2020 resolutions for news leaders

December 30, 2019

There’s a New Year’s Day tradition in my home town of Milwaukee: the Polar Bear Plunge. Even when the temperature is below zero, hundreds of hearty folks take a running start and pitch themselves into Lake Michigan. The water is shockingly cold; those who take the plunge emerge shivering, smiling, and proud of their stamina. 

That plunge is a pretty good metaphor for the news year ahead. Journalists know they’re jumping into a challenging time, with an abundance of big stories, declining resources, and no shortage of critics who want their biases presented as objective truth. That’s cold.

Still, news folks forge ahead, because… journalism. In return for that endurance, they deserve first-class leadership. So let’s redouble our commitment to provide it in 2020—with specific actions.

As I crafted this list of resolutions for news managers, I posted a call for ideas on my Facebook page, to make sure I didn’t miss any insights from friends on the front lines of newsgathering and journalism education. Many shared concerns about the stress of today’s newsroom life. Professor Bill Silcock of Arizona University’s Cronkite School says we need “resilience after the battle we face daily from the White House to Walmart. As journalists, we need the capacity to recover quickly. “ 

The right leaders help us build resilience. So, in 2020, resolve that you will:


  • Do better by your people.
    Stories are important; new product development is essential; community engagement is vital. But your team is everything. Your staff’s smarts, strength, and engagement drive your progress. They look to you for priorities, encouragement, and inspiration. Be vigilant about the pressures they face; mitigate it through clear communication about business and newsroom goals. Really listen to people. Don’t wait for them to come to you with concerns. Work the room. Never pit people against each other. Be especially mindful of those who work behind the scenes, to ensure they know they’re valued. Stand up for staffers who are targeted by trolls. Make certain people take off the time they have coming to them. Celebrate even small wins. Don’t confuse newsroom fun with slacking off.If you’re a manager who is great at daily journalism but not as adept with the people skills I’ve listed (and that’s often the case), show this column to folks on your team. Tell them your 2020 resolution is to do better by them—and invite them to hold you accountable.
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  • Know when to say two magic words:
    Lynda Robinson, veteran enterprise editor at the Washington Post, says, “Be brave enough to tell a reporter: slow down.” Gayle Yvonne Simons, news director at KATU in Portland, was even more emphatic about those magic words. “It’s so easy to feel the press of our duties and the deadlines. It just leads to mistakes.”How do you do that? First, you establish and maintain systems and tools that enable rapid verification and publication. Good news operations are built for speed; it is essential to our work. But the best news outlets contain leaders and staff that have the ethical compass and critical thinking skills to know when immediacy is paramount and when “pause” is the best option. They talk about it, and not just when they’re in the midst of a breaking story.The leaders I quoted are on to something important: They know that their actions set a tone—one that remains in the room whether or not they are present. Their values, for better or worse, are contagious. They model the best.


  • Apologize for your errors.
    Our country may have a president who famously never apologizes, but that shouldn’t stop anyone else. Sincere and specific apologies are an essential element of leadership. There’s ample literature that underscores this truth. Powerful people gain credibility by taking responsibility for their mistakes.That’s why newsroom leaders should fess up when they mess up—including on things that seem minor to them. Keep in mind that research says managers have a rosier view of the workplace than their staff does. That optimism can keep managers from seeing the true impact of things they do wrong. Messed up work schedules, slow responses to peoples’ questions or ideas, inaccessibility, giving credit to the wrong person or forgetting to give credit at all: all erode staff morale and the supervisor’s credibility. Apologies with a commitment to change are the appropriate response.Eric Deggans, NPR’s TV critic, points out that when newsroom leaders make flawed coverage decisions, journalists on the front lines often get the brunt of the public’s blowback. It’s especially important to never let staff take the hit for your bad call. That’s more than leadership—it’s integrity.


  • Understand that microaggressions are NOT tiny problems.
    I’ve spent a lot of time this year talking with journalists about the continuing failure to diversify newsrooms and coverage. Among my priorities was a clear need to make leaders aware how destructive microaggressions are to human dignity, let alone to diversity efforts. I fear that the “micro” part of that word is deceiving—implying “tiny” or “insignificant.” These aren’t dramatic knife-in-the-back assaults. Instead, they’re like sharp needle pokes and static electricity shocks, administered day after day to those who are underrepresented in newsrooms.What do they look like? Here’s a short and incomplete list: Condescending praise; being surprised at someone’s skill; assuming the women on the team will tend to office social or housekeeping duties; talking over people in meetings; creating content in which the dominant voices are white and male (and rationalizing it by saying, “We tried but this was the best we could get in the time we had”); using dated or coded language; framing stories with a baked-in assumption that the audience is white and other ethnicities need to be explained to them (“If you’ve never been to a quinceañera, you’re about to see a happy rite of passage…”); mispronouncing names; asking highly personal questions; assuming you have the right to touch peoples’ hair or their pregnant bellies; thinking minority and female staff should be grateful you’ve asked them to be on diversity committees rather than being appreciative of the extra work they are doing; asking underrepresented people for information related to gender, ethnicity or disability and assuming they speak for a whole class of people, or using them for “ready reference” without doing any research on your own. And then there’s a whole category of its own: the rejection of story ideas as “too niche” or “not relevant” because they just don’t resonate with the life experiences of older, whiter, often male decision-makers. As a leader, you can raise awareness about microaggressions and use your power to end them. It takes courageous conversations with people who, whether intentionally or through unconscious bias, are causing pain, hurting your journalism, and defeating the diversity efforts you’re trying to advance.Moving from the micro to the macro:what about this big-picture diversity challenge from veteran editor Raju Narisetti, who asks, “If you haven’t, will you commit to an annual public diversity report that looks at gender, race, where your hires came from (colleges/last hometown/languages spoken)?”


  • Upgrade your collaborative skills.
    Today’s newsrooms are asked to be nimble, innovative, and productive on multiple platforms. Yesterday’s silos and single-skilled journalists are disappearing. In their place are cross-functional teams and Swiss Army knife employees.That means we need to get along—really well.I like the way Newsday editor Shawna VanNess puts it: “Collaboration has never been so important. Every decision one member of the team makes about priorities, resources, and communication affects everyone else.”And there’s Washington Post staff writer Sydney Trent’s good advice: “Embrace multigenerational newsrooms and encourage intergenerational relationships and skill sharing.”Here’s my simple guidance for upgrading your collaborative skills: Find out what makes a great day at work for someone whose job you don’t do. Make it your business to become the person whose requests they put at the top of their to-do list. Learn why they prefer working with some people more than others and then become that somebody.Do it by adopting Boyzell Hosey’s resolution for 2020. The deputy editor for photography of the Tampa Bay Times says, “Since there are so fewer of us, now more than ever we need to talk across our responsibilities and beats. As a visual journalist, I’m keenly interested in raising the visual IQ and vocabulary of the entire newsroom, as well as expecting more from my visual team to become more accountable as reporters and caretakers of content.”

    Don’t cling to a past vision of newsroom job descriptions; instead, like Boyzell, envision tomorrow’s.


  • Be a sponsor for your colleagues.
    Mentors give advice. That’s a valuable gift. But if you really want to help fellow journalists, be a sponsor—someone who actively helps them get the right job, or any good job, after they’ve been victimized by our craft’s relentless downsizing. (CJR’s layoff tracker is a grim reminder of this reality. As I write this column, it reports a verified total of 3,160 job losses in 2019 and there’s no great optimism that the 2020 employment picture will brighten.)
    Ten years ago, I wrote “Ten Reasons You Should Hire a Journalist,” an open letter to potential employers on behalf of those affected by the early waves of cuts. The reasons journalists are smart hires remain as valid as ever. That’s all the more reason to use your credibility, your connections, and your ability to crowdsource and go to bat for them.


  • Be a force for first-class feedback.
    Here’s my annual plea to managers: Your people want more feedback. It costs you nothing to provide it, so please be better at providing it in 2020.One way to raise your game is to think of feedback in three distinct buckets:
    – Strategic Impact: How did the work in question help us hit our most ambitious goals, the things we want to do to set ourselves apart
    Everyday Excellence: How well did this person’s work meet our standards for quality journalism.
    Personal Growth: How did this person’s work help meet their own personal goals and aspirations?Most managers focus on Bucket Two. Like the quality control inspector on an assembly line, they keep errors down and the product up to standard.Really great managers dip into all three buckets and know when each one is best. They know when to aim higher than everyday excellence and focus on strategic goals. They know their people well enough to tailor their feedback so their conversations can also touch on each employee’s personal hopes and dreams—and on a regular basis, not just during annual evaluations.
  • Protect the vote.
    Our 2020 resolutions this far have focused on leading people, but the big finish is about leading on an essential election-year topic.Voting is a right. Don’t let it become a partisan football in your coverage and don’t let misrepresentations about voter fraud or election security go unchallenged.As the AP in Wisconsin reported recently, one party is already planning to step up election day monitoring, quoting an adviser to President Trump:

    “Traditionally it’s always been Republicans suppressing votes in places,” the adviser said. “Let’s start protecting our voters. We know where they are. … Let’s start playing offense a little bit. That’s what you’re going to see in 2020. It’s going to be a much bigger program, a much more aggressive program, a much better-funded program.

Be prepared to separate myth from fact about voter fraud. Assign one person to develop deep subject matter expertise, but educate everyone who touches election coverage about the history and reality of voting integrity in your state, as well as the national picture. It will keep you from parroting and failing to correct inaccurate claims as you cover speeches or ads, or interview politicians and partisans.

Here are a few resources:

Follow the lead of news outlets that are already minding this store: AP’s recent look at denial of absentee ballots in Ohio, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s guide to a controversial pending purge of more than 200,000 voters from the rolls in Wisconsin (with advice on what to do if you’re affected), and the Atlanta Journal Constitution’s recent analysis of how polling place closures and relocations harmed voter turnout in Georgia, especially among black voters.

Finally, as we plunge into 2020, let’s listen to Julie Wright, the AP’s news editor for Missouri and Kansas, who shares this wisdom:

 “Remember how fortunate we are to be doing such important work and help our colleagues remember that, too. In and among the stresses, the public ridicule, the inadequate budgets, what we do matters and those of us who still get to do it are blessed.”


Editor’s note: A previous version of this article misspelled Gayle Yvonne Simons’s name.

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.