Ways newsroom managers can help staff decompress after election

After the roller coaster presidential race, CJR Editor Kyle Pope and our resident management guru Jill Geisler discuss leading a newsroom following a stressful election, asking staff to “reapply” for jobs, and nominating individuals for journalism awards.

Kyle: This campaign has been a marathon for many of the reporters on the trail, and news organizations are going to have to find a way to let them decompress even as the news drumbeat continues. Some people will be reassigned, which itself will be challenging. How do you come down after what is likely one of the biggest stories of your career? 

Jill:  When I teach managers about motivation, I ask them to think about a time that they couldn’t wait to get to work. What was the assignment or task that made them so enthusiastic? Time and again, I hear about election night, when the stakes are high, the public is engaged, the work is hard and everyone has to be at their best. They talk about the thrill of the tension and teamwork.

If you’re a great manager, you find ways to keep that passion alive after the glory story fades. But tone-deaf managers make three big mistakes:

  1. They hold after-action meetings that focus on failures.
  2. They celebrate the most visible and influential players on the team, neglecting those who make up the infrastructure.
  3. They presume their team members just take a deep breath and move on.
Sign up for CJR's daily email

There are so many better ways to lead after major news coverage.

Your people are simultaneously exhilarated and exhausted. Your job is to tend to both. 

You certainly need to review the strengths and shortcomings of your coverage – from systems to people – but in the absence of egregious errors or ethical meltdowns, do this first: Work the room. Talk with team members. Give them specific feedback about their work, especially the good stuff. Listen to their input and suggestions for next time and next steps. Find out what really matters to them. After that, go ahead and review your organization’s overall performance. (And try not to call it a “post-mortem.” Nothing says “Let’s rock the future” like an autopsy.)

What about staff burnout? When folks have been on a journalistic juggernaut, chasing the story day and night, managers need tell to them they deserve a break; that they’ve earned it. Top performers sometimes hesitate to admit they’re running on empty, fearing their bosses will misread that as weakness. But when a supervisor says, “Take a break, we need you back at full strength for the next adventure,” they can rest easier. After that, it’s time to talk about their next assignments.

One last bit of advice: Don’t underestimate the power of a personal note thanking team members for contributions to big story coverage. I’m always surprised at the number of tough-as-nails journalists who tell me they hang on to thank-you notes or emails from respected managers. 

Related: Journalism’s moment of reckoning has arrived

Kyle: A new wave of layoffs is coming to newspapers. And at least one, The Wall Street Journal, is asking reporters to “reapply” for their jobs, in hopes of snagging one of the fewer slots. What is your take?

Jill: Can I just keep talking about thank-you notes instead? You bet it’s cruel to ask people to reapply for their jobs. It’s insulting and frightening – and often done to make certain companies don’t run afoul of employment or labor law. That means it’s a mandate handed to managers, who then must implement the process.

Recognizing that it’s a painful process, good managers approach it with integrity. They work from a strategic plan, not a hunch, and determine what skills the newsroom needs to succeed in the future. They do a thorough analysis of their team members’ contributions and their capacity to learn new skills. They don’t use this situation to settle old scores. They don’t mislead people. They make the new job descriptions as clear and fair as possible. They minimize the mystery around the decision-making. And they expedite the process, to keep the inevitable anxiety to a minimum.

 

Kyle: Awards season is coming — the Pulitzers, National Magazine Awards, etc. This always involves prickly issues of picking which people in your organization are going to be nominated. The nomination process itself is cumbersome, so you really only have the resources to back the few you think will win. How to manage the egos of those who didn’t make the cut?

Jill: Thanks for returning to positive territory. Awards matter to journalists – and I’m a big believer in building an award-winning culture. In my newsroom, we actually created a “Contest Bible” – with methodology about the production, preservation and submission of strong work to appropriate contests. It was a year-round commitment, not something people thought about when entry time came around. We had a meager budget, but we had a great plan.

While one manager served as the point person, we recruited an annual contest committee to vet our potential submissions. The committee included folks from all parts of the newsroom. (Since they were volunteers, they tended to be people who really cared about quality.) The committee knew our budget – and how many entries we could afford. This peer review really helped us select the best of the best, and reduced the bad feelings from those who missed the cut. But we did one more thing. When contest rules allowed multiple submissions, we invited people whose work wasn’t chosen to bet on themselves and enter it anyway. I promised that if they won, I’d happily apologize, applaud, and reimburse their entry fees.

One other tip: When you win, don’t just celebrate. Invite your award-winning team members to lead brown bag sessions on “how we did it.”

There’s always something to learn from success.

Photo by: Michael Vadon, via Wikimedia Commons

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Jill Geisler coaches managers worldwide. She holds the Bill Plante Chair in Leadership and Media Integrity at Loyola University Chicago. She’s the author of the book, Work Happy: What Great Bosses Know, and the “Q&A: Leadership and Integrity in the Digital Age” podcasts on iTunes U.