Dysfunction, leaks, and burnout: Tips for news managers covering Trump

February 27, 2017

In this month’s edition, CJR Editor Kyle Pope and resident management guru Jill Geisler talk about lessons newsroom managers can learn from dysfunction in the Trump administration, how to ethically report on leaks, and ways to deal with newsroom burnout.

Kyle: There have been an abundance of stories about dysfunction in the Trump administration. What management lessons can news leaders take away from those problems?

Jill: As a teacher of leadership, it’s painful to see the administration make so many fundamental management errors. My critique isn’t driven by politics or the President’s verbal assaults on a free press. Let’s just focus on management lessons that apply anywhere, any time. The list is long, but here are three:

1. Know the right style of leadership to use for the situation—or you’ll create your own defeat:

Right out of the blocks the President operated with a commandandcontrol style. It’s the autocratic, “Do it because I said so” model usually reserved for crisis situations. (When the building is on fire, you don’t convene a committee; you order an evacuation.)

When the President’s first travel ban was fired off without adequate involvement of key stakeholders, there was no documented emergency to justify it. The command approach to his executive order didn’t impress the 9th Circuit.

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Interestingly, people often associate command and control with the military. But military leaders tell me this is old-school thinking. They don’t want compliant robots, they want critical thinkers.

It should be the same for newsroom managers. Don’t just give orders. Listen to your smart employees. They may not always get a vote, but if they know they have a voice, your change initiatives are more likely to succeed.

RELATED: Avoiding questions about Trump’s mental health is a betrayal of public trust

2. Make certain your management team has clear roles and responsibilities:

There’s abundant reporting about the power struggles within the President’s leadership team, and how they contribute to dysfunction. The Post’s Chris Cillizza even launched a weekly tracker of “Power Rankings” among the inner circle.

When managers don’t have clearly defined roles and responsibilities, their employees pay the price. Alliances form, often around the “powerful person du jour” or staffers’ shared sense of grievance—and those alliances are often fragile. Trust erodes. Blame-gaming is common. People are afraid to act. Easy decisions become hard.

Picture the worst newsroom meltdown you’ve ever experienced during a breaking news event: Managers are bumping into each other, shouting conflicting orders. People think bases are covered when they aren’t. Staffers are angry and defensive. Your team falls behind on the story. It’s not for lack of reporting skill. Your managers didn’t create a breaking news plan with clear roles and responsibilities for everyone, but especially for themselves.

3. Don’t be surprised if your staffers adopt your worst habits:

We have a President who has provided full employment for fact-checkers, and doubles down or attacks the messenger when his dissembling is documented. Is it really that surprising that one of his key (now former) advisors, General Michael Flynn, was caught playing fast and loose with the facts? Why shouldn’t Flynn think that within this particular leadership circle, it was his prerogative? His boss set the tone.

I teach news managers that their language and habits become the newsroom’s stylebook. If you disregard civility or integrity, some of your people will work around you for as long as they can, some will leave you, and some will emulate you. Ignore all three options at your peril.


Kyle: The new administration has led to a good amount of reporting from unnamed sources and leaks. What are the ethics of reporting on leaked or ill-gotten material?

Jill: “Ill-gotten” covers a lot of territory, including phone hacking (I’m looking at you, News of the World scandal in the UK) and info-by-any-means-necessary isn’t where we want to be as journalists. But reporting based on leaks will always be a part of our work, especially when people within powerful organizations—from civic to business to government—feel honor-bound to reveal information that others want kept secret. It’s why outlets like the USA Today Network, ProPublica, and more have launched “How to leak to us” pages on their sites and why newsrooms of all sizes should be having conversations about their values and processes for dealing with whistleblowers and leaks.

Here are some questions to guide those talks:

  • What’s our journalistic purpose for seeking or publishing leaks?
  • How important is the information to the public?
  • How hard have we tried to get this information from on-the-record sources before using unnamed sources?
  • What do we know about the source of the information?
  • Should the source’s motives influence our decision to publish?
  • How rigorous is our verification process?
  • What harm might we cause by publishing this information?
  • If there is potential harm, how might we mitigate it?
  • What legal implications might there be to the source? To us?
  • What protections can we legally and ethically provide to the source? To our staff?
  • If we’re conflicted about publishing, have we reached out to ethics experts?
  • How transparent will we be about our decision-making?

In newsrooms with a strong ethical culture, people don’t wait for managers to ask these questions. They’re part of the journalistic DNA.
RELATED: An essential reading list for understanding Donald Trump

Kyle: How should managers deal with news burnout, when headlines seem to come by the second?

Jill:  We’re clearly in an “always on” political news environment, driven by a controversial administration. For news junkies, the rallies, town halls, litigation, news conferences, debates, and fact-checking are exhilarating. For the beat reporters, they can become exhausting, too.

Managing continuous coverage is a critical skill for managers. When possible, they add to staff or shift resources to the priority topic. They make certain information is effectively transferred across work shifts, so no one drops the ball. They develop social media strategies that support their multitasking reporters.

They celebrate solo “scoops” but also reward collaboration, so staffers share rather than hoard info. (Hoarders either get no rest or cause the newsroom to lose out on a story if they’re on a break.)

Good managers watch their people closely for signs of stress or burnout. Even when there are no symptoms, they may tell people to “go home well” and enjoy a bonus paid day off, as a reward for dedication. They stay engaged with their teams, removing frustrating obstacles to their work and providing top-notch, expedited editing. They’re generous with feedback, especially encouragement and earned applause.

Finally, good newsroom leaders never miss a chance to share this simple message:

This is one hellaciously important time to be a journalist.

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.