7 resolutions for newsroom leaders

December 31, 2018

It’s our annual CJR tradition—making a list for the year ahead that’s aspirational—and maybe even inspirational.

But this year, let’s start with one agreement: this message isn’t for managers only. It’s for leaders—and they exist throughout newsrooms. You know them; they have no formal title, but they have influence. Their expertise, integrity, and relationships with colleagues make them trusted voices. As I always teach, people are required to follow managers; they choose to follow leaders.

So, whatever your title, from intern to CEO, here’s my suggested to-do list for 2019:


1. Own a topic: No matter the size of your news organization, it’s possible for a team or individual journalist to grab hold of a subject and become the go-to resource for info and insights. Here are three that cry out explanatory and investigative reporting:

Health care and the Affordable Care Act: As the recent Texas court ruling’s effect on the ACA unfolds, keep a focus on health care. Hold elected officials’ feet to the fire and don’t let them hide behind slogans and empty promises. What does “consumer-centered health care” mean when a politician uses it? The right to quality care? Cheap but limited coverage that fails people when they need it? How much would “Medicare for All” really cost? Show exactly what and who in your area are affected by the presence or absence of the ACA , Medicare, or other affordable coverage and care.

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Immigration: The president has driven a national narrative that equates immigration with risk and danger, when the story is far more complex. Continue reporting on the immigrants, past and present, in your community, free of politicized rhetoric. Look at immigrant connections and contributions to industry, economy, religion, education, culture and family life. Don’t fall for simplistic villains/heroes framing. Let your reporting be fact-based, human, and contextually rich.

Voting rights: This year’s midterm elections revealed a variety of voting problems across the country. Don’t let them fester until next time; stay on the case. Look for system failures and political power plays that are making it harder for people in your community to vote. Separate myth from fact about voter and election fraud. Assess the competence of your local election officials and the reliability/security of your local voting equipment. Use data and solid research to support your reporting and compare the strengths and weaknesses of your community’s voting standards and practices with others. It all ties in to the next resolution. . .


2. Start Planning for 2020: The best newsrooms focus on planning—and for them, November 3, 2020 is just around the corner. The presidency, all 435 House seats, 34 senate seats, 14 governorships of states and territories—and many other state and local offices and ballot initiatives will be in play. The better you plan, the less reliant your newsroom will be on poll-driven, horse-race coverage. You’ll have a handle on emerging issues and can inform voters about substantive topics rather than react to ads, slogans, and tweets. Think now about conventions, primary coverage, debate sponsorship or participation and who on your team will lead the planning—beginning now.


3. Use precise words: I planned to write about the squishy language around racism and bigotry that journalists too often use. And then I saw the lesson stated so well that I’m just going to quote its author, Errin Haines Whack. She’s the Associated Press’ national writer on race and ethnicity. In “Say It with Me: Racism” for the Neiman Lab, she wrote:

We don’t say “gender-tinged” when we mean sexist. If we’re honest, talking about race makes white Americans — including journalists — uncomfortable. We see constant proof of this in the journo-gymnastics of our headlines and ledes, with toothless phrases like “racial rhetoric,” “racially charged” or “racially tinged.” They mean little, and do even less to convey what it is that we’re actually trying to report.

I give credit to my hometown paper, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which didn’t hold back in this December headline: “Commission Upholds Firing of Milwaukee Cop Who Posted Racist Memes in Sterling Brown Arrest.” Read the story and look at the officer’s posts, especially the meme about another NBA player’s hair. The editors made a journalistic decision to use the word “racist.” Faced with a similar situation, are you ready to do the same? Do you need to have conversations now—with diverse voices in the room—about clearly calling racism by its real name?


4. Check your culture: Is the culture of your newsroom healthy enough to have candid conversations about issues of race and gender? Do people feel fairly treated? Are they confident that there are clear and fair processes for dealing with sexual misconduct or discrimination, which are inextricably linked?

We’d like to think that the #MeToo stories that surfaced in media organizations and booted out some bad actors have brought us into a new era. But we’ve taken only baby steps. Culture change takes careful, complex work among caring people at all levels of organizations.

I know, because I’m working on it through the Freedom Forum Institute’s Power Shift Project, having created a curriculum for media organizations called Workplace Integrity. It’s built on three pillars: critical thinking, courageous conversations, and cultures of respect and trust. (And it’s now free, thanks to a CBS grant.)

If you want to upgrade your culture, remember that it doesn’t happen by simply coming up with a new mission statement or changing the way workspaces are allocated and decorated. It requires everyone in the organization to surface and challenge assumptions that are deeply embedded in the workplace. Those assumptions drive behaviors around power, status, process, quality, relationships, and success. Here’s the most valuable tip I can give you as you work on culture: When you list the qualities you’d like in your organization’s culture—communication, collaboration, civility, opportunity—don’t stop there. Ask everyone to agree on what those qualities look like in daily behaviors. That’s how you can measure whether you’re living up to your goals.


5. Improve communication to improve collaboration: Here’s what I’ve discovered as newsrooms work on multiple platforms. One of the biggest impediments to people truly collaborating with each other (seeing the big picture, offering to help, sharing resources, understanding deadlines and priorities) isn’t a lack of skill or will. It’s lack of information.

Because different teams keep different calendars and use different communication channels for projects, people often don’t know what their colleagues are up to—or up against.

They communicate through their editors or in periodic meetings, but there’s too often a sense that decisions are made mysteriously, by office politics or favoritism or some formula for which only a few people have the secret recipe. So, when it comes time to ask for or offer help—to truly work across desks, teams or departments, people think the balance of trade may not be fair—and hang back.

When employees can see what others are doing in a master calendar, when they have a clear understanding of who’s on deadline (or blowing deadline), who’s working on a project that’s a newsroom or company priority and who’s working on the not-so-glamorous tasks right now, they can become more empathetic.

This is what empathy is—the ability to see the world through the eyes of others. At work, it happens in two ways:

Our organization communicates well regarding priorities and processes—with user-friendly systems to keep us updated.
We as individual employees take the time to learn what makes a great day at work for people whose jobs differ from ours.

What might you do to improve both of those?


6. Keep working on feedback: I say this every year, because I continue to believe that feedback is the most underused natural resource we have at work. Feedback has the power to affect quality, productivity, risk-taking, teamwork, innovation, creativity, engagement, morale, and retention. But survey your staff and you’ll very like hear that they get too little useful feedback and that what they get is more negative than positive.

It’s understandable. Managers often don’t give enough feedback. People remember negative experiences more than positive. And too often, managers who think they’re providing positive feedback do it poorly. “Great story!” is nice. Explaining why it’s great makes all the difference.

Describing what works well increases the chances that you’ll see more of it in the future. That’s the power of feedback done right. If you tell me that when it comes to breaking news, I’m your go-to person because I’m calm in the storm, deliver on all platforms automatically, and always have a Plan B—do you think I’ll ever want to lose that reputation?

And remember, journalists are natural skeptics, even about praise. That’s why, when it comes to feedback, your specificity proves your sincerity.


7. Be proud and kind: My last suggested resolution is that you take good care of yourself and your co-workers. Do your best to assume a positive or neutral motive when you’re trying to figure out why colleagues have done something that irritates you. It saves you a lot of needless stress.

Take pride in the hard but essential work of news-gathering and reporting. Brush off the spittle from a President who considers those who aren’t sycophants his enemies. Celebrate the Gallup poll numbers that say trust in media is on the uptick. And when a stranger asks what you do for a living, simply smile and reply: “I defend democracy by producing ethical journalism.”

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.