How newsroom bosses can discuss the media industry crisis

In this month’s edition, CJR Editor Kyle Pope and resident management guru Jill Geisler discuss how managers talk about problems in the media industry within their newsrooms. Then, the pair tackles handling internships within resource-strapped outlets.

 

Kyle: There’s lots in the air now about the crisis in local journalism and various efforts to revive it. But framing the issue as a crisis has an effect on local newsrooms. How should managers talk to their staffs about the need for urgency on the issue without communicating a sense of doom? And how do they do it in a year already marked by layoffs and buyouts?

Jill: More than anything, journalists want their managers to be straight with them. They’ve adapted to pivots, platforms and partnerships—all in a quest for sustainability. It’s been heartbreaking to see that even papers involved in projects intended to shore up local news have faced fresh cutbacks.

This puts even greater pressure on managers to tell people where things stand, what’s expected of them, and how to stay inspired amid the current stress.

ICYMI: How a problematic NYT article shows how newsrooms are out of touch with the communities they cover

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Here are some things the staff needs to hear from their newsroom leaders:

  • You’re not the problem. Don’t believe the partisan hype that your failure to reflect someone’s political agenda is the root cause of journalism’s business weaknesses. That kind of snark shows up repeatedly in story comments and on social media. But turning reporters into propagandists isn’t going to turn around our business fortunes. Building and sustaining trust is essential to what we do—and the foundation for that will always be evidence-based and ethical journalism.
  • Keep learning. It’s the job of our top leaders to come up with smarter business strategies, but at the same time, no matter where we are in the organization, let’s keep learning and growing. If there’s new technology or skills to learn, let’s dive in. There’s no guarantee that untested approaches to our craft will result in new revenue, but we’re stronger when we’re smarter—and you’ll get a few new talents to add to your portfolio, which is never a bad thing.
  • I understand your skepticism. I don’t expect you to stand up and cheer for each new initiative we try or to be less than disgusted about buyouts and layoffs. I presume you are looking at Plans B, C, and D in case the last joy of working here fades away or if corporate opens up a trap door. Just know I’ll do my best to support you every day, so you’re proud of what we do and of your part it in. And when we try something different or shift priorities, I hope you’ll suspend disbelief long enough to give it a fair try. We have to keep moving forward.
  • We’re cash-strapped but I won’t sell us out. We know that the fastest ways to make money can involve selling our credibility, but our ethical bright lines are clear. We’ll identify partnerships, sponsorships, and grants to help underwrite our work, but we won’t compromise editorial independence. We’ll be transparent about our funding and our obligations. It can be done.
  • Don’t stop pitching ideas. We can’t lose our ambition. When our stories uncover wrongs or chronicle human quests, we’re all the more valuable to our community. If it means shifting resources to ensure your idea gets its due, we’ll do it. And if you’re unsure how to develop that breakthrough story, come to me for help. If there’s the seed of a good idea there and you’re willing to do your part, we’ll make it happen.
  • Engagement leads to better stories. We’re understaffed and overcommitted, but if we stay huddled in the newsroom (even while watching analytics), we’re really not connecting with readers, listeners and users—and we’re missing opportunities. It’s important to invite people in to our story development process at every possible touch point—to share stories that touch their lives.
  • Be glad people are talking about news deserts. We may wince every time we hear we’re endangered, but thank goodness the connection between journalism and democracy is being discussed. Additionally, the disappearance of news outlets is being researched right down to the state-by-state level, the impact across civic life is being documented, and the awareness is driving action. The Knight Foundation just put 300 million into play to support local news. Is there some foolproof solution that will eradicate the deserts before we’re desiccated, too? Not yet, but while the incremental efforts roll out, let’s keep proving why we’re worth it.
  • We need to look out for each other. Layoffs cause stress and survivor’s guilt. It shows up in different ways and times for each of us. It can affect anything from our personalities to our productivity. We still have deadlines and goals and duties, but let’s not assume the worst about people who aren’t at their best right now. Let’s listen to each other or just provide silence when that’s best. Let’s give candid, critical feedback if needed, with a heavy dose of empathy. And let’s not miss a chance to provide earnest praise and encouragement because we sure as hell can use it.
  • Let’s wallow in good journalism. If you’ve read, watched, or heard something great—spread the word. It can be our work or anyone’s. But tell your co-workers about it and share it on social media. Just revel in it. Learn from it. Remind yourself and everyone what’s possible, what’s valuable, and why quality journalism is worth fighting for.

I hope that anyone reading that list gains an appreciation for what many newsroom managers are dealing with today—and how valuable they are as they hold things—and people—together.

 

Kyle: It’s internship application season. What’s the state of play for most newsrooms? On the one hand, it’s a great way to introduce new reporters and to allow veterans to use their mentoring skills. But good internship programs require time and resources, which a lot of outlets don’t have. 

Jill: Universities want their students to get practical learning. Students know that internships enrich their resumés. Good newsrooms know they create a pipeline for future hires.

It’s easier for big organizations to commit resources to internships. In small shops, it’s often good-hearted staffers who voluntarily add “intern duty” to their workload.

But do more. Build a system that streamlines the bureaucratic part of internships so your volunteers can use their limited time on the supervisory side of the process: assignments, coaching, feedback.

Here are keys to internship success:

  • Recruiting: You may not have time or resources to show up at university career fairs, but you can keep a file of intern coordinators at nearby schools. (Caveat: if your nearby schools don’t have a diverse student population, expand your list to achieve diversity.) Also in your “intern file” should be a template description of your internship and its requirements along with info on sites like this, this, and this that promote internships.
  • Selection: Expedite the process by making your selection criteria objective and clear and by using video interviews for the finalists if time and distance preclude in-person conversations.
  • Onboarding: Create a checklist for the first two days of any internship. No matter who oversees the welcome aboard, there should be a consistent plan for orientation. And update it from time to time. Wise organizations now include information on sexual harassment, since research shows interns are among the most vulnerable targets.
  • Clear roles and responsibilities: What skills will your successful interns build on your watch? What are they encouraged to do and what’s off limits? How will they be evaluated and by whom?
  • Feedback: Everyone’s welcome to give feedback to interns, but who will be guaranteed to do so? Who knows, on any given day, how the intern’s doing?
  • Followup: How do you make certain the best and brightest interns stay connected to your newsroom—either as future employees or great ambassadors for your organization?

And don’t forget to think about using interns as reverse mentors. Many of them are proficient in technical and digital skills that veteran journalists would like to improve, along with story ideas that the newsroom team might otherwise miss.

Journalism—however challenged—is going to survive. So let’s keep investing in its future leaders.

ICYMI: Poll: 60% of people think journalists get paid by their sources

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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.