Why newsrooms are resistant to collaboration when covering climate

In this month’s edition, Kyle Pope, CJR editor, and Jill Geisler, of Loyola University Chicago, discuss the difference between journalism and activism, the lack of collaboration between news outlets on climate change, and training reporters to become newsroom managers.

 

Kyle: I’m interested in a couple of things, springing from a project CJR is leading with our partner The Nation on climate change.

The first is about the line between journalism and activism. Is it moving? Should it be? I was surprised by the number of editors we talked to who thought that aggressive climate coverage translated to activism. I don’t see it that way. I see it as journalism. Thoughts?

Jill: It is journalism. But it’s tricky business. Climate change is well supported by science, but it has also been made radioactive by some political partisans. The very concept of climate change has become tribal.

The reluctant or resistant editors you describe are overly cautious about the appearance of signing on with a particular tribe. You would hope that the preponderance of scientific evidence (and even your project’s objective title: Covering Climate Now) would give them not just comfort, but motivation to aim high on this topic and join in.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

But there’s a challenge: I think you are seeing an unfortunate and unintended consequence of journalism’s earnest efforts at audience engagement and trust-building. We’re more transparent than ever: we cite our sources, show our work, and explain our decision-making. We treat comments as valuable content and do our best to engage in civil conversation with critics.

That’s the ideal situation. It works best when it plays out among journalists and readers/viewers/users who have questions or critiques based on their own expertise and experience. Those are good faith exchanges that benefit everyone.

But they don’t always happen that way. 

Newsrooms can get swarmed by criticism that’s been ginned up by special interests on social or traditional media. All it takes is a local radio talk show host who devotes a program to talking points provided by climate deniers. It’s a pretty predictable scenario—a focus on one-off studies or weather events or ad hominem attacks on individuals involved in climate action.

The drumbeat begins: “You don’t see stories about THIS in the main stream media! Why are THESE issues being covered up by those fake news outlets?” The coordinated rallying cry is seen as proof that a newsroom is biased and activist unless it provides “equal time” to the proffered topic, speakers or viewpoints, however off-base.

It’s a straw-man gambit that demands time and resources to respond to or debunk. Few newsrooms have sufficient staff to do that. 

As CJR’s climate project moves forward, here’s a humble suggestion: Provide a hotline or other handy resource with quick answers for newsrooms who find themselves facing pushback on topics they’ve published or declined to publish. (I see a grant application in your future, Kyle.)

A collaborative project creates deeper and wider coverage of a topic and, like Covering Climate Now, gathers all that diverse work under one big umbrella. The massive trove of stories can also be a challenge to navigate. So, why not find ways to help arm newsrooms with fast facts so they can respond to pop-up allegations of biased activism with evidence-based proof.

 

ICYMI: What smart managers know about the power—and fragility—of trust

 

Kyle: My second question involves cooperation and collaboration. We managed to assemble 250 (and counting) newsrooms to join this project, which was impressive. But many others, including many big ones, did not, and they said they simply aren’t into joining with other outlets. Again, I see this as outdated, at a time of limited resources and more stories out there than we can tackle. How do we overcome that?

Jill:  As someone who teaches the importance of collaboration, I know that organizations may have to conquer common roadblocks, whether they relate to a project like CJR’s—or collaboration with external or internal teams. Here are a few obstacles:

    • Not Invented Here Syndrome: This concept is well known in the tech industry. It’s a bias for one’s own products over those developed by others. In journalism, it applies to ideas and projects.Successful assigning editors understand this concept. They know that that telling reporters: “Here’s the story I want you to cover and how I want it handled” will get a less positive response than “I’ve got something here that could use your touch—what do you think?”Most of us can recall a meeting with our boss during which we unexpectedly volunteered for some task. Afterward, we wondered, how did that just happen?”Here’s how: Our manager brought up problem or opportunity, waited for us to offer suggestions, then asked how we thought those ideas might play out. The more invested we became in the solutions we described, the more likely we were to volunteer in their implementation. And we were hooked.When it comes to collaboration, it’s important to ensure that partners have their fingerprints on some part of the plan. It’s a paradox: People want to see a proposal that has purpose, structure and goalsbut not something so airtight that there’s no space for them to design some part of it.When you’re pitching a collaboration, keep that paradox in mind. Create enough of a plan for people to see its promisebut be willing to let partners add their own details. Those will be the parts they like best.
    • Reciprocity isn’t in our DNA: Newsroom cultures often reflect the values and personalities of top managers. If leaders take a “lone wolf” approach to newsgathering and see other outlets only as competitors, that mindset can become the newsroom norm. We don’t play well with others.Worse still, some organizations are shameless about asking other news outlets for favors and support, especially in breaking news, but aren’t good about responding in kind.Effective reciprocity requires more than a mindset. It takes an infrastructure that enables staff to say “yes” to requests for help or collaboration without a bureaucratic approval process. It also requires tools and systems that facilitate sharing. The more time, effort and risk it takes to say “yes,” the more likely it is that the default response will be “no.”
    • We keep our brand in our bubble: Today’s newsroom leaders are more involved in business strategy than ever before, and part of that is marketing. Marketing is built on branding: Who are we? What differentiates us from others? How do the things we produce and the way we operate measure up to the way we brand ourselves to the public?Some organizations push decisions through that “brand filter.” What about the partners in a potential collaboration? Do they complement us? Will they cause people to think better of us? Less of us? If we get involved in a consortium, will our work be lost in the crowd?It’s important to be true to one’s brand – but not let that loyalty blind us to good journalistic decisions. Vet your projects and partners through the prism of good journalism first, marketing second. Do the right thing even if it doesn’t set you apart from the pack. Sometimes being IN the right pack is the best thing for your reputation.
    • We’re the leader, not the joiner: Market leaders can see cooperative efforts as disproportionately beneficial to less powerful partners. As in: If I’m accustomed to getting exclusives, why agree to be part of a pool?Whether it’s a big organization deciding to sign on to a project or a powerful department in a news organization collaborating with another internal team, questions should be asked: Who’s the most important stakeholder here? Is it us and our position of strength? Is it those we serve through our work? If we want to be of greatest service, how can we maintain our high standards of quality and our primacy as subject matter experts while merging our efforts with others?Remember way back to 1985, when Quincy Jones assembled dozens of music legends to record “We Are the World” as a benefit for famine relief in Africa? To turn superstars into a chorus, his admonition was simple: “Check your ego at the door.” No one should outshine the cause.In fairness to big, successful organizations, I should note that they are also the most likely to receive multiple requests for partnership and support. The very act of fielding, responding to and coordinating such efforts takes substantial work. So, they deserve extra credit when they do it.
    • We’re too stressed to say “yes”: This one’s self-explanatory. Some downsized teams are barely keeping their heads above water. Special projects can seem frighteningly ambitious. It’s up to potential partners to help them get past those real and perceived challenges and make the effort worth their while.

It’s also important to remember that the real core of collaboration is personal relationships. Keep communication, empathy and trust at the fore and you can more successfully anticipate and navigate the barriers to collaboration.

 

Kyle: Change of subject: You told me recently that you’re seeing more people who are new to management and hungry for help leading their teams. In general, I think news companies do a lousy job of training/preparing people to become managers. The track is basically if you’re a good reporter, you can move up. But as we both know, the skills needed to be a good reporter have very little in common with being a good manager.

Jill: That’s true—and the story is becoming more complicated because of two trends: the downsizing of print newsrooms and the digital focus of almost all traditional shops.

Those who are promoted in downsized newsrooms didn’t necessarily aspire to management, but as their tenured supervisors left, they were tapped to replace them. They’re dealing with the normal learning curve, plus the challenge of limited resources, shifting strategies and shaky morale.

Those who are asked lead newsrooms into the digital future have additional challenges. They’re supervising people old enough to be their parents and young enough to have recently been their social buddies. Now they’re navigating those new relationships.

They are more steeped in digital knowledge than in front line journalistic experience. They’re dealing with all the normal issues that accelerate or impede change: education, emotion, motivation, communication and collaboration. They didn’t teach us how to manage those things in journalism school – and they’re the very areas for which today’s rising managers need help.

Good organizations provide it—either by investing in training, finding every free or bargain course they can, or creating the homemade, in-house opportunities for learning, coaching or mentoring. 

Today’s newest newsroom supervisors don’t want to be set up to fail. We can’t let that happen.

If, as I always preach, the most important thing leaders do is help others succeed, let’s give our up-and-coming managers the tools they deserve.

ICYMI: For many reporters covering climate, population remains the elephant in the room

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.