New Year’s resolutions are intended to give us an optimistic start on the road ahead. For too many of us, though, they are wishes rather than commitments, and we fail to follow through. Change is hard.
So, here’s my suggestion. Gather with key colleagues and read these like a shopping list. Choose the ideas that bring the most benefit to your team. Pledge to tackle them—and to keep each other honest.
To make these resolutions as practical as possible, I reached out on social media to tap the brains of lots of news leaders. Thanks to the magic of crowdsourcing, my friends all but wrote this column for me!
Here we go:
- Be clear about priorities.
I hear this in newsrooms all the time from staffers who truly aren’t whining, they’re asking for guidance. They accept the need to do more with less, but know they can’t do everything. Tom Koetting, veteran deputy managing editor of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel understands, “They are overwhelmed by all they’re being asked to do, and they need to have someone help them let go of things that aren’t working, or aren’t as important. When they say they don’t have time to do one thing or the other, often what they’re really saying is that they can’t get to their child’s soccer game or they’re terrified of being left behind. Help them find a manageable path.”
Jason Collington, web editor at the Tulsa World, advises, “Put pen to paper about what your newsroom is not going to do anymore. Because they can’t do it all with less resources, no matter how wonderfully resourceful they are.”
So that’s your challenge, managers. What goals and tasks are absolutely vital, which are desirable but not critical, and which are disposable? How often do you review those questions and advise your team?
- Establish your election coverage game plan—now!
The best newsrooms outthink the competition. If you don’t establish your election strategy now, your work will be reactive rather than creative. You’ll end up enslaved to events scheduled by others instead of focusing on the issues you identify as important. You won’t give your people time to develop subject matter expertise, connect with your community, or build reporting collaborations with other news outlets.
To get things rolling:
- Take a look at The Pew Center’s review of public sentiment on major issues in 2017 and determine how it may relate to races in your area.
- Start tracking the effects of the recent massive tax cuts in your community as potential campaign issues. Look at the current impact as well as the long term.
- Monitor your state and local efforts—or lack of them—regarding election security and the risk of hacking.
- Keep an eye on get-out-the-vote trends as well as attempted voter suppression.
- Check out Ballotpedia for its rundown of 2018 Congressional and local races.
Have your plan nailed down before the end of this month. Your staff will thank you.
- Accelerate the “power shift.”
In 2017, the #MeToo movement opened our eyes to the injustices that masqueraded as acceptable or unavoidable behavior in media organizations. Finally, the myth of invincible stars walked out the newsroom door with Charlie Rose, Matt Lauer, Mark Halperin, and their brothers in sexual misconduct.
Power shifted from them to the women whose voices were finally heard and believed. But let’s not presume that we’ve instantly resolved a deep-set problem. The same mindsets and systems that enabled sexual harassment also fostered discrimination and incivility—and that doesn’t end overnight.
If you haven’t gone on a listening tour in your own organization, do it now. Have the guts to ask questions like this:
- Do any powerful people here abuse their clout? If so, how?
- Is there fear of speaking up about harassment, bullying, or incivility?
- Do leaders here have blind spots? What are they failing to see?
- If you could change one thing about our culture, what would it be?
Assess and share what you’ve learned. Then get to work on solutions. If you want to learn what other media leaders are doing, tune in January 9 to the live stream of the Newseum’s Power Shift Summit, which I am moderating.
- Commit to upgrading your feedback.
Increasing the quantity and quality of your feedback is a message I’ve shared time and again. Feedback is the most underutilized natural resource we have in today’s newsrooms—and people are hungry for it. Fortunately, I’m not alone in this feedback evangelism. Matt Kummer, news director at WBAY-TV in Green Bay, encourages embedding feedback in daily routines, “Talk about something positive your team, or individual, did in every editorial meeting. Celebrate the wins. Find teachable moments in the losses.”
Virgil Dominic, who led WJW-TV in Cleveland for many years and hasn’t let retirement cool his passion for news leadership says, “Notice your people. Watch their work. Let them know you watched by talking to them. Compliment them. Let them know you appreciate them. When there is reason to criticize make sure you do it in a way that helps, not hurts.” Virgil understands that accountability is always important in newsrooms, and that you can’t be too nice to have a tough conversation. But if you are known for faithfully delivering genuine, positive feedback, people will be less resistant to the negative.
- Make yourself available.
Several of my social media commenters underscored the importance of your accessibility. Margaret Sullivan, media columnist for The Washington Post, spent a good part of her career as an editor. She knows the power of a manager’s words and the danger of their silence. “Remember that what you say to your staff members has more meaning than you think. There are people on your staff whom you haven’t said much to in months. They are probably intensely aware of this and may be reading something into it that isn’t intended. Remedy that.”
Lori Waldon, regional director of news for the Hearst TV stations advises, “Set aside time every day to take a short walk around the newsroom and connect with the people you lead. Bonus points if you can make them laugh!”
At the same time, too many newsroom leaders confine their outreach to their own team. Newsrooms often seem like walled fortresses to other employees in your organization—insular and unwelcoming. You have the power to change that by setting an example for your team. Reach out beyond your regular circle. John Schrank, production producer at WGME-TV in Portland, Maine, says it simply: “Be open to ideas and feedback from people in the building outside of the news department.”
- Look for buried treasure in your own shop.
It’s easy for people to get pigeonholed in newsrooms. Staffers, especially those who aren’t good at self-promotion, may have talent that’s gone untapped. You can’t afford to waste any brainpower. Step back and determine if you’ve given everyone their best shot at growth and success.
My long-time Poynter colleague Al Tompkins, a master at teaching innovative storytelling on all platforms, spends lots of time in newsrooms. Al warns against writing off older employees: “Ageism is toxic, just as sexism and racism is toxic. New leaders are likely younger than some of the people they seek to lead. Understand what motivates senior staff and help them to matter just as you help younger employees to grow.”
Bonita Burton leads a newsroom that serves a retiree community, but the executive editor of Florida’s Villages Daily Sun has millennials on her mind: “Attracting and nurturing young talent means providing them with a sense of purpose, not trying to win the perks war. Give them ways to grow and make a difference, and they will respond with an energetic engagement that can rocket-fuel your newsroom’s ambition level.”
And what about your trusty utility players? Rosiland Jordan, a correspondent at Al Jazeera English, describes them as the ones “who will always do everything, even if it means giving up their free time/vacations, their opportunities to do innovative projects, their desire to be promoted.” She urges leaders to stop relying on them to fill the holes in their staff and free them to develop their other talents.
- Recruit—even if you’re not hiring today.
Know where your next great hires are lurking. If you wait to recruit until you have an opening, you’ll miss opportunities to bring top, diverse talent to your team. Develop a pipeline so you’re ready when an opening occurs. Then do it right. Kelly Frank, director of news and digital content at WBNS-TV in Columbus, Ohio, believes hiring well is critical to good newsroom leadership: “Take the time to really think through your questions and devote the time to a fully focused interview process. Also allow the time to check all references given and those that you find on your own.”
And after you’ve landed that great new employee, listen to Carline Watson, executive producer of NPR’s All Things Considered, who advises, “Set aside time to onboard new staff and check-in regularly that they understand the workplace culture. Every workplace has a culture and if there is no one to help you understand and navigate it, you can fail fast.”
- Remember: The term “fake news” is now political. You’re not.
Here’s good news: According to a Marist poll, Americans chose “fake news” as the second most annoying phrase, right behind “whatever.” That means President Trump’s constant cries of “fake news” as a political weapon against evidence-based journalism may not be playing as well as he hopes. Journalists should keep that in mind when it’s flung or spat or tweeted their way—and just keep working. Keep double-checking your work and confirming the validity of your sources. Keep fact-checking claims and fearlessly calling out misinformation and disinformation. Keep avoiding false dichotomies and false equivalencies. Keep digging.
And conduct yourself as though you are being stalked and monitored by that anti-journalist and political activist James O’Keefe. Be as smart as The Washington Post’s Beth Reinhard and her colleagues, who turned Project Veritas’s odious attempted “sting” of them into a master class on journalistic professionalism.
Words matter. Martin Kady, editorial director of Politico Pro nails it in his advice: “Become more aware of the language we use—both internally to communicate our messages to newsrooms, AND externally in the words we use to describe what we’re doing for the consumer audience of our news products. With the incredible scrutiny newsrooms—and the news itself—face in the Trump era, the ways in which we talk about our business to the world and to each other need to be precise, accurate, and mission focused.”
- Take care of yourself.
You can’t take care of your team if you’re burned out. Claus Christensen, editor in chief of Denmark’s TV Syd says, “Find time in your busy day to get fresh ideas.” Karen Hansen, Director of membership, marketing, and communication of RTDNA adds,” Step away from the daily crush to think bigger, think differently, think strategically.”
Lynette Clemetson, Director of the Knight-Wallace Fellowships for Journalists at the University of Michigan, counsels, “In addition to creating time for yourself to pull up from the day to day… also create opportunities for your team members to pull up from the day to day. Encouraging people to intentionally break from accepted rhythms from time to time often benefits the entire work process.”
Remember that you’re contagious. People take their cues from you. If you live in your office or come to work sick, they’ll think you expect them to do the same. You don’t have to be the first to arrive or the last to leave, just to prove you deserve your job. Dan O’Donnell, news director of KMBC-TV in Kansas City, sees it this way: “Managing your brain and health is part of your responsibility. You can’t handle the big story or the difficult conversation or situation if you’re burned out or exhausted.”
- Never lose sight of a manager’s true responsibility.
Sure, you’re a standard bearer for truth, ethics, and the First Amendment. But the assignment editor of the newsroom I led for many years, Bruce Nason, wants to make certain you stay faithful to another sacred duty:
“Don’t forget to bring donuts.”