How newsroom managers balance community engagement and reporter safety

In this month’s edition, CJR Editor Kyle Pope and resident management guru Jill Geisler discuss how to handle design changes with your team, how to prioritize newsroom security after the Capital Gazette, and how to prepare for covering mass shootings.

Kyle: In a new design, The New York Times has taken reporters’ bylines off stories on its home page, causing some blowback from journalists. To what degree should newsroom morale factor into decisions like this? 

Jill: This is a wonderful case study in the joys and challenges of management, and how to approach decisions that may be unpopular among some members of the staff.

A decision like the Times byline removal stirs our newsroom tribal instincts. We may not like to admit it, but in our individual roles as reporters, designers, photojournalists, or engagement specialists, we can be almost as insular as today’s political partisans. Faced with changes like the Times’s, our responses reflect our in-group interests, but we often frame them as “what’s good for journalism.”

If I’m a writer who sees bylines as a hard-earned birthright, it can be a gut punch to see them disappear from the home page. But I don’t just talk about my pride in authorship. I talk about the impact on readers; how reporters’ identities contribute to credibility, transparency and a stronger brand. Don’t we want to serve readers, build trust and deepen engagement? I’ll be passionate in my arguments – and I may be right, if I have more than anecdotal evidence to back up my position.

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Now let’s visit the design tribe. Traditionally, this is where you’ll find folks with deep expertise in visual thinking, but not necessarily a lot of clout. Newsrooms have rarely placed visual journalists at the top of the power structure, often seeing them as a service bureau for stories created by the writing clan. That’s been changing recently, as news organizations become more attentive to design’s role in user experience and engagement. But past experiences linger in our memories.

If I’m a designer, I may have chafed when the “word people” around me, especially those in management, imposed their personal tastes and preferences on imagery and design. I may see the Times change as emblematic relief from an old world order in which those who didn’t know art but knew what they liked influenced too much of my work. I’m happy. My response: Finally, we’re letting design lead the way in making our content more beneficial to the public.

Designer Darrel Frost put that stake in the ground in his CJR analysis of the byline-less Times home page:

Designers believe that simplicity is helpful to users—or, in this case, readers—in that visual clarity enables the digestion of information—or the comprehension of news. If you look at a side-by-side that Politico’s Michael Calderone posted of the Times homepage before and after this redesign, the headlines do, in fact, appear more legible. To me, the question isn’t really Why did they remove the byline?, but Why should the byline be there in the first place?

Oooh…those are fightin’ words, aren’t they, reporters?

In the middle of it all are Dean Baquet and Joe Kahn, who laid out the rationale in note to staff and readers. The executive and managing editor pledged their love to reporters, design, and customers.

And, if work hard enough to navigate through a few links in that pep talk, you can get to a very cool backgrounder about the home page development process. It comes from the “Times Open” team, which posts how-we-do it reports on digital products. That “explainer” about process was actually the most valuable part of the message, if you could find it. That’s because it details the testing and the iterative process that led to the change.

This is where the management lesson comes in: Sharing the process behind a decision is important. Even more important is the concept of process fairness, the specialty of Columbia Business School professor Joel Brockner. Managers who are leading change (and who isn’t?) can benefit from his book, The Process Matters.

Brockner’s research documents the importance people place in how a decision is made, especially when they’re not especially fond of the outcome. If you’ve ever been given bad news in a thoughtless way, you understand the idea: a bad situation is made worse by the manner in which it was delivered.

People may never cheer an outcome they don’t care for, but if they think the process behind it was fair, it will have less negative impact on productivity and morale.

How is process fairness judged? Here’s how Brockner described it in a Harvard Business Review article that I read a dozen years ago, which influences my teaching to this day:

Ultimately, each employee decides for him or herself whether a decision has been made fairly. But broadly speaking, there are three drivers of process fairness. One is how much input employees believe they have in the decision-making process: Are their opinions requested and given serious consideration? Another is how employees believe decisions are made and implemented: Are they consistent? Are they based on accurate information? Can mistakes be corrected? Are the personal biases of the decision maker minimized? Is ample advance notice given? Is the decision process transparent? The third factor is how managers behave: Do they explain why a decision was made? Do they treat employees respectfully, actively listening to their concerns and empathizing with their points of view?

So, to answer the question of how much morale should factor into a decision like the Times’s byline change, my answer is: a lot. Managers, when making a controversial call, should pay close attention to process fairness. You may not be able to give people a vote, but listen to their voices. Be patient; remember that good journalists specialize in questioning authority. Check for your own biases, real or perceived. Show your math—in detail. Then act, and do so with empathy for those who are disappointed. If your decision reaps great benefits, don’t gloat. And if your customers reject it, be humble as you reverse course.

 

Kyle: In light of the Capital Gazette shootings, a lot of local newsrooms have had to rethink how open they should be. How should newsroom managers think through the balance between being an active part of the community and keeping their people safe?

Jill: The Gazette shootings had a profound impact on us. That ghastly crime was a sobering reminder of our vulnerability. Add to it the escalating attacks on journalism from a president who wants to control the meaning of “truth,” and two things emerge: a rededication to our mission and a commitment to protecting our people.

Whatever else may be cut from budgets, security can’t be among them. That’s everything from monitoring building access to responding to online harassment to determining when it’s just not safe to send a staffer out alone.

Ugly calls and messages can’t be met with bravado or laughed off. If a newsroom gets a call with a threat to shoot employees in the head, as the Boston Globe did on August 16 (the day it led a coordinated effort to editorialize on behalf of a free press), that caller should face justice—and, fortunately, that’s happening.

Ensuring safety doesn’t mean having a bunker mentality or disengaging from the outreach that many newsrooms are undertaking to connect with their communities. But as you plan public events, include a safety conversation. Encourage staff to speak up about any assignment that makes them uncomfortable. Courageous journalism and community commitment are not incompatible with common-sense safety precautions.

 

Kyle: Related, unfortunately, is the coverage of shootings. How should the shooter be referenced? What to do with audio or video from the scene? How to balance the desire for real-time information with the chaos of the early moments?

Jill: These are all tough calls, the kind that newsrooms should talk about before they face such situations in real time. In the heat of breaking news, people sometimes lose sight of their values. So start there: what do we stand for? Truth. Transparency. Independence. Minimizing harm. Then ask some key questions:

  • How do we tell people the essential information of a story—the who, what, when, where, why and how—without encouraging copycat crimes or providing “fame” to perpetrators? You don’t have to impose a total blackout on the shooter’s name to accomplish this. Report it initially and occasionally as story developments logically warrant it. Be transparent about your reasoning. Focus your journalism on the many other aspects of the tragedy, from the personal impact to the public policy stories.
  • How does audio or video from the scene help us document what happened? If it contains images or sounds of victims, how do we share it in ways that respect human dignity? What do we edit and how do we explain our decision to our audience? If it is graphic, how do we warn about it? If we’re broadcasters, how often do we run it and when do we stop? If we’re sharing it online, how prominently do we display it?
  • How do we stay true to our values when we have partial information and the story is exploding on social media?  How solid are our systems for verification? How willing are we to say what we know, what we don’t know, and where we’re getting our info?

This last point speaks to the importance of having a more than just a “breaking news plan”—which is usually about staffing, communication, resources, and deployment. It’s about having a culture of breaking news that allows everyone on the team to act with competence and confidence that even in the face of chaos, we have a strong ethical compass.

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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.