The lesson news managers can learn from Comey’s firing

CJR Editor Kyle Pope and our resident management guru Jill Geisler talk about the leadership lessons of President Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey, how resource-strapped newsrooms can cover the Republican health-care bill, and how managers of local newsrooms can keep morale high at a time of cutbacks.

Kyle: The White House appeared unprepared for the tsunami of negative coverage of the Comey firing. The “official story” seemed to evolve in part because the staff had no coherent plan on messaging. News managers often have to make and explain their own controversial calls—what’s the leadership lesson here?

Jill: This is the extreme downside of what’s known as the command-and-control leadership style, in which the person at the top is directive rather than collaborative and makes decisions from predetermined conclusions rather than questions. “Controllers” operate by mandate.

Controlling leaders aren’t necessarily narcissists, but when they have those tendencies, they’re even more likely to sabotage their own commands. They can’t or won’t look beyond their desired outcome, nor envision how it might play out negatively.

The administration’s flat-footed response to the uproar after Comey’s firing suggests that the master narrative put forth by the president was either broadly, willingly accepted by his team as righteous, or wasn’t effectively questioned by those who had concerns.

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Smart managers, especially those who know they have a “commanding” streak, choose deputies and advisors who are as likely to push back on them as they are to agree. They don’t confuse dissent with disloyalty. At the very least, they’re open to hearing about potential negative consequences and how to respond. They may stick to their original decision, but they put a communication plan in place to address the fallout.

News managers often have to make unpopular decisions—from ethics calls to firings. Comey’s dismissal is a case study in how NOT to handle them.


Kyle: Congressmen voting on the health care bill were ridiculed for not reading the legislation they were voting on. But what about reporters writing about it? In an era of shrinking newsrooms, how can we report on and cover complex issues with fewer people?

Jill: It can be daunting for an understaffed newsroom to tackle a multidimensional issue. But health care is so rife with ramifications for every soul in this country that it’s journalistic malpractice to leave a local angle uncovered. That’s where leadership comes in. News managers should craft a game plan to “own” the story—not about the action in DC, but on the impact at home.

Let me conduct a mini-newsroom workshop for mini-newsrooms:

  • Decide what you’re NOT going to cover, so you can free up one person to become your leading mind on health care.
  • Choose a person who sweats the details, has great critical thinking skills and will live and breathe this story.
  • Ask that person to be the newsroom’s trainer on the topic, so everyone’s game is raised by what he/she knows. Add time to your story meetings for this person to do a little teaching.
  • With your lead reporter at the helm, do a “stakeholder” exercise with your staff, including people from outside the newsroom. Ask them to write down every possible person or entity that the evolving health care bill will affect—and how.
  • Set priorities. What trends came up in those replies? Local hospitals? Health problems unique to your community? A big demographic group in your town—like Boomers out of the workforce but not old enough for Medicare? Look for the stories that will become the heart of your coverage—a bell you will ring over and over as the Washington drama unfolds.
  • Identify a roster of local experts, and crowdsource the heck out of them. Check your universities and community colleges for health policy instructors, econ professors, small business experts, and social services specialists. Turn to theologians and clergy to talk about the moral core of health care in America.
  • Put those experts to work as sentinels, sources and sense-makers. Sentinels keep an eye on Washington developments and alert you. (Go ahead, ask them. Don’t think it lowers your credibility or makes you look needy. That’s arrogant, old-school newsroom thinking.) Sources help build the infrastructure of your stories, on the record. Sense-makers help you think through a complex issue or ethical challenge, on the record or on background.
  • Tell those stories through the lives of those most affected—real people whose flesh and blood are on the line.
  • As the news manager, back up your health care point person. Immerse yourself in the topic, too—not to micromanage, but to help with brainstorming, editing, social media strategy, and multi-platform opportunities.

Finally, promise your team your coverage will rise above simple sound bites from politicians and horse race stories about which party or pol looks like a winner. Your stories will look at the faces in your community and answer their question: “What does this mean to me?”

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Kyle: There is big gap in the journalism business at the moment, with some national titles seemingly picking up steam, but other, often local, players struggling like they’ve never struggled before. How do we keep up morale in that kind of environment?

Jill: The record uptick in digital subscriptions at The New York Times is great news for serious journalism and journalists—but their cousins in papers elsewhere can’t be blamed if they’re jealous—or discouraged. The recent round of newspaper layoffs, both reported (and unreported, I’m looking at you, Gannett) leave newsrooms feeling they’ve gone from lean to malnourished.

Their front-line leaders have the challenge of feeding them as best they can. Here’s what they are hungry for:

  • Time to do a story that matters, even if that can’t be every day.
  • Understanding of their workload, so they’re not burdened beyond capacity.
  • Clear priorities. Everything can’t be important.
  • Training that makes their work easier or more effective.
  • Work schedules that are predictable and posted early enough for people to plan their lives. (This is a fixable problem I hear about way too often.)
  • Specific, sincere, and frequent feedback on their work, especially the good stuff. Don’t be the boss who says, “I don’t praise people for doing what they’re supposed to do.”—unless you want them to leave you.
  • Candor about the health and future of the business.
  • No corporate-speak, BS, or reporting blackouts about layoffs and reorganizations. Ethical news organizations cover themselves with the same scrutiny they give other businesses.
  • Clear-eyed understanding that staffers now work with one eye on the door, looking for more stable jobs. Bosses can’t expect staffers to be “company people” when their company sees them as an expendable expense.

News managers also need to help when their good people fall victim to corporate cuts. Assisting them in finding new work sends a message to the rest of the newsroom that they are human beings, not just “head count” on an operating budget.

It’s been eight years since I wrote “Ten Reasons You Should Hire a Journalist” as a small way to help the displaced. It’s a shame that it’s still necessary today.

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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.