Managing awards season, and lessons on pay disparity

In this month’s edition, CJR Editor Kyle Pope and resident management guru Jill Geisler discuss how managers can build newsroom cultures that support their staff and win awards; plus, whether pay rates should be made public.


Kyle: It’s journalism awards season. How do you navigate the office politics of choosing whom to nominate, as well as the disappointment of defeat? How do you celebrate honors without letting them exert too much influence in your day-to-day decision-making?

Jill: I recently told a lawyer friend that I was judging a journalism contest. Her observation: “You people sure give each other a lot of awards.”

Trending: In quest to protect image, NPR tarnished it

Chafing at the perception that we’re just a big, self-congratulatory tribe, I replied that most journalists don’t enter the field for big bucks or job security. Awards are our substitute currency.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

But those prizes serve other purposes. Journalism competitions, from Pulitzers to Murrows to local press club events, keep us pushing for excellence. They amplify the impact of important work and remind the public of the importance of a free press. They provide best-practice examples for teaching and training. On a practical note, contest entry fees help sustain the work of sponsoring organizations.

You can tell a good deal about a newsroom’s culture by its approach to contests. For some, it’s a year-end scramble by one or two poor souls who are tapped to rustle up potential entries. Then top managers, through some mysterious process, pick favorites, and minutes before entry deadlines, they are submitted.

Compare that to an award-winning culture, something I truly enjoyed building in my own shop. Here’s what it takes:

  • Aiming high: Staff members share the belief that notable work benefits communities. They take a “how can we make this great?” approach to coverage. They don’t do it for the awards, but neither do they dismiss the importance of recognition.
  • A planning mindset: It’s everyone’s job to be aware of significant journalism competitions, and to track and document how their individual work might qualify. They save stuff throughout the year, including documentation of the impact of their work.
  • A contest team: This was our secret weapon: a volunteer group of reporters, photographers, producers, and managers who solicited, screened, and selected entries. They were, in effect, a “shadow jury” that treated our own work as though it were produced by others. It was an open process—no favorites played, no politics involved.
  • A “bet on yourself” option: I developed this solution for frustrated folks whose work didn’t make the committee’s cut. This was the deal: invest your own time and money to enter your work. If you win, we’ll gladly acknowledge we missed a good call, applaud your success, and reimburse your entry fee. Since the committee was pretty discerning, this wasn’t risky.
  • Write your heart out: Most contest entries require descriptions of the work. Give your best writers that task. And—regardless of whether the contest rules require it, include descriptions of ethical challenges you faced and your process for resolving them. Trust me: Working with integrity gives you a competitive edge.
  • Put the winners to work: Invite your award winners to lead “how we did it” brown bag sessions for the rest of the team. Don’t force people to attend. Learning is always better when people see a gap between where they are and where they’d like to be—and choose to fill it themselves. As a manager, your presence at these is important. It shows the team what you value and gives you an opportunity to see who’s eager to learn.
  • Don’t let awards create a caste system in your shop: Awards create stars, and stardom creates problems if your newsroom culture isn’t collaborative. The award winners can become elite and isolated. While you should reward your high performers with more great assignments, give them high fives for helping raise others up—whether they’re coaching colleagues, giving credit to less visible members of the team, or pitching in on everyday assignments.


Kyle: As newsrooms face continuing business challenges, is there a sweet spot in terms of transparency on the financial picture of the newsroom?

Jill: The sweet spot is truth, but most frontline news managers don’t have full access to it. The financial picture of the newsroom isn’t determined by editors, but by corporate officers, many of whom operate on a quarterly reporting model. If business is good, the newsroom may stay at status quo or even grow in some areas. Too often, news managers get a message dropped on them at some point in a quarter, or when the company is making projections for the fiscal year ahead: Find ways to cut the budget so the organization “makes its number.”

Today’s news managers know better than to make promises they can’t keep, but they also don’t want to needlessly frighten people. Many just try to be as pragmatic as possible, telling their teams in general about the company’s search for winning strategies while reminding them that the news business is still in search of a robust business model.

Does this take a toll on good managers? Absolutely.


Kyle: Relatedly, what about transparency regarding salaries? There’s a movement underway to make people’s pay public, in part to eliminate pay disparities by gender. Is this a good idea?

Jill: Traditionally, companies urged—sometimes even ordered—their employees not to discuss salaries with others. Compensation was considered confidential business information. And frankly, some employees didn’t necessarily want to make their pay stubs public.

That approach tended to mask pay inequity between men and women. Reasonable people can argue that many things lead to pay gaps. Was an employee hired during an economic downturn when wages were depressed? Was a high performer lured from a competitor at a premium price? Was previous experience weighted heavily in starting pay? Did a new owner take over the organization and change salary ranges? Did an individual employee negotiate a package that traded off certain benefits in exchange for higher salary? (Example: I’m local, could you take what you save in moving expenses and apply it to my starting pay?) Did an employee take a break from work for family reasons and then return? Were raises calculated on performance metrics that varied from year to year?

Related: More risk, less pay: Why the gender gap matters more for foreign reporters

And in addition to all of those possibilities, there’s also a reality: The company’s decisions historically favor men. Women end up earning less.

Salary transparency has been tried, especially in the startup world, but even that hasn’t necessarily produced pay parity. So, another option is to stop requiring job applicants to reveal their current salaries. The American Association of University Women makes the smart suggestion that companies conduct salary audits to root out and address inequities. That’s what the BBC did in response to recent reports of women employees earning substantially less than men.

The result: While the outside investigators found “no evidence of gender bias in pay decision-making,” there were gaps of between 6.8 and 12.6 percent between men and women, depending on the job category. Salary adjustments were recommended and some male presenters took pay cuts. But the controversy is far from settled.

I’d suggest employers take a comprehensive approach. Audit your salaries and make adjustments. Be transparent about your pay ranges and how raises are determined. Be aware of the dangers of apparent and inherent bias in hiring and pay. And don’t penalize those who aren’t slick negotiators or squeaky wheels.

Oh, one more thing. Kyle, can I have a raise?

ICYMI: In the era of fake news, where have all the fact-checkers gone?

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

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.