Each month, CJR editor Liz Spayd sends management questions my way. This time, she made a request: How about some 2016 resolutions for news managers?
Gladly. To improve your leadership, your journalism and even your community, give these resolutions a try. Bonus points if you commit to all 10!
1. Double your feedback
I hear it everywhere from Boston to Bhutan. Employees are hungry for feedback; managers are stingy with it. Or they deliver it poorly. By my definition, feedback is information with intent to influence. You don’t need long meetings to succeed. Take an inventory of your team and your goals for each staffer. Note and save examples of their work that meets or misses these goals. Work with your managers to turn everyday conversations with employees into feedback opportunities. Smart execution will change your culture to one with clear communication about expectations and performance.
If I sold a product guaranteed to improve morale, motivation, creativity and your journalism, I bet you’d buy it. Feedback costs you nothing. Just upgrade the quality and frequency of yours.
2. Challenge authority
Ask journalists to list their news values, and within seconds you’ll hear “holding the powerful accountable.” But experience shows that this automatic drive can shift to neutral when the powerful also happen to sign our paychecks. That’s why we owe thanks to reporters of the Las Vegas Review-Journal—and their leaders (current and recently departed) for their aggressive coverage of the paper’s new owner. Though the buyer originally refused to disclosel his own identity, an aggressive newsroom probe revealed the owner as casino titan Sheldon Adelson. On the editorial page and in news stories, they highlighted his business and political interests, his lawsuits, influence and potential for journalistic conflicts.
We know these Vegas journalists are making a risky bet: that their talent for scoops and truth-telling will keep pressure on the paper’s owners to live up to their stated desire for “journalism that’s second to none.” We don’t know who really holds the measuring stick – owners with agendas or newsies with codes of ethics, but let’s pray it’s the latter. At the same time, how about looking inward? Talk with your team about how you cover your own organization as a business, how you handle potential conflicts of interest and corporate influence.
3. Fight like hell for open government
Your state could be the next Wisconsin, where the legislature and governor Scott Walker engaged in a stealthy, unhealthy effort by to weaken open records laws this past year. Republican leaders never announced their plans or held public hearings; instead they slipped open records changes into budget bill over a holiday weekend. Later, an obscure state public records board quietly deleted some existing rules. The goal in both cases was clear: to hide government records from the public.
If not for watchdogging by my hometown Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and others, there wouldn’t have been an outcry—by conservatives or liberals alike. The fight isn’t over in Wisconsin – and it could easily surface elsewhere. Who’s keeping an eye out for open government where you live? How are you leading that effort?
4. Don’t hide from your readers
I worry that we misuse the word “transparency” when we share our reporting, editing and ethical decision-making process with the public. We’re often semi-transparent. We say, “we attempted to reach Mr. Smith for comment but he did not reply” without detail. Did we call, email, tweet or text? How many times? Just before deadline? Will we keep trying? As wordsmiths, we know the power of precision—and should use it.
And don’t get me started on native advertising, a genre built on every advertiser’s dream: disguising a sales message to look like a bona fide news story—as though an independent reporter vetted it and found it important enough to present as truth.
You may have missed it, but late in 2015, the FTC issued guidelines for native advertising. I highly recommend you read them. They can be an argument- settler with your ad department, which, while trying to sustain your journalism with revenue, may lobby for less-than-transparent disclosure on native ads. Fuzzy terms like “in partnership with” or “featured content” aren’t the same as “advertising.” That’s why the FTC’s news release reminds us:
A basic truth-in-advertising principle is that it’s deceptive to mislead consumers about the commercial nature of content. Advertisements or promotional messages are deceptive if they convey to consumers expressly or by implication that they’re independent, impartial, or from a source other than the sponsoring advertiser – in other words, that they’re something other than ads.
Just when was it that media leaders lost sight of this?
5. Terminate the all-white, all-male panel
It’s 2016. Women and people of color, though they’ve been with us since life began, are apparently still off the radar of many meeting planners. Check out the “Hall of Fame and Shame” on Gender Avenger or the “Congrats, You Have an All-Male Panel” Tumblr for industry-wide proof. Journalism’s no exception. Members posting on the Journalism and Women Symposium listserv (disclosure: I’m on the JAWS advisory board) regularly flag media-related panels that lack diversity and call out the organizers. Fortunately, JAWS goes a step further and offers a rich list of experts that offenders missed.
But let’s make this unnecessary. The surest way to end the inequity is simple; Leaders, experts, if you’re invited to a roundtable that is a knights-only affair, whether its a conference or on-air, just decline. Offer to share your time and talent another time, when the featured speakers look more like the real world.
6. Get beyond the horse race and call out horse manure
Remember when journalists actually criticized “horse race” political reporting that favors poll results over real issues? As Matt Viser of the Boston Globe reports, polling has exploded both in sheer number and in media attention. We’re treating politics like sports—giving out the scores and doing play-by-plays of candidates’ public performances. But civic life isn’t a game. And it’s too important to trivialize by simply reporting the latest leaderboard.
Newsroom managers have the clout to do better. Make “context” and “fact-checking” your watchwords. Call out BS, early and often. Research says that when falsehoods are repeated, they gain traction. It’s called the “illusory truth effect.” And here’s where our traditional journalistic practices can hold us back. We publish our fact checks in one-time stories and then file them on dedicated pages. We don’t repeat them as often as the pols repeat their questionable claims. So let’s get bold and creative about embedding the fact-checks into our journalism—repeatedly. Add the truth whenever and wherever you repeat the candidate’s lie. Don’t mince words: “Candidate X claimed X, which has been proved untrue.” or “The statement by Candidate Y misrepresents the facts.” or “Candidate Z is inaccurate.” It would beat the tired game of horse-race politics.
7. Accelerate change by honoring the past
Change is a constant in journalism today and a prime responsibility of leaders. The smartest ones understand that change requires two tough tasks of the journalists in their newsrooms: learning and letting go. Leaders recognize that humans push back when they fear failure and feel they’re abandoning their roots.
That’s why I think the Washington Post’s coverage of its move to a new building was a wise trip down memory lane. Some critics sniped that the reporting was overdone. I disagree. Externally, it did no disservice to the readers; the stories were an interesting slice of history. Internally, it celebrated the past while marching the Washington Post staff to a new building and an entrepreneurial future. The convocation of past employees, and the celebration of quality journalism help people reframe the story from losing the past to building on it, and from leaving to re-launching.
8. Be resilient
Resilience is a quality that reduces the time between defeat and getting back in the game. No one understands that better than the leadership team at WDBJ-TV in Roanoke, Virginia. In the wake of the on-air murders of staffers Alison Parker and Adam Ward last August, the station distinguished itself through its coverage, its connection to its community, and its caring internal culture.
That care continues in quiet ways, thanks to wise leadership. Around the holidays, teams of WDBJ employees sent gift boxes stuffed with personal notes to fourteen samaritans who aided newsroom in the days after the murder: CBS photographers, corporate execs, retirees and on-air talent from sister stations who spelled the staff so they could attend funerals – and simply rest. One of the gift box recipients, Schurz Communications VP Marci Burdick, told me she’s never been a big saver of “things”, but she’ll cherish the dozens of notes forever.
WDBJ’s news director, Kelly Zuber, explained, “We wanted them to know how much we appreciated them and that we were healing a little bit at a time.”
9. See “Spotlight,” again
I’m assuming every journalist with a pulse has already seen the acclaimed drama about the Boston Globe’s investigation into clergy sex abuse. But this time, watch it through a new lens: What leadership lessons can you identify? Not just editor Marty Baron’s – they’re the most obvious (systems thinking, resolve, standard-setting); look for leadership choices by people at all levels (emotional intelligence, collaboration, conflict resolution, motivation.)
While you’re at it, invite someone important to see it with you; your newest employee, your publisher or general manager, your least favorite public information officer, or that gadfly citizen who loves to challenge your coverage. Imagine the conversations you’ll have on the way home.
If “Spotlight” is nothing more than feel-good entertainment for old-school journalists, we’ve missed an opportunity to use it as a tool for teaching leadership, ethics and social responsibility.
10. Laugh. Especially at yourself
Do the people on your team look forward to coming to work? In the midst of all the hard news, breaking news and boring news, do they find things to celebrate and to laugh at, including you? It happens if you set the tone as easily as Holly Gauntt does. She’s the news director of KDVR-TV in Denver.
Do a Google image search and you’ll discover a pic of the veteran hard-news journalist at work in a fuzzy blue bird costume, complete with beak. When the diehard Broncos fan lost a Super Bowl bet, she gamely spent a day leading her newsroom while dressed as a Seahawk.
For Gauntt, journalism’s tough work and gravity needs to be balanced by levity—or her favorite term: shenanigans.
It explains why, in December, she tormented her news team with a Charlie Brown holiday clock that played carols on the hour. They retaliated by hijacking it, replacing it with crime scene tape and shipping it back to the last newsroom she led—in Seattle. Pictures of the kidnapped timepiece began showing up on social media, always close to something Seahawk-ish. Gauntt savored every clock-less minute until Charlie made his way home. Here’s how she sees it:
To my thinking, laughter is one of the most powerful tools managers can have in their tool boxes, especially in newsrooms dealing with unimaginably sad stories. Laughter relieves stress, dampens anguish, builds bonds and helps heal the heart. As leaders, who by the way happen to be human, shouldn’t we all aspire to make those things part of the culture we create? We can be tough and funny. The two things aren’t mutually exclusive.
Amen. Here’s to quality journalism, leadership, and shenanigans in 2016!