How to manage a newsroom shutdown

Jill Geisler teaches and coaches managers worldwide. She’s the Bill Plante Chair in Leadership and Integrity at Loyola University Chicago, 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.

Liz: Al Jazeera America is in the process of shutting down the first major cable news launch since Fox News in 1996. As you know, the decision came last month when Al Jazeera America’s owners, the Qatari government, said the operation was simply no longer viable. That’s a big and brutal job, to shut down a newsroom. It seems the first key decision management made was to declare the end won’t come until April—giving employees time to find work. But there are other issues—what happens to the content on their website, for one—that the owners and local management need to address. Any advice to them, or to the newsroom employees trying to absorb the change?

Jill: You chose the right words for a newsroom shutdown, Liz: big and brutal. This is an ideal time to identify the difference between “management” and “leadership.” “Managing” a shutdown means presiding over the disposition of assets, wringing the last bit of revenue out of the operation as it winds down, and protecting against internal sabotage. “Leading” the closing of an operation means putting people before process. Leaders help the staff deal with their grief over losing what they created, anger about injustice or unfairness, and anxiety about the future. They listen, console, and coach. They don’t let the honest emotions of people who feel ripped off turn into an overarching theme of “screw quality, what does it get us?” as they produce news with a countdown clock in the background. Most of all, they do what Jim Brady and Robyn Tomlin did when Digital First’s “Project Thunderdome” collapsed in 2014; they led a pop-up outplacement service, using social media, their own industry connections and a website to help their people find work. In the case of Al Jazeera America, kudos go to staffers Joanna Kao and Azure Gilman for taking that leadership role and building the website “The Best of Al Jazeera America Digital” to preserve and showcase AJAM reporting and help a long list of talented people find employers who provide the workplace and leadership they deserve.

Vox Media has the opposite problem. With every passing week they seem to put someone new on the payroll, most recently Choire Sicha, co-founder of The Awl, to help them expand in every direction. If you have a vision and the wallet to pursue it, why not go for it? But how do you do it smartly, particularly from a people standpoint?

Jill: Ah, we move from “big and brutal” to “vision and wallet.” I like the latter combo better, don’t you?  It’s exciting to add new brainpower to a team, but the challenge for any new leader—even a known name—is building credibility and alliances as quickly as possible. Anyone who’s ever stepped into a leadership role in a news organization knows the drill. Journalists respond to new hires with a combination of skepticism and hope. Smart leaders fuel the hope and diminish the doubt. There are two ways to do that. First, any new leader should go on a listening tour. By all means, answer any questions people have about you and your new role, but do more listening than talking. 

When people download their back stories, hopes, and fears, you often discover buried treasure in the organization. You may identify good ideas that haven’t gotten traction or obstacles that cause needless frustration. Some may be small, simple fixes.

That leads us to the second step: Create some “quick wins.” By acting on opportunities or nagging issues you’ve just heard about, you demonstrate interest, ability to act, and positive intent. You’ve also learned what matters to people, which can influence how you’ll communicate with them individually and collectively when you roll out bigger initiatives. 

What you should not do is hunker down in your new office, working on your Next Big Thing, then roll it out to a team you barely know. 

Here’s one from my personal experience. I’ve had discussions with many editors in recent years about the challenge of managing journalists who do work you have no experience producing yourself. With so many specialties these days—video journalists, programmers, audio specialists, graphic designers, web producers—how do you get a handle on how long a project they’re producing should take? If you’ve never coded, for example, it’s hard to know whether a particular project should take eight days or 30. 

Jill: It’s true, Liz—today’s newsroom leaders are managing people whose knowledge, skills, and experience can be vastly different from theirs. That’s why I tell editors to think of themselves as symphony conductors. They don’t know how to play every instrument, but they know how to get the best out of each performer and produce harmony. 

For that, I recommend three “R’s”—reporting, relationships, and respect.

Reporting: Dig for answers to these questions:

  • What makes a great day at work for professionals whose jobs you’ve never done?
  • What do they most want you to understand about their work?
  • What’s the biggest misconception about their craft?
  • What production processes work best for them?
  • What are their biggest frustrations and distractions?
  • When they talk about the all-time greats in their field, who are they—and why?
  • Who are the best bosses they ever worked for and what did they do differently?

The answers won’t teach you how to do their work, just how to lead it.

Relationships: Managers tend to gravitate toward people who remind them of themselves. We identify with those whose tasks we once did and often provide them better face time and feedback. But with that reporting I suggested, you will be better at building relationships outside your original comfort zone. You will be tuned into the lexicon and culture of these work teams and won’t inadvertently say or do something that alienates them. You will engage in more daily give-and-take and won’t check in only during scheduled meetings or when you have concerns.

Respect: If you’ve done your reporting and built your relationships, the likely byproduct is respect. People will assume you have a positive motive when you discuss the time frame for getting a project done. Instead of hearing: “How can I be sure you’re not slacking off?” they’ll hear, “How can I make sure I’m setting realistic deadlines?”

Enjoy the concert, maestro.

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.