10 resolutions for managers leading newsrooms in 2017

The new year demands extraordinary newsroom management skills and strategies as an unorthodox, media-bashing president takes office. The Trump administration will challenge norms of engagement with both the public and the press, and may execute on its promise to revise existing laws and policies, making high-quality journalism more important than ever. 

Here’s a call to action for newsroom managers, laid out in 10 resolutions:

 

1. Rally the troops

Your people are working under pressure from all sides. They’re enduring or fearing budget cuts. They’re tired of being vilified and even accosted by partisans and grilled by Uncle Bob at the holiday table about why the darn media isn’t telling the truth as he sees it. The staff needs your strong voice and vision right now.

Start the year with a huddle your team won’t forget. Talk about what really matters: a passion for ethical, high-impact journalism that can only come from newsrooms with clear priorities and plans. 

Challenge them to live up to their unique role in democracy and to neither run scared nor screw up—because the world is watching.  Tell them there are plenty of studies documenting distrust of the media, but that unlike the news fakers out there, the MSM doesn’t MSU (make stuff up), and truth-telling is a calling, not a popularity contest.  Then share Pew’s December survey findings: 64 percent of Americans “say fabricated news stories cause a great deal of confusion about the basic facts of current issues and events.”  So tell your team that even if people don’t say they love us, they’re asking for help. Let’s provide it.

 

2. Unleash your design minds in the fake-news fight

Fake news isn’t flawed news. It’s intentional deception produced for fun and profit. To fight its toxic impact, Facebook has taken some first, but incomplete steps. Slate, The Washington Post, and even Princeton student programmers have developed browsers that ferret out falsehoods.

This is progress, but there’s more to do and more talent to tap. We’ve enlisted reporters to fact-check and developers to invent flags for fake news. We’ve yet to fully examine the visual appeal of fake news forms and what makes them so powerful. From ALL CAP headlines to hyperbolic language to bold memes and visuals, they slam home misleading messages at-a-glance. They’ve become an art form all their own, perfect for social media sharing.

Meanwhile, our fact-checking formats are pretty traditional: meticulous detail and gray blocks of copy.  They appeal to reason, while fake news appeals to emotion. Let’s invite our visual thinkers to bring their insights into the mix. How about some design hackathons to come up with powerful new formats that highlight falsity—or veracity—in ways “word people” haven’t yet envisioned?

 

3. Taxonomize Trumpian tweets:

The president-elect tweets, and journalists reflexively respond, often elevating his words to a high spot on the day’s news agenda. Our reflexes need refinement. Unlike presidential addresses or press conferences, tweets are shortcuts that shortchange the public.  Significant news time and space is spent deconstructing and debating his mini-messages. Let’s simplify things.

A review of @realDonaldTrump’s 34,000-plus tweets shows they can be identified in a fairly tidy taxonomy. The PEOTUS:

  • Boast-tweets
  • Salute-tweets
  • Info-tweets
  • Promise-tweets
  • Threat-tweets
  • Spite-tweets

As journalists strain to precisely and proportionately deal with the Trumpian tweeting phenomenon, the taxonomy can provide some editorial tools.

This is especially important when his missives are misleading.

For example, you can report that the president-elect incorrectly boast-tweeted that he won in landslide. Or that he spite-tweeted inaccurate information about Vanity Fair after the magazine panned a Trump restaurant.

Your taxonomy titles may differ from those I suggest, but you get my point. Using editorial discretion and clear language, journalists can categorize Trump’s (or anyone’s) tweets for their apparent intent, importance, and accuracy and devote attention to them accordingly.

 

4. Grow more policy wonks

With so much potential for policy change in this administration, journalists must be specialists, not generalists, or the public won’t be served. It’s not enough to run a sound bite from a public servant who says: “We’re eliminating job-killing regulations,” or “These regulations run thousands of pages, so it’s clear they’re a problem.”  Where’s the proof? Where’s the context? A journalist without expertise in that topic will be a mere stenographer.

Your newsroom can identify several policy issues of greatest importance to community. As a leader, you then assign reporters to develop deep expertise—and give them the time to do so. Study the December report from the American Press Institute on the 7 Characteristics of Effective Accountability Journalists for guidance.

If you’ve cut back on beat reporting, shift your priorities. That way, statements about proposed changes in regulations, policies, laws, or processes won’t hang in the air without informed follow-questions and contextual reporting. Regulations may indeed be job-killing. Or they might be life-saving. How will the public know if your journalists lack the depth to sort things out?

 

5. Focus on systems over symbols

I’ve always told new managers to look for “quick wins” to build their credibility.  A quick win is a tangible solution or change, done early in one’s tenure, to show you can get things done. They are often small and symbolic, not major, systemic change. (One new general manager told me he gained instant credibility at his station by having a long-malfunctioning toilet fixed.)

As a master of brand management, our incoming president has a great understanding of symbolism. His agreement and announcement about Carrier jobs was the textbook quick win.  It painted a picture of swift success, a victory for the beleaguered workers. But it’s a one-off, not even a full rescue of Carrier jobs, and not systemic change for the American work force. 

Happy photo ops have always lured journalists into telling incomplete stories. The food drive we cover doesn’t break a cycle of poverty. It just makes for a pleasant story. Look for 2017 to be a year in which we must separate symbolic events from systemic change. According to his biographers, our incoming president is an artist when it comes to imagery.  Journalism can’t let images transcend truth.

 

6. Establish a “whistleblower” strategy

Quality journalism uses anonymous sources as a last resort, and only after a careful process of deliberation that weighs the public benefits against the many risks. That standard should remain in 2017 and beyond, but be ready to do those deliberations with great frequency. To fully report on an administration that has already demonstrated a disinclination for traditional accountability (See income taxes, business/political conflicts of interests, and dismissal of intelligence agency findings as a start), whistleblowers may become your pathfinders. Think now about how you will handle those valuable and potentially volatile sources.

Businessman Donald Trump is accustomed to requiring non-disclosure and non-disparagement agreements among employees.  His campaign manager Corey Lewandowski had one, which made his stint as a CNN political pundit such a  boneheaded move. Politico reports that paid staffers, contractors and volunteers in the Trump transition team all had to sign NDAs. It’s safe bet we won’t be getting a heartfelt presidential endorsement of “Sunshine Week” in 2017.

This won’t be the first administration to value secrecy, but the political use of such gag mechanisms should put newsrooms on alert. If government insiders see wrongdoing and risk blowing the whistle, how will your newsroom vet the accuracy of the information and ensure the safety of the messenger?

 

7. Distinguish boldness from bias

The New Year is also a time to talk openly and often with your team about ethics.  Human beings are subject to biases and blind spots. That’s why the practice of journalism has processes to override them. Codes of ethics. A discipline of verification. Editorial oversight. Consequences for errors. It’s heavy lifting, but worth it, never more than now, to set it apart from fake news.

Taking on the challenges of an administration’s animosity toward journalism and a new president’s predilection for prevarication demands courage and creativity, but it can’t be done from prejudice against him or his politics. It’s the job of news managers to keep their news reporting bulletproof, because the Trumpian technique is to equate bad news with lies and  bias. His supporters follow suit. The fight against fake news has already been misrepresented as an attempt to silence conservative media by the so-called “liberal mainstream.” This is no time to be worn down by politically motivated accusations of bias.  Challenge your team to be bold—and back them up.

 

8. Show your math

Thanks to digital tools and social media, newsrooms have many ways to pull back the curtain on the reporting process. At the beginning of every important story or project, ask your team how they will incorporate transparency in their plan. This isn’t just a public relations stunt to say, “Look at all the cool stuff we do.” It’s way to let the public learn, question and contribute. It can define the work of real journalism at a time others want to delegitimize it. 

Invite your team to study the Washington Post’s David Fahrenthold’s use of legal pads, legwork, and Twitter crowdsourcing as he dogged the Trump foundation story.  Bold and unbiased, his stories showed their math.

 

9. Show your heart 

These resolutions have largely been a call for coverage that is ethical, tough, and courageous. But don’t be so focused on righteous indignation that you neglect the stories in your community that are warm, weird, or wonderful.  Good journalism shines a light in dark places, but never misses a chance to brighten a day. Invest time and resources in fighting injustice, corruption, or abuse of power, but save space for the story of a World War II veteran’s friendship with a 3-year old neighbor. The appeal of this simple, beautifully told tale propelled it to a viral life far beyond its Minnesota origin. It’s a reminder that even in divisive times, journalists can lead us to inspirational patches of common ground.

 

10. Give feedback as never before

Shame on me. I’ve been so focused on the news product that I’ve neglected the news people.

In 2017, resolve to provide more and better feedback to your team so they never, for a moment, wonder where they stand. You may not have robust raises or bonuses to throw their way, but good feedback is priceless—and costs you nothing.

I teach that feedback is “information with intent to influence.” Properly delivered, it can influence everything from quality to productivity to morale. But leaders often miss opportunities to do it well or misgauge the effectiveness of their efforts.

To provide first-class feedback, the information you share must be specific, sincere and frequent. For maximum impact, think of it in three levels:

  • Individual growth: The individual “prescription” for each member of your team, based on your goals for them and their own personal aspirations.
  • Everyday excellence: The day-to-day attention to the quality of your product, personnel, and processes.
  • Strategic impact: The special initiatives your organization is undertaking to gain or maintain competitive advantage or business growth.

Most managers focus their feedback on everyday excellence, looking primarily at today’s hits or misses. The best managers focus on all three levels simultaneously, to achieve more powerful results.

Here’s to powerful results in 2017, news managers. Keep leading. Journalism needs you.

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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.