy of an enthusiastic leader or the lethargy of a dispirited leader. As a top editor in your newsroom, the tone you set for the newsroom and the leadership model you present may be your most important contributions.

You should consider whether each action or statement is more likely to nurture or discourage creativity. You should examine whether your actions, statements and attitude are more likely to inspire effort or fuel cynicism. You should ask whether your words and deeds are more likely to make the jobs under you more rewarding or more frustrating. Sometimes you have to bear bad news. Sometimes you have to enforce deadlines, budgets and space restrictions. Sometimes you need to deliver honest criticism of a story the reporter loves. Sometimes you have to tell unwelcome truths about company policies, a staff member's performance or decisions by you and other editors. You must tell these truths candidly, but they must be a small part of your communication with staff members. Newspaper work should be fun, and editors make a huge contribution to how much staff members enjoy their jobs.

Your outlook sets the tone

Enjoy your job. No job is perfect, but newsroom leadership positions offer creative, exciting work with interesting, dynamic people. It's also demanding and sometimes thankless work. If you don't enjoy the job, you won't excel in it. If you are not happy in the job, identify the issues that make you unhappy. If some of them are in your control, change what you can. Address with your publisher issues that she controls. Assess the issues that your publisher won't change or that you and your publisher can't change. Can you place them in context (remember, no job is perfect)? Can you make adjustments so that you can be happy in those circumstances? If not, perhaps you should talk to your publisher about a non-management role. Leadership isn't for everyone.

Let your staff enjoy their jobs. "Turn them loose and let them apply their imaginations," advises David Witke, former managing editor of The Des Moines Register. "If they're doing work they're interested in, they're going to do a good job."

Focus on next year's paper. Your staff is capable of putting out a good newspaper for tomorrow. Sometimes you can and should join in that effort and direct it specifically. However, the top editor's time is best spent in making sure that next year's paper will be the best it can be. How can you raise standards? How can you train the staff for better performance? How can you help staff members grow? How can you challenge staff members to reach their full potential? What long-range goals should you set for the staff or for groups or individuals? What short-range goals will move them toward the long-range goals?

Your words carry weight

Praise daily. Every editor should make a point every day of telling his staff what they have done well. This must be as pressing as the next deadline or the news meeting or the meeting with the publisher. However else your day gets away from you, you must praise the good work of your staff. Praise must be specific and prompt and usually delivered in person. "Drive-by praise" such as "nice story" or "nice headline" as your paths cross on the way to the restroom doesn't cut it. Tell the reporter you liked the use of dialogue in the climax of the story. Make your praise systematic. Every day praise some people who work directly for you and some who are further down the chain of command. Make sure you're not always praising the same people. Every day praise someone you haven't talked to recently. You may need to criticize, too, but don't mix your praise directly with your criticism. "I really liked the way we jumped on that story, but ..." doesn't count as praise. Witke has this advice to pass along to the editors who work for you: "When a supervisor praises someone, the supervisor should carbon-copy the Big Boss and show that notation on the note to the person praised (or mention it orally). Also, now and then when a staffer does something really nifty or dedicated, the supervisor should try to get the Big Boss to stop by the newsroom and tell that staffer thanks.)"

Give special praise for special performance. Beyond the routine praise, take special note of the extra effort and outstanding performance that distinguish your paper and serve your readers. If you can afford recognition such as a bonus, a dinner at a nice restaurant or a bottle of champagne, those are memorable forms of praise that staff members appreciate. If your budget is tighter (or if the performance doesn't quite merit such spending), maybe you should recognize the effort publicly in the newsroom and lead the applause of colleagues. Or send a handwritten note to the staff member's home.

Turn criticism into challenges. You cannot let substandard work pass unnoticed. But you may not have to point it out. If you didn't like something about a story, you or the immediate supervisor should ask the reporter what she thought of the story. What did she like? What didn't she like? If you agree on what wasn't good, you don't have to criticize. Instead, you help the reporter frame a challenge to address a problem you both recognize. Let's say a reporter's writing is dull. You could smash the reporter's spirit and ruin her day by telling her this morning's story was dull and pedestrian. Or you could ask what she thought about this morning's story. If she liked something that you also liked, you can agree, which encourages her in a strength. Ask what she didn't like, too. Chances are if the story was dull, she knows it. Maybe she'll tell you she wishes it had been more lively. You agree and after discussing together why it wasn't lively, you present a challenge: In this next story, make sure that you finish in time to allow a rewrite that concentrates solely on the verbs. Change passive verbs to active. With each verb, she should ask whether she can find a more specific verb or a stronger verb. The challenge will improve the next story (and probably subsequent stories). Just as important, though, the challenge will energize the reporter and engage you together in the process of improving her writing. If the reporter doesn't agree with your assessment, then you may have to criticize. Do so candidly and then frame the challenge in the same conversation. (Depending on the situation, you may be able to frame the challenge without spelling out the criticism. "I'd like you to use more strong verbs" frames the challenge without saying, "You use too many weak verbs.") The criticism, whether direct or implied, may still sting, but the challenge turns the criticism from a cause to brood into an opportunity to show what the staff member can do. Most of the challenges this specific will come from the editors who directly supervise staff. But the top editor sets the example here, challenging the editors who work under him, insisting that they challenge the staff and occasionally issuing specific challenges to staff members outside the chain of command. (Always be sure to inform the supervising editor when you've issued such a challenge.)

Follow up. Any time you issue a challenge, follow up and assess how the staff member met the challenge or make sure the immediate supervisor follows up. If the staff member responded strongly, be generous and prompt with your praise. If the improvement was marginal, ask her what she liked and didn't like about his response to the challenge, be candid about what you liked and didn't like and set a new challenge.

Turn praise into challenges. Don't challenge just in terms of weaknesses. Challenge your best staff members to become even better. If you absolutely loved a story, tell the reporter but still ask what she would have liked to do better. Ask about aspirations and together identify challenges that will help accomplished staff members build on their strengths. Identify challenges that will stretch the abilities of your best editors. Challenges energize high-achieving journalists and help them reach new heights.

Identify reachable goals. Discuss with your top editors their strengths and weaknesses and set goals to help them build on the strengths and overcome the weaknesses. Insist that they discuss goals with their staffs. Set long-range goals, such as mastering computer-assisted reporting. Set mid-range goals, such as undertaking a project to analyze crime patterns in your community. Set specific immediate goals, such as acquiring a particular database. Tell staff members how well you think they're doing at reaching the goals. Progress toward goals and feedback about progress toward goals should be a daily matter, not something addressed only annually in job reviews.

Communicate face to face. Shooting e-mails back and forth is tempting, easy and sometimes necessary, especially for busy editors with large and moving staffs that work different shifts. But you should communicate important messages and many lesser ones face to face. If you have a complaint, look the staff member in the eye and state the problem. If you have praise, go to the staff member's desk, smile and deliver your praise. (However, if you keep missing connections, send the praise by e-mail rather than risk forgetting to praise. Or better yet, send a hand-written note.) Never send an e-mail to a staff member when you're angry. Written messages last longer than your anger and sometimes end up circulating beyond the intended recipient. Physical presence, eye contact and a demonstration that you care are important parts of effective communication. The first two are lacking in an e-mail message. And the third is weak (your words may say that you care, but your actions say this one isn't worth getting out of your chair). After you communicate face-to-face, maybe you should follow up with an e-mail, to spell out a goal clearly or reinforce a message. But deliver the news, good or bad, eyeball to eyeball.

Use performance evaluations to motivate, not squelch. Witke gives this advice: "Praise in a performance evaluation has this additional clout: The person being praised knows the comments are going right up the chain of command and will be seen by the Big Boss himself/herself. And, likewise, praise-underpinned suggestions for improvement will also be noted by the Big Boss, so the staff member knows the Boss, too, will be watching to see how he/she responds in the future. Staffers like to know that the Big Boss knows they've done something good. And they'll respond to the immediate supervisor who shows that he/she is willing to pass those good comments on up the line."

Tell stories. Share the stories of your staff's successes. Encourage reporters who wrote exceptional stories or overcame unusual obstacles to tell how they did it, either in notes to the staff or over brown-bag lunches. Or tell the stories yourself in periodic notes to the staff.

Your staff is watching

Set an example of meeting challenges. Never underestimate the example you set for your staff. If you are challenging your staff to grow, your challenge rings hollow if you are not seeking new challenges and growing yourself. Let's say you're a strong words person who came up through the ranks as a reporter then as an editor on the metro desk. Challenge yourself to learn more about the photo or graphics department or about page design. Spend a day, or a few hours, a week actually learning how those professionals do their jobs. You will win their respect and your subsequent challenges to those departments will carry more weight. And your staff will understand that you mean it when you challenge them to grow as journalists.

Show your excitement. Let your staff see when you are excited about a story, photo, graphic or design. Show the same excitement about important matters that are not necessarily for publication, such as a coverage plan or a training plan. Ask lots of questions. How does the reporter plan to address potential obstacles? What is he learning in his interviews? What direction is the story taking? Have we considered all the possibilities for photos, graphics, sidebars? Do we need to arrange for extra space?

Spread the attention around. Don't reserve your excitement and your praise for the stars on your staff and for the big stories. Don't let the staff think that only certain anointed people are worth your time. You expect staff members to regard their work as important even if they are writing or editing stories for the inside pages. You need to show each staff member that you also regard his work as important. Your neglect of a staff member may reinforce his view that he's stuck in an unimportant job. Each day make a point of spending at least a minute or two in conversation with some staff member you haven't spoken with for a while.

Get physical. Physically show your energy and your enthusiasm. You can do this without getting silly and without crossing any lines of propriety. And you can do it within your own personality. Don't pump your fist in the air over an exciting development if that doesn't feel comfortable to you. But if you would do it on the softball field, do it in the newsroom when the occasion calls for it. Maybe a high five, a handshake, a thumbs-up or brief applause is more your style. At the very least, smile.

Understand when you're the "bad cop." The editors who work for you sometimes will have to carry out unpleasant policies or directives from higher editors or corporate offices. Sometimes it helps their relations with their staff to play good-cop-bad-cop, with the top editor, the publisher and/or the company as the bad cop and the sympathetic mid-level supervisor as the good cop. Sometimes that's effective and helpful. Sometimes it's honest. You want staff members to know that their editors champion their work. You want a newsroom where the flow goes up as well as down. You don't want your mid-level editors to hurt their credibility by arguing too vigorously for a policy their staff knows they wouldn't support. Give them some latitude to do that. But remind them occasionally that if they play good cop too much, they erode their own credibility and strength, as well as undercutting you. The fact is, you are all management. The more your mid-level editors take responsibility for the policies and decisions they carry out, the more the staff will respect their own authority. (As much as possible, include your mid-level editors in the decision-making process, so they will feel more responsibility for the decisions.) Celebrate your staff's successes. One of the editor's most important functions is identifying and rewarding excellence and improvement. When a staff member excels, you should celebrate appropriately to the success. If it's major success, you might recognize it with a bonus or lunch on the company or an extra day off or praise from on high. Don't forget the small successes that might just merit a "way to go." Especially if the budget is too tight for tangible rewards, find creative and appropriate ways to celebrate and recognize achievements. It's especially important to celebrate improvement by a staff member who's struggling. It's easy for a supervisor to think, "It's about time" when a staff member finally delivers, or to say you're not going to praise someone just for doing his job. But for the struggling employee, getting it right is a breakthrough that you need to recognize and celebrate appropriately. Don't overdo it. That can be read as sarcasm, like the basketball fans who cheer a bad shooter who finally makes a free throw. Identify the goal the staff member has achieved. Discuss how to do it again, or how to achieve the next goal. And be generous and sincere with your praise.

Administration matters

Support training efforts. Training adds greatly to your staff's job satisfaction. Advocate with the publisher to spend more on training of all kinds: Road trips for individuals to API, IRE, Poynter and the like; regional training opportunities such as National Writers' Workshops and Canadian Association of Newspaper Editors workshops; bringing trainers to your newsroom to help large numbers of your staff. If the budget is tight, support or even lead in-house training efforts, drawing on the talent you have on the staff.

While you are kindling the flame, don't let administrative procedures douse it. Witke gives this advice: "Newsroom managers should do everything they can to minimize the administrative barriers that staff members face in getting their work done. For example: For reporters and photographers, success often depends on a quick response. So access to (and rules about) the newsroom auto fleet, the cell phones, the point-and-shoot cameras, and even travel cash should be designed to facilitate quick response with a minimum of hassle. Even for just routine use of such newsroom resources, the rules/access should be convenient enough that staffers don't get frustrated by, and resentful over, the red tape. Another example is access to office machinery, such as Xerox and fax machines, and online research services. Newsroom managers need to ensure that there are enough such resources to meet the needs, and that they are kept in running order and stocked so that the 'daily drip' of small frustrations doesn't build up into major resentments or a feeling that 'nobody around here cares whether we get our work done.' Even time-card procedures need to be reasonable and flexible enough that no one gets penalized for being sent out of town at a minute's notice on time-card day. Etc., etc., etc. Many of these administrative barriers are within the direct purview of newsroom editors/managers and they can deal with them directly. (Often editors and managers don't appreciate the problem, because they don't travel or don't have to deal with the administrative nightmares themselves; they have assistants to do the tedious work for them.) Other such things may be company-wide and beyond the newsroom manager's direct control. In that case, it is the newsroom manager's role to lobby for the newsroom staff, to stand up for them when someone transgresses for good news reasons, and to assure the powers that be that this isn't 'just those whiney newsroom brats wanting special treatment again.'"

Tough situations need strong leaders

Respond to bad times. Our industry puts newsrooms through difficult times: hiring freezes, staff reorganizations, staff reductions, dying afternoon papers, continuing stories that wear the staff out. Editors need to lead grumpy staffs even in these times. Acknowledge the difficulties. Your morale will suffer and so will your staff's. Commiserate with griping staff members. Then appeal to their professionalism. Maybe someone's talking openly about leaving. Tell him, "You're going to need some good clips then. How about hitting this story out of the park?" Maybe someone's griping about the latest unpopular corporate decision. Ask whether she'd like to get out of the newsroom on a fun assignment. In difficult times, swallow some of your criticism if it's not a matter of upholding standards. Dial up the praise and the thanks and the pleases.

Remember no one cares about you. Difficult times will take a toll on you. You will agonize and lose sleep about moving some staff members into new assignments they might not welcome. Your staff will not care. Their lives are being upset and they don't care that this is difficult for you, too. This is simply part of the price of leadership. Accept their anger and don't expect their sympathy.

Foster teamwork. Many newsroom jobs require people to be intensively competitive. They don't turn the competitive fires down when dealing with newsroom colleagues. Competition within the newsroom is genuine: Staff members are competing for space, for spots on page one, for plum assignments, for advancement opportunities. The top editor needs to watch for instances when desks or individual staff members are being territorial to the detriment of the paper or the staff. Is a busy reporter hoarding ideas that a colleague might have time to pursue? Can you pair two competitive reporters on a story or project, in hopes of building better camaraderie?

Ease the squeeze. The editors who work for you have one of the newsroom's toughest jobs. No one is more caught in the middle. They hear the whining from staff but often feel as powerless. Shield them from the bureaucracy where you can and should. Listen to some of the whining yourself. Let the editors vent to you about unreasonable decisions from on high, whether from you or from someone else.

Respect is cheap but precious

Respect your staff's authorship. You probably got to your current position by being an outstanding editor or reporter or both. Now you must let your outstanding editors and reporters do their jobs. Remember that the reporter is the author of each story and derives much of her job satisfaction from the creative process. Have a reason for every change you make, and be sure that you have improved the story, especially if one or several other editors already have handled a story. When you assign a story, give the reporter and assigning editor as much voice as possible in how to pursue the story and how to tell it. When you disagree with a reporter or editor about a storytelling issue, ask a trusted third party to read the story cold and give you a neutral opinion. (No skewing the results by how you present it: "Take a look at this story and see if you think it lacks focus.") You must uphold your paper's standards on such issues as accuracy, clarity and fairness, but you must not dictate how each story should be told. Consider how the different approaches would affect the reader. If the reader would be misled, misinformed, offended or confused by the writer's approach, then firmly insist on a different approach and explain why. If the difference is just a matter of storytelling style, and you can't convince the writer your approach is better, give in, at least occasionally. Your name isn't at the top of the story, so it doesn't have to be written the way you would have written it. Variety in storytelling styles serves the reader. The same principles apply with editors who work for you. Don't take over all the big projects or big stories. Respect their judgment and give in sometimes when you disagree.

Value your staff's ideas. Chances are that you or another editor told reporters during their job interviews that your paper wants self-starters. Think about the conflicting message you send if any assignment from an editor is more important than the ideas your self-starters generate. Listen to their ideas. Discuss their story ideas and yours together and see if you can reach agreement about which to pursue first. You certainly have the authority to insist on an assignment and sometimes you will have to. But if you are assigning more than you are giving the go-ahead for self-starters to pursue their own stories, you have at least one of two problems: You're abusing your authority or you aren't sufficiently developing the self-starters you say you want. Self-starters can be annoying and stubborn, but they make you look good.

Develop your editors. Be sure to share responsibility and credit with the editors who work under you. You must give your staff the same chances to develop and shine that you had. Don't butt in and keep directing the coverage of the big story or the big project. Respect your editors' decisions. Trust their judgment. When they're right, back them up with your publisher and with the staff. When they're wrong, use the occasion to coach the editor and present a new challenge. Explain why you overrode their decisions and quickly give them another opportunity to succeed.

Use your sense of humor. Too many editors are too serious. Sometimes you have to be, but you don't always have to be. You should be fun to work with. Laugh with staff members (and not always with the same staff members). Poke fun at yourself. Have fun. Be fun.

Avoid sarcasm. Sarcasm and humor are not the same thing. Lots of journalists are sarcastic and your staff members will speak sarcastically to and about you. They will annoy you with their sarcasm. They will annoy you inappropriately with their sarcasm. Do not respond in kind. Your power as the supervisor makes your sarcasm inherently meaner and more demeaning. It's not always fair, but it's true.

Apologize. You're going to make mistakes. You may use sarcasm inappropriately with staff members. You may lose your temper. You may make the wrong decision. You may make the right decision but communicate it insensitively. Apologize. Don't grovel, but apologize. Apologize specifically and clearly. If you believe you made the right move but know you should have consulted the staff member or at least informed her, apologize specifically without dwelling on the area of difference. (If the area of difference needs to be dealt with to avoid future problems, keep this discussion distinct from the apology.) Staff members will remember an arrogant, inflexible attitude much longer than they will remember most mistakes their bosses make.

Respect your staff's personal life. Staff members are entitled to a life outside the newsroom. When work has to intrude, acknowledge the intrusion. Apologize for calling at home or for interfering with dinner or vacation or weekend plans. Thank the reporter who came in on a day off or skipped lunch to deal with your demands or questions. Thank the editor who worked late on a breaking story even though his child had a school play that night. Commend the reporter who took the initiative to cover news that broke on personal time. She might have irritated a spouse or missed an important family event. Thanks are in order.

Respect your personal life. You have a demanding job. You will meet those demands better for the long haul if you protect and respect a healthy personal life. If your job cuts into family time, as many news executive jobs do, make an effort to spend the remaining family time enjoyably. Be creative in finding meaningful ways to use time with your family. Tend to your own needs as well. Find time for exercise. Make time for a hobby or some pursuits you enjoy. Get an annual physical, and don't delay getting treatment for any physical discomfort or emotional distress. Have fun. Regularly. Especially when you're feeling stress on the job. You may experience a personal crisis, such as a troubled marriage, troubled children, health problems, a death in the family or an ailing parent. Confide in the publisher and discuss whether you need some temporary relief from some of your job stress. That's a sign of wisdom, not weakness. And it will help your career better than appearing distracted without explanation or collapsing eventually under the combined stress. Consider whether you should confide in your immediate staff about the personal crisis, too. You may be sharing your stress in ways you don't recognize, and they're entitled to a general understanding (but not all the details).